Gotham Season 1: A Review
Batman is easily one of the most iconic figures of popular culture, one that has seen numerous incarnations over the years. “Gotham” which has recently wrapped its first season, is but the latest. The first season was bumpy at times, with both ups and downs, but it still managed to keep viewers fascinated (even when they gripped about the show’s overly campy feel at times). And above all it managed to stay true to what Batman represents, while delivering the truly reactionary ethos of the character, most famously delivered by Christopher Nolan in his Dark Knight movie trilogy.
The show certainly elicited more than a few groans from me at times (one episode featured a villain whose signature move was murdering people with helium balloons….just don’t ask). One particularly frustrating area for me in particular was the at times painful to watch relationship between the show’s main character, Jim Gordon, and his comic-book future wife Barbara. I’ll openly admit I’m a comic book purist (which not everyone is), so watching this particular relationship lurch from boring to totally train-wreck, off the rails disastrous set my teeth on edge at times, particularly because it was obvious the entire mess was simply one big cock-up on the writers’ part.
Yes, the showrunners later tried to claim they always intended for things to go sour, but I call bull on that. The initial episodes make it very clear that they very much wanted us to like the character, despite their very clumsy portrayal. When this didn’t work (apparently having a love triangle between Barbara, Jim, and his female detective rival Renee Montoya did not endear the character to fans, surprise, surprise), it was equally obvious the writers were left scrambling on what to do next. The delectable Morena Baccarin was brought on board for the show’s second half as Doctor Leslie Thompkins, with so little subtly that she might as well have worn a sign saying “Jim’s New Squeeze”, while Barbara’s character waffled from half-formed, plot-filling story-arch to another before finally going plain bonkers. As I’ve said, I tend to be OCD about such things to a degree that many viewers aren’t, but given that “Gotham” is a prequel (and Barbara Kean is supposed to become Barbara Gordon at some point and bring about the character of James Gordon Jr.) seeing such a major deviation from Batman cannon really set my teeth on edge.
What was really irritating about the whole ordeal was that the writers of “Gotham” delivering so well in other areas. Probably the best example (and most obvious counter point) being the interaction between young Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle, who are fated to become Batman and Catwoman respectively. The pair work well together, and obviously learn from one another. Selina, being a street smart budding thief, is obviously drawn to Bruce’s idealism, and Bruce, the future masked vigilante of Gotham’s streets, learns quite painfully that his route to justice will require him to tread down a very dark path (in one poignant scene Selina tells him to his face “In Gotham, you gotta be mean, you got be ruthless, you know what that means?”). The showrunners clearly wanted to make certain these two characters had good chemistry together and it shows, incredibly so given that the two actors are both young teens.
But what really kept me gripped to the screen every evening as I watched “Gotham”, despite its flaws, was its underlying message. The story of the show is ultimately one of a battle of authority versus anarchy. It is an overarching theme of the Batman world. While I have little time in the real world for vigilantism, Batman does represent the necessity of authority, as a vehicle of judgement and punishment for the wicked and evil. Similarly, what his foes represent are anarchy in its most honest form, not as the blissful state of harmony it is fanciful presented as by modern day academics, lefties, and libertarians, but rather as a force of pure and utter chaos. The villains that Bruce Wayne strives against are the insane and psychotic, not driven by rational desires for wealth and power but rather a pointless lust to light fires simply to see them burn.
This theme is a constant one in the world of “Gotham”. The city we are presented with is one that is slowly sinking into chaos through its own sheer paralysis born of corruption and ineptitude. The consequences of this are shown without hesitation. Take away authority, and the binding power it has to restrict men from acting on their baser instincts, and the result is pure horror. In a world of chaos civilization is not possible. In the very first episode it is observed by no less than a mafia don that “to have organized crime one must have organization”, and that is the stark truth of it. Civilization is based on certain assumptions by people, the key one of which is continuity, the assumption that what is true today will also be true tomorrow. Take away that assurance and the entire illusion falls apart. Why bother going to work, paying your bills, saving for retirement, and doing your taxes if in the very next minute of your existence everything around you that is taken for granted might be completely upended?
That is the battle at the center of “Gotham”, the battle to protect certainty against those who thrive or merely get off on uncertainty. Whether it is the Penguin (Season 1’s main villain), who seeks to ferment upheaval in all corners simply to secure his own advancement, or the Ogre, who silences police investigations into his serial killing spree by arbitrarily targeting the loved ones of police who dare to investigate him, or the pure insanity of the Joker (whose origins we are teased with in one episode) who simply loves chaos for chaos’s sake, the antagonists of the show all share a desire to stoke the tides of turmoil. Jim Gordon, the protagonist, represents the stability of establishment and order, the promise of continuity that allows man to seek something more than merely filling his belly and living for one more day.
Without certainty there can be no civilization. Order, stability, and continuity are what makes normal life possible. This is something we very much take for granted in our privileged day to day existence. The fragility of everything around us is not something we contemplate much, but we should. Take away the certainty that civilization rests on, and ultimately we are revealed as what we truly are, intelligent apes dressed in silk that are capable of the most horrendous actions against one another. Without order and control life is, to quote Thomas Hobbes, “nasty, brutish, and short”. “Gotham” does well to remind us of this.