One of the greatest frustrations of Gotham Season One was its utter lack of surprise. Everything unfolded last year (save for one eye-popping scene) just about as expected, with storytelling that felt conservative to a fault. Thus, it was a welcome change knowing that something big was going to happen in the first few episodes of Gotham’s second year. Of course, because old habits die hard, the show couldn’t help but let everyone know that the big event was a “major” character death, ruining what surprise there may have been. Still, it’s nice to see the writers take greater chances this year and, with the new serialization format, the stakes should only get bigger.
“Knock, Knock” was one of Gotham’s most competent hours of television, providing a cohesion that has often been amiss in the show. The primary hook of the episode came from the first real showdown between the Galavan’s band of lunatics (who’ve branded themselves The Maniax) and the GCPD. After a notably stale first episode, “Knock, Knock” brought some much needed fireworks with two set pieces, the attempted destruction of a school bus full of cheerleaders and the final shootout at the police headquarters. Sadly, the drama still can’t put together a decent action sequence, leaving much to be desired last night. But, even poor action is better than no action. The other major storyline involved Bruce and Alfred as they investigated Thomas Wayne’s secret office. Though in a very different way, the Bruce and Alfred plot was loaded with fireworks of its own. Constantly caught between being a father and a butler, Alfred was once again forced to make a controversial decision to, he thought, protect Bruce. It didn’t go over well, leading to Alfred being relieved of his duties. Unsurprisingly, the firing didn’t last long and Bruce brought his butler back into the fold before the chap even boarded a train.
As has been greatly hinted, Jerome quickly became the de facto leader of the Maniax in “Knock, Knock,” and by the end of the episode had gone out of his way to greatly reduce the team’s numbers to prove his authority. Clearly the big struggle in the first half of Season Two will be the Maniax vs. the GCPD, and it will be interesting to see just what the Galavans have planned moving forward. Inducing panic must be only a sliver of their overall plan, and episode two was a clear indication that they are willing to shed lots of blood to make their point. The big “surprise” of the episode was the death of newly-anointed Commissioner Essen. While Essen is technically a major character, she’s also the safest choice. Like the action, though, a little surprise is better than nothing. A real shock would have been to kill off Lee, Gordon’s love interest introduced last season, and played by the wonderful Morena Baccarin. That would have been too sudden for what the writers have planned, however, as Barbara has her sights on Lee and is likely to put her in harm’s way later in the season.
So far, the new serialization format is paying off in a big way for Gotham. Both the premiere and last night’s episodes felt far superior to their Season One counterparts in terms of pacing and overall story mass. A simple recap of the night’s main plot points last year would have involved a convoluted mess of five or more storylines. This year, there appears to be an increased focus on building week to week, which has already allowed a greater connection to the characters and the story in which they’re involved.
I would be remiss not to mention, particularly after failing to last week, that something interesting is brewing with Edward Nygma. Much like Barbara, last year Ed pushed his boundaries and snapped when he murdered Tom Dougherty, a GCPD cop/scumbag that had been dating his crush Kristen Kringle. Since then, Ed has battled a dual personality, one far more confident and dangerous than his usual mindset. Though not much has happened yet, the wrinkle has given Cory Michael Smith far greater material to work with and has been a needed upgrade for the character. Scenes involving Ed now have electricity that didn’t exist before, and are immensely more entertaining. Also worth mentioning is the addition (though he appeared very briefly in Season One) of Chris Chalk as Lucius Fox. Chalk already feels like one of the premiere performers on the show, with an impressive presence that made his two scenes last night highlights of the hour. One other mop-up note: “Knock, Knock” did not include, in any way, Oswald Cobblepot. And I didn’t miss him. Though Robin Lord Taylor is still one of the show’s better players, I fear the story doesn’t have much room for him this year. With the Maniax wreaking havoc on the city, and Bruce digging deeper into Wayne Enterprises, there doesn’t seem to be much screen real estate for the Penguin to peck at. I’m curious as to how the writers will work him into the season as he’s done very little in the first two episodes. The natural fit would be as a counterpoint to the Galavans, working with Gordon and the GCPD in an enemy of my enemy is my friend scenario, but so far no cards have been put on the table.
Finally, I’d like to shortly note the directing work of Rob Bailey. Some of the best episodes of season one came when the visual aesthetic of the show had more than an ounce of style. In “Knock, Knock,” Bailey’s camera was confident and varied, static and elegant framing interspersed with an active camera (most notably when Gordon rose to his feet in the back alley behind the police headquarters). With all its mise-en-scene inconsistency, Gotham would benefit greatly from more directors who aren’t afraid to spice things up.
?The biggest takeaway from “Knock, Knock” isn’t Essen’s death. It’s the fact that Gotham made good on its promises. A “major” character died, and the show continued on its path of serialization. There are still many rough edges, but with the kind of drastic reboot that this show is attempting, edges are expected to be rough. When the show seemed to take a step forward last year, numerous steps in the wrong direction always followed. In the first two hours of Season Two, Gotham has taken two necessary steps forward. Now, it’s time for the show to prove it can keep the ball moving down the field.
Eric Walters is the Assistant Tech Editor at Paste and a regular contributor to the TV section. For more of his thoughts on comic book television, listen to his podcast.