Season One, Episode Eight – “The Mask” 

By Matt Fleming. “Alfred, can you teach me how to fight?” Young Bruce Wayne ends the eighth episode of Gotham with this request to his caretaker, who obliges, “Yes, I can.

Foreshadowing the continued genesis of the Dark Knight, “The Mask” is a building-block episode of Fox’s pre-pubescent Batman procedural. The future it’s building will affect the whole of Gotham’s characters, from the compromised and crooked of the GCPD to every criminal who finds themselves in between the crime families of Carmine Falcone and Sal Maroni. The show still has some difficulty in trusting its audience with the source material, and this episode provides a huge opportunity to correct that, an opportunity it mostly misses.

“The Mask” begins with another Crime of the Week, as a faceless audience watches grainy surveillance footage of a Fight Club-style office brawl. The fight doesn’t end well, and when the victim’s body is found near the docks, the GCPD is quick to investigate. It’s here where forensic expert and riddle-lover Edward Nygma discovers a severed thumb in the deceased’s mouth. That clue, coupled with a business card leads detectives Jim Gordon and Harvey Bullock to the rough-and-tumble Sionis Investments, and after a high-tension meeting with namesake Richard “Not Roman” Sionis (Todd Stashwick), Gordon and Bullock find a thumbless broker in Sionis’ employ. Meanwhile, after the events of last week, the other detectives and officers of the GCPD turn a cold shoulder to Gordon and Bullock, leaving the duo mostly alone in their investigative efforts.

In the Gotham underworld, Oswald Cobblepot plays nice with Fish Mooney, who is still upset that The Penguin is not actually dead. Since his loyalties were exposed last week, The Penguin continues digging up dirt and hinting at his remorseless path toward power. On the other side of town, baby billionaire Bruce Wayne starts prep school, where his size and status do not make him popular.

After last week’s bloated and frantic episode, this week’s Gotham slows down and shifts focus. There was clearly too much happening in “Penguin’s Umbrella,” so it is a relief to see a more streamlined episode in “The Mask”, even if it still manages to work in plenty of exposition and foreshadowing. The primary arc pits Gordon and Bullock against a villain that should be familiar to Bat-fans, even when it simply isn’t: for no discernible reason, the Black Mask we know from the comics, Roman Sionis, inexplicably becomes Richard, and though the writing staff is trying to insert Black Mask into Gotham, they don’t really. This is one of the show’s widening problems: unwillingness to trust the source material. In attempting to build origins for the Caped Crusader’s gallery of rogues, the writers have decided to take certain liberties, and only a few of them actually work. However, in circumstances like this where they miss the mark, their teases are glaringly half-hearted.

One case in point is the continued development of Robin Lord Taylor’s masterfully realized Oswald Cobblepot. As the season progresses, it becomes clear that this is really his story, leaving everyone else in Gotham acting as mere window dressing. The Penguin is as important to this universe as the GCPD’s finest detective and the future Caped Crusader, mostly because his story – his genesis – is happening now. Sometimes, when the show is at its silliest, I find it hard to believe that the writers are handling the Penguin’s origin so well. His origin here is nuanced in the way a good mystery unfolds, and Taylor gives the character the right balance of cunning and crazy to make his absurdity compelling and believable.

Another character whose origin is being built surprisingly well (so far) is Edward Nygma. Cory Michael Smith was a hard sell early in the season; his forensic specialist with a proclivity for asking riddles seemed forced and came across as pretty obnoxious. At this point, however, his character has grown organically and subtly. By giving Nygma limited screen time each week, consistently showing his intelligence and being brushed aside by his colleagues, the viewer can see how he can go from the side of justice to the edge of insanity.

While building toward some future Gotham, this episode provides hits and misses. In addition to the Penguin and the man who would be Riddler, “The Mask” gives viewers a peek at the internal motivations of Bruce Wayne, Gotham’s poor little rich orphan. With the help of his increasingly on-board butler/enabler Alfred, Bruce lets loose some of the anguish he has pent up since the death of his parents, and what he sees as the impending death of Gotham itself. Bruce is amping up, and before long he’s gonna be fighting bad guys, although the show seems to be rushing things just a bit. Along the way, there are the usual fan service name-drops (Tommy… Elliot?) and cameos (Camren Bicondova’s Selena “Cat” Kyle), but the biggest missed opportunity with “The Mask” is with Sionis. Where the show could have given the character a clear backstory, staying true to canon while orienting him into this TV universe, they instead opt for the flash factor, using his name and a generic samurai mask to tease a future that is uncertain with an execution that is unsure.

In all, “The Mask” is not unenjoyable. The episode is one of the more visually well-composed, and whatever distractions exist are mostly nitpicky, goofy, or named Barbara: the presence of Gordon’s girlfriend remains awful, but here it’s brief enough for me to ignore (except when she isn’t wearing pants). Penguin’s scenes are always compelling, even if I need a translator for his mother’s broken English. Ben McKenzie’s increasing snarl, coupled with Donal Logue’s striking stability, is a strong anchor for the show, and it was nice to see Gordon execute some Batman-like fight moves. When Gotham is fun, it is pulpy and watchable. When it is overwrought, I want the series to be over. This episode toes the line, but as I’ve said before, the cast is the show’s strength. While Gotham is too close to being bad for it to be overloading itself, next week brings yet another character into the fold, one who just might divide the audience in two.

Passing Thoughts:

-Todd Stashwick, as Richard “The Mask” Sionis, reminded me of a young Robert John Burke, an actor that Gotham would benefit in scooping up for a future role.

-I loved David Mazouz as young Bruce getting some licks in on his bully. Better yet, I loved Alfred’s vague threat: “Remember that I let him.”

-While I adore Carol Kane, any lengthy prose on her part needs better audio. Ma Cobblepot’s accent is muddy, and I needed Oswald to respond just so I understood her point.

-Harvey Bullock has come a long way in eight episodes, from lazy schlub to a real, loyal partner, helping Gordon instead of just coming along begrudgingly.

-Although it was ridiculous, the brief swordfight was fun.

-Barbara Kean is such a terrible girlfriend: she ignores his plea for her safety; she gets drunk and pulls a gun on him; she leaves him because he’s too busy policing to say goodbye before hanging up. I know she’ll come back, but if I were Jim, I’d say good riddance. He deserves a woman who knows when to wear pants and when not to.

-The tease for next week is super silly. A middle aged Englishman and a teen street-thief are gonna turn Bruce Wayne into Rocky.