Let us now sing the praises of no man's lands. "Welcome Back, Jim Gordon," tonight's episode of Gotham, features two brief scenes shot in semi-subterranean nether-regions, places that exist solely as way-stations between the places you actually want to go. In the first, anonymous goons in the employ of Don Falcone wheel a gurney with an unseen, unknown passenger through an equally unfamiliar — and underlit abandoned warehouse-cum-torture laboratory of a mob Mengele named Bob.
In the second, recently reinstated Detective Jim Gordon chases a corrupt cop called Delaware down into the GCPD's parking garage, cuffing him on the hood of his car and rifling through his trunk for contraband. Cold blue daylight shines down through grates in the ceiling while vertically mounted florescents on every column radiate a sickly green. The settings may not be unique, especially in dark genre fare, but they're beautifully visualized nonetheless — sprawling yet claustrophobic, creepy and lovely to look at.
If emphasizing the lighting and set dressing in a couple of throwaway sequences gives the impression that there's not much else worth praising here…well, yeah, pretty much. Corruption within the Gotham City Police Department has driven the story of some of the best Batman comics of all time, from Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli's Batman: Year One to Ed Brubaker, Greg Rucka, and Michael Lark's Gotham Central, two obvious influences on the show. Yet the topic's handling here is as subtle as the character's countless fists to each other's face.
The crooked cops are led by narcotics detective named Flass, a transparently odious bully who doesn't seem like he could ringlead his way out of a wet paper bag. The institutional obstacles to Gordon's attempt to clean house are ineffectively embodied in his commanding officer Sarah Essen. Her reaction to a homicide detective's arrest of another cop implicated in a murder of a witness? "This isn't the way, Jim." No one is saying Gotham has to be The Wire, but that wouldn't fly on CSI: Miami.
But the biggest problem is Gordon himself. A far cry from the quietly righteous young troublemaker of the comics, Ben McKenzie's good detective growls his way through every moment of his life; "Get out of my face" is the most sophisticated comeback this guy can come up with. "You making some kinda statement?" asks his partner, Detective Harvey Bullock, when he perp-walks a fellow policeman into in front of every swinging dick in the department. "DAMN RIGHT I AM!" Gordon barks back in audible all-caps. Think how compelling this guy would be if he let his actions speak for him.
Goings-on in the criminal world are equally egregious. With her betrayal of Don Falcone revealed, Fish Mooney is handed over to his torturers, who, like most gangsters who specialize in working over captive rats, wear hospital scrubs and rubber gloves. (Say what?) It's fine if the show wants to push into unreality in that way. But given that Fish's right-hand man Butchie makes them look like amateurs without breaking a sweat, their intimidatingly institutional get-up is a waste of time. Ditto bald mercenary Victor Zsasz and his posse of interchangeably sexy assassins. Why hire a bunch of elite killers who look like extras in the Matrix sequels if they can't win a shootout against a nightclub owner and her muscle?
Then there's the Penguin's short-lived reign over Fish's empire, or at least its nightclub headquarters. Though Carol Kane could turn in the kind of daffy-matron performance she delivers as young Oswald Cobblepot's mother in her sleep, there is at least something funny, pathetic, and revealing in the Penguin staging a show for his mommy in his first act as underboss. Pity it's undercut by Fish's return, and in the corny musical montage that precedes it, where the future supervillain carries on in the club like Kevin McAllister in Home Alone.
If there's a silver lining to the seriousness, it's Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle. It's easy to imagine a Gotham that guts the corny cop stuff in favor of a Bruce & Selina coming-of-age story, with the billionaire heir acting as Sally Draper to the street kid's Arya Stark. Young Bruce's hunger for a connection with another kid and young Selina's compulsive need not to depend on anyone but herself are the show's unstoppable force and immovable object — terrific stuff for teen angst, and strong enough to sustain way more screen time than it's given. Like those beautifully staged shots of strange places, it's a glimpse of what this comic-book noir could be capable of if it stopped shouting and let the shadowy edges speak for themselves.
Previously: To Catch a Crock