Now this is more like it… Two of the biggest and most frequent criticisms leveled against Gotham have been its frequent inability to decide what kind of show it wants to be and its oft times inappropriate choice of Batman story elements for the story it’s telling. But this week’s episode offers proof that Gotham‘s producers have begun listening in earnest to the criticisms, for “The Penguin’s Umbrella” (the true meaning of the title only becomes clear in its final scene), is the show’s strongest yet. It succeeds by focusing on one element — the threat of mob rivalry erupting into a full-blown war in the city’s streets. What’s surprising is that this episode works not as a standalone narrative, but rather one entirely dependent on the show’s slowly developing mythos. That it also successfully reworks and expands this mythos bodes well for future episodes.
The story begins moments after last week’s “Spirit of the Goat” ended, with Bullock threatening to kill Gordon for failing to execute Cobblepot as he was ordered to by Don Falcone. I’d find the fact that Gotham PD is fully prepared to let one cop murder his partner in its headquarters — and later allows a hit man free reign of the premises — laughable if I hadn’t recently come to view Gotham as a western, with Gordon the last honest lawman in a land in search of its soul.
Gordon’s primary concern right now is the welfare of his fiancee Barbara Kean, a vulnerability exploited more than once in this episode. Thus far, Barbara’s been one of the show’s least sympathetic characters (and in a story of crooked cops and criminals that’s really saying something) in that she’s given us no reason to believe she does anything beyond worry about Gordon and lounge about her lavishly over-sized apartment. Barbara doesn’t get much more to do this time around, but at least Erin Richards proves she can project fear when a gun’s pointed at her head.
After dispensing with said gunman — one of Mooney’s — and sending Barbara out of town, Gordon plans to issue warrants for the arrest of Falcone and his cohort the Mayor. “This is my home,” he says. “It was my father’s home. I’m not leaving.” The words align him with young Bruce Wayne, who’s also motivated to save his father’s city. But after learning of Mooney’s failed attempt to bring him in, Falcone sends in hitman Victor Zsasz (created by writer Alan Grant and artist Norm Breyfogle, he first appeared in 1992’s Shadow of the Bat #1). He’s played by Anthony Carrigan, who looks about two feet taller and a whole lot more frightening here than he did when playing another DC villain (the Mist) two weeks ago on The Flash. True to his comic-book MO, he carves a notch on his own arm after claiming each of his victims.
With no help from his commissioner or fellow officers, Gordon takes two shots from Zsasz and his buddies (a couple of Frank Miller-style warrior women) before the cavalry arrives in the form of detectives Montoya and Allen, who’d, in the previous episode, had brought their colleague in for the presumed murder of Cobbleplepot. After getting Gordon patched up, the trio heads for Wayne Manor in one of the episode’s few wasted moments. The show would like us to believe it’s necessary for Gordon to tell Bruce that, if he is killed, Montoya and Allen will continue the investigation into the murder of his parent’s deaths. But it’s really just so Bruce can cry — to Gordon and to Gotham‘s viewers — “Stop treating me like a child!” before throwing his arms around the cop. Alas, you are indeed a child Bruce, and if you start acting like you’re not, you’ll strain our already shaky credulity.
The episode’s true fulcrum is Robin Lord Taylor’s awe-inspiring Penguin, who plays Maroni, Falcone, and Gordon like a master pianist. After killing Maroni’s suspicious second-in-command, Cobblepot convinces the mob boss he’s too valuable to turn over to those who wish him dead, advising him instead to offer Falcone a worthless warehouse full of toxic waste built atop a Native American burial ground. (Maroni’s obviously seen Poltergeist.) Then comes the episode’s closing scene, in which Cobblepot approaches Falcone on his estate, informing him that all is going according to plan, and revealing an alliance which we learn was formed in the pilot.
The one moment likely to leave fans scratching their heads occurs shortly beforehand when Bullock, who just a short while ago was set to slaughter his partner, shows up drunk at his apartment and agrees to help him nab the Mayor and Falcone. But it’s this scene, more than any other, that has me convinced Gotham‘s producers took some of its negative buzz to heart halfway through the scripting of this episode, and realized that if the show’s core relationship — between Gordon and Bullock — didn’t solidify immediately than Gotham, both the show and city, really would collapse. In any case, the two are thwarted in their attempt to arrest Falcone when the crime lord reveals he’s captured Barbara.
I can survive such hiccups, because “The Penguin’s Umbrella” does so many other things right. From finding a reason to make us care about Falcone (he’s an old man who’s being manipulated by Cobblepot) to presenting Gordon as an assertive man of action and principle to showcasing the true scope of the Penguin’s vision.
Here’s hoping his umbrella continues to open for the remainder of this season.
What did you think of this week’s episode? Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter (@JMaCabre).