Whoa, whoa, whoa: Was that really the same Bat-time, same Bat-channel we just watched?
Tonight's episode of Gotham, "The Fearsome Dr. Crane," was clever, creepy, funny on purpose, deliberately disturbing (instead of thoughtlessly so), and graced with an excellent villain-of-the-week. In other words, it was everything the show has not been for a long, long while. The temptation here might be to use it as a Batarang and lob it at every other half-hearted installment this lackadaisical longform origin story has given us, but I don't think that's what Thomas and Martha Wayne would want, may they rest in peace. This was a good hour of TV, for God's sake. Let's just enjoy it while it lasts.
In that spirit, we'll focus first on the episode's sense of humor. Normally, any laughter Gotham elicits comes at the show's expense — over Jim Gordon growling for no reason, say, or a particularly ludicrous bit of supervillain pseudoscience. This time, it came from tight writing that mined these strange characters and even odder situations for their inherent comedy, and the scenes between the Penguin and mob boss Sal Maroni were the mother lode. They began with the pair toasting the apparent demise of Fish Mooney, as the Don approves of the Cobblepot's power play to seize her club with a malapropism worthy of The Sopranos' Little Carmine Lupertazzi: "A bird in the hand is nine-tenths of the law." But after a phone call from the lady herself tips him off to the double-dealing, Maroni's mood shifts, and he insists that his underling accompany him on a sudden journey upstate. The Penguin fakes enthusiasm: "I love a road trip. Yay!" "Yay," the mob boss deadpans back at him, sounding like he's speaking through a mouthful of gabagool.
The dark comedy continues at a cabin in the country, as it becomes increasingly obvious to the Copplepot that the jig is up. Against the striking setting of a gray-blue stone fireplace glowing with orange flame, Maroni toys with his rebel protégé — fixing him breakfast, lying that they're there to "see a guy about a thing," playing a secret-swapping game like they're at summer camp. Before long, the Penguin finds himself in a car compactor, frantically making phone calls to his tormentor even as the roof collapses above him. "Oh, you gotta be kidding me," Maroni chuckles as his own cell rings, and it's tough not to chuckle right along with him. The flightless fowl of a villain is egomaniacal enough to believe he can weasel his way out of death itself — and winds up being right! That's both funny and revealing.
Another future Batman nemesis gets arguably even better, albeit more disgusting, material to work with. Riddler-to-be Edward Nygma winds up embroiled in a raunchcom-like rivalry with the GCPD's corrupt medical examiner, who catches Ed literally red-handed. (We didn't expect "Get your hand out of that corpse, now!" to be a laugh line either, but try not to LOL when Captain Sarah Essen barks it out.) Nygma gets his revenge by stuffing the medical examiner's locker full of severed limbs, which tumble out and cover him if Clive Barker directed an episode of Punk'd. And then there's the exchange between Essen and some random cop who comes to her, dismembered arm in tow. "Boss?" "Not now, Joe — [double-take] wait." If Gotham's gonna get gross, by all means get gross in the service of guffaws.
But it's not all fun and games. The episode's title character — eventually revealed to be not a teenage version of future Scarecrow Jonathan Crane, but his deranged father, played by veteran British weirdo Julian Sands — is the show's most genuinely upsetting villain to date. Dr. Todd Crane preys upon the fellow members of his phobia support group, murdering them in order to study the effects of fear on their adrenal glands. Each of these homicidal set pieces is horrifyingly easy to grasp: dangling a man with a fear of heights off a rooftop; surrounding a man with a fear of pigs with enormous hogs and sows (before letting a killer in a Hostel-style pig mask go to work on him); laying a woman who's afraid of drowning right on the edge of a swimming pool.
"You do understand that this is really happening," Crane tells his victim, a would-be love interest for Detective Harvey Bullock, goading her into a paroxysm of terror. "I'm going to drown you. Right now." This would be brutal in a Saw-era torture-porn flick, but not because it's over the top. On the contrary, it recognizes that the horror genre's best weapon is certainty — knowing something terrible is about to happen, then waiting for the inevitable moment when that knowledge pans out. It's stunningly sharp work, and not alone in that regard, either: Sitting in on the group earlier in the episode, Bullock explains that his own worst fear is dying alone in a gutter, a corpse whose killers laugh as they pick his pockets. That's the kind of vivid detail only a mind that's given the matter an unhealthy amount of thought could come up with. As for the brains behind Gotham, let's hope they stay as focused for the rest of the season as they are right now.
Previously: Bad Cop, Worse Cop