There are things that haunt one physically. There are things that haunt one emotionally. Ghosts, the midseason return of Gotham, does not give us many big surprises in terms of plot but it does have some good performances and teases more madness and mayhem.
Curiously, it is also restrained in the violence aspect, at least by Gotham standards.
Mayor Oswald Cobblepot, better known as Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor) is starting to see the ghost of his late father, Elijah Van Dahl (Paul Reubens in a guest appearance). He warns his son that 'he cannot be trusted', and to make matters worse, Mr. Van Dahl's corpse has been dug up and stolen. Pengy also has to deal with Margaret Hearst (Jan Maxwell), a Barbara Walters-type journalists who insists on having a live interview with him. Hearst is a powerful reporter who can make or break figures, and now has set her eyes on the controversial Mayor of Gotham. Cobblepot's deputy Chief of Staff, Tarquin (Dave Quay) is all too happy to take the place of the former Chief of Staff, Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith).
Cobblepot is being driven slowly insane with fear, paranoia and terror with his father's warnings and visions, complete with news that 'Isabella' is with him on the Other Side, spreading tales of murder. Things reach a breaking point when Mr. Van Dahl warns his son that he who cannot be trusted is 'the birthday boy', and Pengy finds his father's corpse in his office the same day as Tarquin celebrates his birthday. In a fit of fury, rage, and downright insanity Penguin kills Tarquin right before the interview. The interview is a disaster, with Penguin coming apart and seeing his father's ghost wandering around with the murder weapon. As he hurries off literally chasing ghosts, he responds to the question, 'What about the people?' with a 'To HELL with the people!', a bad answer to give on live television.
Fortunately, he doesn't talk about grabbing women's this-or-that, not that people would believe Pengy would be inclined to grab women's this-or-that.
It was all part of Nygma's scheme to drive Penguin insane, merely a first step for revenge and for his frenemy Barbara Kean (Erin Richards) to become the new Queen of Gotham.
The main plot seems almost irrelevant given how good this subplot is. Detective Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) still feels guilt over having had to have killed off Mario, the son of Don Falcone (John Doman), leaving Jim's love Lee Thompkins (Morena Baccarin) a widow hours after being a bride. Don Falcone puts a hit on Gordon, giving the plum assignment to Victor Zsasz (Anthony Carrigan), the master assassin who never misses.
Then again, Zsasz has never had to actually go after Jim Gordon, and despite his best efforts Zsasz meets up with one person who is capable of thwarting him. Thompkins wants Gordon dead too, but a visit to former Captain Barnes (Michael Chiklis) convinces her that the Tetch virus would have driven Mario insane with no chance of recovery. Barnes at first appears rational, but then slips into a righteous fury of killing that Thompkins sees just how dangerous it all is. With that, it's understood that she convinces Falcone to call the hit off, though Falcone suspects it's because she still loves Gordon.
Gordon and his partner/boss, Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) are investigating the case of a corpse walking the streets only to drop dead again (it is Gotham, after all). They find the corpse is connected to the Cult of Jerome, who is dead for now but whose murderous merry mayhem has inspired a group of psychotic sycophants. This will not end well.
Finally, Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova) continues to reunite with her mother Maria (Ivana Milicevic), with help from her semi-boyfriend Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) and Alfred Pennyworth (Sean Pertwee), who himself appears smitten with Maria. The bonding hits a snag when men come after Maria. There's also the matter of the Glass Owl, which still puzzles Bruce Wayne. He is unaware that when put up to the light, the Glass Owl reveals information, which looks like a map.
It's strange that given the Gordon story is Plot A, it is the Penguin subplot that I found more interesting. I think it is because one can expect that Falcone would put a hit on Gordon almost immediately. There are good aspects of one aspect of Gordon's story, and that it gives Baccarin a chance to show more range than she's been allowed to in the past few episodes. In the past, Lee seemed to be a passive viewer, one who just reacted to things. Now, at least she gets a chance to participate: she shows her anger, hurt and confusion when she confronts Gordon and Bullock at the police headquarters, but her best scene is when she goes sees Barnes.
Up to that point, you think she is convinced that Gordon killing Mario was just because he was so enraged with jealousy that he killed someone to stop them from getting her. Now, as she watches Barnes, infected with the same virus that Mario had, slowly come unhinged, she flees in terror, and seems to understand that what is destroying a man she knew to be rational, even kind, would have done the same to her husband. When Falcone asks if she wants the hit called off because she still loves Gordon, there is doubt that she does or that she cannot convey just how great the danger Mario posed to the father that loved him.
It is a wonderful performance, and it is nice that Baccarin got a chance to do more than react.
Logue continues to be an equally bright spot, being the only character who can offer quips to insane situations. When discussing the case of the regenerated corpse with Gordon and Acting Medical Examiner Lucius Fox (Chris Chalk), he first asks 'Doesn't anyone stay dead around here?', then on leave remarks, 'It's not a morgue; it's a hotel'. Only Bullock can make cracks like that, and only Logue can deliver them realistically without making it seem out of character.
However, it is the Penguin/Nygma plot that is the standout. It's a great reminder of how strong RLT can be with the right material, how in his growing fear and paranoia he quickly comes apart (and I have to admit, I love his little hat that's part of his nighttime outfit). As he starts being haunted (physically and emotionally) by his father, Taylor's performance is one of absolute fear, terror, and agony. It's also good to remember that Penguin, despite his small size, is capable of complete moments of insanity and violence.
His killing of poor Tarquin is violent, but for Gotham standards it wasn't as completely bloody as it could have been. Again, for Gotham standards, although to be fair it was brutal.
Perhaps it wasn't meant to be a surprise that Nygma and Barbara were behind it, and I wonder if perhaps they could have held back the obvious reveal until a later episode. It also seems highly coincidental that he would have a meltdown in front of a live audience, and that bit, while perhaps necessary, did strike me as a bit too convenient.
In his brief time onscreen, Cory Michael Smith was equally adept at making Nygma a man bent on total destruction. While technically speaking Cameron Monaghan did not appear in Ghosts (the show using footage from a previous episode), you can tell that he was highly influenced by Heath Ledger's take on The Joker in The Dark Knight. It is perhaps too much to expect anyone playing the Joker now (like Jared Leto in Suicide Squad) to fully escape Ledger's now-iconic turn. Even Jack Nicholson, whom I considered a definitive Joker, finds himself retroactively compared to Ledger.
However, in the cult that Jerome has built up, with people looking, dressing, and behaving like him, Gotham appears to show that this world almost admires those bent on destruction for destruction's sake, to coin a phrase, to just like to see the world burn.
Bicondova is another standout, the scene of her embracing her mother showing the hurt, vulnerable girl behind the tough exterior. In his few scenes, Reubens too did very well as the Ghost of Gotham Past.
I think the fact that the 'dead father's ghost' bit was clearly part of Nygma's revenge pushed the episode down a bit, but on the whole Ghosts is another strong episode, held up by strong performances all round and with story threads that hopefully will pay off extremely well.
Next Episode: Smile Like You Mean It