Contains spoilers for Gotham season 1.
As Wreck It Ralph taught us all, being a ‘bad guy’ doesn’t make you a bad… guy. However, too many bad guys can make for bad TV. When there are more evildoers on our screens than the plot can service, how are we meant to focus on the hero? Where are we meant to look for future clues if there’s a new adversary every week?
Shows like Arrow, The Flash, and Agents Of SHIELD have all suffered from over-stuffed-ness at one stage or another, but no contemporary comic book show struggles more with this than Gotham. In season 1 alone we had appearances from countless corners of Batman’s rogues’ gallery, with a new one cropping up on pretty much a bi-monthly basis.
Arguably, this caused more trouble in Gotham than it would in any other show, because, in this world, Batman doesn’t exist yet. Gotham City’s Dark Knight is barely even a glimmer of an idea in Bruce Wayne’s mind, at this stage. But, all around the young orphan, we see villains from the comics. This creates a bit of plotting paradox, in that we know they exist, but we also know nothing can truly stop them until Bruce suits up and saves the day many years from now. Aren’t we just doomed to go round in circles for years, then?
So, then, we’ve got to ask – can Gotham keep burning through baddies at its current rate if it wants any real longevity? Just how many villains is too many?
We looked backwards, forwards and sideways to try and find an answer…
Season 1: the core villains
In Gotham season 1, there were an awful lot of adversaries for Ben McKenzie’s Jim Gordon to battle it out with. But there was a core circle of villainous in-fighting that worked pretty well.
The season started with the Falcone and Maroni crime families at the top of the criminal pile, as they are in early-in-Bats’-career comics like The Long Halloween. Working for Maroni at a significant level was Jada Pinkett Smith’s Fish Mooney, a new-for-the-show character who had a young Oswald Cobblepot (fated, as we all know, to become The Penguin) in her employ.
That works. As a set up, it’s totally viable, and it has clear trajectory to it. Obviously, Oswald would eventually rise to the top of that pile. And, indeed, he did. Season 1’s central villainous arc is arguably that of Robin Lord Taylor’s Penguin, who goes from umbrella-holder to the self-proclaimed King Of Gotham by the season’s end.
Robin Lord Taylor sold this transition marvellously, and when he shouted gleefully from the top of a building in the season 1 finale, it felt like he’d reached a stage of villainy that Batman himself would struggle to topple. Now, Penguin will presumably cement his high position in the crime world, making sure to trample down any young upstarts that might try to dethrone the dethroner.
Cory Michael Smith’s Ed Nygma undertook another slow-burn villainous transition over the course of the season. He was both downtrodden at his work place and unlucky in love for the entire run and, eventually, he snapped. When he killed Kristin’s bastardy boyfriend and then went doolally upon being questioned about it, it felt like he’d earned that big villainous moment after a whole season of set-up.
Also, his arc hasn’t been pushed too far. He’s killed one person, and quite possibly gotten away with it. There’s still plenty of room for development there before Gotham’s eventual endgame introduces Batman however many years from now. For the time being, we assume Nygma will become even less stable in the second season.
Our only real qualm with his strand so far is that Ed’s love of riddles has been overwhelmingly stressed from the start. People even call him ‘riddle man,’ if I remember correctly. Surely, this means there’ll never be any doubt about The Riddler’s identity once that name starts getting banded about. It’ll probably be a while before Nygma attempts a big public villainous scheme that requires a moniker, though.
On the whole, both of season 1’s long-form villainous arcs worked well, and each performer rose to the challenge of gradually eking villainy out over the course of 22 episodes. It feels like there’s room remaining for these characters to develop in seasons to come, and we’re confident that Taylor and Smith will continue to do well with the material they’re given. However, not everything worked so well…
Season 1: the supporting villains
Gotham’s least enjoyable villains come in the form of one-off weekly adversaries. Due to the nature of scripting a 22-episode season, something had to happen in the foreground while Penguin and Riddler grew towards villainy in the shadows behind. This juggling act resulted in a few naff villains who distracted Jim and Harvey away from the real growing threats around them.
The worst of these came near the start, in the shape of episode 3’s “Balloonman.” The idea of a pre-Batman vigilante is quite interesting, but one who kills corrupt corporate types by attaching them to weather balloons and letting them float off towards their death seemed like nothing more than a placeholder. A whole episode is spent on this guy’s ridiculous M.O. as Jim runs around trying to work out his identity and eventually stopping him.
Episode six gave us “The Spirit Of The Goat,” another wacky killer who distracted the GCPD crew for about 45 televised minutes. Two weeks later, we saw a prototype Black Mask played by Todd Stashwick, too. Soon, Harvey Dent had been introduced as well, and was even seen flipping a coin at one stage. Red Hood was thrown in later, as well.
Sometimes, it seems like the Gotham writing team are trying to fill time with whatever name from the comics that they pull out of a hat that week, and it does start to rankle the more you think of it.
However, it’s easy to point out the shoehorned-in baddies that didn’t work (Dollmaker was underwhelming too, even with multiple episodes). What’s harder is to try and account for the ones who did work well. Like this fella…
My my, Cameron Monaghan, look how you’ve managed to ruin my entire argument. Thanks for that. Gotham’s sixteenth episode, “The Blind Fortune Teller,” gave us the show’s first proper musings about the Joker’s potential origins.
