So it looks like we can't call this show Batman Without Batman anymore. The Dark Knight is here, in Gotham, albeit in the form of young master Bruce Wayne. "But that’s not Batman!" you cry. It absolutely is Batman, just 10-20 years pre-cape. The fact that we might never see the pointy ears and the batarangs is a good thing.
Why? Because we've spent so much time with that guy from all those comic books and films and TV shows and video games — the international icon whose Wikipedia entry goes on for 18,000 words. Bruce, though? Compared to his superhero alter ego, we barely know the kid. Gotham’s second episode — "Selina Kyle" — opens on the new orphan working through the pain of his parents' death in an unhealthy, Batman-ish fashion, seeing how long he can burn his hand on a candle. Later we’ll learn that he’s also listening to death metal, drawing disturbing art, and experimenting in cutting himself.
In the pilot, it seemed like the show could avoid the Problem of the Week format that makes so many network dramas feel dangerously similar. This time we see that Detective James Gordon might indeed find himself solving a crime an episode, which could be acceptable if each week’s problem is as dark and plot-expanding as this one. Gordon and his boorish, alcoholic partner Harvey Bullock are after a pair of psychos disguised as do-gooders, the type of mid-level crooks who stab homeless children with a tranquilizer-tipped pin, kidnap them, and ship them overseas to someone called the Dollmaker. (Overseas, huh? Is Batman über-villain Ra’s al Ghul going to show up?) Selina "Baby Catwoman" Kyle, for whom the episode is named, saw Bruce’s parents die in the pilot, and now she's skulking near the scene of the crime again.
Unlike the Waynes' mystery murderer, these kidnappers feel eminently catchable, and that’s a great way for us to start rooting for and siding with our police-detective protagonist. Gotham's pilot repeatedly told us how rotten this town is and how great Gordon is, but this week, he's walking the walk. He's also fighting a secret now, one that’s got all the key players thinking he’s just another corrupt cop: Gordon is known as the man who "executed" Oswald Cobblepot. What's going to happen when Bullock, or mob boss Carmine Falcone, or Fish Mooney learns that Gordon let the scheming maniac escape with his life?
And what’s Oswald doing with that life? Shuffling down a lonesome, gray highway just outside Gotham, looking like the cousin of Danny Devito in Batman Returns. Oswald gets picked up by some antagonistic bros and makes short work of them with a beer bottle. Actor Robin Lord Taylor provided the most instantly intriguing portrait of a nascent Bat-villainin the pilot, and he's still on a roll this week. (Also, his mother is being investigated by Gordon and Bullock’s cop-nemeses, Renee Montoya and Crispus Allen. In a hard-to-pin accent, she reveals that the Cobblepots, in the Old World, were Kapelputs.)
At Fish Mooney’s downtown club, Falcone vents his nervousness about the power vacuum opened up by the death of Thomas and Martha Wayne. Parent figures are becoming a big theme: Falcone has been a father figure to Fish, the woman whose own surrogate son, Oswald, just betrayed her. Alfred and Jim have never had kids, and they're working together to help Bruce "choose his own cause."
Fish tells Falcone she welcomes no lovers, only a lad, Laslow, she keeps around "for exercise." Fish isn't always honest, of course: She tears up when Falcone's goons start pummeling her "boy." Later, with her head henchman Butch Gilzean, Fish schemes. "I need more money, more men, more territory." Once that's taken care of, though? "I am gonna kill that old man with my bare hands and my teeth." Jada Pinkett Smith's styling — those earrings! that dress! — are still spectacularly on-point, and she’s mastering the language of High Villainese more and more with every scene. She’s also back on speaking terms with Gordon and Bullock, despite having just tried to murder them.
Our weekly shootout happens in a pharmacy, where Gordon and Bullock are ambushed by the kidnappers. Gordon finds his way to a back room where the kidnapped children are being held. Mayor Aubrey James (Richard Kind) uses the rescue to announce a "humane, tough-love, program" to take care of the city's homeless youth. "Foster homes for the cute, undamaged ones," he tells Gordon in private, "upstate for the rest." The mayor is opportunistically turning a criminal conspiracy into a way to sweep up "half the city's petty crimes." Gotham's best man has his first staredown with Gotham's biggest wolf in government clothing. Neither likes what he sees.
Selina — who's already nicknamed Cat — is one of the kids destined for the juvenile detention center upstate. Her bus is commandeered by the pinprick kidnappers, who successfully stash everyone but her in a shipping container. Selina mauls a thug's eyes and creates enough of a diversion for Gordon to save the day. Like Bruce, this feline tween is much more than she seems. And now she's offering to tell the detective who killed the Waynes.
By the night's end, it's clear that Gotham is quickly figuring out how to be Gotham. The bevy of side characters — the mayor, Gordon's fiancé Barbara, Edward "One Day I Shall Be the Riddler" Nygma, Montoya and Allen — are implemented seamlessly, without taking up too much time. The feel of the show, from the grimy streets to the glowing interiors, is distinct. And the story — with its Dollmakers, its endangered city, and its single, floundering hero — is just heating up.
- Last week, we mulled the rumors of a new Joker candidate hiding in each episode. This week's nominee is…Harvey Bullock! He’s got a real grin thing going, and a cop very pointedly calls him "clown." And "Harvey" just isn't a good-guy name in the Batman universe, even if Bullock is a longtime comic-book character. (Fish's handsome waiter/boy-toy seems Jokerish, too.)
- Edward Nygma says the chemical the kidnappers are using is something that was used at Arkham Asylum. It's a Batverse staple that, in the world of Gotham, has been shuttered for a decade, although the Waynes were apparently working to reopen the joint. Stay tuned.
Previously: Welcome to the 'Boom' Town