Season One, Episode Four – “Arkham

By Matt Fleming. After a steep drop in quality with episode three, Fox’s Gotham course corrects with “Arkham.” Where “Balloonman” continued a terrible trend of villain-of-the-week cliches, the newest episode in Batman/No Batman shows the promise it displayed in its pilot. Rather than spreading itself too thin as in the last two weeks, Gotham tightens its focus and plays to its strengths. With a number of plates spinning, the show appears ready to drop one or more at any given time, so any attempt to simplify the show’s narrative is hopeful.

“Arkham” begins with last week’s cliffhanger, where Oswald Cobblepot shows up at the door of Barbara Kean’s apartment. Jim Gordon is super pissed that the Penguin has betrayed the deal that saved his life. Cobblepot tries to convince Gordon to trust him, and he reveals the hot-button issue that may spark an all-out mafia war: the redevelopment of Arkham Asylum. For those unfamiliar with the Bat-verse, the Elizabeth Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane has held most of Batman’s Rogues Gallery (with varying degrees of success) through the years. In this iteration, the asylum has closed and is just taking up space, until Thomas and Martha Wayne created plans to reopen the sanitorium. However, in the wake of their death, the competing mobs of Gotham are fighting for control of the development. When a hitman starts knocking off councilmen, Gordon and Bullock use their individual skills to unravel the mystery surrounding the asylum and its development. Fish Mooney continues hedging her bets on the future of organized crime in Gotham, giving us some entertaining and risque scenes. At the same time, Cobblepot moves up the ladder in Maroni’s organization, but shows with cunning that he can play the game from all sides.

Bravo, Gotham. Last week’s campy throwback to the ‘90s had viewers questioning the future of this Bat-series. The tone in “Arkham” returns to the gritty and grimy Gotham from the pilot, limiting the corny tendencies from the two prior episodes. Rather than trying to cram too many subplots into a 45-minute story, this episode focuses on big-picture story building, and does so while still featuring a number of the show’s colorful characters: Gordon and Bullock work together pretty well for a change, Cobblepot gets more screen time, Fish gets to tantalize, and Bruce Wayne junior-detects, yet none of these are forced or misplaced. Also, this is the best looking episode yet, with carefully chosen composition and a visually stunning shot selection.

The villain-of-the-week stories of the two previous episodes was disappointing, so this week’s storybuilding is refreshing. The mafia war Cobblepot has warned about is beginning to materialize, and to see each character prepare for this impending struggle plays to many of the show’s strengths. “Arkham” feels more coordinated, and uses the characters we love to great effect. When used sparingly and to the right ends, Bruce Wayne, Alfred, Catgirl and the like can be useful in this show’s universe, but for now this is the Jim Gordon show.

Ben McKenzie continues to lead this show with a ton of bravado and a great grimace. In “Arkham,” he asserts control of his world a little more, and both the actor and character appear to be growing comfortable in the strained universe of Gotham. The same goes for most of the rest of the regular cast. In her limited subplot, Jada Pinkett-Smith shines. She prepares for her hopeful ascension with some sexy catfighting, and chews scenery just long enough to be effective. Bruce and Alfred have minimal screen time in the episode, and they aren’t quite as grating as they have been. The exposition in their scenes is a little hammy, and I could go without hearing the young Caped Crusader say the word “Arkham” ten times an episode.

Without a doubt, Robin Taylor is this show’s breakout star. While the show hinges upon the actions and emotions of Jim Gordon, Taylor’s Oswald Cobblepot keeps the viewer coming back every week. The Penguin is a master manipulator, and he’s showing more of his ultimate plan every week. His cunning is matched by his cruelty, and he is playing the smartest game in Gotham.

Of course, Erin Richards is the episode’s lowlight. Although less time is spent on her torrid past with Renee Montoya, Barbara “Not Gordon Yet” Kean pops up a few times to nag her detective boyfriend. She doesn’t seem to understand the dangers of Gordon’s job, and thus won’t let him do his job without telling her every last detail, even though he clearly wants to protect her from the dangers he is constantly toeing. I’m not sure if it’s the actress or the way the character is written, but Barbara is continuously the most frustrating aspect of this show. As if Jim Gordon needs more stress.

Jim Gordon’s plate is getting awfully full, and it would behoove the series to use the supporting characters to balance each week’s drama, which is achieved with this episode. Gotham must spread the support of the show to the other capable actors, without adding too many subplots per episode, which it achieves this week. We’ve already agreed to watch a show set in a world of heroes and villains, so it isn’t necessary to overload the narratives with fan service or soap-opera drama. Give us a tight narrative, with the focus and direction of “Arkham,” and this show may evade the stereotype associated with comic book adaptations.

While the show began to show signs of strain previously, this episode was a step in the right direction. The show still has issues, and this episode is far from perfect, but if Gotham can keep on track in the coming weeks, it may earn it’s 22-episode order. Hopefully, they keep their focus tight.

Passing Thoughts:

-The hitman killing councilmen looked like a poor man’s Wesley Snipes using a streamlined Anton Chigurh-style pneumatic weapon. Pretty cool.

-The auditions for Fish’s new minx were pretty tawdry for network TV. Very clever camera movement to get away with some Jada girl-smooching.

 -Thankfully, Gordon and Bullock are there to protect Mayor Richard Kind, the most easily pushed-over TV politician I know.

 -It will be interesting to see where the Arkham plot goes, and what Batman characters it conjures. Hopefully not too many.

-Cobblepot is starting to really look like a criminal genius. His faux-robbery is great, and so are his suits. Keep it coming, Penguin.