Robert Tiemstra ‘16 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
“What I want the poor have, the rich need, and if you eat it, you’ll die.” – Edward Nygma
Last week’s review expressed some trepidation about approaching an episode entitled “The Scarecrow” in a show that quite frequently forgets to stand on its own and leans on the Batman mythos when the writers feel particularly lazy that day. What we neglected to consider is that these same writers are the writers who have acknowledged their show’s criticisms not by dialing back the reliance on the Batman canon, but by integrating it more seamlessly into the world they have built sans caped crusader. This is essentially a very elaborate way of saying that while everything in “The Scarecrow” should feel like a steaming lump of Batman fanfiction, it amazingly manages to steer clear of that Burmese Tiger pit and delivers another solid and visually striking episode of television.
This is not to say it is perfect, but as hinted at in the previous paragraph, it somehow manages to be a discussion about the nature of fear, an origin story to its titular supervillian, and a radical revamping of that same origin story. Jonathan Crane (Charlie Tahan) made a fleeting cameo in last week’s episode, as a hesitant accomplice to his mad father Gerald (Julian Sands), who murders people by acting out their worst fears upon them – this must be especially difficult for people with very strong irrational fears, like a fear of Rabbits… though people with a fear of death must be a morbid walk in the park – and then steals their adrenal glands like he’s the Burke & Hare of fear hormones. You could spend a lot of time discussing his motivation, because unlike the previous villains of the week, he is given the time and opportunity to have a backstory that informs why he’s the crazy doctor he is, and in turn how that will make his son the crazy doctor he is in the Batman universe.
This isn’t to say that all of this plays out like some predestined passing down of the mantle from one crazy psychopharmacologist to another (if there is a more convoluted way to say “man who drugs crazy people”, it has been lost to time), because Doctor Crane Senior is not simply using his son as a lab rat, he genuinely wants to inoculate both of them against fear, which he believes is a flaw in human evolution. He is of course extremely wrong in this belief, as he will later prove by fearlessly walking headfirst into a hail of gunfire from detectives Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) and Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue). The setup to his son’s transformation from (apparently) ordinary kid to basket case is set up very simply and effectively with a ghoulish piece of set dressing so obvious that if you cannot guess what it is based on this review, you probably have a brain labeled “Abby Normal”. The sequences utilizing Crane’s proto-“fear toxin” are some of the most effective uses of visual effects in Gotham to date, because they have a primal sort of outlandishness that works with the premise behind the drug itself (though the distortion around the shots when the toxin is applied smacks vaguely of Batman Begins, but we’ll let that bit of creative theft slide because it worked then and it works here).
As for developing plots you don’t expect to work but somehow do, Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith) finds herself in some ominous prison during this episode, nestled somewhere in that weird world outside the bounds of Gotham city, where occasionally people aren’t mobsters or corrupt city officials. It is a strange postapocalyptic type place where the person with the only knife can run an entire prisonfull of hungry people acting like animals. It doesn’t quite gel with the tone of the rest of the episode, but for some reason Fish Mooney fits here more comfortably than she does in Gotham city, because she has a distinct goal, and a keen awareness of the tools to get that goal – most of which involve stabbing and seducing, which Smith does with fiendish glee.
Back in Gotham, her former minion Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor) refurbishes her club for the grand opening in the wake of his near-demise at the hands of Don Salvatore Maroni (David Zayas). When going to invite Jim Gordon to his party, Penguin runs into Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith), marking the first time two future Batman villains interact in this definitely-not-a-Batman-prequel. Director Nick Copus stages this scene for maximum effect, even having Nygma and Cobblepot quirkily stalk each other in the GCCPD (is the station just open to the public in Gotham City??) before squaring off for a character stare-down that involves a riddle, listed above. Whether it is anything more than fanservice is anyone’s guess, but it is fun to watch whether you know the characters’ eventual destinations or not.
The main flaws in this episode are in its spine. Normally, that sounds like a critical flaw, but here it is only a slightly debilitating one. For the first time since her introduction 4 episodes ago, the relationship between Gordon & Dr. Leslie Thompinks (Morena Baccarin) felt contrived – not the relationship itself so much as the spontaneous conflict between the couple that clicked perfectly only an episode ago (apparently, Gordon becomes a twat the split second his significant other starts working in the same building as him. Who knew?). The investigation of the Crane’s is not nearly as engaging as the Cranes themselves, and at a certain point it just feels like the show is sprinting toward the finish line after spending too much precious page time on awkward dialogue. These are first half of season one problems, but at least they are supporting a more confident sense of direction this time. Somehow the creators breathed life into this Scarecrow, and it is shambling toward us with vigor we would not have thought this show capable of back in the era of The Balloonman.
Overall Episode Grade: B-