Gotham Season 2: A Review
I had very high hopes heading into the second season of “Gotham”. While season one had been uneven at times, it had on the whole put in a solid performance that had left me eagerly awaiting more, and the showrunners promises at a move away from the “monster of the week” format of the first season (which had brought some of its more cringe-worthy moments such as the truly horrific Balloon-Man) towards a more “Big-Bad”-centric storyline was very promising. I am pleased to say that my expectations were met as Fox’s coming of age story of the caped crusader delivered an excellent second season. We saw both a deeper exploration of the show’s underlying mystery of the motive behind the Wayne murders and a continuation of openly reactionary message of the preceding season.
While the first season introduced us to Gotham and the terrors of a city ruled by anarchy, the second season delved into the question of precisely how far one should go to assert authority and how truly murky that question can become. We see this from the very first episode, where Jim Gordon, having been summarily fired from the Gotham police following the finale of the last season, must turn to Penguin, the new King of the Gotham underworld, for help regaining his badge. Penguin is all too eager to help his good “friend” Jim, but it comes as always with a price. Gordon’s predicament is clear: he knows Penguin is precisely the kind of criminal he should be putting away, but he can only do so with the authority of the police behind him for which he needs Penguin’s help. It is this dichotomy of bad things done for good ends, and the question of justification, that is the central heart of the show’s arch.
But Penguin is the least of Gordon’s problems, as Gotham finds itself faced with a new villain in the form of Terry Galavan. A scion of one of the city’s founding families banished from Gotham in disgrace, Galavan has returned to “reclaim” what he sees as his stolen birthright and sets about doing so with maniacal intent. His plan is admittedly a bit clichéd, while outwardly he presents a respectable face he secretly uses a team of insane criminals lifted from Arkham Hospital (Barbara Kean, Gordon’s ex-fiancé among them) to create a climate of fear across the city to boost his campaign for mayor. The self-proclaimed “Maniaxs” do precisely that, reaching their apex with an attack on the Gotham police department itself (televised across the entire city) that decimates the GCPD and leaves a trail of devastation in its wake. Given recent events in Paris, the scene is almost grimly prescient to watch in retrospect.
For Gordon this attack is doubly personal as his pseudo-mentor, GCPD Commissioner (for all of five minutes) Sarah Essen, is killed in the attack. The matter is no longer a simple question of duty and the law; Gordon is out for blood at this point. And the opportunity to act on this is given to him via Essen’s replacement, Commissioner Barnes, who designates him his second-in-command and places him in charge of a new taskforce of police officers responsible for tackling the new plague of chaos threating the city. Barnes can be taken as a symbol of conventional conservativism; he does not indulge in the self-delusions of the left but neither does accept them as just as great a threat as the evils progressives use to hide from. He’s certainly an improvement over the corrupt police establishment of the first season he is still imperfect. Barnes is singularly devoted to upholding the law, but he is also hamstrung by his refusal to step outside the confines of the Overton window of the Enlightenment consensus. In his own words, the law must be upheld to its very letter; there is no compromise even when it becomes apparent those very laws are insufficient to meet the challenge that is faced. He chides Gordon when he roughs up suspects looking for leads on the Maniaxs. Every search must have a warrant. Every investigation must be backed up by evidence.
Gordon clearly chafes under Barnes’ direction, respecting his intentions but frustrated by his by-the-book attitude. This friction is brought to a head by the showrunners masterfully in a confrontation in Galavan’s penthouse, where Barnes (bleeding out from a wound inflicted on him by one of Galavan’s henchmen) shares a story of his time in the army with Gordon where he held a gun to the head of a captured insurgent and pulled the trigger when he refused to give information and how it has haunted him ever since. Moved by this story, Gordon (when confronted with the exact same circumstance later) chooses to bring Galavan’s lackey in for arraignment instead of killing him…..which leads to the man ripping the throat out of a female police officer with his teeth when he decides he’d rather die free than spend an eternity behind bars.
