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Gotham – “Pilot” Recap and Review
Gotham is a show about two unlikable cops and the drama that surrounds organized crime and police corruption in a big city. The big city happens to be Batman’s famous stomping ground Gotham, though the show includes the twist of taking place right when Bruce Wayne’s parents are murdered in front of him as a young teenager. Gotham acts as a prequel to Batman’s story, as well as the numerous colorful characters that inhabit the city – including our main protagonist of the series Jim Gordon, played by a dead serious Ben McKenzie.
Exploring the world of a superhero without said superhero should throw up all kinds of red flags, and instead of lingering on an emotional and troubled Bruce in his young life, the series focuses on our would-be police commissioner. Gordon is new to Gotham and a good entry point for the audience to follow around as he’s introduced to the various players with his new partner Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue).
Bullock is another character pulled form the comics; though he’s never been portrayed on the big screen his role as a corrupt, gruff Batman-hating cop has certainly been used in various characters. Bullock’s reliance on the delicate balance between crime and order is in direct opposition to Gordon’s straight arrow ethics, and this difference of opinion looks to be a big focus of the series’ overall tone.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
The pilot episode begins not with Gordon or Wayne but with a young Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova), already sporting a hooded outfit and goggles that nicely foreshadow her eventual persona – Catwoman. Kyle scurries along rooftops like any good superhero (or villain) in training, and it’s through her eyes that we get the initial promising shots of Gotham as a real, breathing city. She cuts open a woman’s grocery bag to steal some milk (not the easiest item to hide in your jacket) then nick’s a man’s wallet before scurrying back up Gotham’s never ending network of ladders and rooftops.
When she drops down into the alleyway to feed a cat (the show seemingly loves to drop painfully obvious clues and markers about its famous characters) we’re introduced to one of the most famous scenes in all of comic book history – the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents. It’s a pivotal moment that galvanizes the young man (played here by David Mazouz) into an eventual life of costumed crime fighting, and I was pleased to see Gotham treat it with all the gravitas I expected.
The scene is essentially the same as depicted in Batman Begins and most other Batman backstories – a lone gunman robs Thomas and Martha Wayne then shoots them both while Bruce is suitably traumatized. I especially enjoyed much of the gun viewpoints coming from a slightly lowered perspective – Bruce’s perspective, especially the final angle when the assailant slowly lowers his gun as if considering the kid not worth the effort (or has a last second change of heart). The murderer brushes past Bruce, who’s left with a bone-chilling scream. Gotham, so far you’re off to a great start.
Unfortunately we’re then introduced to our main characters Jim Gordon and Harvey Bullock. Gordon gets the immediate chance to prove his quick-thinking and negotiation skills when a sudden hostage situation arises in the police building (less than five minutes in and we already get a damsel in distress, sigh). He’s quickly shocked when after the police regain control they begin earnestly beating the perpetrator, and Bullock leads him away in a fairly clear-cut example of the two’s diverging moral compasses.
Bullock and Harvey are summoned to that infamous alleyway to investigate the sudden murder of the Waynes, and Gordon takes the initiative in talking and bonding with Bruce, who hasn’t uttered a word since. Their relationship is an important element in developing both of their characters and they get some nice bonding over mutual parental tragedy.
We also meet Bruce’s famous butler and oldest companion Alfred Pennyworth, played by Sean Pertwee. Gotham’s Alfred is clearly modeled after the more modern version from Batman: Earth One where he’s a former Royal Marine (and sharpshooter), and his gruff, short tone is in wild contrast to anyone familiar with Michael Caine’s warm portrayal in The Dark Knight trilogy. Of course, Bullock is upset at Gordon talking to Bruce without consulting him. Oh Gordon you’re such a loose cannon – talking with witnesses! What craziness will you do next?
Seeing a double murder naturally makes one thirst for a coffee, and we meet what I assume are the Rival Cop Team in Detectives Renee Montoya (Victoria Cartagena) and Crispus Allen (Andrew Stewart-Jones). Every cop drama has to have that antagonistic cop team that constantly works to undermine our heroes and allows our heroes to frequently give snarky responses.
All we learn for now is that Allen and Montoya have the good cop/bad cop dynamic perfected, and neither like Bullock. Bullock takes much of his frustration out on police Captain Sarah Essen (Zabryna Guevara) in the following scene in which he unleashes his sudden rage at being partnered with the new guy. We only get glimpses of the actual scene as we get a nice little outsider perspective from Jim’s point of view. Bullock’s rant fails, and he then tries to convince Gordon directly to seek a transfer. “This is not a city or a job for a nice guys. Understand?” Our stalwart hero takes no guff from anyone, even his own partner and throws it back in Harvey’s face, calling him “a slovenly, lackadaisical cynic,” to which Harvey merely laughs. I found Bullock much more interesting overall – he’s a corrupt jerk, but at least he owns up to it.
What follows is actually one of my favorite scenes of the pilot, a nifty little montage sequence where Bullock and Gordon capture a bunch of criminal lowlifes and grill them in a low-lit room with a single swinging lamp. The editing and cinematography is shockingly impressive, though it’s over almost as quickly as it begins.
