‘Gotham’ Season 1 Recap, Episode 1: ‘Pilot’
Fox’s most buzzed about new television drama, Gotham, premiered this week with its youthful James Gordon, li’l Bruce Wayne, and a handful of DC Comics scoundrels, outcasts, and criminals in their formative, pre-supervillain years—The Riddler, Catwoman, Poison Ivy, and the Penguin. Detective Gordon seems to be the golden thread that connects everyone together as he begins his journey through Gotham’s depraved fractures. But are the city’s inhabitants and their intertwined stories portrayed with psychological realism? Do their hardships, devastation, and violence rationally add up to the mythology that we know will inevitably create the Batman?
Death of the Family
The first episode of Gotham begins with a story we all know too well -- the alleyway murder of the philanthropic Dr. Thomas Wayne and his wife, Martha. Of course, we also know that the schoolboy-aged Bruce (David Mazouz) witnesses the horrific murder of his parents. In this version of the Batman origin, an adolescent Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova) also observes the traumatic event, though her unflinching reaction and continued curiosity of Bruce following the tragedy seems to hint that she’s a seasoned Crime Alley resident.
Bruce’s reaction to his parents' murders, of course, is textbook accurate. When not-redheaded Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) finds him, Bruce is still in some state of shock, rocking his body back and forth at the crime scene. He exhibits signs of shock called depersonalization and derealization for a brief moment — these are the strange experiences someone has following a trauma when they feel like they are outside their own body or that the things around them are not real. Think of this as our “safety” feature. It’s as if the brain can only cope by leaving the body for a short while.
Detective Gordon employs a supportive, almost therapeutic approach with a grief-stricken Bruce as he tries to uncover the facts about the Wayne murders. He asks for the child’s name but that’s met with silence, and more rocking. It isn’t until Bruce finally reveals his identity that he begins to sob uncontrollably, as if brought back to the devastating reality. Gordon reveals that he lost his father when he was a boy, too. “I know how you feel right now,” he offers. “I promise, however dark and scary the world may be right now, there will be light.” With a surge of bravery, Bruce then begins to recount the incident in detail, exclaiming that he “could have done something” to save his parents. Of course he’s wrong, but it’s a common belief that children carry following parental loss. And it’s perfectly OK to let Bruce feel this way. For now.
These moments are altogether very predictable, albeit necessary as the catalyst for Gordon’s important new role as a detective in the Gotham City Police Department. The rest of the show offers some satisfying surprises, mainly in the form of portrayals of interpersonal relationships “gone wrong.” Untrustworthy colleagues, insecure attachments, personal betrayal, and neglectful parenting are depicted with relative accuracy. With a few minor missteps, Gotham is on the right track psychologically.
“Rough Characters Need Firm Handling”
Seasoned detective Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue), already reluctant to take on a young partner, kicks off his working relationship with Jim Gordon by initiating a GCPD version of tag-teaming some alley thugs and beating them senseless for some juicy Wayne murder information. The ethically questionable path leads them to the ruthless mob boss Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith), who turns out to be one of the more vicious, almost unbelievably callous characters in the show. When we’re introduced to Fish, we learn that a twenty-something Oswald Cobblepot a.k.a. the Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor) is essentially her lackey. Awkward-looking (but not visibly deformed, as was the case in his last live action appearance more than 20 years ago, in Batman Returns), thin, malnourished pre-Penguin appears to be desperate for some attention and interpersonal warmth. All he wants is approval. And he needs some Crest White Strips badly. I’ll get to poor Ozzy in a bit.
Mooney’s seedy bar gives Bullock a chance to demonstrate the real role of GCPD cops. He challenges Gordon to go out back and seek the arrest of an employee being beaten to a bloody pulp by a giggling Ozzy. Bullock defies the by-the-book Gordon, “See if anyone wants to press charges." Gordon is surprised when the kneeling victim laughs off the idea of an arrest. This is also the scene where one of Mooney’s mob-thugs name-calls Oswald “Penguin” in a derogatory way. Ozzy’s childish grin immediately transitions to a cold glance, reminding us that derision is an important part of the Penguin’s origin. We begin to wonder what other abuses he experienced. And when he last washed his hair. It’s really, really greasy. Like I said, I’ll get to poor Ozzy in a bit.
The scene in Mooney’s establishment lays down an important facet of the Gordon/Bullock relationship. It seems that Bullock is willing to play by mob rules in order to do his job well. Furthermore, we learn that he participates in mob culture as a survival mechanism. Bullock’s illegal quid-pro-quo relationship with Mooney keeps him atop his game, but also ensures that he stays alive. Toward the end of the episode, Bullock drives Gordon out to the dock with one of Mooney’s backstabbing thugs in the trunk, and asks him to essentially step out of his lawful duties and commit murder to prove his loyalty to the system run by Carmine Falcone (the big boss). If Gordon refuses, Bullock is instructed to shoot him. “Sometimes you’ve got to do a bad thing to do right,” Bullock explains to Gordon. We truly wonder if he’s corrupt enough to kill both Gordon and the squealer. The poor sap standing over the murky water, pleading for his life, is, of course, Oswald Cobblepot.
