Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Gotham Episode 17: Red Hood (Or, My Thoughts on the Importance of the Joker's Mask)

I had thought, at the beginning of the season, that I might regularly write about Gotham and many of the other comic book based TV shows this season. But time gets away from one, and even more than time, the incredibly uneven season of Gotham hasn't helped it (not to mention the best comic based show of the season Agent Carter, didn't start til mid season. Expect something looking at the season next week). Every time I think Gotham is finding its footing, an episode would happen that would make me shake my head and put down my virtual pen. But last night's episode, "Red Hood" while still uneven, finally hit some of the points about Gotham City that I feel like they've needed to, not to mention having some strong performances and a plot that actually followed in most places.

One of Gotham's principal sins has been that it is incredibly busy. There are countless plots in each episode, to the point that many of the case of the week plots suffer at the hands of writers needing to stuff in a dozen other characters. And while there were still plenty of plots, I actually found the case in this episode actually worked, and Jim Gordon and Harvey Bullock did some actual police work, not just roughing guys up, going to mob connections, and stumbling blindly into the solution of a case. While I understand Gotham has only the thinnest veneer of a procedural, it was nice to see that Gotham's good cops aren't completely dependent on luck and fists. And kudos to Lee Wong as Chiang, the witness. That guy was just a delight to watch. Any episode that doesn't have a great scene chewing sequence from Zsasz should totally have that guy.

That case of the week is the titular Red Hood Gang. While last episode set up one possible suspect for the future Joker, that episode was exceedingly uneven, and I have certain giant problems with the presentation of a commodity known to Gordon being the Joker (more on that later). The episode starts out with a sequence clearly meant to inspire memories of the brilliant heist scene from the beginning of The Dark Knight but in an early form; this isn't a Joker who's ready for prime time. But more than that, it's clear he's not the Joker when one of his gang kills him and takes the Hood. Pretty soon we're getting scenes of gangland betrayal as the Hood passes from one hand to another through murder.

My first instinct was to think of the Hood as a cursed object, like the Scarface dummy, carved from the gallows wood from Blackgate Penitentiary (my wife, Amber's response to that when I mentioned it was, "God, no wonder s#$%& like this happens in Gotham when they let people do stuff like that." And I can't say she's wrong). But I got to thinking and I don't think it's the Hood itself, it's the city. This is the first true talisman of the madness that bubbles beneath Gotham. The idea of the city as a character is a big part of Gotham, and I feel like the showrunners have been trying to capture that in this series with fairly limited success. The madness has been so contained, so random, and all so easily explained. Gotham isn't a bad, crazy city. It's just a corrupt, lazily run city. Get rid of guys like the mayor, Commissioner Loeb, and the Wayne Board, and the city itself is redeemable.

But Gotham isn't that. Writers over the years, as recently as Grant Morrison and Scott Snyder, have played with the idea that Gotham itself is just wrong, founded on blood, madness, and death, and it needs something like Batman to try to set it right. But as many proto-Scarecrows and Black Masks we see, none of them have been anchored in the city. The Red Hood has a power, not the one to avoid bullets that the initial owner thinks it has, but the power to inspire madness, to dredge up everything that is below the surface of Gotham and give it form. And that's a part of Gotham, and part of the Joker. More than just a grinning, unrepentant matricide, the Joker is anarchy and madness incarnate. So the idea that he is the logical (or illogical, I suppose), extension of what the Red Hood is doing to Gotham feels much better to me.

See, while I prefer Batman to have found his parents' killer and moved beyond that, I much prefer my Joker as the unknown. Accepting Alan Moore's, "pat little poor pathetic failed man who broke" theory feels no better than accepting Tim Burton's, "preening criminal who just went off the deep end," theory. Who the Joker is doesn't matter, and shouldn't. Knowing his origins takes something away from the character. Christopher Nolan got that, with Joker's speeches about his scars, and Paul Dini got it in "Mad Love" when it turns out the story he told Harley Quinn to win her over is just one of many versions of his past. The past to the Joker is just a shadow, something to cast where he needs it to serve his purpose. Who he was before he put on that hood and stepped into Ace Chemicals doesn't matter. That was a human being. The Joker is no longer anything human (Metaphorically. The verdicts's still out on what he really is until the end of Scott Snyder's "Endgame"), and to give him a past humanizes him, something that does him a disservice.

As to the rest of the episode, and the other plot lines, I'm happy to see further development from Bruce. I was fairly impressed early on with the show's handling of Bruce Wayne, but felt it meandered a bit. The past three episodes, we're starting to see a bit of Batman showing up. Not much, not enough to be frustrating, but the rage that fuels him is there, and the beginnings of the skill. But he's still a kid. And while the more militant Alfred is still not my ideal, I am really starting to adore the rapport between Sean Pertwee's Alfred and David Mazouz's Bruce. the entrance of the third party into their house, this time tied to Alfred, allows for Alfred to be fleshed out, and to provide some wonderful character moments between David O'Hara and Pertwee. And while I saw the episode ending twist coming a mile away, the moment of the betrayal was no less impactful for it.

The remaining three plotlines (yes, those of you who aren't watching Gotham, you thought I was joking about the number of plotlines in a episode. I wasn't), well, the less said about Barbara and her drunkenness and her growing weirder relationship with Selina and Ivy, the urchins she let stay in her apartment when she found them squatting there, the better. The only thing that I have to wonder is if there's a way that this show can make Barbara less likable. She doesn't listen to anyone, she's useless, and now with that scene that felt like something out of Law & Order: SVU between her and Selina, she's graduated from useless to plain creepy.

The Gotham mob plots were a bit more interesting. Fish Mooney's meeting with the guy running the clinic/human organ harvesting place she is imprisoned went about as expected. It's always great to see Jeffrey Combs on anything, although it took me a second to recognize him without Star Trek alien prosthetics, but that voice is so distinct it captured me immediately. And Jada Pinkett Smith once again proves that Fish chews that scenery better than anyone, and that nobody can outcrazy her. I still wonder why they don't just shoot her and be done with it, but maybe we'll get that when the Dollmaker makes his appearance. And can I say how odd it is that the Dollmaker, a fairly recent and obscure member of Batman's rogues gallery will now have appeared on TV live action TV series (a version was on Arrow last season), while we have yet to see a live Killer Croc in any medium. And I think the duo of Penguin and Butch is going to work just fine. They have been two of the highlights of the season, and they play off each other really well.

I don't know if Gotham is out of the woods just yet. There's still five episodes left in this season, and a lot can happen in five episodes for good or ill. But "Red Hood" might have been the series's strongest outing to date, and shows the potential of what the series could be with a little more clarity of vision.

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