No one acts for charity's sake in Gotham.
That's a lesson the characters of Fox's DC Comics adaptation learn in the course of last night's episode "The Balloonman." One by one, the cast of future Batman foils are put to the test of whether they'll do something purely because it's the right thing, and one by one they fail.
It starts with Jim Gordon and Selina Kyle. The detective takes the young orphan under his care, but only to get her cooperation in his investigation of the Wayne family murders. In turn, the so-called Cat only cooperates to get a better chance to make her escape from custody. So in the earliest moment of the night where Gordon pushes as hard as he can to get results, he ends up in a literal pile of crap.
On the other side of town, a Bernie Madoff-style Ponzi schemer goes from slagging the pensioners he's bilked to being handcuffed to a weather balloon. The mysterious assailant who sends the fat cat flying to his death earns an immediate response from citizens and sets the episodes police plot (and theme) into action.
Of course, this being Gotham, the police station is about as pleasant as a scream from a thousand-foot death drop. Gordon's latest acquaintance is Lt. Cranston, an officer who (in the night's prime example of blunt storytelling) uses a commendation trophy to bludgeon unwilling suspects into confessions. Gordon's disgust with the man leads to the show's latest clash between the idealistic rookie and his partner Harvey Bullock. And Donal Logue's still-shallow Bullock only cares about the murder in that it removes one more crook from the boardroom. But when the thuggish Cranston becomes the second victim of the killer that reporters dub Balloonman, the pair can't ignore the case any longer.
Inner-departmental drama under the specter of a vigilante should be this show's bread and butter. But all it does here is allow some muddied turmoil from a Gordon still struggling with the perception that he capped Oswald Cobblepot and is therefore just another dirty cop. However, screenwriter John Stephens hands off the question of how the young detective lives with himself to a B-plot involving his fiancee Barbara Kean and her former lover Detective Montoya. The doomed romance between the pair remains the show's freshest twist to the Batman mythos, but it fails to develop much here beyond some allegations of drug abuse between the exes. Montoya is convinced Gordon murdered Cobblepot, while Kean stands by her man. There's very little given to put a doubt in our minds as to either's conviction.
At least would-be mob boss Fish Mooney is shaking (and entertaining) in her crime conviction. After boss of bosses Carmine Falcone roughed up her boy toy Lazlo, Fish plans a retaliatory strike against the don's latest girl, and an untimely end for her washed-up fling. The story gives a little counterbalance as it focuses on the wages of sin, but it fizzles out with another "I'll kill you when I can prove it's you" threat from Falcone.
(And it must be noted: Lazlo's failure to step toward Professor Pyg territory plus a throwaway porcine mask for Balloonman equals Gotham's first move to pull the chair out from under eagle-eyed fans looking to crack the origin code.)
Still, if there's one character who seems to have found the perfect path ahead in a city that only rewards those willing to take, it's Oswald Cobblepot. Back on the streets of Gotham, the former lackey is learning it's better to kill your way up the crime ladder quietly. By stabbing his way to a job at the restaurant owned by Falcone's main rival – boss Sal Maroni as played by the enjoyable Dexter alum David Zayas – Oswald has set himself up to gain the knowledge it will take to get back at Fish. And the way he impresses his new employer with a phony work ethic shows there are more schemes ahead for the show's breakout character than anyone else on screen.
The future Penguin is certainly on his way up the ladder faster than young Bruce Wayne. The Batboy is struggling to define his mission in the wake of his parents' deaths. (I mean, if we got that intense a killing, couldn't you also have given us his solemn graveside vow?) But at least his limit-testing hunger strike allows for some thematic balance with Gordon's own quest to be good in Gotham.
And Gordon needs the help. His entire investigation into the Balloonman murders involves following Bullock's lead. And that means stumbling into details about the swiped weather balloons, roughing up possible informants on a path to nearly shooting another suspect in cold blood, and finally facing the choice of letting the actual killer float away to his own skybound death or bringing him in. Ultimately, Gordon risks life and limb to bring the killer to justice. But once he's face to face with the Balloonman, the vigilante confronts the detective with a scary reality: Maybe the cops really have had their chance to enforce real law and order; maybe Gotham should be left to the psychos.
By episode's end, Bruce and Gordon's journeys collide when both realize the only way to survive in a world as self-serving as Gotham is to act with pure nobility. Young Master Wayne will likely have no problem on that score (it's always easy to be righteous when you're young), but Jim will have a harder time of it – especially with the not-quite-dead Cobblepot literally knocking at his door.
With the pilot's chickens coming home to roost, viewers can only hope that Oswald's quirkiest qualities will begin to infect the rest of the show next week.