Gotham: Queen Takes Knight

Things Happen.

In my review of 'Mad Grey Dawn' I wrote a sketchy outline of the framework of the Riddler. It may not have been my best of works but revisiting it, I find it clear how the show has let down this character.

When it comes to Edward Nygma, what the show had to work with was the inner conflict between the bullied kid and the malicious villain. The villain emerged as a response to outside influences yet was inherent to the character's psychological makeup. Gotham sold this story well, and only the petty and the moralistic could really find a flaw in the show utilizing various "trigger characters" to drive the transformation.

Then in season four, Things Happened. After Edward's original personality was subjugated by its demon and he went on his spree of chaotic violence, he was frozen then de-thawed. Effectively this served to push the reset button on his story, which means it's no longer possible to analyze the character by the dialectical model.

This model is meant to understand real events by exploring existing dynamics, and his story is now no more realistic than present-day France mysteriously reverting to feudalism. It's a great model for character journeys as it examines the natural creation of new contradictions within each formed synthesis, and this isn't a character journey. It's a story employing a shifting character as a crutch to facilitate movement.

When he returned, we saw an Edward Nygma that was simply going through the motions. He tried to be a villain, but a temporary lack of intellectual fitness notwithstanding it was clear his heart was no longer in it. Edward is angry with Ozzie. That's all that's left, and why wouldn't he be? Ozzie murdered his girlfriend. Ozzie turned him into a giant popsicle. No sane person wouldn't be angry.

Thus what remains is plain old Ed, who's being tormented by his monster yet again. Not only is this repetitive storytelling, but we are literally given no reason for the Riddler demon being pushed into the subconscious beyond that Things Happen.

Now, the show is trying to sell us on Eddie being in love with Lee. If we're talking actors here... Yes. As much as some people will hate me for saying it, it works. Morena and Cory have great personal chemistry, Cory's probably Morena's best fit so far and if we're talking an emotional setting, Cory's really only played better against Robin.

If we're talking "representation" - and I do loathe playing that card, but in this case it feels embarrassingly appropriate - it does feel like more than a coincidence that the evil Riddler is the one flirting with "The Gay" and making efforts to sort-of-seduce his role model, while Good Edward is clinging onto his "love of a good woman" to save himself from evil... not to mention being one of the worst comic-book clich├ęs of all time.

Finally, if we're talking "storytelling plausibility", just where the bloody hell does this come from? Lee's grievances with Ed are forgotten. He murdered her friend and he put her boyfriend in prison. She assaulted him twice - again, tying into the accepted narrative that Gotham's women assert their dominance over men through physical violence - and threatened to have him killed. Yet, out of nowhere, it's "Ed Nygma. My friend," and no warmth of acting can save it.

The worst thing is how I see absolutely no way this can work out in any manner palatable. Lee falling for Eddie and saving him from darkness would be character assassination, assuming she has any character left to assassinate. Lee rejecting him - by far the most likely scenario - will have him plunging back into supervillainous stardom yet again over a romantic tragedy.

As we visit Bruce Wayne's plot line, it's thankfully simpler and thus less prone to horrific errors. Bruce, still deeply disturbed by the murder of Ra's, spends his nights partying and sleeping with supermodels, picks a fight with Alfred and gets beat up, fires him then goes back to wasting more brain cells.

I've said it before; I actually welcome that there are tangible consequences to Bruce's decision in 'The Blade's Path', but that doesn't make this storyline any less painful or Bruce himself any less sad and obnoxious, and I guess that's the point.

However, in order for the consequences to be meaningful, the consequences to the consequences must hold weight as well. My judgment of this chain of events will rest entirely on what happens down the line. If Alfred's simply put in the freezer until the time for their inevitable reunion, that would be bitterly disappointing. Even not reuniting these two at all might be dramatically though not personally preferable.

Alfred has spent the whole show acting as Bruce's appendix and father figure. That's his natural role and there's nothing wrong with that, but through their separation and if the show is willing and creative enough to grab the opportunity, it could create another context for Alfred as a separate entity, perhaps paired with Bullock who's presently too left the building, or even revisiting and deepening his hitherto adversarial relationship with Selina. This could be a gold mine and as we all know, Gotham's not averse to taking risks, it's just a show with sometimes spectacularly bad judgment.

