In "Pinewood", Gotham continues churning out great character drama combined with a worrying late trend of bad plot decisions and a generous side order of top-shelf cliché.
If you've read my reviews over the last weeks you might have noticed how I have grown increasingly critical of this show. This is because while I found the first part of the second season to be uniformly magnificent, the second part has thus far produced two real clunkers which are a long way from the quality I know this show to be capable of. This is the second of them.
It's also important to note that the very reason I might be seen as overly critical is that I love this series with a passion. It would have been different if I was reviewing The Vampire Diaries, which is a show based on mediocre source material and run by relative nobodies that's never reached the quality of Gotham, making it unreasonable to expect any better. Gotham, on the other hand, is produced by Bruno Heller. Bruno Heller was the driving force behind HBO's Rome. The cast is incredible. The dialog is usually impeccable. The set and sound design is a marvel. We know there is a deep talent pool to draw from.
The problem with this episode is none of the above. The problem with this episode is bad decisions, and if the show keeps making these bad decisions, it will undermine its concept.
I've decided to make this review image-heavy. This isn't to fill out a lack of content; there will be plenty of that. It's an intentional choice to point out exactly how beautiful and visually well-composed Gotham really is.
These aren't meticulously selected frames. When it comes to this show, you can pause the video stream practically anywhere there isn't lots of movement and you'll have a great picture. This episode doesn't even particularly excel at that by the show's sky-high standards.
So, let us get down to specifics.
Unlike any other episode I can think of in the run of Gotham, this outing only features one single storyline, namely the hunt for the man behind the decision to murder Thomas and Martha Wayne. The show wisely decides to cut out any characters that can't help with this story, and makes sure those who remain pull their weight.
Bruce and Alfred are on the hunt. Jim helps in the hunt. Barbara helps Jim. Karen delivers information for the hunt. Hugo reacts to being hunted. Victor helps Hugo react. It allows the episode to breathe and take its time with the developments - at least during its first half. In fact, for the first twenty minutes the show put a genuine smile on my face.
... and then it all goes down the drain.
I will not lie, I mourn the death of Karen Jennings. This was Hugo Strange's first patient. A character with a solid, working backstory, a dubious "superpower" which felt Just Right for the atmosphere of Gotham, portrayed by a strong actress and playing perfectly off David - and they killed her in less than one hour. A reasonably sane and likeable female character on a show where - during the maternity leave of Morena Baccarin playing Leslie - those creatures are temporarily extinct.
It's just such a waste. I suspect the real reason of her untimely death was to further drive home the misguided point that "Selina can never be a part of this." Notably, she even seemed to share some of her character traits. In reality, of course, every day Bruce and Selina spent on the streets they were literally one wrong step away from death, but the show has forgotten that. Not to mention the horrible cliché of having Bruce tell her he "promises nothing will happen to her." As soon as I heard that line, I knew poor Karen was a goner. This is the first time I've seen David having to deliver poor dialog, and of course, he still nailed it. The kid could probably make quality drama from reading the yellow pages.
In a sense, Karen Jennings is a female Puck from "Prisoners", which remains the weakest episode of the entire series. The difference is that Puck had no real presence, his character held no promise and could only serve the function of a cheap dramatic payoff after he'd spent the entire episode raving about what a hero Jim was. In contrast, Karen is placed in a context important to the show and drives the story forward.
Still, the Karen Jennings story has nothing on the brutal hatchet job this episode does on Mr Freeze. At this stage, Victor is a less interesting, complex and sympathetic character than The Flash's Captain Cold.
In my review of the introduction arc of Mr Freeze, I pointed out that by killing his wife, the show has tasked itself with finding a new, interesting motivation to Victor's actions. As it became apparent that he was to come in servitude of Hugo Strange, I asked myself - "why would Victor help him?" I speculated that Nora might not be beyond salvation after all. I thought of other possible means of extortion. I entertained other ways of having him find a reason to live in the Indian Hill environment. Gotham's Freeze story did away with the Ferris Boyle of The Animated Series, so Victor has no antagonist on which to wreak revenge.
In "Pinewood", Gotham presents us with Mr Freeze's "motivation". Apparently, Victor's "very angry."
It's completely laughable. In one episode this show has managed to reduce one of the more nuanced villains of the modern Batman universe to a character so two-dimensional he actually rivals his portrayal in 1959. No matter how I swing it or which way I look, there can be no excuse for this atrocity. It isn't too late to fix this mess, but it would require Gotham to get to work on it right away. Even one more episode with this cardboard cut-out would be too much.
When it comes to actual plot progression, a lot happened in this episode. We have now established that Hugo Strange hired Matches Malone through The Lady to murder the Waynes in order to get rid of their opposition to Indian Hill. We'll see if the explanation sticks, but I think if the show simply backpedals rather than expands on this, it could feel very cheap. Also, since Hugo Strange as a major canon character is very unlikely to die - among other things, he's supposed to deduce Bruce's future secret identity - this sets him up as an eternal, and very personal, thorn in the side of Batman.
To add to that, in modern canon Batman has at least some degree of sympathy for Victor, but from the events of this episode alone, the show has made sure that Bruce Wayne will hate him for the rest of his life. I'm not sure if these are good or bad ideas.
Lastly, I will mention Barbara. Her interaction with Jim has improved by leagues and bounds from the pilot, and if nothing else the conversation between them proves one thing - yes, Barbara understands James better than Leslie ever will, because their special brands of crazy feed off each other. This doesn't mean it's healthy, but it's certainly there, and Barbara more and more starts to emerge as the only woman who can truly put up with Jim Gordon, which is ironic considering the extent to which she went off the the rails when she was let into his life in season one. "I was there, remember? When you first caught the Wayne case. I know what it means to you. You think that if you can solve it, you can close the door on the past. And maybe, just maybe, it'll stay shut."
The way this episode played out, you could make a case both for her being "reformed" and not. If she isn't, then this episode was simply a fast forward through her various character moods on the show only to end up with the exact same person at the exact same place where she left. I think you can guess which of the two possibilities I am rooting for.
Oh, and Theo Galavan is resurrected as Azrael, which probably means we have an action-packed episode coming up May 2nd, as the show airs a re-run of "Son of Gotham" next Monday - a story heads and shoulders above this one.