Gotham – Season 4 – A Dark Knight
A Dark Knight arc
I still very much struggle with the Gotham’s choice of style. The MCU TV connections are mostly going for the gritty angle, the Arrowverse has its various levels of fun to play with, and then Gotham takes… soap opera? I mean action-soap as a theme is unclaimed by any other superhero show, so fair play in theory, but I think ‘A Dark Knight’ has really fallen foul of some of the tropes of afternoon TV plotting.
Before we go on let me say, as I have before, that I’ve no intention of using ‘soap opera’ here to mean something bad. It’s rather that when soap operas are struggling you tend to see more style over substance, more character choices made because “the plot needs it, darling” instead of for character-consistent reasons and more copying of old ideas.
Further, where Gotham seems to struggle in this way this season, it’s made all the more obvious by the one great episode – “The Demon’s Head” – that was written in a completely different style and directed with a completely different tone. This episode has real subtlety in the script, character conversations with depth and allows some of the humour to be darker, matching the fact that Gotham – as Falcone comments in a later episode – is a city that never sees the sun.
Was “The Demon’s Head” written in isolation, I wonder, or a purposeful experiment with something different? I really hope it’s the latter, as that Gotham was great, whilst at least half of the rest of this latest arc has felt a little lazy and often offensive to the female cast.
Not like this
Start as you mean to go, they say, and the first episode actually manages to Rick-Roll us in Penguin’s Iceberg Lounge. Was this just an unfortunate choice or intentional dig by someone on the team? I might have thought it charming fun but for us then being lead to watch very similar plot as we saw in season 3. Scarecrow’s mist is Alice’s blood again for example, and so it’s no wonder Jim so easily shrugs off this threat as he does have the experience of dealing with it.
Whereas I definitely think there were some good structural-level ideas working in the background of ‘A Dark Knight’, I think Gotham struggled to realise them properly because of this repetition of ideas that unfortunately seemed to be not just of old Gotham plots but also of things we’ve seen elsewhere.
Ivy needs “ancient, mystical potions”. Scarecrow’s poison is defeated by water, which reminds me of Signs and the Wizard of Oz. In ‘A Day in the Narrows’ the hero Jim is the only one brave enough to enter the courthouse and save the day. None of this is new or inspired by the unique situation that is Gotham City, which is what leads me to feel some of the plotting has been lazy.
More upsetting though, is when this seems to turn towards plagiarism. In ‘The Fear Reaper’ the scary hallucination is a clown. Sure people find clowns scary but to use this plot when ‘It’ was just being rereleased in the cinema? The same episode’s new ‘army of freaks’ resembled a horde from a cheap zombie movie. And again in the same episode Lucius delivers Bruce a bat suit that he needs because of his – wink, wink – “rock climbing”. This could have been a nod to ‘Batman Begins’ but when combined with the other points doesn’t feel that way.
The real Gotham
“The Demon’s Head” is what I want Gotham to be like. I do understand that the Batman canon villains lead us unerringly towards the ridiculous and that everything needs to be a little tongue in cheek when dealing with them. However, the danger is that this descends into pantomime. I’d offer Tim Burton’s ‘Batman’ as good compromise between dark and silly and then Joel Schumacher’s ‘Batman and Robin’ as the descent into pantomime.
Notably “The Demon’s Head” was written by Ben McKenzie himself. I wonder if being in the show has given him a unique perspective on things that gave his script the balance between weird and meaningful that other episodes in the same arc haven’t as well mastered. He still got in the comic humour of sending the dog-like villain out a window with the dog-chase-stick ploy. However, whilst doing that he managed to keep a purpose and power in the rest of the script.
In ‘Pax Penguina’ when the press follow hot on Oswald’s heels and almost trip him up the crime boss of Gotham City comes across as ridiculous. In “The Demon’s Head” Penguin is once again threatening: his jokes are dark and his commands are to be feared. Even whilst he’s being played so cleverly by Sofia the character is not a joke.
Ultimately, McKenzie’s writing is much subtler and cleverer with it. Barbara playing the king of hearts card lets you know she’s still got a thing for Jim without her having to say anything. The line “how do you spell Ra’s” is a nice little Easter egg for the fans that know about the trouble caused by the pronunciation of this villain’s name over the years. And with this cleverness comes the extra depth that we saw when Bruce was talking to Alex, showing us how other kids view Bruce and making all the more painful for Bruce when he lies to a boy that will soon die in part through Bruce’s choices.
