Gotham – Season 2 Episode 9
“Rise of the Villains – A Bitter Pill to Swallow”
Penguin and the Riddler-yet-to-be-so-named join forces in this episode of Gotham, whilst Jim’s flirtation with his dark side is pushed right to the wire and Bruce and Alfred go head to head in a disagreement about Bruce’s safety.
Forgetting how they randomly came together last episode, “Mr Penguin”, as Nygma calls him, now recuperates in Ed’s apartment. Nygma is looking after Penguin in the hope that he can teach Nygma how to get away with murder. Asking Penguin to be his mentor – strange as that may be in the face of it – actually makes sense and I’m glad the reason these characters stay together is so much better than the reason they met.
I’m so desperate to call Nygma the Riddler now. He’s not been formally named but we’re really seeing the villain come alive. The riddles that Ed Nygma used to tell for fun and amusement have become a means of bringing someone to a point – in this case getting Penguin to have a realisation about his connection to his mother just passed. This almost-Riddler has become one of my favourite characters of the show.
Penguin’s ‘bitter pill’ then, is that his connection to his mother was his weakness, one that he needed to overcome in order to truly become the crime boss he was trying so hard to be. Nygma realises that this medicine is the only thing that will bring Penguin round and make him available to mentor Nygma in the art of murder. He charmingly tries to please Penguin first with what would please Nygma himself – a little light murdering – then with a song Penguin likes, finally coming to realise that only hard truths can do the job. After going through it all, Penguin doesn’t become Nygma’s mentor though. Seeing the wisdom in Nygma’s argument the two become partners.
I’m really looking forward to seeing this play out. Will it be buddy-criminal or a strained relationship? Perhaps they’ll keep on helping the other to raise their game before their motivations naturally separate them? Given that they both have such perfectly wicked grins for evil villains I’ll be happy watching them whatever happens.
Another reason I got on so well with the villain combo this episode was the humour. The style of joke Gotham uses has been a sticking point for me in pretty much every review I’ve written for this season. I have to acknowledge that humour is personal, so I only say that I found this episode very funny: the blacker, sardonic style is back. I think it just fits better than the Galavan silliness, even when that’s done really well by James Frain. “What kind of change you ask? I’ve started murdering people.” As the old saying goes: it’s how he says it.
More me-pleasing humour came from Alfred as he finally stands up to Bruce. This timing makes sense: As Bruce didn’t go through with kicking Alfred out, so Alfred gets some leeway to take a firmer hand – the firmer hand of the adult who’s been around that much longer and seen more of tricks already. I’m not quite sure yet if Bruce has seen through Galavan but it seems he still believes in Silver. Certainly Alfred knows and he also knows that even Bruce dressed up as the Milk Tray Man will not be enough to make Silver swoon onside.
All Bruce and Alfred’s scenes were a delight. Alfred claims Bruce can’t apply “that level of deception” to get around Silver, then Bruce tries to prove he can by sneaking off to Silver’s hotel room but again Alfred outwits him. Even the final “goodnight sir” is given with just the right timing, in writing and delivery – great stuff.
Much as I enjoyed both the villain and hero plot lines of ‘A Bitter Pill to Swallow’, it’s really Gordon’s episode. Where normally Gordon is the mortar that ties the plot lines together, this time he’s centre stage, in which he’s invited to decide if he’s really going to turn dark or not in the face of a series of assassins sent from The Lady that culminate in Eduardo Flamingo.
Gordon’s dilemma is introduced with Leigh offering very grown up relationship advice, and moreover, dodging all the soap-opera clichés. She accepts the kiss with Barbara as how Jim chose to do his job and goes right to the problem: he’s trying to find reasons to go dark, an accusation that Jim cannot challenge. The episode even dodges the ‘you’re not answering my calls so we have to split up’ cliché. Previous episodes have used tropes and had characters make choices that suit the needs of the plot rather than themselves but this episode has no such problem. I don’t know why the difference but I’m delighted to see it.
Leigh’s gentle wake-up call doesn’t cause Gordon to question himself though, and he only does so in the face of a more direct challenge from Barnes. When the first assassin fails, Gordon interrogates him the Harvey Bullock way – but possibly taking the principle so far as to threaten the villain in a way that even Bullock might think heavy handed. Gordon is now convinced that you have to break the rules with the villains for the good of the city.
