Gotham: Penguin, Our Hero

Selina: "So this is the Dark Zone? They should call it the dull zone."

Gotham lately has put me in a very troubled position as a writer; 'Trespassers' last week left me with the sourest of aftertastes, and yet as eager as I was for the oncoming episodes to redeem the season's quality, I also knew that any misstep 'Penguin, Our Hero' took could shatter this eagerness like a cut-rate drinking glass.

And while I confess my enthusiasm now sports cracks and fractures along its glass circumference after my viewing of 'Penguin, Our Hero', because I'm a good sport, I feel it's important to stay as objective as possible, and give even the best of the bad lot its day in the sun.

Like 'Trespassers', this week's episode is also diverged entirely into two plots: Gordon and the GCPD work to protect Haven - the community of civilians taking refuge from the rest of the city's mayhem - from Oswald and his own goons, and Bruce and Selina go hunting for Jeremiah. Back in Season 4, 'One Bad Day' attempted to sell its own twist on The Killing Joke comic, albeit with Gotham swapping out Barbara Gordon for Selina. 'Penguin, Our Hero' quite neatly succeeds in the first half of its run by continuing its homage to Alan Moore's story, this time with the positions of Batman and James Gordon being replaced respectively by Selina Kyle and Bruce Wayne; Selina's got the bloodlust bad for Jeremiah's head, yet Bruce insists that he and Selina pursue him by the books, so that Jeremiah may face true justice for what he has done. In my Season 1 reviews, I mentioned once that I never grow bored when Gotham creates scenes like this to remind us that Bruce and Selina come from entirely separate upbringings. What's more, Bruce now has wisdom, reasoning, and even a bit of experience to back his assertions to Selina that sending Jeremiah to Belize isn't in her best interests.

Expanding upon Bruce and Selina's story, they learn that they may have a chance of finding Jeremiah in the 'Dark Zone', a sector of territory where Jeremiah rules over those crazy enough to be inhabitants. The grisly deformities and almost-outlandish costumes (which are major nods to The Dark Knight Returns) were able to capture a small sense of what it was I was expecting to see when Gotham City became a no man's land. It's grisly, it's a little zany, and it absolutely gave off a sense that Bruce and Selina could be goners had they stepped into this territory uninformed and unprepared.

It's a tad odd for me hearing Selina remark on and on to Bruce about how she's changed, and how she's now a different person after taking Ivy's magical medicine last week; in fact, Selina is every bit as quippy, as acrobatic, and as badass as I remember her in her prime. Gotham's showrunners have been insistent this year that Selina will be making additional and gradual changes as she moves closer to her destiny as Catwoman, but I think they might be scratching at the bottom of the barrel if they really want to come through on that promise; Selina has the whip, she has the claws, she has the spandex, she's already the spitting image of Gotham City's infamous cat burglar. So I personally think Gotham can take a break from all this prattle about how much more Selina has to 'change' before she starts wearing cat-ears and making poorly timed feline-themed puns.

Meanwhile, Oswald discovers that most of his thugs and followers have defected to Haven to seek protection from the GCPD. So naturally, Oswald handles this 'betrayal' the way he handles everything - by overreacting. I suspect though that all Oswald really cared about was getting his bulldog Edward back from Haven, above anyone else. The fact that Gordon wouldn't even give the pooch up actually had me siding with Oswald for a majority of this episode. As always, Robin Lord Taylor's scene-chewing here is a delight and a half, even if he is still strangely lacking a shotgun-umbrella. And when it's evident that Oswald's goons have double-crossed him, he resorts to teaming up with Gordon to drive the gangsters out of Haven for good. Gotham seems to have forgotten already that an alliance seemed to be brewing between Gordon and Barbara last week, and so instead we get the first of hopefully many more team-ups between Gordon and Oswald. I also suspect this turn of events sets into motion a domino effect leading to the prelude we saw at the beginning of 'Year Zero' depicting Gordon, Bullock, Oswald and Nygma teaming up against an unknown army.

With the good set aside, now we must come to both the bad and, characterization-wise, the ugly. Specifically, it's one of my biggest gripes with Gotham in years. In regards to portrayal, I haven't seen Gotham so poorly deconstruct one of its most memorable rouges since the introduction of Victor Fries way back in Season 2. I'm talking about this series' rendition of Harley Quinn.


Harley Quinn is unique among Batman rouges because she actually made her debut way back when during the airing of Batman: The Animated Series. She was a character created exclusively for the cartoons before her fusing into mainstream comics, and mainly operated as the Joker's No. 2, though as the series continued, she was fleshed out even further, shown to have once been a psychiatrist that treated the Joker at Arkham Asylum, before ultimately becoming exploited and manipulated by the Joker to turn to a life of crime.

Alternatively, last year, Gotham introduced Ecco, a mysterious subordinate of Jeremiah Valeska who, quite frankly, followed him into battle unquestionably, and in this season, into no man's land as well. Gotham hasn't outright referred to her yet as 'Harley Quinn', but the use of her catchphrase 'Puddin' in this week's episode, as well as the colors of red and black scattered along her clothing is very much a dead giveaway.

