After the recent introduction of Victor Zsasz, this week’s episode of Gotham brings another popular Batman villain to the city, albeit in an extremely nascent form. But more on that later. “The Mask” sees the show return to a police procedural format after last week’s three-way gangland standoff between Falcone, Maroni, and Mooney. Gordon and Bullock’s case this week is a step above those involving the Balloonman and the Goat. Richard Sionis (an investment firm manager played by Todd Stashwick) hosts a death match in which participants compete for cash bonuses and positions within Sionis Investments. Sionis himself takes part wearing a kabuki mask and wielding a samurai sword. It’s essentially Fight Club meets The Apprentice. The ultimate extrapolation of the mindset that mistakes Sun Tzu’s The Art of War for a business training manual. It’s a bit heavy-handed as metaphor, but it connects to the class warfare struggle that’s been playing out behind the city’s ongoing mob wars. Though once again we’re left to wonder if Gordon’s desire to save his city is all that worthwhile when an office full of “legitimate” businesspeople cheer at the sight of grown men murdering each other. There are moments when Gotham looks a lot like The Walking Dead.
The best thing that can be said of this scenario is that it allows Bullock to prove his recent support of Gordon wasn’t a one-off. Here he rallies his fellow cops to help him locate his partner when he’s captured by Sionis, and Donal Logue again shows he’s at his best when playing a reluctant hero instead of a mean-spirited coward. Even Essen admits her mistake in abandoning Gordon to Zsasz, giving hope that she too will prove her worth to the show and its protagonists.
In the wake of “Penguin’s Umbrella”, it’s clear that Gotham is much less interesting when it’s doing CSI as opposed to The Untouchables (by way of High Noon). There’s much more character growth when it’s not beholden to the plot-driven format. A fact the producers have most likely glommed onto as they’ve planned the second half of their season. To their credit they have found a way to make another element of Gotham work here, one that I doubted could ever work — Bruce Wayne himself.
Thus far, Gotham‘s writers have struggled to make the Dark-Knight-to-be a compelling character or a relevant part of the show’s ongoing story. It pushes credibility well past the breaking point and makes Gordon appear ineffectual if Bruce solves the mystery of who murdered his parents. I’m still not sure that Bruce is necessary to Gotham‘s plot, but “The Mask” goes a long way towards making him interesting. In the episode’s B story, the young Wayne returns to school for the first time since the tragic shooting, and catches the eyes of his girl classmates while drawing scorn from the boys. After Tommy Elliot (who grows up to become the villainous Hush, first seen in Batman #619 in September 2003) insults his late mother, Bruce takes a beating defending her name. Alfred, heretofore the voice of reason, who’s sought to keep him on the straight and narrow, gifts him with his father’s watch and takes him to Tommy’s home so he can use it as a set of brass knuckles upon the brat’s jaw. He even goes so far as to reward him with pizza for a job well done. The chemistry between the young heir and the austere manservant is at its most engaging when it’s least predictable, when the roles of child and adult are reversed. “The Mask” ends with Alfred promising Bruce he’ll teach him to fight — a decision about which he’ll have mixed feelings in the years ahead. For now, however, it’s enough that if we can’t see the Batman we can at least see the emotional conflicts from which he was born. Anger, sadness, guilt, and regret colliding like atoms in one of the most brilliant minds in fiction.
Speaking of brilliant minds… Robin Lord Taylor’s Oswald Cobblepot isn’t given as much to do this time around, but his meeting with Fish Mooney, to discuss the terms of Falcone and Maroni’s recent agreement, is the episode’s standout scene; culminating with her stabbing him in the hand with the pin of a broach he’s given her. His revenge comes when he kidnaps the flunky with whom she’s replaced him and discovers the ambitious club owner has placed someone close to Maroni. Taylor’s so good in his every scene, perfectly hitting each note, that he even makes the actors he’s working with better. (Jada Pinkett Smith is never as watchable as when she’s acting opposite him.) Taylor’s performance alone continues to make Gotham worthwhile viewing.
Next week: One of the most complex characters in comic books comes to Gotham with the long-awaited arrival of Nicholas D’Agosto’s Harvey Dent.
What did you think of this week’s episode? Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter (@JMaCabre).