Moving on to Grundy and Tabitha's story, this one is almost comical in its cynicism. There's a certain pornographic element to the imagery of Tabitha flailing away at the hapless, tied-up Grundy that's decidedly unsettling. In order to pinpoint it exactly: she's beating him up "out of love." Have a taste of that notion, then apply it to any of your favorite romantic relationships.

Regrettably repeating myself, this is what normally passes for "girl power" on Gotham these days, rapidly losing its charm as well as making that romance pretty much unrootable. I can only view it as the reduction of female characters to simple violent stereotypes quite typical of a regressive and vengeful ideology, and by association I fear this threatens to alienate the audience to Selina. Already, there are certain calls in the fandom for her to beat the crap out of Bruce to "set him straight," which would be an absolute disaster to their dynamic.

Furthermore it makes for predictable drama. You're welcome to quote this and throw it in my face if Gotham proves me wrong, but after Barbara's recent "ninja upgrade", it seems a given that no named female fighter may ever lose a physical altercation to a man.

In sharp contrast, despite her hysterically stupid portrayal in the previous outing, here Sofia comes across as a real character, one not purely reliant on cartoonish bad-assery and one given the necessary dialog to lend a sense of depth to her role.

Making Pyg her henchman - and events put in question if this was ever the real Pyg in the first place - was predicted by several people beforehand. Her killing her own father to use as leverage to turn Zsasz against Ozzie and bring about his downfall, likewise. Maybe it's a bit too convenient, but it ties a pretty neat knot around most of their proceedings this season. Watching Jim get the comeuppance for his brainless and ultimately selfish scheming and thuggery over the years is also immensely rewarding, and at the episode's conclusion there is no longer any doubt - whether he likes it or not, Gordon is an accomplice and a villain.

This is probably the high point of the episode, in a sense it's Gotham owning up to some of its flaws, and it should set the stage for the final conflict whenever Bruce manages to pull his thumb out of his arse.

What is left in store? What we do know is that after doubling Ivy's age by recasting her with what effectively amounted to a pinup girl, as well as doubling Tommy Elliot's by replacing him with a male underwear model, the show is set to recast Ivy yet again with an even older actress and throw her as a femme fatale at Bruce Wayne. Inexplicably, they'll also recast Scarecrow. Lee is doing... something. Oh, but Jerome is back, so it's all good.

Yes, in case you couldn't tell, I'm bitter. If we're talking pacing, direction, acting and the general flow of events, this isn't exactly a bad mid-season finale. In these regards it certainly beats out some previous contenders. Yet no matter how I twist and turn it,I can only find shattered fragments left of the show I used to love.

Still I'm in this to the end. Gotham has surprised me before and it may do so again. Only time will tell.


Anonymous said...

I've enjoyed your takes on Gotham before, so please don't take this as an insult, but I feel like you're expecting more out of the show than is actually there. An old critic's rule goes something like "judge it for what it is, not what you want it to be". Honestly Gotham has never been a show worth taking seriously. It tried to be taken seriously back in Season 1, then they realized how much that backfired and they recalibrated the show to lean into the craziness. I gave up on appraising Gotham as a legitimate show on day one when they took the character of Sarah Essen, who was supposed to be the true love of Jim Gordon's life, and turned her into a boss he barely interacted with before killing her off in Episode 24 to make way for Michael Chiklis.

Don't misunderstand. Gotham is actually one of my favorite comic book shows on TV, right begind Agents of SHIELD and Legion. I adore Gotham because it's not so much a real series as an insane Batman fever dream. It's fanfiction on cocaine. Nowhere else do I get to see Leslie Thompkins become a rage zombie followed by Queen of the Narrows, or gay Penguin trying to murder Riddler for spurning his love. I just feel like you'd get a lot more enjoyment out of the show if you didn't hold it up to such high standards and instead let it just exist as the wildest, most fun ride on TV. That way, not only will the less than stellar parts irk you less, but when the show actually gets its shit together enough to create actual quality storytelling (the first half of Season 3) and characters (Penguin, Alfred, Bruce for the most part), it'll surprise you all the more.

Just my two cents. Obviously I'm just a random commenter and you can tell me to f**k off if you want. Hopefully this doesn't come across as mean-spirited though, because I actually am a fellow fan.

mazephoenix said...

