For weeks, Gotham writers have implored their viewers to be patient, to trust that there is a plan. All the time spent veering from an episode’s main story for setup would be worthwhile, as long as we hung on for the ride. Last night, in “Penguin’s Umbrella,” we got our first glimpse of what the writers have been working on in the shadows and learned, all but definitively, they know what they’re doing.
What made “Penguin’s Umbrella” a successful episode, first and foremost, was focus. There was a dedication to a singular storyline in this hour, which has only been shown in spurts the previous six. Very little time was wasted, and it’s a model that should be employed in all episodes, whether they are involved with the overarching season narrative or not. Coming off last week’s cliffhanger, Penguin arriving at GCPD to announce that he is very much alive, Gotham’s seventh episode revolved around Gordon and his own fight to keep from sinking to the bottom of Gotham River.
Despite this seemingly cataclysmic storyline, the episode was sadly lacking in significant action. Save for an early shootout involving Gordon and Victor Zsasz (Anthony Carrigan), there was little here to boost the heart rate. There were small moments that kept the show moving forward, but I was nearly ready to label this episode “boring” until the final act. A welcome change, “Penguin’s Umbrella” improved in the last 15 minutes, rather than squandering everything away like many earlier efforts have. This was thanks, in no small part, to a genuine surprise in the final moments. It is more than likely that I just failed to put the pieces together, but I’d like to instead credit the writers for not telegraphing a twist with the revelation that the Penguin is working for Carmine Falcone. It’s an obvious move for the Penguin to make, but the fact that it’s a plan that stretches back to the first episode—and that there’s a possibility that I failed to consider after hours of thought given to this show—tickled me. For once, I’m excited to see where the writers will take us, because I now know they are taking us somewhere. Where the end destination will be, and whether it will be satisfying, I can’t begin to consider. But, if they were able to surprise me once, there’s no doubt they can do it again.
What irks me, though, is the increasing likelihood that this first season will center around the oft-mentioned mob war. I had hoped that it would come to a head by midseason, though I always knew that those hopes were far fetched. It’s perfectly natural for Gotham to use it’s first season to build the Penguin, as well as Gordon, through a war with Falcone and Sal Maroni, but it’s also perfectly safe. I always loved the idea of Gotham. The chance to see how a city corroded itself to the point that it needed a vigilante to don a cape and cowl, and take it upon himself to rid his city of crime was enticing. It makes sense for that story to start with the corruption, from the mayor to the police, brought on by the organized crime that rules Gotham. I admit it, it makes sense. It just feels like a wasted opportunity. Gotham is not a normal city. Its very name comes from the idea of a place being known by the foolishness of its inhabitants. Other words for foolish? Absurd, insane, preposterous. There is a wealth of interesting, twisted villains that have called Gotham home. Perhaps I’m too eager to see them as the focal point of this show, but I’d take Victor Zsasz over Carmine Falcone every single day of the week.
But, it could work, if the writers make us truly care about the characters. Mob bosses certainly aren’t shy around blood, Gordon even earned a few wounds to prove it this week. If the writers can build their characters into fully formed beings that the audience care for, worry for, than a simple mob story becomes much more engaging. It may not be the weird, dark narrative I want this show to live in, but it could still be effective. Plenty of other shows have thrived in similar territory, often because of superb character development. If Gotham can accomplish that, bring on the war.
Let’s go back and talk about Anthony Carrigan as Zsasz. A lesser known Batman villain, Victor Zsasz first appeared in 1992, and is often illustrated as an unpredictable killer with one defining characteristic—he carves a tally mark in his skin for each person he’s murdered. He’s the kind of dark property that Gotham can capitalize on, and thus far they’ve employed him extremely well. At one point during “Penguin’s Umbrella,” I was pining for more Carrigan, whose portrayal is chilling and unnerving, but by the episode’s close I had changed my stance. A slow rollout of Zsasz, who currently works as a hitman for Falcone, could be the right treatment. It’s felt contrived with Edward Nygma, mostly because we know who he’ll become and what his schtick will be. The only schtick with Zsasz is that he kills people, and that you’re never sure what he’ll do next. Introducing him slowly, familiarizing him with the audience, only to have him evolve and become more prominent a villain as the series rolls on, would be a smart move.
After weeks of lamenting Gotham’s inability to finish what it’s started, it finally did. It wasn’t perfect, but a genuine surprise in the final act is as good a sign as any this show has given thus far. The only thing holding me back from lavishing the writing staff with kind words is the staleness of the mob war storyline, and the likelihood that it will remain the focal point moving forward. It affected this episode, giving a, not uneventful, but also not terribly interesting hour that was saved thanks to a clever ruse. The twist revealed at the end of “Penguin’s Umbrella” wasn’t an outright shock, something I’m sure someone out there saw coming, but it was proof that the writers have, at least, an idea of what they’re doing. Where the writers are headed may not be where I want to go, but at least they know how to get there.
•I would steal all the Halloween candy from all the children in the world if it would get Penguin a new haircut.
•For a second, I thought sending Barbara out of Gotham under the veil of safety was just an easy way to get her off the show. I was wrong, but I really wish I wasn’t.
Eric Walters is a Detroit-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. For more of his TV musings, follow him on Twitter.