Gotham: "Don't Ever Grow Up"

- The dialectical transformation of the character of Bruce Wayne on the television show Gotham.

{This analysis is written after and contains spoilers up to and including The Son of Gotham, episode 10 of season 2 of the series.}

I have made my fair share of age-centric posts about the Gotham television show and its audience, and the reason I keep going on about it is how this is something the show does so well, and how so many fans, journalists and reviewers simply fail to understand the basic concepts. So, this time I will go into detail.

I’ve seen some fans and reviewers - even people positive about the episode - who have made some snide statements about Bruce getting a “character transplant” in The Son of Gotham, and I’m sorry, but that’s just dead stupid.

Bruce didn’t get a “character transplant”. Bruce grew up.

It’s an immense pleasure for me to review and analyze Gotham - I guess that’s why I do it so much - because whenever you scratch the surface, all you uncover makes sense. Every important development of the show, from start to finish.

Bruce’s transformation in episode 10 represents a dialectical shift. I know I’ve thrown out that term before and I guess you think I’m doing it just to look clever, but it’s actually quite important and useful and it’s not all that hard to understand, so let me just give you a thirty-second introduction. The model I'm employing here is so simple it doesn't really matter if you swear by Marx or Hegel or neither.

The dialectical method concerns itself with the opposite forces within all things and the way they manifest themselves in the real world as the unity of opposites. The “unity of opposites” - the sum of all forces working within any given thing - is how we perceive an object. To understand it, we must break it down. This holds true for people, societies, even prime elements.

The contradiction we are interested in here is the one between Bruce’s insecurities, ignorance and resulting fears on one hand, and his growing experiences, intellect and resulting confidence on the other. These forces fight for control over Bruce’s actions throughout the show and thus far the former have had the upper hand. Even in earlier “heroic” moments what we see is reckless, self-sacrificing bravery as opposed to the contemplated, self-aware confidence present in The Son of Gotham.

Some people think we just “grow up”. Not only that, but they tend to get disconcerted by abrupt change. They envision us as growing up little by little, like ants piling straws on a stack until we emerge fully-formed human beings. This is a shallow view of the world. A dialectical shift in a person isn’t normally a slow process, it’s a very dramatic event. It’s like when you heat water above 99 degrees Celsius and it starts to boil, or like when striking a matchstick and it catches fire. Putting it another way, "the straw that broke the camel's back" is a dialectical concept.

The events in The Son of Gotham precisely represent this cusp, where Bruce’s strengths finally take control over his weaknesses after the former have been fueled throughout the series.

Consider a fan favorite scene - the ball room in Under the Knife. Here we have Bruce and Selina dancing with all the other guests fawning over how adorable they look together, and Selina tells him, “everyone’s staring at us.” So, Bruce says, “Well, I’m Bruce Wayne.” Most people interpret this as Bruce being either an idiot or supremely arrogant. They don’t understand this scene either, because here, Bruce’s insecurities and poor self-esteem are what’s speaking.

You see, Selina went to the ball with Bruce as a couple. She naturally understood that everyone was swooning over what a cute couple they were, and that made her both amused and nervous, so she turned to him for confirmation, fishing for a compliment and hoping to share the moment with him.

However, Bruce did not go to the ball with Selina “as a couple”, because Bruce couldn’t possibly imagine that Selina could see him that way. Remember, “I don’t imagine you consider me a suitable romantic partner”? It’s got nothing to do with his latent-or-not feelings for her; to him, she’s simply in a different league.

So, he blurts out, “Well, I’m Bruce Wayne.” And what that means is simply, “I’m very rich and famous because my parents were Thomas and Martha Wayne and I’m the heir to the family fortune, and that’s the only reason anyone would care about me.” Now, do you see?

We can even pinpoint the exact moment of the shift. It occurs in season two chapter eight, Tonight’s the Night. Here, Bruce is about to sign over his company to Theo. This is preceded by him breaking down in front of Alfred.

He doubts himself, he’s crying and as he leaves for the Galavan mansion, he just wants to escape from the world. This is the last hurrah of the antithesis.

The old Bruce Wayne picks up the pen. The new one puts it down.

In the thirty-second episode of this show a lot has happened.