Their next task is to visit forensic scientist Edward Nygma, played by Cory Michael Smith whom I instantly fell in love with. Many comic book adaptations live and die by their casting and Smith plays an intriguing pre-Riddler with just the right amount of precocious playfulness and edgy insanity. And all of that in less than a minute of screen time. Obviously as such a big character we’ll be seeing a lot more of Nygma, but it’s a shame he was so criminally teased in the pilot.
Speaking of great characters, Bullock and Gordon continue on their helpful tour of Gotham, introducing us to one of the bigger crime bosses in Fish Mooney, played by an elegant and intimidating Jada Pinkett Smith. Bullock gets to really show off his seedy relationships as he saddles up next to Fish, while Gordon, ever the Superman-like boy scout investigates some shouting in a back alley. We meet Oswald Cobblepot, Fish’s right hand man, played by Robin Lord Taylor to mincing effectiveness. Oswald will someday become the Penguin (though its used as a pejorative nickname here, which he hates) but for now he’s content with beating up Fish’s enemies in a rain-soaked alley while holding an umbrella.
Fish’s other main help, Butch Gilzean (Drew Powell) actually steals the scene here with his disarming smile and easy nature. “New guy huh,” he charmingly asks Gordon. “How do you like Gotham so far?” “Well enough,” Gordon replies. “See you around.” Gordon is dead serious in his quest for righteousness, a quality that is supremely boring and portrays Gordon as more an annoying force of goodness rather than a fleshed out character.
If Gordon’s home life is meant to humanize him it fails miserably in the following scene. Future wife and current fiance Barbara (Erin Richards) is perfectly content at staying in and making love when Jim complains of having a rough day, and in classic ‘I’m an unfeeling badass’ he gets a phone call form his partner and leaves her sleeping. Jim Gordon – great guy.
Bullock’s lead is Mario Pepper, a convicted felon that also happens to have a little plant-obsessed daughter (HINT HINT the show screams, possibly while bodily shaking you). When the cops threaten to search the apartment, Pepper overturns a table and the chase is on. As far as foot chases go this one is woefully predictable, from running through a kitchen shoving cooks out of the way to Pepper getting the drop on Gordon after he magically disappears in an alleyway (Gotham is about 70% alleyways). Gordon and Pepper engage in a brief melee before Bullock catches up and suddenly ends it by shooting and killing the felon. His look of mere annoyance at the situation nicely portrays his grim but practical philosophy to his job.
The resulting police search finds the incriminating pearls belonging to Martha Wayne, and Bullock and Gordon are celebrated as the hero’s that brought down their killer. This is all a bit too easy, however, and shortly we get a scene where Oswald snitches to his own boss to Montoya and Allen. Unsurprisingly they are still following the Wayne case and still hostile to anything Bullock’s involved in. Oswald reveals that he saw Fish with the necklace (this murder mystery’s equivalent of the bloody weapon apparently) and that it was planted in Mario Pepper’s place, and he further plants the seeds of doubt that Bullock and Gordon may be involved.
Finally nearly halfway through the episode we return to Bruce Wayne via the funeral. He and Gordon get another nice scene together where they shake hands, a budding relationship forming out of mutual respect. The scenery here is absolutely jaw dropping, both the incredibly large graveyard and the magnificently foreboding city in the background. We also get another Catwoman peek – she definitely gets around, but prefers to stay out of sight.
Next is the oddest scene in the whole premiere – Detective Montoya pays a personal visit to Barbara, mainly to warn her off Jim Gordon as Montoya believes he’s involved in a cover-up scandal. It’s established that Montoya and Barbara have some kind of previous relationship (later she reveals they’re ‘old friends’). “Does he know you?” Montoya asks, “Like I know you?” I’m honestly baffled at where the show is taking this dynamic and while it doesn’t exactly pass the Bechdel test, I’m pleased to see the very male-centric Batman universe exploring some of its women characters a bit deeper. Gordon is naturally super angry at Montoya once he figures out she spoke to his fiance, and he begins a solo crusade to discover the truth.
Gordon’s quick investigation (Mario Pepper didn’t have shiny shoes, ah-ha!) leads him back to Fish Mooney, where his heroics earn him a one way ticket to a meat hook in Fish’s official body disposal place in a meat warehouse (Mooney delivering the KO punch herself was pretty awesome). The shots of the meat locker delve a bit into horror body-torture territory with frequent shots of blood, cleavers and animal carcasses.
For some creepy reason Fish’s goons are filming the whole thing, and lucky for Gordon his partner knows just where to go when he goes missing. Bullock gives Fish a quick ring since they’re such buddies, and their tense exchange with not-so-veiled threats is supremely entertaining. Bullock makes a fatal flaw in openly threatening the proud crime boss, and she responds by giving Gilzean the order to take them both out.