What is the message to be taken from this? That we should go around shooting people without trial? That is a simplistic assessment and a false one. Instead, Gotham uses symbolism to make a statement on a very real question we grapple with these days: at what point does mercy to the guilty become a cruelty to the innocent. To far too many, the question is not even on the radar. Every appeasement asked for is offered up without question, and the end result is that far too many innocents have their lives paid up as the price for this blunder. In the finale, it is worth noting that when Gordon finally has Galavan at his mercy he chooses to stand by while Penguin (whose mother was first imprisoned by Galavan to blackmail him into carrying out his agenda and then killed when he refused) beats him to a bloody pulp with a baseball bat before finally shooting him himself out of the realization that should he turn Galavan over to the authorities he would simply use his influence to evade justice. The point is quite clearly, that law devoid of true justice and morals is just as unjust as no law at all.
On the whole, Gotham’s second season was a tremendous improvement upon the first. Galavan played a convincing villain, and the campiness of the first season was toned down while still slipping in occasional nods to Batman-lore. Admittedly, I still find myself frustrated by the portrayal of Barbara Kean. I certainly enjoyed Erin Richard’s portrayal of Barbara as an indisputable villain this season (and the actress clearly relished playing one), but the purist in me still finds such a major deviation to a central character annoying….though the hints dropped throughout the season that Barbara is simply a reflection of Gordon’s own dark nature do offer some intriguing long term possibilities. The progression of the young Batman and Catwoman relationship was quite enjoyable though; by the end of the season there is a very clear level of both trust and partnership established between the two characters that works despite both of them remaining very true to their identities as a thief on Selina’s part and a budding crime fighter on Bruce’s. I do find myself questioning how much further they can continue this without running into the brick wall of Bruce’s eventually decision to don the cowl of the caped crusader…though admittedly having Catwoman be aware from the start of the true identity of Gotham’s dark vigilante and her future lover would be a deviation from comic-book cannon I’d find highly intriguing.
Another area I have faced some disappointment has been with the progression of young Bruce Wayne’s character. Batman has always walked a fine line between light and darkness. For some reason, however, the showrunners have continued to portray him as an almost incorruptibly good character (heck, in the finale he comes across as almost saint-like, both in actions and his visual portrayal), and that’s not the character of Batman. At times I couldn’t help thinking the character development would be more fitting for a prequel series on the origins of Superman (who is an indisputable example of innate goodness) but not Batman, who has always been a character who is willing to descend into darkness in order to fight darkness. This isn’t a criticism of the actor, David Mazouz, who has certainly show he has to depth and ability to portray such a character, but rather of the directing and writing that he has been provided with.
This is of course more than negated by the return of the character of Jerome. A candidate for the Joker in season one, this is ultimately disproven by his death early on in the latest season, but amazingly the show manages to take this and still make it satisfactory when it easily could have brought merely groans of disappointment. Jerome is an agent of chaos, but even in death he still manages to be a “curse upon Gotham” as his madness continues to inspire others down the same path. Ultimately, Gotham is telling us, it does not matter who the Joker is for there is the potential to be the Joker in each and every one of us; we all have a bit of the Devil in ourselves that likes to laugh as the world burns.
Minor sour grapes aside, Gotham has been excellent this season as it continues to embody a true reactionary-ethos that is quite rare amongst main stream media today. The show continues to be unafraid to delve into questions that go outside of the box of PC acceptable thought, and more importantly actually hint at answers to them. The city of Gotham can easily be taken as a stand-in for Western society at large, crumbling from the problems of modernity and crippled from tackling them by an indifferent elite unwilling to accept any actions that might shake up the bubble of happy ignorance they have built up around themselves as all the less affluent are increasingly preyed upon by agents of chaos and destruction. Unfortunately, we likely cannot count on a billionaire vigilante to come save us from ourselves.