Robert Tiemstra ‘16 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
Although not likely to be a deal breaker for anyone not already following the series with hope, this week’s episode provides the best case for Gotham’s continued existence since it’s pilot. The difference in quality is so dramatic, that if viewed back to back with the last episode, “Spirit of the Goat” might cause whiplash for viewers expecting another goofy episode full of plot holes and structural problems.
And yes, while “Spirit of the Goat” is far from perfect, it is the first episode of this series that works better as a standalone piece of television than as a promise that the show will get better eventually. Written by Ben Edlund (a former writer on both Firefly and Angel, shows that are memorable for being less didactic than this one) this episode hangs together thematically without any of the excess fluff and convoluted plotting that plagued the earlier episodes of this season – silly title notwithstanding.
This time around, the narrative focus is on that of Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue), James Gordon’s partner and until now, obnoxious caricature of Gotham City’s incompetent and corrupt police force. Beginning with a flashback to a famous series of homicides in Gotham, this episode establishes Bullock quite firmly as an altruistic “hero cop”, before jumping back to the present day, where he mocks Gordon for the same kind of innocence. Until this episode, Bullock has been a thorn in the side of Gotham’s writing, a one-note character whose one job was to constantly remind Gordon that things are different in Gotham City. “Spirit of the Goat” fixes that problem by emphasizing Bullock’s backstory, providing him with not only a reason to resent Gordon’s idealism, but also circumstances in which he can be a human being instead of a caricature. For the first time in the series, Bullock and Gordon seem to develop a grudging friendship, which makes the dramatic reveal at the end hit hard (another first for the series).
Gotham has always been a show perched on the very edge of aesthetic brilliance, and in the director’s chair Orphan Black/Black Sails alumni TJ Scott takes advantage of the show’s visual style to great effect – shadows lie heavily over the sets in this episode, and flashlights cut sharp yellow beams through them in fight scenes with unusually striking visual elegance. When the story allows it, this show is (at least visually speaking) modern noir at its very best, utilizing color and light to make the atmosphere as palpable as possible.
Sadly enough, perhaps the best thing “Spirit of the Goat” has going for it is an obvious lack of any activity from Gotham’s crime families. Without Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith), Don Falcone (John Doman), or Sal Maroni (David Zayas), this episode feels much more confident in its direction, without slogging through several uneventful mob boss meetings like last week. The Penguin makes only a minimal appearance, and his reverse-Freudian interaction with his mother adds a nice little touch to his character’s sociopathic awkwardness. He gets the line of the episode however, when he describes James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) as the one man in Gotham he can trust. Oh the irony.
One of the promises of Gotham as a series is the opportunity to explore Batman’s iconic supporting cast with a completely fresh eye. The “Spirit of the Goat” is the first episode to focus entirely upon that promise, while leaving previous episodes’ tone-deaf vigilante material in the dust. The showrunners bet on the right horse when they chose Gordon & Cobblepot to become unlikely foils within this world of madness, and although they don’t share much dialogue in this episode, their dynamic is the show’s strongest thematic anchor. This is not a perfect episode – the dialogue is still clunky and exposition heavy, while several key plot points fall into place a little too neatly – but this “Spirit of the Goat” proves that the Gotham writers have it in them to tell tense and focused character pieces without needing to remind us that the city is in dire need of Batman.
Overall Episode Grade: B