Gotham: “Damned If You Do”

(Episode 2.01)

TV Reviews Gotham
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Gotham: “Damned If You Do”

At this time last year, I was buzzing about the potential of Gotham, given its strong pilot and position in the Batman mythos as a prequel. Sadly, however, save for a few upticks in quality, Season One of the Fox drama was essentially downhill from episode one. Almost every promise given us by showrunner Bruno Heller rang hollow as the calendar wore into December and then flipped to 2015. By the time the season finale came in May, Gotham had become one of the most frustrating shows on television.

So what should we expect in Season Two?

If you gave up on Gotham at some point last year, I don’t blame you. The show meandered without purpose and failed to elicit any excitement, no matter how hard it tried. Yet, to the writers’ credit, admission of mistakes in the first season have been readily available this fall, along with more promises that the show will become what fans always wanted it to be. We shouldn’t accept these claims as gospel, lest we desire to be burned twice but, if the season premiere is any indication, there is reason to believe Gotham is headed in the right direction.

“Damned If You Do” was a flawed episode of television. It contained the usual stiff dialogue, lackluster action and, frankly, boredom that have become staples of Gotham since early in the first season. But, the hour also displayed a dramatic shift in structure that should help the show moving forward. Claims of serialization were there from the beginning, only to see the show slide into a procedural rut for 22 episodes. As fall approached, those involved (including star Ben McKenzie) risked sounding like broken records to claim that serialization would be at the heart of Season Two. I was skeptical, but after last night am happy to report that so far, so good. There was no main villain in “Damned If You Do.” Instead, the hour acted as setup for a larger story, which is how I always hoped Gotham would operate. According to the brass, the show will have a big bad for the season, being otherwise made up of a collection of story arcs that last multiple episodes. This is stellar news for the most part, but it does raise one glaring concern. The biggest problem with the season premiere was how dull it often felt. There were so few moments worthy of pulse raising, that it became a chore to pay attention and I can easily see why someone might have changed the channel. If Gotham intends to be a serialized drama, there’s a chance that this type of extremely tedious episode will rear its head more often than wanted. The show is certainly not shy, willing to shock viewers with abandon (as evidenced last night by Zsasz and the decapitated head), but those moments are throwaways, not real entertainment. Still, this direction is far better than last year, and will hopefully lead to more satisfying stories in the coming weeks.

The episode focused primarily on Gordon finding a way to remove Commissioner Loeb, who has stood in his way since nearly the beginning and opened the hour by removing Gordon from the force. It did not take long, thanks to Gordon’s underworld connections, particularly with the newly self-anointed king of the city, Oswald Cobblepot. In what is shaping up to be a dastardly relationship, which should provide an interesting angle for the rest of the season, Gordon was able to leverage his power by proxy and remove Loeb, thanks to Penguin. The favor wasn’t free, though, as Gordon had to scratch the bird’s back in order to get what he wanted. At first, it didn’t seem to be all that bad a deal, with Gordon simply having to act as muscle and retrieve cash from a mobster in Oswald’s web. Naturally, however, things quickly went south and ended with Gordon adding more red to his ledger. But with Loeb out of the way and Gordon back in the GCPD, it’ll be interesting to see how his relationship progresses with Penguin. One of the most intriguing aspects of this show is that some of the main characters sit on the wrong side of the law, but those that serve and protect can’t simply stash them away in Blackgate. They need one another, at least to a point.

While Gordon was weaseling his way back into the GCPD, we got our first look at Theo and Tabitha Galavan, a brother-sister duo with hopes of uniting several of Gotham’s criminally insane for reasons unknown. While Gotham is still a show with too many faces, last night was a good example of how it can make the congestion work. The shadow cast by Fish Mooney, Sal Maroni and Carmine Falcone was lifted, making a significant difference out of the gate. The writers also did a clever job of teaming everyone up, giving the episode only three storylines to pay attention to, rather than five or more. Putting many of the villains on a team of sorts with the Galavans is a smart move. It keeps them involved, but doesn’t hamper a show that already has too many stories to tell. Among those villains chosen by the Galavans was Barbara Kean, last year’s least-loved Gothamite. After her harrowing experience with the Ogre, Barbara has snapped and was spending her days as the most attractive inmate at Arkham when Theo and Tabitha came calling. Now free, to an extent, she can go about her plan to ruin Gordon and kill Lee. Though I’m still not an Erin Richards cheerleader, a Barbara with purpose is a better Barbara, and it certainly is something to watch.

The third plotline of “Damned If You Do” involved Bruce and Alfred finding out just what Thomas Wayne was hiding behind that fireplace. Thankfully it’s not a batcave, not really anyway. But there was a secret door with a code the future world’s greatest detective couldn’t solve (I can’t decide if it’s horrendous that Bruce couldn’t figure out the code was his own name, or if it’s slyly hilarious). Gotham has always been a show of uneven tone, to a maddening level, and it remains that way. I would love to see it take itself less seriously (which it really wants to, I think) and a prime example of the possible success that could come from that move was evident with Bruce and Alfred last night. It’s simply a riot to watch a teenage Bruce Wayne interact with his butler. One of my favorite moments from the premiere was when Bruce disclosed his plan to use a homemade bomb to blow the door open. When Alfred rightfully objects, Bruce’s harried defense was to the effect of: I READ A BOOK, ALFRED. I GOT THIS. It was silly in a way that I’ve always imagined a young Batman to be, and intentional silliness is something Gotham could use more of.

?While it’s not anywhere near perfect yet, Gotham took an important step last night. The show proved that it’s serious about serialization, taking its time to set up storylines rather than trying to cram one start-to-finish in an hour. As long as it continues to grow in that direction, come the end of November, Gotham could be a reinvented show. Then again, it took a good first step last year, too.

Eric Walters is a Detroit-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. For more of his TV musings, follow him on Twitter.