I have to agree with anon about Gotham, it's really not that deep. It's not trying to be. You are right about the unforturnate implications of Ed/ Lee..all of them. Lee will reject Ed and he will be evil again.
I liked Sofia being as smart as she should be. She totally pawned Jim and Ozzie. I like the idea of Ozzie and Jerome teaming up.
Tabitha/Butch is so boring. Why is Tabs with Barbara anyway? Oh show.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree about Ed. It makes ZERO sense that he would reject his Riddler persona after just a few kind words from Lee. His storyline this season seems to be nothing more than an excuse to give Cory and Moreena something to do. The story is kinda full without their subplot, isn't it?

You've never made a big deal out of violence on this show before, and it has been pretty violent all along. Yet, it's suddenly a problem when it's female on male violence?
Also, "cartoonish badassery"? Gordon's been winning fights against people like Zsasz with hilarious ease (one punch, lol), but only when the girls are good fighters, it's suddenly "cartoonish badassery"?
Also, if people are hoping that Selina will beat Bruce out of his funk, they're clearly not becoming alienated. They approve of what's happening with her character, and they're rooting for her.
Speaking of Bruce getting beat up, you spared barely a sentence to Alfred doing it. You clearly didn't mind, but if Selina was the one to do it, you'd be up in arms?

Yes, Jim's comeuppance was absolutely delightful. I'd like to believe he'll learn from this, but the writers seem to like that famous "great darkness" of his too much.

And, Christ, what is Gotham's obsession with recasting characters? They went out of their way to bring the same actor to play Scarecrow, and now they backtrack on it? And after all the backlash about Ivy, they STILL want to ship her with Bruce?! Oh, for the love of... They just don't know when to give up on a bad idea.

Which brings me to my next point. You clearly have much too high an opinion about this show. Don't get me wrong, I wish with all my heart that it would pull its head out of its ass and live up to those expectations, but it's never gonna happen. Gotham's writing has always been on such a level, that sometimes I have trouble believing that adults are writing it. Being its fan is like being a patient parent of a toddler. You expect very little, and it makes you happy to see the kid make even the tiniest progress.

Thomas Ijon Tichy said...

In order to give a simple reply to both of these comments, not go into minutae - this could turn into a long, long diatribe about things I hated - I will put it like this.

Old Gotham used plot contrivances to facilitate believable character stories.

New Gotham uses character contrivances to facilitate nonsensical plot developments.

I prefer the former to the latter, and I will continue to contend - at its best, Gotham was a very intelligent and yes, "deep" show, masked in bubblegum wrappper. Some other comic book shows are bubblegum shows masked as high drama. Gotham didn't just stop being intelligent in season two by embracing the setting's cartoonishness. The Riddler's story was consistently brilliant up to and including 'Anything For you'. This is a general tip to all writers - if you can't find a way to further develop a beloved character in a believable manner, try declaring victory and keeping it instead of regressing it.

There are shades of that brilliance still left on the show and this is all that keeps me from dropping my coverage completely.

Trey Pharr said...

I'm hoping Selina and Alfred get a chance to interact some. If nothing else then to give them a chance to smooth their dynamic a bit. Their dynamic on the show has been pretty much the polar opposite of how I've viewed it in any other medium so far.

Also, she needs a chance to stand out on her own. She too much of a "tag-along" so far for my tastes.

Thomas Ijon Tichy said...

As another short response to a comment above:

Yes, if Alfred chose to subjugate Bruce to his will through the use of physical violence, which is how you spell out "knocking some sense into him," this would most definitely ruin their relationship forever. This was not what happened. Bruce picked the fight, and Alfred was instantly horrified when he realized he'd hurt him.

Putting it another way through the Tabitha and Butch metaphor, would you be able to root for Bruce and Selina in a romantic relationship after Bruce had tied her to a chair and beat her to a pulp?

Anonymous said...

If Selina was a mindless zombie at the time and that was the only way to wake her up, then yes. I'm pretty sure that Bruce would have tried every other, more civilized option first, but Tabitha isn't Bruce.

I see how this sort of thing can be hard to watch, butif you were in Grundy's position, would you rather have stayed mentally deficient?