Who killed Bruce Wayne’s parents, and what did he do when he found them? It’s a pretty simple question, though the most seasoned comics fans will tell you it has multiple answers. Most frequently the answer from the comics has been Joe Chill -Â a two-bit thug who conversely spends his life in jail or gets killed in a case of cosmic justice. But over the years the story has been twisted and recast with the most famous example being when Jack “The Joker” Napier pulled the trigger in Tim Burton’s 1989 “Batman” film.
This week, the producer’s of Fox’s drama “Gotham” teased out the possibility of their own answer to that particularly juicy piece of Dark Knight mythology, but don’t be fooled. While some fans may demand that there’s a “right way” to tell the story of Bruce confronting the man who took his innocence from him, there’s been more than enough contradiction to the killer tale to justify any number of new takes. On the other hand, a TV series like this one has often dangled potential pieces of the Batman story in front of its viewers only to pull them away with blunt, obvious force.
But the funny thing is that for once, the series didn’t over-explain, overkill or overthink it’s big story point until it rolled onto screen as flattened out stupidity. For once, “Gotham” took a lesson from a much better TV drama and let the mystery be.
Fittingly, the episode opens up with another character dealing with the fallout of a parent’s death: Oswald Cobblepot. Oswald is haunted by violent visions of his dead mother which are in part the result of his very oedipal guilty conscience but mostly spurred on by the brainwashing machine of Arkham’s Hugo Strange. The good professor is encouraged by the former mob bosses “progress” (read: the pace with which he’s completely breaking down), but it’s not quite enough for Strange to see his latest patient broken.
The action soon shifts to young master Wayne, picking up a loaded six shooter from Selina Kyle who coyly reminds him that guns “are only for one thing.” Like Penguin’s story, the cold open sequence strikes an ominous note that will carry the two main plot threads forward through the episode with a sense of real anticipation. Will Bruce pull the trigger? Will Strange break Oswald or see his experiment’s sniveling wrath unleashed? As it turns out, the answer to both those questions is “Not really,” and the doubt expressed in each story make the ideas hit much stronger.
In the A-plot, Bruce’s story starts out as boilerplate “Gotham.” Following the only lead Alfred has on the supposed Wayne killer Matches Malone, the vengeance-seeking heroes (are there any other kind these days with DC’s marquee characters? Ugh) meet up with a street brawler named Cupcake who leads a ragtag gang called the Mutants. Yes, this is a “Dark Knight Returns” reference, and no, it doesn’t pay off in the slightest. Some viewers will doubtlessly cheer at the latest “Alfred is really a bad ass” scene where the butler takes a beating but dolls out a lesson in patience all at once, but the showdown to see whether Cupcake will give up info on Matches is mostly contrivance. If we’re going to watch the boy billionaire face his darkest desires alone, we need Alfred out of action, and what better way to set that up than with a “I just won a fight but will now comically pass out” bit of cliche?
Yet once Bruce opts to follow Cupcake’s advice to seek out another connected criminal known only as “Jerry,” things pick up on every conceivable front. As always, “Gotham” sells its atmosphere with aplomb as the punk club that Jerry calls home is a charming cartoon take on every 1970’s suburbanite’s nightmare of what CBGB’s was supposed to be like. There Bruce comes face-to-face with a scene he may not comprehend but that we know all too well: Jerry is the clown-faced frontwoman of a stage act inspired by the proto-Jokerz known as the Maniax from earlier this season. While the death of head Maniak Jerome and its influence on the nutjobs of the city was delivered in a groan-worthy manner last year, this version of the viral anarchy keeps things just enough in the background to avoid grating. The band’s not bad either.
Of course, the real sweet spot for the story is Jerry herself -Â performed with a wink and a middle finger by Tank Girl herself Lori Petty. “Gotham” has been in no short supply of character actors who slum for the network payday, but Petty is maybe the first such face to really elevate the material at hand. As she toys with Bruce’s childish revenge scheme, Jerry doesn’t seem to commit to any one idea or ethos. There are no tough guy speeches or “ka-razy” easter eggs here – just a legitimate trickster god of a character played both sides of every fence and enjoying the hell out of it. In a way, Petty’s performance almost begs for a return engagement and a bigger story arc, but that would probably ruin the fun. An aging punker who drifts into the show’s Joker role for a moment to literally play God with Bruce’s life and then smarm her way out of Jim Gordon’s clutches is a pitch perfect use of the “What is the Joker, really?” card the show has been failing to play since episode one. Don’t ruin it by trying to explain it.
Elsewhere, in between trying to head Bruce off at the pass, Gordon is also struggling with the unsolved murder of Kristen Kringle that no one seems to care about except for his slightly estranged girlfriend Leslie. While poking around to Kringle’s ex/last person to see her in person Edward Nygma (who for some reason is still not on the super cop’s radar as a potential suspect), Jim tips off Ed’s suspicions, but aside from a little teeth-gritting from our future Riddler, this is all setup for a later day.
In more immediate action, Oswald’s stay at Arkham takes a few strange (har har) turns as Hugo seems to expand out his torture of the funny-walking felon into the asylum commissary. Treated as a special snowflake by being granted ice cream, Penguin gets rocked by a jealous goliath of an inmate, but for the most part the once crime mastermind is as docile and compliant as you’d expect someone being force fed painful hallucinations of their own personal failures. It soon becomes clear that Strange is interested in testing whether Oswald’s nice guy compliance is an act or a real change of heart, and when given the chance to murder his rocky road tormentor, our boy does not disappoint by making friends with the mongoloid. This earns Oswald his freedom (part of a supposed larger play by Strange), but the audience can’t help but wonder if the cast member best known for biding his time before exacting insane revenge has really turned over a new leaf or is just playing the longest game of his career. That hint of doubt left in the proceedings makes the story work as actual unpredictable entertainment in a way this overtly telegraphed show often can’t pull off. Nice change of pace.
That all goes double for Bruce Wayne’s endgame. The boy slides up to Matches’ ratrap of an apartment well ahead of Gordon’s ability to bust in and save the day, and the scene that plays out between Bruce and his parents’ supposed killer is a tense and strange trip. Bruce remains nervous but keeps enough calm to act the part of rich kid looking to hire a killer, leading Malone to soliloquy on the many murders he’s committed over a career of contract killing. Sure, the villain is a little on the nose in terms of the kind of “dead inside and dying outside” hitman tropes that get dragged out in crime fiction from time to time, but Matches works for the moment because his “I can’t even recall who I’ve killed” schtick stymies Bruce’s search for concrete answers. Much like Jerry before him, Malone seems to care less about whether the boy gets what he wants -Â even when Bruce reveals himself and levels a gun to his face. Even after the killer appears to recall killing the Waynes, doubt remains as to whether he did the deed or is just egging on this kid to kill him and put him out of a miserable existence. Either way, Bruce isn’t playing along. He gives up the ghost (and drops the gun) finding no satisfaction in killing a sad man who won’t reveal what (if any) forces called in his parents’ murder.
While things snap back to the predictable when Gordon arrives (because of course Malone kills himself with Bruce’s gun), the power of the scene hangs over the entire show in a strong way. “Gotham” (at least for now) is refusing to give an answer to the central mystery of Batman’s existence. And it’s beginning to toy with the would be Dark Knight with forces who are scarcely interested in the overblown mobster supervillain stereotypes that have been the show’s stock in trade. This sense of uncertainty, the lack of justice the drives Bruce to become Batman, often forms the backbone of the very best comic stories. It’s doubtful that “Gotham” has any interest or ability to keep this kind of story going for the long term, but it’s a great change up from what we usually see.