Monday, October 20, 2014

Gotham: Arkham Review


Arkham, the fourth Gotham episode, left me quite thrilled.  From the opening where we get a repeat of The Balloonman's great ending to the ending where we see just how dominant Robin Lord Taylor's Oswald Cobblepot is, Arkham was to my mind practically perfect. 

James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) is enraged that Cobblepot (RLT) has returned.  He is convinced that if Falcone finds out he's alive, he will kill both of them now.  Cobblepot doesn't think so, telling him who looks for a dead man.  Oswald also tells Gordon that there is a war coming, and it centers around Arkham, a district in Gotham City that has been left in wrack and ruin, right down to the old insane asylum that dominates the area.  The Wayne family wanted to develop the area for low-cost housing.  The Falcone Family did also want to join in this philanthropic enterprise (though one imagines their motives were far less altruistic). 

Enter the rival Maroni Family, headed by Sal Maroni (David Zayas).  He too has plans for Arkham, but how to get at them (and strike out at his rival Falcone)?  Did HE have a pro-Falcone Councilman murdered?  Perhaps, but when a pro-Maroni Council is offed in a particularly nasty way (not that the other Councilman wasn't exactly treated well) it looks like the all-out war Cobblepot predicted is coming to pass.

Gordon and his partner Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) get information about a potential hitman, a figure named Gladwell (Hakeem Kae-Kazim).  Gordon and Bullock track him down, but lose him.  Eventually Gordon, with a clue Gladwell left behind, realizes who the next target is: His (Dis)Honor the Mayor (Richard Kind). 

The war, meanwhile, continues to grow.  Someone has made a direct hit on Maroni's restaurant, infuriating the mobster.  However, Maroni discovers that not all his money was stolen: a certain dishwasher is found in the freezer, holding some of the money, terrified about what he just saw.  Waiting in the wings along with Oswald is Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith), who wants to replace Falcone with herself.  She also has begun auditioning female singers for her club, though voice is not as important as seduction skills.  She is playing a long game.

Not as long as that of Oswald Cobblepot.  His game is more dangerous game, one where he manipulates everyone and everything around him to play off one side against the other, coldly calculating the human cost.  In the end though, Gordon appears to be unable to win.  Although he and Bullock got the hitman and saved the Mayor's life, the Mayor has decided to split the difference between the warring sides.  Arkham WILL have low-cost housing (the Falcone plan)...AND the waste treatment plant close to the heart of the Maroni Family.  This puzzles Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) who wonders how all this could have happened. 

Gotham thoroughly surprised me with Arkham.   Like the last episode, the blending of the crime-of-the-week (murdered Councilmen) and the Batman elements (particularly the Penguin) kept things flowing.  The crimes were bizarre enough for this world (darts of death) but the detective work put in by everyone was also something that worked well.  The other stories (Mooney's bizarre genesis of a master plan, the subplot of Erin Roberts' Barbara Kean outing herself to Jim and the wild opening of Oswald Cobblepot showing up unannounced at Jim and Barbara's apartment) took up just enough airtime, neither being short-changed or overwhelming the episode.   While perhaps the Kean/Gordon love story may be the least interesting aspect of Arkham, Barbara's ultimatum of "You either let me in or you let me go," is one of the best lines in the episode.  

What I really loved about Arkham is how each character had their moment, and in particular Cory Michael Smith as Edward  Nygma.  For too long my second favorite Batman villain (one guess who's the first) was being relegated to the background, just popping in quickly and having not much to do.  Arkham still has Nygma appearing in one scene, but this time was different. 

First, unlike his other appearances there was a shall we say, more rational aspect to Smith's Nygma, as if this person not only functioned well but was almost...normal.  Second, Smith's voice was less cartoonish, again, sounding like a real person.  Third, there were no overt suggestions that Nygma will become a criminal mastermind, let alone one known for his riddles.  The closest he came was when he told Bullock and Gordon that they had a paradox.  When Bullock asks what it is, Nygma begins giving a definition OF the word, to which Bullock brusquely cuts him off.  In the scene, Nygma's manner was perfectly rational and even gave a little insight into Nygma's character, one who knows he's highly intelligent and thinks Bullock (and perhaps Gordon) aren't. 

I can't help think that if Gotham had adopted this way of thinking on Edward Nygma from the beginning, we could have dispensed with the more overt shout-outs to his future Riddler persona, which hampered both Gotham and Smith.  In Arkham, the more silly aspects of Nygma were dispensed with, which made both Smith and his character both more entertaining and more relevant to the goings-on.    

In a smaller role, Mazouz similarly continues to impress (though I think it would be good if he left Wayne Manor at least once: it is becoming slightly claustrophobic).  His slow rise from shell-shocked victim to more inquisitive master of his fate is something I enjoyed watching as well. 

McKenzie and Logue continue to work well as the upright officer and his not-upright but still efficient partner.  Logue's Bullock is not a pleasant figure, but so far he hasn't gone outside the law, merely bending it to breaking point.  McKenzie still has the fierce intensity of a man struggling against a world that is determined to beat him into submission, but he also is showing a darker side when his conflict about having spared Cobblepot rises to the surface.

However, the prize for the standout performance HAS to be Robin Lord Taylor as Oswald/Penguin.  From the moment he shows up at the apartment through how he 'gets rid of the evidence' shall we say RLT dominates every scene he's in.  He plays frightened and frightful with equal ease, particularly when he presents his gang with cannoli.  Just in how he casually declines an offer to share it with his minions gives me chills.   I may be the only critic to say this, but I don't care.


There, I've said it.  If that final scene where he comes with his sweet-box of death doesn't show that RLT hasn't made the Penguin his own and shows just how perfect his performance has been in every episode, then nothing will.  The guy is simply brilliant as Oswald Cobblepot: mixing a genuine sense of fear with a cold ruthlessness that sends shivers in how evil the character is, how he is able to think five steps ahead of everyone else.  Certainly that last bit of how he came to be involved in the drug war was a twist I wasn't expecting, and he had me fooled when Maroni's henchmen come across this timid little dishwasher suddenly elevated to Restaurant Manager.

Another aspect in Arkham that is simply brilliant is the cinematography, which continues to be one bathed in light and shadows that so perfectly capture the noir world of Gotham.  The darkness of the Gotham City Police Department (where I noticed for the first time that Bullock and Gordon have a remarkably sweet spot in the office overlooking almost everyone). The seedy nature of Fish Mooney's club (and the girl-fight she insists on at the docks, showing Mooney to be one sick b*tch). The menace of the asylum itself and Penguin's minions safe house (where, to coin a phrase, he took the cash, left the cannoli); the cool sophistication of the Gordon/Kean apartment. Gotham has such a fantastic look that says as much about the crumbling world it occupies as the characters or their actions do. 

If one wants to be picky, the hitman storyline ended perhaps in a quick manner but I still found it all thrilling and well-crafted, as well as surprisingly violent and gritty given this is network television.  One wonders how far Gotham would go (how violent or sexually graphic) if it were on Netflix or HBO.  Given what they do show (or leave to the imagination), it certainly is more than I am used to.

With simply great performances from the entire cast, expanded roles for both Maroni and especially Cory Michael Smith (whom I felt had been underused greatly) and a story that took wild twists and turns in its hour, Arkham for me is the best episode so far.  It will be a tough act to follow, but so far Gotham has become my favorite television show.

Sorry, Doctor Who....


Next Episode: Viper

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