Best of all though, getting back this depth in the writing meant that when characters are talking – and also not talking – the audience can have confidence that there is something more going on beneath the surface. More importantly, we can also have the fun of trying to work out what that is based on what we can see. When you get it right you feel good; when you get it wrong you’re surprised; either way you’re engaged.
Afternoon TV plotting
Gotham definitely has the same physics controlling it’s universe at the moment as those shows that play on a side channel on a Saturday afternoon. Anyone can wander into anyone else’s house, crime lair or police office and not-so-subtly listen at the door frame to a secret conversation they shouldn’t be hearing. Doesn’t matter how many henchmen, police officers or flatmates you have your enemy can always get right to you when they need to.
And it doesn’t matter how clever Jim is, he can always be captured by the lowly Robin Hood gang if the plot needs it. This same plot force automatically makes poor Myrtle a side character, doomed to die. There’s no way she could have been a serious female character in Gotham: no cleavage on display. Such are the rules of Gotham: got to show your cleavage to be taken seriously as woman in Gotham.
Admittedly sometimes these physics benefit a character: After just a few month’s training Barbara was able to stand up to Ra’s Al Ghul in a fight – impressive. Even better it stopped Tabitha from killing her – most impressive. Most often though characters suffer by the plot force. Worst off I think was definitely Tabitha. At long last it looked like she was going to get some of her own plot, some meaning and purpose, but then Barbara steals the show from her again.
Tabitha was looking like being Cat’s mentor. There were a couple of scenes where it seemed Tabitha was going to be the experienced teacher to Cat’s impetuous youth but each time Barbara steps in with the words of wisdom or saves the day with the guns. Bringing ‘the girls’ together into a force to be reckoned with hasn’t succeeded in empowering them because of how poorly the plot treats women and so has only robbed Tabitha of the story she would fit so well and so sorely deserved.
Barbara was great as a woman struggling to deal with her insanity, as someone who could at any minute have gone either way on the moral scale, at her best in ‘Pinewood’ back in season 2. And I by no means want rid of her. Better I think to have separated Barbara and Tabitha out and given them their own plotlines rather than to make girl power into a plot by itself, which, perversely, must fail as it doesn’t allow any of them to be people, just a slogan.
Unfortunately I think this reduced substance is all too prevalent throughout ‘A Dark Knight’. It’s often in the characters plots but it’s also in the main episode plots too. How often have you seen an afternoon-TV detective discover the murderer through some secret bit of information gathering they did off screen? How often do afternoon-TV heroes defeat the villain through something they claim to have worked out without having encountered anything related to it being on camera? If you can’t guess it and feel good or get it wrong and be surprised are you really engaged?
Sofia’s defeat of Jim should have been amazing – this massive turnaround of power from someone who seemed defeated – but she predicts things that we have no ability to know ourselves. Had it been established that Penguin used The Dentist for his torturing or that there was a danger he might bring in Falcone we could have marvelled at her intelligence but as presented they were just two things that happened.
Lee taking the Narrows could have been really impressive, as she struggled to survive in a completely different environment to what she’s used to. As it was she claims to have dropped some poison in a guy’s meal an hour ago off camera. How did she trick the guards? How did she outwit the cook to give her access to the food? I wanted to see how clever she had been not just be told afterwards it had happened.
Add then, this type of plotting together with the direction that gave us literally a burning wheel as Barbara takes out the biker gang, Jim’s contorted face to make sure we realise that Pyg’s meat cleaver is in fact a dangerous weapon and the horror music playing over the pig heads? All taken together, everything that was built up in “The Demon’s Head” is lost.
Cleavage and empowerment are not the same
Gotham has repeatedly scripted characters’ sexuality so well – most notably Oswald and Nygma’s sexuality without labels – that I’m surprised when it treats its female cast so poorly.
Sofia only makes it a whole two scenes before she gets her cleavage out. Barbara and Lee actually have a cleavage off in ‘Stop Hitting Yourself’. And then poor Myrtle: keep yourself zipped up and you’re bound not to last.
