After getting off to a reasonably good start in its sophomore year, Gotham laid a giant egg last week with an episode that was so rough, it caused more than the usual mild irritation for the viewer. My tepid reaction to last week’s “Strike Force” was due in part to the fact that I, for once, had legitimate expectations coming off the surprising choice to kill Jerome in episode three. I felt that Gotham was poised to find its rhythm, given the drama’s new confidence in year two, and reversal of storytelling philosophy. But, I was pushing the show too soon and it proved not yet ready to take the next step.
Luckily, Gotham did not allow its misstep to turn into a full-on slide, picking itself up quickly with a far more competent and interesting hour of television with last night’s “Scarification” (though the name is supremely stupid). The episode was a bit of a change-up in regard to the serialization effort that has been the hallmark of the young second season, but it was done cleverly. “Scarification” found a way to squeeze in a villain of the week that fit with the grander storyline. Theo Galavan continued to pressure the Penguin to do his bidding (which he accomplishes by kidnapping Oswald’s beloved mother), forcing him to complete some grunt work. Being the proud mobster he is, however, Penguin won’t do the dirty work himself, but instead contracts Gotham’s most talented arsonists. What we eventually get is an origin episode of sorts for a lesser-known Batman villain, Firefly. In this iteration, the character is a young girl stuck in an abusive familial relationship (there’s no blood in common) with a group of boys that have a penchant for fire. Bridget Pike begins as a lowly house slave, but when one of the brothers is taken out of the picture (more on that in a minute), she’s thrust into the thick of it. Unlike the attempts at origin stories last year, “Scarification” did a commendable job at developing Bridgit before she became any sort of villainess character. The writers didn’t rush things this time around, and it paid off in a big way. Next week we’ll see more of Firefly, and the groundwork laid in this episode should hopefully pay dividends.
While the Firefly storyline was the meat of the episode, through the multiple arson attempts we also got to learn a little more about the Galavans. As we already knew, the Galavans have a history with Gotham that goes back generations, but last night we were made privy to the fact that their relationship with the Waynes, in particular, also has deep roots. Nearly 200 years ago, the Galavans and the Waynes had a dustup of sorts that led to a member of the former losing a hand (the details aren’t as important as the mere fact that these two have a sordid past). The new information helped enlighten Theo’s greater plan, though the reasoning is still paper-thin. There has to be more than a series of unfortunate encounters and desire for revenge that would lead a man (albeit an insane one) to want to kill a young boy (Bruce), but that’s precisely how Theo’s decisions have been framed. It’s not enough, but given that this episode represents the first time we learned of the Wayne-Galavan history, there must be more horror stories to be unveil.
The most promising aspect of the episode, however, was its sheer lunacy. Ever since Fish Mooney gouged her eye out with a spoon, I’ve longed for Gotham to forget its dream of being a prestige drama and embrace the crazy. Last night was the closest the show has ever come to being that, as we saw multiple hands chopped off and even an arsonist explode. Usually, the violence that Gotham shoehorns into its episodes feels like a poor attempt to raise its street cred, rather than any necessary plot development. The moments of gore last night felt campier than many before, the one aspect of the show that seemed to be in on the joke. I wish the entire production could find a way to embrace insanity and camp, now that it’s clear the show will never be a straight drama, like I’d dreamed. But, if it could find a way to be something akin to the early years of True Blood, where camp was the point, it could find a whole new life. Unfortunately what we have now, and have had for going on a year, is a show that is pulled in multiple directions tonally. There is the insane camp side, but also the side holding onto prestige dreams.
Even with a slew of shocking moments, “Scarification” couldn’t accurately be described as exciting. The action continues to disappoint, though there was some improvement. I hoped the introduction of Gordon’s task force would help this area, but it mostly appears to be an excuse to have characters that are always in SWAT gear. And, as I predicted last week, the new task force members are really nothing more than bodies to kill for easy melodrama. Not even a week passed before one was taken from us (RIP Garrett, who was with us for so short a time, I had to look up whether he was on the task force, because I couldn’t remember). Barring the show stealing fight coordinators from ABC or The CW, I don’t see the action improving on Gotham any time soon. But, if they embrace that crazy camp, it would open a wealth of opportunities in the fight department.
?After a sincere disappointment in episode four, it was nice to watch Gotham actually fill a primetime slot on a major network with an episode of television that felt worthy of being deemed “professional.” “Scarification” was still plagued by poor writing at times, as I expect every episode will from now until eternity. The Firefly story was perhaps the best villain introduction the show has given, which should aid next week’s episode greatly, and the numerous shock moments from the episode will leave a lasting impact until Monday rolls around again. At this point, that’s best-case scenario for Gotham. To do something so wild that viewers remember it at all.
Eric Walters is the Assistant Tech Editor for Paste and a regular contributor to the TV section. For more of his thoughts on comic book television, listen to his podcast.