The opening moments of Gotham’s seventh episode see Robin Lord Taylor’s Penguin hobble along the sidewalk to the jaunty tune of a Danny Elfman-esque score. He’s back from the dead (to the mob he betrayed, at least) and on a collision course with Detective James Gordon – a collision set in motion by the pilot.
It’s the kind of off-kilter character flourish you wish the entire show was full of, but as illustrated by the “Penguin’s Umbrella” episode that closes the pre-Batman drama’s first act, Gotham remains uneven at its strongest moments. However, some of its best moments did arrive this week.
Despite Penguin’s flashy introduction, most of the hour written by showrunner Bruno Heller involves the unlikely consequences of his meddling. Most of that lands on Gordon’s shoulders: The last good man in Gotham sets his jaw once again and decides upon the right thing to do, but this time the show is able to wring some surprisingly subtle moments out of the move (and some of the best acting from a finally badass Ben McKenzie). When Gordon shows up at the police precinct for his shift only to see a dozen faces shocked that he’s not dead or on the run, the effect is an on-point, darkly comic illustration of the city’s inherent corruption. “Got any of those blank warrants that judge Bambam signed?” he asks with a straight face that almost mocks the entire idea of his job. Even a clash with his supervisor Sarah Essen delivers some non-conflicting motivation for the typically “Is she also honest?” character fated for a bigger role in his life.
But before we can get to Gordon’s future, we have to worry about him surviving the present. Mob assassin Victor Zsasz is soon on the scene to mop up Gordon before he can accomplish his crazy plan to arrest both Boss Falcone and the mayor. Yes, the bald hitman is an actual villain from the comics (which will doubtlessly cheer on some detractors of the show), but what works about him and his fetish-model flunkies’ broad-daylight attempt on Gordon’s life isn’t that he adheres to some preconceived notion; it’s that the character has an enticing point of view and unique feel on a series that needs more of that. When Zsasz has to settle for killing a bystander instead of Gordon, the villain’s cutting of a hashmark into his own skin feels like a promise that there’s still more fun to be had with him.
Gordon’s escape from the ghoul-like killer comes at the hands of his former enemies – Major Crime Unit investigators Montoya and Allen. Their previous investigation into Jim’s supposed murder of the Penguin may have been laughably bad, even by TV police standards, but at least it delivered them to a place where they can stand shoulder to shoulder with their future boss and make an even minor stand for law and order in the city. “There’s nothing more dangerous than an honest man,” Don Maroni warns as the episode rolls along. From the look of it, Gordon and company will get a chance to prove that soon enough.
For now, however, mob rule is the law. The Falcone and Maroni clans clash across the rest of the episode over Penguin’s fate. With Fish Mooney pushing for Oswald’s head, Penguin is able to slick-willy his way into a plan that impresses Maroni, takes out Fish’s secret boyfriend and eliminates his biggest competition within the Maroni gang. As Cobblepot delivers his speech about loyalty among thieves while gutting his rival, we get our first true glimpse of a ruthless boss-to-be from underneath the sniveling yes-man.
But this being Gotham, little details still refuse to fit. For instance, did anyone think Mooney’s boyfriend was long for this world when he grabbed her ass and then whispered conspiratorial ideas to her 10 freaking feet from the boss they’re trying to betray? Or did Harvey Bullock’s “I got drunk and found a prostitute, so let’s be honest cops” about-face feel any less forced for the humor?
Perhaps the most glaring hole in this episode’s plot (there always seems to be one) was how it unraveled. When Gordon and Bullock make their desperate stand to arrest Falcone, they’re undone by the timely twist that the boss is holding on to Gordon’s fiancée Barbara … because she came to him to plead for Jim’s life. Having not seen her since the cold open, where she was terrified for her life, it’s difficult to imagine the late-episode reveal as anything but total contrivance. Better luck next time.
Ultimately, the episode’s real final twist – that Falcone has been the figurative umbrella sparing Penguin’s life as the junior mobster attempts to play Gordon and everyone to his advantage – arrives with a similar thud. That this is what we’ve been building to since the beginning of the show feels like two months of setup that could have been revealed in week one. And all the scenery chewing and gruesome gun violence along the way never quite justified the journey.
But maybe now that all this preamble is out of the way, the show Gotham desperately wants to be will finally emerge. Gordon certainly seems to have hope for the future. Will the audience believe him?
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