The fourth season of Gotham opened with an instantly familiar scene played out ... let's say "in miniature."
On the dark streets of the titular city, standard-issue street thugs circle in on a pair of innocent citizens in an alley. But before the criminals can rob them, from the roofs above jumps a Bat-esque Bruce Wayne, complete with black cowl and barking angry voice. Her dispatches the crooks, only to find that one is carrying a card that supposedly grants him the right to commit crimes in Gotham. And all the while, Ra's Al Ghul watches from the shadows.
All told, this taste of "Bat-Teen Begins" kills a few birds with one stone. It's a cold open not only for the episode but also for the major arcs in the weeks ahead (Penguin's scheme to "legalize crime") and across the whole season (Al Ghul's machinations). It's also a thematic marker – showcasing young Bruce's shift into crime-fighting mode as this season's "A Dark Knight" subtitle promises. But maybe more importantly than either of those, it was a fun scene that pulled together the disparate elements at play in a way that feels part and parcel of the Batman's world.
Because, against all odds, "Pax Penguina" was a good hour of superhero television. It's the rare episode of Gotham that showed off the series' black humor strengths and found a way to play with various elements of the comic character's history. And while there were still plenty of rough spots along the way (even that cold open raises the question of how Bruce became a roof-jumping fighter, or who told him that stupid mask looked good), this still bodes well for the show eventually delivering a decent season.
The episode threads together all the important storylines impressively, but it's still important to take each of the main threads in their own turn – starting with the Penguin's scheme that gives the episode its name. Since the end of last season, Oswald Cobblepot has apparently reasserted his dominance on both the underworld and the mayor's office he no longer holds by dropping crime rates with his "licensing" plan. But beyond setting up Oswald as an immediate foil for the heroes, the fun of this side of the show is watching classic villains grow in their personas and clash with Batman '66-style glee.
On one hand, we have Selina Kyle and her new mentor Tabitha Galavan living like stray cats. The show continues to evoke Michele Pfeiffer's version of Catwoman in young Selina's impressive fight scenes, and like all of Gotham's references to Bat-media past, this is on the nose but fan-servicey enough to delight. On the other, Penguin's right-hand killer Mr. Zsaz has stepped up as a rare original contribution to the Bat-canon. Unlike the boilerplate psycho killer of the comics, this Zsaz is increasingly sassy and silly in the hands of Anthony Carrigan, and the actor's "last word" statements are some of the most winning moments in the episode. But not to be outdone in the "classic foe clash," Ivy Pepper is lurking in the background as a potential turncoat to keep things interesting in the weeks ahead.
On the flipside of these cartoon crooks, the episode offers up the Merton Gang. This low-level band of robbers that refuses to go along with the Penguin's licensing rule is mostly just here to set up the birth of the Scarecrow. But while past seasons of Gotham primarily offered mobster clichés for these kinds of roles, the Merton crew has a little more personality, thanks largely to the casting of Steve Buscemi's brother (yup) Michael as Merton himself. His spitting, snarling and just-a-little-bit-weaselly performance adds a lot to the conflict between super-criminals and everyday robbers.