Gotham Review: “Arkham”

(Episode 1.04)

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<i>Gotham</i> Review: &#8220;Arkham&#8221;

In 2011, DC Comics took an enormous chance. It canceled and re-launched all of its monthly comics giving each a new Number One issue, essentially resetting its entire universe, which had been gestating since before World War II. DC put writer Scott Snyder and artist Greg Capullon in charge of Batman, arguably the company’s most famous and lucrative book. In the 30-plus issues that have followed, the pairing has proven to be, not only one of the most bankable creative teams, but one of the best. Whether tackling a multi-issue story arc or a one-off, Snyder and Capullo are master storytellers and, as the webs unfold, readers know they are in the hands of two artists completely in control.

Gotham has yet to find that sense of control. For, as promising its pilot was, the next two weeks felt decidedly chaotic and cramped. Episode four, “Arkham,” is the closest the show has come to being truly captivating, and for the first half-hour, I was enthralled. It began with the directing of T.J. Scott, whose lens gave Gotham a distinctive look it’s lacked in previous weeks. Shows like The Knick and True Detective have shown the benefit of a singular visionary (particularly the former), and while that model is harder to accomplish in a network setting, Gotham producers would be wise to employ Scott as often as they can. His vision of Gotham was more expressive than anything before it, unafraid to capture scenes from unusual vantage points, lending the show much needed visual flair.

Similarly, the writing from Ken Woodruff was the most consistent of any hour so far. Thanks in large part to comfortable performances from all the major players, “Arkham” lacked the seemingly customary, cringe-worthy moments from Gotham’s first three episodes. Everything was clicking by the halfway mark, and I felt as though I were reading a recent issue of Batman, at the mercy of a storyteller in control. And then, it all just fizzled. As impressed as I was by the first half of Gotham’s fourth episode, I was just as disappointed by the second. Tension was built gradually and purposefully, like a slowly-filling balloon, but instead of being given a shocking and satisfying pop, all viewers got was a realization that the balloon had been leaking air the entire time.

“Arkham” concerned the development of a run down section of Gotham City (known as Arkham, of course), home to the infamous asylum in which Batman’s most crazed villains find themselves thrown, and out of which they inevitably break. The plot danced nicely from one story to the next, weaving them together in a fashion that felt both well-paced and entertaining. Gotham’s achilles heel continues to be, and likely will for the foreseeable future, the inclusion of too many characters. Both Fish Mooney and Bruce feel unnecessary, the latter almost egregiously so, and even in an episode that manages to compartmentalize them nicely, you can’t help but ponder what the show would be like without their interference. Hopefully, a reduction will come with time (and Penguin’s imminent rise to power), but for now we’re stuck, and the effects are obvious.

Though not much time was wasted, the moments that were worked to greatly reduced what could have been a build-up to the episode’s main villain. While the story centered on a struggle for power between Falcone and Maroni, it was a violent mercenary known as Gladwell waging that struggle. With a strong performance from Hakeem Kae-Kazim, Gladwell was primed to be a truly affecting antagonist, but lack of focus in the final thirty minutes reduced him to nothing more than a glorified lackey, a character without the ability to inflict real pain. It didn’t help that the final fight scene between Gordon and Gladwell was bumbling and awkward, easily Scott’s worst sequence of the night. What the pilot and three subsequent episodes have proved, though granted four episodes can’t prove much, is that Gotham shouldn’t live in one-episode-per-villain territory.

Let’s go back to Scott Snyder and his incredible run as penman for Batman. Much of his time writing the Caped Crusader has been dedicated to elaborate, multi-issue storylines. He’s shown great confidence that his audience will invest in narratives that involve, primarily, one or two main villains over a long stretch of time. But he’s also had the benefit of 75 years of lore. He doesn’t need to explain a villain’s motives and psyche in order for the reader to understand; that work has been done. Gotham doesn’t share that benefit, having a much broader audience, unless it taps the most familiar of those that have haunted its eponymous city. What it can do, though, is take notes from Snyder’s ability to craft gripping narratives that build over several installments. Right now, the show is failing with single-episode stories, and it clearly wants to focus on grander arcs that will (hopefully) pay off down the line. And isn’t that the way of television, these days? No longer are there fears that viewers won’t be invested, or won’t follow multi-episode arcs. Viewers have grown accustomed, and come to expect the format. Gotham could benefit from the introduction of a villain that plans to set up residence for more than an hour. Then, the writers could truly build a character, allow them to wreak havoc, raising the stakes and create true tension, with true payoff. Luckily, the near-constant flood of casting news suggests that Bruno Heller and co. are ready to do just that.

?It’s a pity that “Arkham” ended on such a flat note. What preceded was the best the show has been, and a much needed uptick after two poor weeks. My optimism hasn’t been this high since week one, but the fate of the show still hangs in the air. Until we see that Heller and his staff are in control of the webs they’ve spun, whether this show deserves your time Monday nights remains a question. We know a war is coming, and for the sake of Gotham, it better come soon.

Eric Walters is a Detroit-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. For more of his TV musings, follow him on Twitter.