Among other things, he’s had girls and grown women complimenting his good looks several times. He’s had a romantic affair with Silver and he’s learned to connect body language and stares with attraction. He’s learned to understand innuendos and involuntary giveaways and he’s had his first experiences of playing on a girl’s emotions to get what he wants.

He’s had time to compartmentalize his past experiences with Selina and begin to understand what they really meant.

And then, she thoughtlessly sticks out her neck, and that’s when it goes *boom*

Now, some people don’t like these developments.

  • They don’t like Bruce growing up into a more pro-active hero because he’s supposed to stay at home and do his homework.
  • They don’t like Silver growing into a calculating seductress because she’s supposed to stay at home and play with dolls.
  • They don’t like Selina running around stealing, killing people and working with crime lords because… well, I guess they want her thrown in a foster home or spending her days like Ivy curling up in a shed until she dies of pneumonia.

More than anything they absolutely hate it when what they define as “children” are displaying adult characteristics. I’ve lost count of the number of times fans and reviewers have insultingly and dishonestly referred to these people as “pre-teens”. They view the world, especially when portrayed by a television show, as something static. They may be stuck in the mindset of episodic drama, where you could always count on your hero being one way and one way only.

How sad is it, and what does it say about our civilisation, that whenever we talk about letting our children “grow up at their own pace” we are only using it as an argument to prevent them from doing so?

These people are ultimately going to be very disappointed because Gotham, in the sense it relates to these young characters, is a coming-of-age story. However, unlike the bazillion of high school movies and shows out there, it is a story which does not merely focus on the cute and cuddly parts of adolescence that adults can go “ooh” and “aaw” and laugh at, patting themselves on their backs because they are oh-so-much smarter and wiser, but an actual coming-of-age story, catching these characters in the exact moment they are starting their grand transition and not letting go until they’re done and finished.

Have you ever compared photos of Jared Padalecki on Supernatural from season one to season eleven? When they started filming, he was roughly twenty, and now he’s thirty-three. He hardly looks like the same person.

Now think of David Mazouz, who started filming this show when he was thirteen. If all goes to plan he could be leaving it by age twenty-two. He won’t only look but he will be a completely different person. On- and off-stage. I don’t even have to know David or gaze into a crystal ball to predict that. Every single person goes through that transformation.

Supernatural is a formulaic show. That’s not necessarily a criticism. Samuel started the show as a hunter and he will end it as a hunter. Bruce starts the show as a scared school kid screaming in an alley and he will end it as Batman.

Embrace the change.


Logan Cox said...

I stuck with Gotham all through season one and decided I was probably done with it; maybe I'd check out the very next when season two came to Netflix. However, I have read your analyses, and occasionally a review. They seem well-written and well thought out, but I think I read because I find it interesting how much you see in this show. And how much you seem to appreciate what you see.

So you've changed my opinion to the point where I've decided to give season two a chance when it is available to me. Even though I still don't think this is my thing, as much as I love the Batman mythos.

Cool to read about dialectical shifts here when I just learned about Hegelian dialectics from Fallout: New Vegas recently. I also like that you used one of my favorite moments from the first season ("Well, I am Bruce Wayne.") to help illustrate this. Didn't see there what you saw, but then again I wasn't really reading much into it at the time. I took it like, "Yeah, Bruce knows people know what's up." Felt like he was being logical.

My problem with the show isn't its themes or what it wants to do. The problem is how it chooses to do it. I didn't hate Batman v. Superman, but I think it is a good example of how a bunch of cool ideas and strong potential can fall flat in the face of poor execution. I can totally accept that kid characters like Bruce or Selina can be as mature as Gordon and Leslie... if it is done right.

You make a good point in comparing David Mazouz on Gotham to Jared Padelecki on Supernatural; so very true. I guess I sort of took that great casting for granted since I was convinced this show was going to fail fast.

Thomas Ijon Tichy said...

Logan, that's the best compliment I could possibly get. If I manage to convince anyone, especially one who's previously given up, to give the show a first or second chance, I'm very happy.

The point about the portrayals of Bruce and Selina... the major reason it works... is that the show doesn't make the mistake of writing them either as mini-adult or as overgrown toddlers. Both Bruce and Selina have "childish" tendencies to go with their "grown-up" ones. "All the water hasn't boiled yet", so to speak.

