Robert Tiemstra ‘16 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
“He believed a giant frog lived in his abdomen and controlled his thoughts. He was dead already.”
Arkham Asylum has always been the most awe-inspiring setting within the city of Gotham. How could it not be? In a city where ghoulishly over the top villains fight for control of film noir Chicago, what could possibly be more terrifying than an asylum that has to hold these unique madmen when they are not hatching evil schemes? It is within the walls of this decrepit old building that Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) finds himself working as a security guard in Gotham’s return for the New Year. A police detective stuck amongst convicted thugs and murderers. What could possibly go wrong?
The structure of Gotham as an episodic show has always been haphazard to nonexistent, and “Rogues Gallery” upends the formula completely, making this episode primarily a grim whodunit set inside an insane asylum – C. Auguste Dupin meets Silence of the Lambs by way of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The mystery is perhaps the most satisfying aspect of the episode, raising the bar for Gotham’s (so far mediocre) cases of the week. The reveal is obvious, but it contains enough red herrings and calculated attempts at misdirection that keeps the mystery engaging throughout.
Before we discuss the logistics of the mystery in more depth, as well as the peripheral players in this episode (meaning the ones outside Arkham Asylum), let’s take a look at the guest players in the Asylum. This episode introduces Doctor Leslie Thompkins (Morena Baccarin, of Firefly and Homeland fame) a peripheral character from the comics who is James Gordon’s only friendly face within the dark and foreboding walls of the Asylum. The implicit purpose of Dr. Thomkpins is to provide Gordon with another romantic interest after the flight of Barbara Kean (Erin Richards), which makes one worry about how long the charming chemistry between McKenzie & Baccarin will last before the plot forces him back to bland blonde Barbara.
Speaking of which, one of the most frustrating plot devices features Erin Richards and Victoria Cartagena trying to make the best of an underwritten fling between their two characters – Barbara Kean and Renee Montoya. But as much as Barbara’s brief but banal booty-call belies believable backstory, the two actors simply aren’t given anything to do besides proclaim why their relationship isn’t going to work before going their separate ways. Erin Richards has never been the series’ greatest asset (perhaps an understatement), but this subplot reinforces how uncomfortable the writers are with her character. Everything interesting about her character is relegated to backstory, and when a small event later in the episode threatens to throw her relationship with Gordon into (greater) disarray, all we can do as an audience is root for their relationship to fall apart so we can enjoy a more interesting phase in Gordon’s love life.
The mob life in Gotham City has changed very little since 2014, and every mobster in Gotham seems determined to overthrow Carmine Falcone (John Doman) and install a less dangerous mobster as the head of the “family”. The curious thing about the Gotham mob characters in this show is that almost every single one of them seems to think they are in a different movie than the other. John Doman seems to think he’s in The Untouchables, and his immediate successor seems to think he’s in Goodfellas. Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith) on the other hand, is the only one who feels truly at home in Gotham, despite the writers’ refusal to answer how she managed to rise to power in a vague mob family full of Russian and Italian clichés. The only compelling scene in this segment is surprisingly enough between Mooney’s yes-man Butch Gilzean (Drew Powell) and Falcone’s next-in-line. There is backstory between the two of them that, unlike Barbara and Montoya, seems grounded in their present predicament between mob giants. It’s a quiet scene of friendship that does a brilliant job in humanizing the pawns who work for gangster Kingpins.
Oswald Cobblepot has a subplot in here as well, but it is barely worth mentioning, despite Robin Lord Taylor’s continued excellence in this role. He may very well be the definitive live-action incarnation of the Penguin, easily outshining Danny DeVito from Batman Returns and Burgess Meredith from Batman (1966). All that said, his character development appears to be in a holding pattern until he can break away from Don Maroni (David Zayas), who spends this episode punishing him for his Hubris in strangely roundabout ways.
But back to the state of affairs at the Asylum. Despite having seemingly a similar visual aesthetic as the scenes in Gotham City proper, Arkham Asylum has a much grimier and deliberately natural lighting scheme that heightens the hellish nature of the environment. Director Oz Scott (who directed For Colored Girls on Broadway. Go figure.) opens the episode by juxtaposing a stage show by the inmates with Gotham City itself to provide a current of madness that fits like a glove onto the already gothic visuals and tone of Gotham. The chaotic and messy investigation that follows, which continues to highlight the strength of Gordon’s relationship with his ex-Partner Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) is bookended by another sequence of a juxtaposition that makes this investigation’s end cathartic in a Usual Suspects kind of way.
It seems with every episode, the writers of Gotham (this week’s episode was written by Story Editor Sue Chung) get more comfortable pushing the envelope and taking more dramatic risks. This show has quite a long way to go before it lives up to its own promise, but it has already come a long way since the didactic first half of season 1.
Overall Episode Grade: B+