As I write this review my mind keeps drifting back to the words of Ron Moore over a decade ago, filming 'The Hand of God', and how he referred to it as Battlestar Galactica's 'Big Mac' episode. Most shows have a couple of Big Mac episodes - fun, action-packed rides with lots of explosions. You know it's probably not good for you, but you don't care. Sometimes you just want a Big Mac.
'Azrael' certainly qualifies as Gotham's first real Big Mac episode in a way that should have most comic book nerds wetting their pants with joy. We have costumes! We have masks! We have swords! We have not one, not two, but three fight scenes! Even and especially the comic book fanatics should love this one despite grinding their teeth over the show's somewhat "excentric" take on the source material. It speaks to the little children in all of us.
This isn't a deep psychological outing and it isn't very well suited for my standard type of review. That said, it's actually surprising how many plot points Gotham manages to wade through in this episode.
First of all it shows us Edward Nygma in Arkham and quite as I predicted he's sort of having a great time. He's proving to be extremely adept at manipulating people on a personal level, tying deeper into his comic book persona and showing us why the Riddler never had trouble finding lackeys to do his bidding. Edward is the "little game" kind of guy, obsessed with his puzzles and mazes, in contrast to Oswald's "big game", and here in Arkham Asylum, unlike the Penguin, he's in his perfect element.
He doesn't even seem very desperate to escape - the only thing that matters is the challenge, after Jim turns up outside the fence gloating over how he's "beat" him. With Hugo being completely preoccupied with the Galavan project he hardly even notices Nygma, which is almost certainly something he'll live to regret. Edward is used to people underestimating him, often to devastating results.
Second it shows us Bruce Wayne meeting Azrael for the first time, a mesmerized look on his face watching Theo climbing the walls evading the policemen's bullets. Gotham has become much better at these kinds of subtle nods to its mythology, as you can practically see the gears turning in the future Batman's head. We've come a long way from episodes with question marks painted on coffee cups and a twelve-year-old girl called Ivy popping up from underneath a sea of flowers.
Third and finally, 'Azrael' drives home a central point of the show much harder than any previous episode. Gotham is not a normal city. This isn't a place where violent crime is merely crashing like waves at the shores of the outskirts of society. It's a city that is in fact in constant threat of being overtaken by madmen. Whereas in season one crime under Carmine Falcone coexisted with society - "you can't have organized crime without law and order" - season two sees crime trying to conquer it. It's gone beyond street violence and corruption, beyond terrorism to take on a form akin to revolution or coup d'etat. It's a city where the old rules don't apply as the state of society approaches civil war. This sentiment is alluded to in all conversations between Jim, Nathaniel, Bruce and Alfred. This, more than anything else, is what sets the stage for Batman.
The plot of this episode is so simple I can relay it in a single sentence. Jim Gordon confronts Hugo Strange with the accusation that he runs a supervillain factory, and Hugo Strange responds by siccing Azrael on him. You can complain about how Hugo is simply rehashing his reaction using Mr Freeze in 'Pinewood', but you'd be missing the point. This story sets out to be one thing only - an over-the-top vehicle for introducing an evil proto-Batman character, Gotham City's first "caped crusader". In other notes, the interaction between Strange and Peabody is much improved in this episode, and the intentional overacting between Hugo and Theo is absolutely hilarious.
People have a lot easier time to accept cartoonish behavior if the character displaying it is wearing a mask. This is why even many people who hated Theo Galavan can embrace Azrael. It's like they need to have the character dressed in a costume to realize that "oh, okay, it's a comic book show." Now, Gotham has used this particular mode of storytelling for its entire run, with characters like Fish Mooney, Theo and Barbara, and it's rather gratifying to see how people finally start to "get it" now that its graphical presentation is starting to catch up with the superficial content.
I hear this in discussions of this episode all the time - "What took them so long?" As in, why didn't they dive straight into the capes and masks and superpowers? The reason is that the polish and execution of this show might be cartoonish, but the underlying material is not.
Cory Michael Smith's portrayal of Edward Nygma transforming into the narcissistic Riddler and Robin Lord Taylor's unhinged Penguin make every other portrayal on the screen look like a shallow joke. David Mazouz' Bruce Wayne is the most intricate version ever created at age fifteen, and even Ben McKenzie's Jim Gordon, which has been a long-standing weak point of the show, is shaping up into a more multidimensional if still perhaps rather unlikable presence, with this episode's conversation with Hugo helping a fair deal for the character.
Gotham has spent almost two seasons building an infrastructure out of which all this insanity can flow freely and naturally, drawing on its rich and diverse character gallery. This isn't something you could ever establish in a superhero action movie, and this is a case of Gotham playing to the strengths of its medium. Its complex core in a comic book casing has turned into its show trademark.
The aesthetic tone of Gotham is at once perfect and ever-evolving. From a show that seemed in danger of getting stuck in the limbo of a half-hearted police procedural paying homage to the Batman universe, it has matured into a psychotic mix of The Animated Series, Tim Burton's Batman and the ultra-camp original Adam West television show while at the same time retaining an underlying essence far more nuanced than either of them.
Where a show like Arrow has to try to be dark, Gotham lives it. It's infused in the cobblestones of the pavement of the streets, in everything that's happened and in everything that's yet to come. Neither affection nor love nor even teenagers having food fights ever truly escape the invasive spectre of its silent lead character. Why, what's the difference? Ask yourself this - after four seasons of Arrow, what do we really know of Starling City?
Captain Barnes falling to Azrael's broken sword in the final moments of the episode is both expected and symbolic. Where Jim did change, as much as he's lambasting himself over it and as flawed as his decisions might have been, Barnes is the Jim that did not change. Through his stay at the show, Nathaniel has come to represent the by-the-books, unwavering sense of justice, law and order that's turned into a failed, idealistic dream - the sort of moral inflexibility in the face of an insane enemy that gets people killed.
All in all, this episode is a resounding success, and as we race towards the finish line of the second season the show looks stronger than ever.
- I went the extra mile with the screenshots this week, converting them all using various filters for a more elaborate look. Given the visuals this week, this episode really deserved it. Consider it an apology for being late with the review. I hope you'll enjoy them.
- Considering that Aaron is in fact the villain Amygdala, it's unlikely that he is dead, although he isn't credited in any of the remaining episodes on epguides.com, which normally is the best source for casting. Captain Nathaniel Barnes, on the other hand, might not be so lucky.
- The first photo of the review is a cropped version of a shot taken from Section of Randomness, which is the best source for high-resolution Gotham spoiler-, casting- and episode pictures. They always offer the largest size and best quality with no stamps and watermarks and no fuss, and I'd like to express my appreciation of their services.