'Gotham' Recap: Female Trouble

Neither the series nor its leading men can apparently handle the show's resident ladies

Erin Richards and Milo Ventimiglia make for a deadly duo in 'Gotham.' Credit: Jesse Miglio

The men of Fox's Batman-prequel series have it tough this week. All they want to do is live their lives as cops, crimelords, riddle-obsessed weirdos, and teenage billionaires, each by the side of a respective special lady. But as soon as they settle down, those damn dames fall for serial killers, flirt with Mafia dons, date your future first murder victim, or toss ex-Special Forces mercenaries out of windows. What's a boy to do? That's the question posed by tonight's episode, "Under the Knife," and the answer: Not much worth watching, unfortunately.

Detective Jim Gordon has got the most trouble on his hands, since he's got two damsels in distress to defend. There's Dr. Leslie Thompkins, the medical examiner with an inexplicably fancy bathroom, whom he believes will be the next target of the vicious ladykiller called the Ogre. Then there's his ex, party girl Barbara Keane, who's actually the object of the monster's affections. He then goes from stalking her to trying to recruit her as a literal partner in crime, and the punch line is: She seems to be up for it.

Maybe there's a kernel of promise somewhere deep within the idea that Barbara is so unhappy with her empty socialite existence that the raw life-and-death duality offered by murdering people looks good by comparison; she certainly wouldn't be the first person to pick up a knife out of existential boredom. But actor Erin Richards just doesn't have the chops to unearth that kind of complexity from the character she's been given. At any rate, we'd bet the keys to the Wayne Enterprises wall safes that next week's episode will reveal it as a ruse she cooked up to catch the killer herself.

It's a shame, because Gordon and Harvey Bullock's pursuit of the Ogre's identity is the most interestingly staged investigation the show has done yet. Rapid-fire cross-cutting keeps moving viewers about as the detectives grill the suspect's father, confront the plastic surgeon who gave him a new face, and relay their findings to their commanding officer. It's clever, fast-paced, and fun — everything Barbara's ponderous pas de deux with Gotham's most wanted man isn't.

Gordon's not the only member of the GCPD trying to save a member of the fairer sex from herself. (Ugh.) When twitchy Eddie Nygma loses his cool with the macho cop who's beating his beloved, it's the first time the Riddler-to-be has seemed like anything more than a cutesy comic-book character. Beyond that, however, Ms. Kristen Kringle's abuse is handled so perfunctorily that it barely qualifies as a subplot at all. Actual dialogue from the victim: "He didn't mean to. I said some things I shouldn't have…It's none of your concern." Actual dialogue from the abuser: "Women…they need a firm hand." So you're going to write domestic violence into your Batman show, and that's the best you can do?!? There's no effort to rise above the most basic clichés, and less than none to actually make Kringle the subject of her own story. Put it together, and the eventual archvillian's debut murder to defend her honor falls flat. (And would it have killed them to involve a riddle in it somehow?) There's a term in comics, coined by writer Gail Simone, for treating female suffering as a means to a male character's ends: women in refrigerators. Writers of superhero shows, we beg you: Close the damn icebox door.

Oswald Cobblepot's similarly stabby freak-out fares better. Despite all the praise actor Robin Lord Taylor has earned for his portrayal of the Penguin, something about him has always felt foppish and slightly false. With his bespoke suits, oily hair, and pasty face, he looks like a child's action figure of Chuck Bass from Gossip Girl left to cook in the summer heat in the back of the family Toyota. Yet when Don Maroni sticks it to his former underling by telling his beloved mother Gertrude that her son's a psychopath, Little Boy Bird's panicked reaction — half dismay over his mom's heartbreak, half rage at his old boss — rings true. And when he unleashes all that anger on some poor schmuck the Don sent to deliver Mommie Dearest flowers, the killing makes perfect cathartic sense. It doesn't hurt that he cribs his "I'll tell him myself" message-via-murder move from the great Paulie Walnuts, either.

That leaves Bruce Wayne and his courtship of Selina Kyle. While his ostensible reason for inviting her to some swanky Wayne Enterprises gala is that he needs her pickpocketing skills to get the goods on a corrupt board member, he's obviously pretty smitten with the kitten. Their scenes together have long been some of the show's sweetest, and believe it or not, teen actors David Mazouz and Camren Bicondova are virtually the only couple on the show whose romance gives off real (if PG-rated) sparks.

But as their magical evening progresses, Bruce drops a dialogue bomb that blows the whole thing up. "Selina," he says, "what happened last night…it can never happen again." Oh, right you mean the cold-blooded murder she committed? The one that had you crying in anger and shame in an alleyway the night before? The one you'd completely forgotten about when you came to pick her up in a tux and told her now nice she looked? But that's Gotham for you: It never misses a chance to stab someone in the gut, or shoot itself in the foot.

Previously: Let the Bodies Hit the Floor