To be fair to him, he’s known all along what we’re really seeing now in season two – we’re really being treated to Gotham at its worst. I suddenly wonder if the nasty underbelly came about in response to the loss of control after the deaths of Falcone and Maroni or if it was always that way, just a bit more regulated when the mob bosses were dominant. Probably it was the latter. Either way, with what season two has shown us I can easily understand why someone – Jim – would be so desperate in the face of it; and why it would take someone like Barnes, who really is walking the straight path, to pull Jim back before he crosses the line.
Jim saw his line last week in Barbara: He reveals that he could quite easily have killed her despite feeling sorry for her, despite feeling that it really was the Ogre’s fault she is this way and that she’s really just another victim. As he admits this failing to Barnes, admits that he fears how easy it is to go that step too far, Barnes gives an interesting counter argument that I wasn’t expecting.
I’d thought that Barnes would be one of two things: either the paladin who’d come to truly in believe in the true path or the general that believed the ends justified the means. In either case I thought he’d end up being a mentor for Gordon. If Barnes was the paladin he’d be a successful mentor, teaching Gordon the right way. As the zealous general, Gordon would have seen what not to do and swing back to doing the right thing in reaction. As they’ve written it though, Barnes has become a believer in the law through fear of human nature: He believes that people can and will do anything in their character-testing moments and that there is no way to safeguard against failure; therefore the only thing we can all trust in to keep us right is the law. This was quite the persuasive argument for me and Jim followed it in the moment. However, that choice had consequences and the death of another officer means Jim won’t be convinced quite yet.
Humour plays through Gordon’s scenes as well as morale debate, to keep the tone as light as Gotham needs. Fights in lifts seem to be popular these days but Gotham’s took a nice turn on it. We all knew that the guy was the first assassin but his manner did fit ‘annoying over friendly stranger guy’ that you could believe Gordon wouldn’t suspect anything. And was that a poisoned sweet? It was enough to keep the scene fresh, along with the little comic moment of the lift door opening uncaringly at the first destination.
Base defence has been another idea that Gotham has turned into a thing, first with the hospital assault in season one and then two episodes ago when Zsasz attacked Butch’s hideout. Equally though, I thought these were as well played out as the lift scene: quick setups, nice little twists and in all cases nicely establishing the threat value of the attacking force before it’s faced by the hero.
Strange, I feel, that after not really enjoying last week I’ve now seen possibly what has so far been my favourite episode of the season. On top of even that there were two nice little cliff hangers for the next episode: Cat vs. Silver and attack of the brothers evil. I’m really looking forward to them.
Penguin and Nygma join forces in this episode of Gotham and eventually end up having a right old blast. Nygma has become one of my favourite characters this season and if I forget how they so randomly came together I can really enjoy this team up. Nygma has to get Penguin to realise what he can become now that he doesn’t have the love for his mother as a weakness that can be exploited. It looked like Nygma needed to do this so that Penguin could teach Nygma how to get away with murder but when Penguin’s realisation comes it allows the two of them to become partners.
It will definitely be good to see more of these two together, not least because I want to see Nygma become the Riddler. We’re well on the way now that he’s using riddles to bring conversation to a point, no longer just for fun and amusement. As well as that, the style of humour that Gotham used with them is back that style that I prefer: the blacker, more sardonic humour.
This style played throughout both Bruce and Gordon’s scenes too. Personal as humour is I can only say I prefer it of course but I still say that black humour fits the tone that season two has well established.
Played in the background throughout Bruce and Alfred’s scenes, I think it made their whole interplay a real delight. I’m not sure yet if Bruce has seen through Silver as well as Galavan but Alfred has; and this episode he stands up to Bruce and stops him making trouble for himself. Bruce may be dressed as the Milk Tray Man this episode but he really doesn’t have the skills yet to match. Still, if Selina can show him Silver’s double dealings maybe he’ll learn a few more skills to get him further down that path.
Enjoyable as the villain and hero plots were though, this episode is really Gordon’s. He’s been the mortar that has kept the other plot lines together in many a previous episode but this time he’s centre stage. Here he’s pushed to make a choice between fully committing to the dark side or turning away. It looks like he won’t turn back even in the face of some gentle persuasion from Leigh but is then saved by an argument from Barnes that I wasn’t expecting but found really engaging. Turns out Barnes is neither the paladin nor the over-zealous general I thought he might be but rather a man scared by the threat of human nature: We must obey the law because there is no law within ourselves to hold us back.
‘A Bitter Pill to Swallow’ is my favourite episode of season two so far. It’s got the humour I prefer, it’s got some moral choices for the main character to face off and it’s set up some villains for the rest of the series that I just have to watch.