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‘Gotham’ Recap: ‘The Scarecrow’ is a Fearsome Success

by  in Comic News, TV News Comment
‘Gotham’ Recap: ‘The Scarecrow’ is a Fearsome Success

Fear can be a powerful motivator in life and in fiction. So it should come as no surprise that with the second part of back-to-back episodes dedicated to the villainous Scarecrow, Gotham has been driven to its best stories to date.

The spine of this week’s episode is provided by Dr. Gerald Crane, our adrenal gland-stealing serial killer still on the loose after last week’s gruesome attacks on a group of phobics. He’s finally cracked the code to create an ultimate fear cocktail, a formula powerful enough to allow him to first relive the horrible fire that killed his wife and then overcome the fear of failure he’s carried with him ever since. But when he decides to subject his own son to the same process, it may be that Crane needs more fear than he can muster to guide him.

Fish Mooney finds herself in a similar predicament. The deposed siren of Gotham’s underworld has awoken in an underground prison that’s the show’s answer to the spookier parts of Pirate of the Caribbean, and rather than be the proverbial fresh fish on the block, she sets her sights on toppling the most powerful mook in the population. Fish should be afraid of the unknown arena, but she slinks her way closer to the knife-wielding Mace with pure confidence that killing him will be the worst thing she encounters in lockdown. But once she lands on top of the heap, Fish realizes that the mysterious figure playing warden to this desperate rabble is much scarier than anything she’s faced.

Jim Gordon’s fear of his relationship isn’t quite so dramatic as all that, but for once the detective isn’t facing down his challenges with 100 percent snarling defiance. With his new flame Dr. Leslie Thompkins joining the GCPD as medical examiner, the relative happiness he’s found outside of his role as crusading do-gooder maniac is threatened. The nature of why exactly Gordon won’t share any PDAs with Thompkins is never fully explored, but the way in which he stammers and worries through their interactions provides some of the most relatable moments the character has seen.

The Penguin is fearing for his life as his story opens, but the emotion is soon replaced by his equally powerful vanity. Faced with retribution from Sal Maroni for his double-cross/weasely escape, Oswald sets aside his fear when boss Falcone puts him fully in charge of relaunching Fish’s nightclub. Behind the scenes, Falcone wins his Penguin a brief reprieve from Maroni’s wrath by showing how beneficial it can be to rule the city by fear. But even that protection doesn’t truly let Oswald overcome his fear of Maroni; instead, he’s left to play at being a big shot around the weirdos of the world, like police scientist Edward Nygma. The meeting of the future Bat-foes gives the episode some of the show’s long-promised origin-story spark both in its staging and carnival-like tone, but for now that kind of thing is (surprisingly) strong with a “less is more” approach.

Furthest removed from that superstitious, cowardly lot but closest to the heart of the theme stands young Bruce Wayne. Just as Cobblepot and Nygma’s meeting tips its hand to where this world will go, the broken boy billionaire’s story is the first in a long time that plays to the Dark Knight’s inevitable rise in a way that’s both familiar to fans and somewhat unpredictable. Soldiering out into the woods of the Wayne estate for a survivalist camping trip he once took with his father, Bruce shows the stubbornness that will some day make him a lone-wolf vigilante.

But more importantly, the show continually uses this thread to set up near replicas of famed comic scenes without running them into the ground. As he builds little stone altars to his dead parents, Bruce gives a hint of the solemn graveside vow he’ll swear to rid their city of crime. Later, as his fear of being alone is replaced with anger at his loss (a classic Bat-turn), Bruce stumbles down a deep hill on the estate grounds. Just as viewers are sure he’s about to break through into an underground series of caves, the boy only hits rock bottom to sprain his ankle. Again, a subtle shift away from the expected gives the character story some real power as for once Gotham lets us live through its cast as people first and tropes second. Even Bruce’s late-episode reunion with stern taskmaster Alfred is genuinely touching (a first for these two) and sets the stage for their future with style.

But even as Bruce, Jim, Fish and Oswald struggle to overcome their personal fears, the hour ultimately belongs to young Jonathan Crane. After his father injects him with a massive dose of the fear toxin when the police zero in on their hideaway, the young Crane falls into convulsions while staring up at a scarecrow there to play grim watchman over the way his life and family have fallen apart. With some of Gotham’s most accomplished special effects yet, the future villains’ hallucinations finally present the kind of imagery that makes the audience believe this world could tip into crazed anarchy at any moment.

With such a potent string of images and character turns on the heels of another strong episode last week, there’s a desire to see the Scarecrow origin run as the moment when Gotham overcame its shortcomings to become an honestly entertaining TV show. But with so many awful episodes leading up to this point, it’s hard not to be afraid that the quality will be short-lived.

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