Gotham is back and, though it might not be a completely new show, it has managed to shed much of the unnecessary mobster-related narrative weight of its first season. We’ve got all of our favorites: Jim, Bruce, and Penguin re-committing to their respective goals. And we have the new addition of some the Galavan siblings, gathering up the Arkham villains to form a more cohesive villainous unit.
The season 2 premiere, “Damned If You Do” did a fine job checking all of the season premiere boxes — i.e. picking up relevant plot threads from the previous season while simultaneously launching a new story. We pick up a month following the events of the season 1 finale, but this feels like a new chapter in Gotham’s story — one that will hopefully be characterized by bolder narrative decision-making that pays homage to the comic book source material while demonstrating that it isn’t afraid to break the rules a little.
This is what Gotham needs to move from an entertaining, yet ultimately underwhelming show to something greater. It needs to prove that it’s willing to take chances and surprise us by telling a story other than the obvious one laid out before us. In this respect, the season 2 premiere didn’t wow us, but it had a few surprising moments.
Jim gets fired, strikes a deal with Penguin
One way in which the premiere impressed and surprised me was with its choices concerning Jim Gordon. Jim has always been a tough character to develop. He needs to be good, but still effective in a corrupt world. Steady, but not predictable. He is at his most compelling when he is pushing at that narrative fine line, and the season 2 premiere was one such episode. I didn’t expect Jim to kill Ogden Barker when collecting Penguin’s debt, but I’m sort of glad that he did?
Jim is as boxed into his source material role as Bruce is. He eventually becomes Commissioner Gordon, but that doesn’t mean he has to be him now. Gotham would do well to remember that, while not letting Jim fall too far off of the good guy bandwagon. “You wanna be a cop so bad, you’re willing to break the law?” Leslie asks Jim. His response: “I’m willing to bend it a little, yeah.”
That being said, I’m not sure if I believe that Jim would be able to take out Ogden Barker’s men so easily. He’s a competent cop, not a superhero.
Penguin convinces Loeb to retire
And by “convinces,” I mean breaks into his house in the middle of the night, chops off his bodyguard’s head, and threatens to do the same to Loeb if he doesn’t comply. It’s one of the more effective scenes of the episode in that it is chilling to watch and I legitimately don’t know what Penguin and Zsasz will do. (Point for Gotham.)
The scene that sees Loeb retiring is oddly sad. I wasn’t expecting that. It is a sign of just how far this city has fallen — i.e. that Jim is willing to stoop to such lows to get his job back. As Bruce would (and does) put it: “Sometimes, the right way is the ugly way.” It also properly introduced new Big Bad Theo Galavan, played wonderfully by James Frain. We don’t know what this guy is up to, but we know it can’t be good.
Bruce tries to enter the not-Batcave
Meanwhile, back at the Wayne Manor, Bruce is intent on breaking into the room he found hidden under the manor. Surprise! It’s a not-Batcave, aka his father’s office. The message Thomas Wayne ominously left for Bruce via letter: “You can’t have both happiness and the truth. You have to choose. I beg of you, my son, please choose happiness. Unless you feel a calling. A true calling.” Guess what? Bruce doesn’t choose the first option.
Gotham manages to distract with the sheer delightfulness of the relationship between Bruce and Alfred — i.e. when Alfred chastises Bruce for trying to make a bomb: “I read a book, Alfred. It seems simple enough.” — but it’s going to need to make some bold moves with this storyline. For me, the relationship between Bruce and Alfred is one of the best on this show, which saves their storyline from complete irrelevancy. But, as many viewers have pointed out, this storyline is moving a bit slow in its attempts to avoid Bruce from actually becoming Batman.
But Bruce doesn’t have to become Batman to be interesting. His single-mindedness when it comes to figuring out how to save this city is one of the most compelling and problematic (for him and his personal relationship) traits of many Batman incarnations. This single-mindedness, which both Jim and Bruce seems to possess, is mirrored in the single-mindedness of the villains. Gotham seems to understand that, and plays effectively with that symmetry in the season premiere.
The villains join reluctant forces
Gotham makes another smart storytelling decision heading into its season 2 by grouping up most of its villains and giving them the start of their own serialized storyline. In the premiere, we see Jerome and Barbara meeting in Arkham before getting broken out, along with a few of their “friends,” by the Galavan siblings. Barbara is more interesting in this episode than she was in all of season 1. And, despite the fact that she has seemingly gone completely crazy, has a steadier character presence here than she ever did in season 1. She’s still annoyingly obsessed with Jim and Leslie, though. I kind of wish she would have bigger plans, you know?
Let me hammer the Gotham Can’t Be Afraid of Canon theme home for you one more time. This past summer, I continued to be wowed by the final episodes of the Hannibal TV series and couldn’t help but compare them to Gotham. Hannibal does adaptation so well. It is inspired by, rather than chained to its source material. Like Gotham, it started out by telling a story that took place largely before the events of its most well-known canon. In that way, these shows both have some wiggle room. Hannibal took that wiggle room and reinvented the canon itself. It simultaneously made the story its own and made the original better by presenting an quasi-alternate backstory for some of its main players. Gotham would do well to do the same. After watching this season 2 premiere, I am reminded of how much the show has going for it: an excellent cast, high production values, and some great thematic instincts. It’s not too late for it to start putting its own spin on DC lore in some game-changing ways.