While Bullock and Gordon both swing upside-down in a meat locker, Fish capitalizes on an important bit of information she gleamed off Bullock – she has a snitch in her midst. Like any good crime boss she plays it cool with Oswald, first making her rub her feet in a supremely delicious bit of dominance before forcing him into a corner built of his own guilt and confession. He offers to cut open a vein right in front of her if she wished it, and she responds by handing the sputtering snitch a knife before beating him silly with a chair, followed by the shards of the broken chair. Don’t mess with Fish.
Bullock and Gordon are in bad shape before they’re suddenly rescued by a cheesy deus ex machina – the arrival of supreme crime lord of Gotham Carmine Falcone, played by John Doman. Even if you have only a cursory knowledge of Batman characters, there’s a good chance you recognize Falcone from Batman Begins, where he was played by Tom Wilkinson. Falcone comes roaring in guns blazing, taking out several of Fish’s goons before delivering the hilariously awesome line to Glizean – “Forgive me young man I forget what your name is, and perhaps I never knew it.”
Along with Smith’s Nygma, Doman’s Falcone was the biggest surprise in terms of wonderful casting. He’s introduced so late in the episode but nonetheless has a huge impact and a notable presence that fills the room. Although Falcone is the closest thing to a head villain in Gotham, he’s not criminally insane and evil like those that will eventually haunt Akrham Asylum. “I’m a business man,” Falcone calmly explains to Gordon, “you can’t have organized crime without law and order. I love this city. I see it going to hell, but I won’t let it fall apart.” Falcone explains the system that Bullock clings so desperately clings to in a rather succinct way, and I actually found myself agreeing with and liking Gotham’s portrayal of the crime boss. Especially when he tells Gordon, “Don’t be self-righteous, don’t be arrogant.” Slow clap.
There’s still the matter of Oswald the snitch, a loose end that gets shoved into the trunk of Bullock’s car with orders to kill him. “There are rules,” Falcone explained when he entered the meat locker, rules that Bullock is all too happy to follow. In exchange for letting them go and keeping quiet, our cops have to take care of Oswald. Bullock wants Gordon to do it himself as a way of initiating him into this corrupt system, even though everyone agrees Falcone’s grasp as the underworld boss that keeps crime in check is razor thin and diminishing.
Gordon knows his best way out is to make Bullock and everyone at least think he’s capable of playing along, and pretends to murder Oswald while shoving him off the dock. The Penguin is free to pursue his own rise and return to Gotham, and from the final scene (as well as next week’s preview) it looks like that will feature prominently into the series’ storyline.
Jim Gordon ventures to Wayne Manor to personally deliver the news to Bruce – that the Waynes’ killer was framed by the mob and police working together, and the real killer is still out there. Bruce talks about conquering fear, to which Gordon replies, “Fear doesn’t need conquering. Fear tells you where the edge is. Fear is a good thing,” despite our dear hero cop never displaying an ounce of anything close to fear or even a willingness to stop and analyze a situation. Alfred is also there, though his presence adds nothing. If there’s a weak link in casting and character writing in the show so far, it definitely lies with Batman’s famous butler. Once again Selina Kyle is never far behind where Bruce is concerned, as the little spy has taken quite an interest in our young hero, though she never utters a line.
Pilot episodes have to shoulder a lot of burden, often having to hook new viewers with broad strokes of world-building and an overwhelming shotgun blast of character introductions, all while maintaining their own structured plot and sowing the seeds for future story lines. It’s a lot to ask for any show, and Gotham’s established comic book world and structure both help and hinder every aspect of the premiere.
Familiar faces are strengthened by some great casting choices, particularly Cory Michael Smith’s Edward Nygma and John Doman’s Carmine Falcone, while Robin Lord Taylor brings an interesting air of pitiable sympathy and grotesque sycophant to the man that will become the Penguin. The brand new character of Fish Mooney is a welcome addition and I was pleased to see Jada Pinkett Smith’s diva crime boss get so much screen time.
It’s an interesting concept to frame a superhero’s world so far in the past, and the shift to protagonist Jim Gordon is supremely disappointing. If Gotham evolves Gordon into the world-weary, cautious and good-natured leader of the comics I will be supremely impressed, as the current arrogant, humor-less boy scout does not make for a compelling figure to view the city from. Even his relationship with partner Bullock isn’t as entertaining as it should be. The overall narrative of police corruption and the tug and pull of cops versus criminals has potential to be both tiresome and full of the usual tropes or intriguing and capitalize on the unique setting and its supernatural and mysterious comic book roots.
Did You Notice?
- Poison Ivy as a semi-creepy little girl named Ivy. Minor annoyance – her comic book name is Pamela Isley, not Ivy Pepper.
- Harvey Bullock’s line “Meet me at Fourth and Grundy in an hour,” may reference another Batman villain, the frighteningly undead and Hulk-ish Solomon Grundy.
- The milk Selina Kyle pours out for the cat is already nearly empty even though she stole it right from a grocery sack. Was she chugging it along the way?
- Richard Kind of Spin City and frequent Scrubs guest-starring fame as Mayor Aubrey James.
- There are already rumors that the comedian that auditions for Fish may be an early Joker, but I hope it’s just a rumor. The show is wrestling with plenty of villainous backstories already.