We’d previously been promised loads of could-be-the-Joker characters, but – despite that morbid stand-up from the pilot – showrunner Bruno Heller (who wrote the episode himself) held back until the second half of the season before really trying to tackle the Clown Prince of Crime.
And boy, what an episode it is. There’s a decent mystery in the shape of a circus killing, and – as you well know – Monaghan’s Jerome is a revelation. In the space of a single episode, he raised the bar for villainous Gotham. By the time that he cackles in Jim’s face, it’s hard to argue with the casting decision, nor the tactic of exploring the Joker’s past (a murky area that many would like to leave ambiguous).
So how can we argue against Gotham’s weekly villains when one of them went on to steal the show? I think it’s down to the standard of the script. “The Balloonman,” “Harvey Dent,” “The Mask,” and “Spirit Of The Goat” all felt like filler episodes, but “The Blind Fortune Teller” was a terrific story that deserved telling. The two-part young Scarecrow story was enjoyable, too, even though it may have been better to save that one for a future season (it wasn’t really tied to any on-going arcs, after all).
Another villain that worked pretty well was The Ogre, played by Milo Ventimiglia. The Ogre was creepy, and Ventimiglia did a fine job, but I think it’s the scripting that really helped. As part of Gotham season 1’s extra six episodes (which were added a while after the original order, when Fox’s confidence grew), three consecutive episodes were given to establishing, building and tearing down The Ogre’s sadistic scheme. The result was a thrilling watch, and a vast improvement to the likes of the Balloonman, who began seeming like a distant memory at this stage.
We’ve got to ask, then…
Season 2: can it work?
Gotham season 2’s first trailer came with a subtitle – Rise Of The Villains. Which doesn’t sound like Heller and co. are planning on reducing the baddie count. Indeed, we’ve already been promised more Oswald, Ed, Harvey, and Jerome alongside introductions for Mr. Freeze, Flamingo, Firefly, Tigress (played by Jessica Lucas, with James Frain as her equally-evil brother), and lots more.
That’s a sizeable pack of villains and/or villains-in-waiting. The key now is surely how Heller and his writers’ room decide to juggle them. If they’re going to take turns enacting evil schemes for Jim to investigate, season 2 could end up feeling like a rehash of the first. However, there’s surely a way it could be done right.
It seems likely that Oswald’s role this year will be an amalgam of Falcone and Maroni’s season 1 efforts. He’ll be pulling the strings of his own criminal empire, and probably calling in favors from Jim when he needs them. We feel like Oswald shouldn’t be pushed to enact a big public theatrical type of villainy until Batman’s on the scene, so it could be fun to see how the entrepreneurial youngster handles life as a mob boss for the next year, instead.
Tigress and her brother Theo have been described as the ‘big bad villains,’ meaning that they’ll be the ones wreaking major multi-episode havoc. That’s fine, as there is a need for some form of action to take place during a 22-hour block of content. They could play a similar role to The Ogre, causing some sizeable mayhem towards the end of the season to ratchet up the tension in the finale.
Then, there’s the matter of juggling Mr Freeze, Flamingo, Firely, Harvey Dent, Ed Nygma, Jerome, and others. Two of those are easy – Harvey and Ed should stay where they are, doing their jobs within the criminal justice system. Nygma still works at the GCPD, and should probably stay there until he can be given a season to play the ‘big bad’ himself. Perhaps he won’t fully become the Riddler until the final season, which would be a nice change of pace. He may have to do some more killings to cover up his season 1 murder, though.
Two-Face’s origin is one that should have close ties to Batman, so we wouldn’t like to see that just yet. The same goes for Jerome’s potential future as the Joker. We’d like to see Jerome escape captivity and wreak some havoc for a few episodes, but by no means should he wear make-up or a purple suit. He needs to grow alongside Batman, not before him.
That leaves Mr. Freeze, Flamingo, and Firefly, who are probably the ones we need to worry about. These guys could become the new Balloonman if they aren’t handled carefully. The key is giving them longer arcs, we’d say, more like The Ogre or Scarecrow’s episodes than the Balloonman or the Goat’s material. If any of them are given just one episode, it’ll probably come out feeling like another Gotham stuffed-in placeholder.
Flamingo’s serial-killer-who-eats-his-victims ways could make for a very dark arc, and deserves to be treated as such, not a one-episode rushed jobbie. Mr. Freeze’s life story is tragic, and we should really only see the beginning of that before Batman turns up. You can’t establish too much before The World’s Greatest Detective appears on the scene. Contrastingly, Firefly is the only one who feels like a one-episode-worthy villain, as fans of Arrow will remember from season 1. He sets fire to stuff. You can’t drag that out for too long.
All things considered, balancing emphasis and careful pacing are the key to Gotham’s villains problem. We can’t have Batman’s core villains [Joker, Penguin, Riddler, Two-Face] becoming too developed before the arrival of The Dark Knight, or we’ll miss out on all the dark parallels between Bats and his enemies. Equally, no one wants to waste time on naff episodes with B-list villains [Balloonman, Goat], when we could be exploring some really interesting stuff [see: Scarecrow and Joker’s season 1 episodes].
Good luck to Heller and co., then. In season 1, they proved that having multiple villains on the go can certainly work, but it’s not at all easy to get right.