I have to return to the cop drama narrative to discuss little Ivy’s state of affairs. After receiving information from Mooney, Bullock and Gordon are on a hot trail that leads them to the home of outlaw/rapist/drug dealer Mario Pepper and his family. Pepper's daughter is the selectively mute Ivy, who will grow up to become Poison Ivy. We know this because she’s strangely obsessed with the ferns displayed around her home. She lacks the redheaded characteristic that Poison Ivy is known for, but I’ve speculated that she’s covered in so much grime that her true hair color remains unknown. What is clear is the amount of maltreatment young Ivy is exposed to. Gordon should have called Gotham Child Protective Services and reported the unquestionable exposure to domestic violence, severe neglect and the suspicion of physical abuse. Perhaps the death of Mr. Pepper (Bullock shoots him after a brief chase) leaves the idea of calling authorities moot in the detectives’ perspective?
Nonetheless, the two cops think that Ivy’s dad is the one who murdered the Waynes. This is important because we later learn that the evidence against Pepper was planted; Ivy's dad was framed, and she will probably learn of this and blame Bruce for her father’s death, opening up nonlinear channels leading to a diversity of neuro-pathways, creating multifinality within a wide spectrum of psychiatric outcomes, and thus diverting her away from a life of hyper-focused eco-terrorism!
Another disappointing parental figure is Alfred Pennyworth (Sean Pertwee), who is initially warm and consoling back in Crime Alley, but proves to be biting, authoritarian, and just plain grumpy as Bruce Wayne’s adoptive parent. We know that guardians who are new to their role have much to learn in the area of rewards and affection toward youths, but his snapping was unfunny and unloving. Bruce showed early signs of wanting to make meaning out of his parents’ murder, perhaps one of the more healthy traits out of any of the characters on the show. Indeed, Bruce is somewhat pleased to learn that the killer is still out there, so “I can see him again.”
Later, Bruce is caught standing atop the edge of the roof of Wayne Manor, alarming a visiting Gordon but just irritating Alfred, who yells at him to get his “arse” down. Gordon inquisitively asks why Bruce was standing on the edge of the roof, and Bruce explains that he’s “trying to conquer fear.” This is, in fact, a good idea, especially when it comes to recovering from trauma; it’s healthy to work toward regaining control of our shaking bodies, thumping hearts, and crying eyes. Again, Alfred seems disinterested and dismissive. I’m not sure he’s the one to help young Bruce develop a healthy narrative about the loss of his parents and guide him toward the path of recovery. You had one job, Alfred.
The Fish and The Penguin: An Insecure Attachment
Fish Mooney, gangster boss and an original character in the prequel series, is the most violent and corrupt figures on the show. She can be calm and methodical in one moment, and impulsively vicious the next. Fish doesn’t seem unwilling to engage in violence firsthand; when we meet her, she’s beating an employee with a metal bat because he stole money from her. When it comes to Mooney, we don’t get a sense of any kind of predictable moral code. Even the veteran gangster Falcone, for instance, spares Gordon and Bullock at the end of the episode, after Mooney didn’t think twice in ordering their deaths. Her quest for power is perhaps the most realistic aspect as a driving force, but it’s not well-established why this is essential to her livelihood.
It’s interesting that Fish plays a mother figure to Oswald Cobblepot, the timid and insecure minion who follows Fish’s every command. We don’t know what brought him to Fish, but there’s an obvious and unhealthy relationship between them that’s characterized as abusive, comfortless, and manipulative. Her inconsistent “parenting” (unpredictable spurts of nurturing behavior mixed with outright abuse) has undoubtedly shaped Oswald’s personality as an anxious, attention-seeking, aggressive offspring.
Fish has also conditioned him to feel pleasure when engaging in abusive acts; he experiences fulfillment and joy when torturing a fellow thug, perhaps out of displacement of emotions or imitation. We get the sense, then, that Fish creates the Penguin. When Fish learns that Oswald betrayed her by leaking information about Mr. Pepper to the GCPD, she is beyond livid. “Only you saw me with the pearls,” she tells him. “You’re like a son to me…why did you betray me?” Within moments, she’s beating him with a chair, and we later realize her repeated blows to his legs are so damaging that it leads to permanent disfigurement.
Of course, Gordon ends up letting Oswald Cobblepot go at the end of the episode. “Don’t ever come back to Gotham,” he warns, as he shoots into the horizon and pushes Oswald in the bay, creating the appearance of an execution for Bullock's benefit. I have to admit I felt my heart skip a beat when Ozzy crawled out of the murky soup that is Gotham Bay and onto the shore, dragging his legs and staring out from cold, heartless eyes. This was the transformation—the making of a villain—that made the most sense to me.
The first episode of Gotham gets a nod for moving beyond a simplified “good” vs. “evil” trope, and raising more realistic issues such as adaptability and survival within the dumpiest societal and interpersonal contexts one can imagine. Let’s hope the show maintains the same regard for these complex psychological issues moving forward, and that the GCPD gives Ivy a hairbrush.