Clearly dressing powerfully and using all of your presence as a weapon is something that people can and would do – no challenge there. But when every woman does it you’re lead to believe that they have to do it in order to be taken seriously as a woman – problem. Perhaps it’s just the style of the city though? Leaving aside what that means about the culture in question, I’d say you can see the problem in the plotting too.
Sofia’s justification to her father and Jim is “neither of you believed in me”, which is a teenager’s line, not one matching her being a strategic genius. Maybe Sofia’s just a good actor? I could believe that if the tone of the arc had been more like “A Demon’s Head”, but not as it was elsewhere.
Big guns then: Ivy just wanted revenge on men, Barbara and Myrtle’s starting motivations were entirely defined by Ra’s and Nygma and, as discussed already, the girl-power trio – become foursome with Sofia – tried to make a plot out of being women rather than anything important to them individually as human beings.
A Dark Knight’s promise
The humour of Gotham still shone through in this arc and Zsasz is far and above the most entertaining character and the one least compromised for the sake of any plot. Bruce as the privileged teen at an auction was just great. It might have been a bit ‘Batman Begins’ but the teen angle was new. The fun with bad accents, Bullock’s sarcasm and the perfect partnerships of Ed and Grundy and of Penguin and Zsasz kept me smiling and laughing throughout.
Despite what I said about afternoon-TV plotting too I won’t pretend that the arc didn’t hold some surprises. I’d never have thought that the main villain would be Sofia. When Ra’s went down early as not even a mid-season finale I was caught off-guard but then even Pyg is just a henchman? Sofia’s big win should have been amazing… But back to Ra’s: using him to challenge Bruce’s first rule was a great way to test Bruce’s character and his commitment to his beliefs and rightly sent him off the rails.
Seeing Lee with a strong plot again was nothing but welcome. She was just a wife and lover in season 3 but here she’s down on her luck, a struggling doctor and then queen of The Narrows – that’s a great plot arc, especially because she doesn’t want the power and has no idea what to do with it.
And the idea that Ed is fighting being Nygma? This could have a lot of mileage. His madness too is much more respectful of mental health problems. Arkham is quite a travesty to watch: Comic book show or not, there’s no reason to present mental health in such a Victorian-era fashion. With Nygma though it’s still comic book but has the edge of tragedy rather than comedy that makes it horribly charming rather than comically foolish.
Ultimately I’d say that you can see some great ideas in the structure of ‘A Dark Knight’ but the execution of those ideas didn’t always work. Bruce gets Ra’sto deal with – one of Batman’s top villains – but it’s in a side plot, personal to Bruce. This nicely makes the threat to the city from Sofia and Pyg – Jim’s problem – the main plot, which is fitting for a show called Gotham and not Batman.
Sofia’s seduction of Penguin was all done on camera and so a delight to watch unfold, with its twists and turns. If her otherwise godlike predictions and cleverness had also been on screen we could have marvelled at them too and really been taken in by her genius in a mind-bending reveal at the end. This would have had the real punch that the given “I knew you’d know I knew you knew” just couldn’t deliver. And this is an example of many plot developments throughout the arc where I thought we ended up in a good place because of the structuring but I wished I’d been able to feel more of it along the way.
I could believe that the GCPD could turn violent based only on knowledge of British policing in the 70s if not world news reports today but Harvey and Jim have been back and forth along the line of GCPD officers struggling against corruption so many times it was difficult to go through it again. But seeing Jim and Harvey at odds at the end seemed like it could have been really meaningful if it had played out a little more beyond the arguments we’ve heard in previous seasons.
Tabitha vs. Butch really could have been a big plot point – a tragedy to watch them fight – but both were hidden behind other characters and they don’t get a chance to really do anything together. Tabitha and Cat could have had a great mentor-student relationship but both were hidden behind other characters and don’t get a chance to really do anything together.
The more I look into what was behind the scenes of ‘A Dark Knight’ the more I feel I wanted to like it but the foreground plot just didn’t live up to that promise.
- “A Demon’s Head” episode – the high point
- good ideas for the structure
- good humour
- Zsasz – always good
- being Rick-Rolled…?
- reusing plots from previous seasons
- plots and ideas taken from TV tropes and other shows or films
- soap opera physics and character actions
- characters cleverness being proved by things happening off camera
- Tabitha, Butch and Cat’s potential stories being hidden behind other characters’ plot
- female characters being reduced to cleavage and plots derived from the men in their lives
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