Hit the Bat-signal and spread the word: Gotham is crawling out its slump. For the second week in a row, strong writing for the series heavies, from its dueling Dons to the once and future Scarecrow, injected much-needed mirth and menace into the often shaky show. Serious flaws are still abound, but you may be having too much fun to notice.
For starters, a Scarecrow was born, as teenage Jonathan Crane receives a hot shot of toxin so strong it warps his mind forever. (If he only had a brain!) But while his J-horror-meets-4H hallucinations of straw men with gaping maws and fiery eyes were reasonably creepy, it was his father, Dr. Gerald Crane (a realistically rumpled Julian Sands), who was the episode’s true nightmare. His pseudoscientific scheme to rid himself of fear by essentially overdosing on it made intuitive, if not biological, sense; when it comes to supervillainy, that’s more than enough. The point was driven home most effectively not by Crane’s hallucinations of his incinerated wife, but by something more prosaic. “Think I’m afraid of you? Afraid of your guns?” he asks when the cops corner him — then immediately comes out blasting, right out there in the open, bullets be damned. That jolt of surprise delivered the message in a way that medical monologues or syringe close-ups couldn’t.
And just like last week, the mobsters gave the madmen a run for their murderous money. We’ve never quite been sold on Falcone and Maroni: John Doman plays the former with a slumming actor’s stiffness, while David Zayas’ portrayal of the latter is a bit too central-casting goombah for its own good. But seeing them together in this episode, cordially negotiating over the fate of their double-agent lieutenant, the Penguin — you could tell that something clicked. They may bear the same crime-boss title and battle for the same turf, but they’re so different in how they look, sound, and react that it’s clear how they could share a city without immediately slicing each other’s throats. They simply occupy separate spaces, even when they’re walking shoulder to shoulder. By the time they seal their deal with a bit of brutal BDSM blackmail against a judge, their let-bygones-be-bygones backslapping is easy to buy.
With his star thus shined, Maroni even elevates his protégé during their tense time together. Though you can’t blame actor Robin Lord Taylor for camping it up as Batman’s eventual avian adversary, his cheesy scene with Cory Michael Smith’s equally gonzo Edward Nygma, the Riddler-in-waiting, reveals the limit to this approach. There’s only so much deliberate rogues-gallery goofiness you can cram in before it becomes too much to take. But the gangster is another story. When he blows up Oswald Cobblepot’s spot, the waddling underling’s fear feels real, his constant maneuvering the product of desperation rather than posturing. After all, the bossman’s actions speak louder than words: Threatening the Penguin while pouring him a drink until it overflowed and spilled all over his shiny floor was an effectively intimidating bit of business. We’re amazed we’ve never seen it used before.
Unfortunately, the bad guys got all the good material. Sure, Detective Jim Gordon and newly minted GCPD medical examiner Leslie Tompkins begin the episode with flirtatious banter about a potential night at her apartment: “How’s the kitchen?” “Small.” “Living room?” “Dark.” “How about the bedroom?” “The bedroom I think you’d like.” It was white-hot enough to raise suspicion they’ll get started before they make it through the door. But by the time Lee reports to work and Gordon repeatedly rebuffs her advances in the name of professionalism, badly mismatched actors Ben McKenzie and Morena Baccarin have all the chemistry of a wet book of matches. Gordon’s police work isn’t so hot either: It takes him and Harvey Bullock an entire episode to think of investigating their suspect’s house! The comics call Batman the World’s Greatest Detective; let’s just say Gotham’s Finest aren’t much competition.
Speaking of the Dark Knight, young Bruce Wayne‘s sad solo stab at hiking through the woods he and his father used to take together was involving enough. (The scene in which he scattered their collected rocks as a keening violin note played, courtesy of Graeme Revell and David E. Russo’s score, was a favorite.) But this journey of self-discovery took a wrong turn when Alfred allowed Master Bruce to crawl uphill in the dark on a badly sprained ankle — the kind of tough-love bullshit only the hard-man mentors of corny genre protagonists ever pull. Watch the sunrise with Al if you must, Master B, but serve him his walking papers the second you get back to stately Wayne Manor.
Crafting a compelling Bruce Wayne/Batman — one who’s as enjoyable as his enemies, the way he is in the funnybooks — is a challenge on the level of splitting the atom. Outside of the comics, only Batman: The Animated Series, a show now over two full decades old, has arguably captured the character’s inimitable blend of derring-do and darkness. Gotham may never get there, but a few more episodes like these last two and it’ll be a grand old time watching them try.