'Gotham' Recap: Fowl Play

Moral conundrums, torn-from-today's-headlines echoes and the shape of a supervillain to come color tonight's shades-of-gray episode

Ben McKenzie and Donal Logue on 'Gotham.' Credit: Jessica Miglio/FOX

So far, Fox's Batman-prequel/out-of-the-gate hit has given us two musical motifs so far: there's Hans Zimmeresque, an almost Muzak version of the Dark Knight trilogy's score; and there's this totally original thing we’ll start calling "Gotham City's Theme." It plays for good guys and bad guys alike, over montages and cold opens. In tonight's intro, the song stomps around as Oswald Cobblepot, in his pale yellow bro-Polo, greets his home town. That instrumental Black Keys meets AC/DC rocker is his Wrestlemania entrance music.  And he’s genuinely terrifying! What is this man going to do to Fish Mooney, to Jim Gordon, to Bruce Wayneto this whole city?

This episode is titled "The Balloonman," and the titular killer arrives in short time to clap a giant, swelling balloon onto the wrist of Wall Street sleazo Ronald Danzer. (Think a handsomer Bernie Madoff. ) And the guy goes up, up and away! The money shot of the financial fatcat floating among the skyscrapers is a little cheesy, VFX-wise, but it's still haunting. The producers know how to dream big (and spread their budget wisely) in the imagery department, even if those dreams always sort of funnel into the well-worn TV crime procedural bucket.

It is only “sort of,” though — procedure never follows formula with Gotham because only James Gordon wants to play CSI. His partner Harvey Bullock, on the other hand, would rather go home, get some beer and grub, and not worry about diddly squat. "Guy walks in here, holds out his hands, I'll arrest him," the corrupt cop grumbles to the goody two-shoes. It's not just apathy we’re hearing — Bullock thinks the Balloonman did “the right thing” by knocking off a vicious white-collar criminal whose punishment would never fit his crime. Not in this city, at least.

Bullock is not apathetic about the case of the Wayne murders, though. He's adamant that Gordon start treating the case as CLOSED, but Gordon can't stop/won't stop (investigating) the beat. In Wayne Murder Alley, little Selina Kyle says she can see in the dark (#cats), and goes on to tell James that his idealism sounds like something he from a book, probably the kind intended for five-year-olds at bedtime. The stakes are organically building up re: whether Gordon will be able to maintain his idealism throughout this season, much less the entire run of the show. We know, from Batman's storied history, that Gotham will always be far from utopia. So will Jim indeed "bend," as Captain Sarah Essen advised last week, or will he break? (Breaking would make such better TV. Break bad, Jim! Grow a mustache in the finale!)

Last week Jada Pinkett Smith started showing how well she can sink into this delicious new antagonist we’re watching. Her accent's kind of flying all over the place; this week, she sounds like Ben Kingsley tackling the Bard. But man, she’s got a lived-in supervillain style that fits the comic book heritage like a Bat-glove. Her C-plot this week is that she tells detectives Montoya and Allen that Gordon killed Cobblepot. And she has Carmine Falcone's lady-friend roughed up since he jacked up her boy-toy. She’s starting to let him know she won’t be fucked with.

Also in the “won’t be screwed again” category: Oswald Cobblepenguin, who gets spotted by an old crime-buddy who tries hauling him in for a bounty. "Gotham is my home, it's my destiny!” Oswald squeals, at once pathetic and eerily megalomaniacal. “You don't see what's coming! I do! Gotham needs me, I'm its future!" Oswald does his, like, fifth stabbing and silently gloats over his giant, secret scheme to bring Gotham to its knees. The Penguin is Gotham’s first supervillain.

After all that stabbiness, it’s great to see the show reveal its earnest, lighthearted side for a minute, with Alfred and Bruce boisterously playing swords in Wayne Manor. You fear it'll grow dark, that Bruce will do some emo-Batman shit that’ll ruin everything — and that's exactly what goes down. Turns out the kid has been hanging out with photos of his murdered parents parents, covertly seeking clues, not unlike the masked vigilante detective he'll become. Later we'll find that Bruce has been starving himself and sitting in chairs reading crime stories in the papers. The Batmobile wheels are turning in his head. Is Bruce going to try something Caped Crusader-ish in this series, or will he seriously watch 10 years of frustrating, sad news broadcasts before he throws on a cape?

"You're gonna make me think you actually care," Gordon tells Bullock as they hit the pavement to find the Balloonman before he takes down the next two targets they know he’s now eyeing. Gotham's gets less morally black-and-white this week and leans a towards some more interesting shades of gray: Gordon really isn't just a Good Man. He kind of should have killed Cobblepot? The future purveyor of fowl play has killed a bunch of people since Gordon set him free; the detective should've at least brought Oswald in for an arrest, but then he would've gotten mob-whacked, etc. Everything is genuinely morally thorny here. Gordon has to play ball, or he and/or Barbara will get hurt.

We currently live in what seems to be the peak age of police brutality, and there are now stories — big ones — published almost every day about police doing awful things to people in America. It feels close to real, watching Jim Gordon save his partner not by shooting an assailant but by bargaining with her. In this instance, the other person cooperates, and Jim doesn't kill a human being. But then Bullock, rancid to the marrow, hops up and punches the surrendering woman (who is African-American) in the face. And you know he’s not losing sleep over that choice. In Bullock’s world, and Gotham’s as well, good deeds and good behavior don’t really exist except in, well, stories. Gordon, who risks his life for the Balloonman, wants to disagree.

Despite the uncomfortable real-world echoes here, the episode ends firmly in comic book territory, with Oswald showing up at Gordon's doorstep in an evil-looking suit — finally looking the full, demonic Penguin part. This is gonna get ugly fast.

Previously: Walk the (Fe)line