Season One, Episode Five – “Viper”

By Matt Fleming. Five weeks into its inaugural season, Gotham seems to be finding itself. In this week’s episode, “Viper,” the pre-Bat police show manages to fit subplots from every corner of the world it has created. Somehow, despite being busier than previous episodes, Gotham manages to multitask pretty well. With some clever narrative structuring and a heavy amount of exposition, Gotham shows that it can string together a compelling arc, and it appears to be settling into its skin.

“Viper” begins with detectives Gordon and Bullock thrust into the investigation of a synthetic drug with deadly side effects (obviously called “viper”). The drug gives the user short-term superstrength, before contorting their bodies violently and completely crumbling their skeletal structure. The investigation points toward a high-tech pharmaceutical company and a rogue chemist, as well as ties to Wayne Enterprises, planting seeds towards a season-long mystery. The Wayne Foundation’s connection to last week’s Arkham redevelopment pique the interest of young Bruce Wayne, who spends the episode in full detective mode, much to the chagrin of Alfred Pennyworth, the boy’s hesitant caretaker. Meanwhile, competing mob bosses Carmine Falcone and Sal Maroni continue to head toward a violent confrontation: as Falcone reels from his less-than-stellar Arkham deal, Maroni exacts revenge for his rival’s perceived attack. The real mastermind, Oswald Cobblepot, takes his share of licks as he climbs the ranks in Maroni’s organization. Fish Mooney is also taking steps to ensure her future in Gotham’s underworld. Quite a lot going on in Gotham.

This episode, while not perfect, does a great job playing to its strengths. Jim Gordon and Harvey Bullock are fantastic as usual, although “Viper” spends more time building storylines that will pay off later (a trend continued from the show’s previous entry). Unlike last week, however, this episode tries to advance as many sublots as it can, and is surprisingly successful. While the show still focuses the episode around crime-solving, it’s exciting to see the many members of Gotham’s organized crime families struggle for power in the wake of the death of the Waynes, which seems to have opened their enterprises to some previously unseen corruption. While it is pretty cliche for a television series to hint toward the ominous “big bad conspiracy lurking in the shadows,” it is effective at building suspense, keeping viewers tuning in each week. Gotham should be careful with the payoff in this regard, as other shows have alienated patient fans by mishandling the big reveal.

The drama of “Viper” is still guided by the actions of Jim Gordon, although Ben McKenzie has a lighter load this week. The growing relationship between Gordon and Bullock offers many laughs, and their good cop/hungry cop routine entertains throughout the episode. Their investigation drives the primary plot, although it feels lighter than most weeks, making room for the expanded focus on the impending crime wars. It is here in the underbelly of Gotham where David Zayas (as Boss Maroni) gets an opportunity to make his mark on the show, a task he ably accepts. While Maroni’s debut two episodes past was a little underwhelming, this week provides him the chance to get a little crazy. By establishing Maroni as a violent counterpart to Falcone’s opera-and-suits “Don Grandpa,” Zayas gets to go wild and big. He spends this episode grilling his newest asset, Oswald “Penguin” Cobblepot, testing his loyalties and using him as his eyes into the competition. Robin Lord Taylor shares the screen with his usual combination of cunning and ferocity, and although he serves important ends, his screen time is less than a viewer would like.

On the other side of the crime world Jada Pinkett-Smith continues to dazzle as Fish Mooney, whose plot to dethrone Falcone has advanced with the help of her “secret weapon,” Liza (Makenzie Leigh). Jada’s schmaltzy training of her new hire provides some accidental laughs, as the writing of her dialogue takes advantage of her unique ability to ham it up. Fish has a lot in the works, and her double-dealings are pretty compelling.

Bruce Wayne and Alfred take a corner of this episode, and while a bit obvious, their subplot entertains. If Bruce Wayne is going to be a regular face among this pre-Batman Gotham, you might as well see him working toward becoming the world’s greatest detective. As for Alfred, he seems to finally see that there will be no getting in the way of this kid’s ambition, and he finally begins to help out a little, rather than just chide the boy for his curiosity. The chemistry between David Mazouz and Sean Pertwee is growing, and the youthful Bruce is becoming more bearable every week.

To this viewer’s relief, this episode left Barbara Kean on the sidelines, allowing Jim Gordon to focus on crime solving without his nagging girlfriend complicating things. Erin Richardson’s absence gives the episode the space it needs to focus on the stories that will drive the season’s arc. Her usual schtick of undermining Gordon while wearing a towel is not missed in this week’s show, and I hope upon her return the writers of Gotham give her less opportunities to needlessly distract her stressed-out boyfriend.

In its fifth entry, Gotham reveals itself as a competent and entertaining serial, and it does so with consistency. Some of the lines are utterly laughable, but hey, this is ostensibly a show about Batman; I’ll take some camp. Mostly, Gotham is showing signs of self-comfort and acceptance. “Viper” has a couple bits of fan service, but they’re either woven in well or brief. The show’s strength has become their talented ensemble cast, and as they each learn and help to define their characters, they make the show infinitely better. There are still some weaknesses with Gotham, especially in the writing of dialogue, which can be accidentally hilarious. However, as long as the storytelling is tight and focused, viewers can accept a certain amount of cheesy talk in a show that lives in a comic book universe. “Viper” is ambitious in its sheer volume of content, but Gotham looks to have found a way to handle its vast world. One can only hope that they maintain the momentum week in, week out.

Passing Thoughts:

-Donal Logue is a treasure. He kills with the simple phrase, “lunchtime!”

-Margaret Colin (Jeff Goldblum’s ex-wife in Independence Day) looks great as Taylor Reece, head of the obviously nefarious pharma company, Wellzyn.

-The visuals of the death by “viper” are cringeworthy for all the best reasons. Great effect.

-Bruce Wayne calling out the Wayne Foundation’s board members, reminding everyone whose money they’re handling now. Kid’s got cojones.

The scene of the show is definitely the altercation between Maroni and Cobblepot, who is finally starting to live with the name Penguin.