A key to enjoying Gotham is understanding how the show sometimes goes for intentional over-acting, a cartoonish feel and a simplistic superficial package masking the gears turning under the hood. It's an easy show to make smart-alecky comments about but most of those just expose how the viewer hasn't bothered trying to understand the narrative. That's not to say the show is flawless, of course. I'm currently noticing a downward trend in quality and hoping it will pick back up.

Anyway, I'm very glad you enjoy the coverage. ;-)

Logan Cox said...

I probably went into the show with too high of expectations. I was expecting something like The Wire meets the Batman universe. The show felt like it would be better served if it were like a Netflix show with 13 episodes instead of over 20.

I can't say it's not entertaining, though. Cobblepot and Nygma are an easy excuse for me to watch it. I like that Cobblepot has a weird ability to sense people who play a huge part in his future, like how he latched onto Gordon, the way he knew Nygma was watching him when they first met, and how he visibly went cold when Bruce passed him by while his back was turned.

J.D. Balthazar said...

In the most recent episode, there was a moment where Bruce was Batman, leading the charge and acting like his future self. More so than I think I've seen him behave before. It wasn't fully realized of course, but in that simple change of posture, a turn and a walk towards the camera in just the right way, I saw something for the character I hadn't expected to see for a long time. It made me excited about the next few seasons (if we get that many), as this Bruce matures into the hero he will end up being. I did like your analysis too, there were a few points that I'd never considered.

Great read.

I do have one small issue, and that is the way you framed the comparison between the arcs of Supernatural and Gotham is a bit unfair. Your taking an original character (Sam Winchester) whose fate is still unknown, and creating parallels to an adapted character (Bruce Wayne) whose fate is well known.

Yes, Sam grew up as a hunter and will probably die as one. But in his younger years, he wanted nothing but to escape from the life. Supernatural is not exactly formulaic, well at least not all the time. The filler episodes are for sure, but so are Gotham's filler episodes. Gotham is after all a very serialized and stylized version of a police procedural set in the Batman universe. What makes both shows special, is the fact that continuity and attention to detail are important. Characters are important. And in both shows, we have the opportunity to see those characters grow and change. The main difference, is that Gotham is a prequel, where we know where are main characters are headed.

Thomas Ijon Tichy said...

J.D.: When it comes to Bruce's change in recent episodes, that's also part of the magic of David's acting. He's incredibly adept at conveying emotions with subtle facial shifts, posture, etc. I think this is because his first major role was as the autistic child co-star in "Touch" when he was 10 years old, acting with Kiefer Sutherland. During that entire show he never said a word. I'd think that was an excellent acting school.

I agree that the comparison between Supernatural and Gotham isn't perfect for the reasons you pointed out. That said, as I mentioned, being "formulaic" isn't necessarily a bad thing. Supernatural has survived for over a decade precisely because it's got a strong formula - "Sam and Dean fight monsters." That isn't even a formula that prevents arcs or character growth.

If I'd make the distinction, I'd say that Supernatural is a formulaic show employing multiple arcs (Lucifer, Leviathans, Darkness, you name it) while Gotham is an arc-centric show - "the rise of Bruce Wayne and the super-villains of Gotham City under the watch of Jim Gordon" - employing a formula ("Jim Gordon hunts criminals.") If we play with the thought of Gotham surviving into "true" Batman territory - we're talking season ~10 here - Gotham would shift into a formulaic show, "Batman hunts criminals", employing arcs.

"What makes both shows special, is the fact that continuity and attention to detail are important. Characters are important. And in both shows, we have the opportunity to see those characters grow and change." <- Couldn't agree more.

As for the survivability of Gotham we're practically guaranteed 4 seasons. After that it depends on how it pulls in the numbers (along with some other stuff), but the positive news is that it's FOX's second-rated scripted drama. The bad news is that FOX as a network is a dumpster fire.

I'm sorry if the above rant was a bit unclear. ;-)

Billie Doux said...

FOX as a network is a dumpster fire. I've heard a lot of negative descriptions of Fox, but honestly, Thomas, this might be my favorite.

Anya K said...

Totally agree with this article. Gotham and its characters are dark... It seems right that they show Bruce's evolution from innocent kid to a tragic crusader.