Gotham has had difficulties in the past trying to incorporate their own iteration of Harley Quinn into the series. It's come out that there were plans at the end of Season 3 to turn Barbara Kean into the character. There were also rumors that the little girl Bruce saved in an alleyway, also at the end of Season 3, would also grow up to become Harley. To this day, I absolutely believe the inclusion of Harley Quinn isn't an essential factor to Gotham's gutsy, spunky narrative. Simply put, she's a character best saved for a day when the city actually has a properly established Joker (and Batman for that matter), but at best, shelving the character for another time would mean that we would get to be spared Gotham's rendition at...whatever Ecco is supposed to be. And whatever Gotham's intentions were for this character, they've managed to make Ecco everything Harley Quinn is not. Traditionally, Harley does not earn every reader/viewer's sympathy, but the character always steals the show whenever she shows up. She can be funny, she can be entertaining in her own demented methods, it's actually a little unsettling as the viewer to stay tuned with the character as she gets joy out of the most twisted and sadistic things. Even Margot Robbie's portrayal of the character in Suicide Squad remains a personal highlight for me in an otherwise hopeless film because though she brings her own attributes to the character, there are still plenty of homages written into her role that evoked a bit of nostalgia in me for that classic animated series.

Gotham's rendition of Harley Quinn by the end of it is tragically boring, but worse than that, Francesca Root-Dodson's performance fails to share any likeness either with the characteristics of Harley. She's more akin to a hype man (or hype woman in this case) for Jeremiah, much like how Ebony Maw was to Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War, minus the chilling motion capture and dainty fingers. A week ago, I had a hope that Gotham could learn to better blend all of its characters into a single narrative this season, but now I'm left with a single and very potent desire outweighing all others, and that is that Ecco's appearance this week was a one-time occurrence only. Any further appearances down the winding road will all result in a dogged struggle to sit through her scenes, which felt like being stuck in a room with a Harley Quinn cosplayer whose only knowledge of the character comes from what Warner Brothers advertises on t-shirts.

Aaron Studer loves spending his time reading, writing and defending the existence of cryptids because they can’t do it themselves.

5 comments:

Billie Doux said...

Ben, we most certainly allow differences of opinion but we don't allow comments that attack our reviewers. If you would like to post a comment about your opinion instead, you're welcome to do so.

Diogo said...

Eh, I didn't mind Ecco as Harley. I stopped expecting the show to be faithful to the characters a while ago, at least Ecco still keeps some of Harley's ticks, her devotion to the Joker, her playfulness, and works well within the framework of the season and Gotham's unique style.

Honestly, for me Jeremiah is a worse deviation from the Joker than Ecco is from Harley. He may have the green hair, purple suit and white skin... but he doesn't have much of a sense of humor! He barely even laughs, what kind of Joker is that?? I much preferred Jerome, who might not have had green hair but was such a blast to watch.

Side note, loved the Mutants! We're probably never going to get a The Dark Knight Returns live action adaptation so it was nice to see them on tv.

Aaron Studer said...

I agree - Jeremiah could use, to put it broadly, a bigger sense of humor. And we know Cameron Monaghan can pull the laugh off too; best to use the most of it while Gotham still can.

Anonymous said...

Not a single person reviewing this show actually knows what it's trying to accomplish. It's not just here, lest anyone think I'm attacking Aaron or Doux Reviews in particular. But quite frankly, spending half of this review picking apart their version of Harley Quinn because it's not faithful enough to the true nature of the character is about as useful as picking apart the show Community because it doesn't actually show you a realistic depiction of community college. It's not a valid criticism because that's never what the show was going for in the first place.

Gotham was trying to be a darker, semi-grounded Batman origin story in Season 1, but that failed miserably and as a result they retooled the show to get progressively better each season by going just a little more nuts. Now we have gloriously insane moments like Gordon and a 16 year old Bruce Wayne talking about saving the city in front of a proto-bat signal, the *second* proto-Joker in a row they've had recreating The Killing Joke with tiny Catwoman, and the Penguin going to war with the Riddler over his spurned gay love.

None of these moments are objectively anything approaching good because the show has so little internal consistency and so often they're just throwing shit at the wall in a state of heightened absurdism. That obviously won't be as enjoyable for some as it is for others, but personally speaking this is my favorite DC Comics show currently airing on TV for how fully it embraces that "Batman fan fiction written on crack" aesthetic. I'm a firm believer in reviewing a show based on how well it achieves what it sets out to do, and there's not a single reviewer online who isn't reviewing Gotham based on what they want it to do.

Does that mean it's impossible to give Gotham a bad review because their insanity is some kind of criticism-proof shield? No, of course not. Sometimes they can fail in their goal of being entertaining by giving the wrong characters too much spotlight or by wasting too much time in a plot that wore out its welcome. This was the case in the last several episodes of Season 3 and the middle chunk of Season 4. But anyone who thinks they can judge this show for not being faithful to anything other than its own lunacy is going to come away disappointed, every time.

Aaron Studer said...

I do see what you’re getting at, and I’m familar with the piece of advice “judge something as it actually is, not how you’d like it to be.” It is something I’ve been wanting to address maybe in a future review, because Gotham is a tricky series to hold to that notion. As you pointed out, Gotham has been two different entities, once it was a more grounded cop drama that was filling in the holes of many of these characters’ untold origins; nowadays, it seems it wants to now be essentially a Batman series - just without Batman, as if now, it wants to move out of the sandbox and join its older friends Arrow and Flash in the television spotlight.