‘Gotham’ Season 1 Recap: Episode 2: ‘Selina Kyle’
Oh, Gotham. You’re a show about the city that created Batman. The city that raised Poison Ivy, Catwoman, and the Penguin. With so much about these characters’ behavioral profiles already established by DC Comics, don’t you have at least a basic responsibility to teach us something about the development, manifestation and course of psychopathology? We’re watching because we want to know what led these characters down such crooked paths, and how Bruce Wayne rose out of his trauma to create the formidable crime-fighter we know as the Dark Knight. We already know the future’s end, so tell us something worthwhile about the beginnings. It’s the least you can do.
In my review of the pilot episode, I asked whether Gotham portrayed unhealthy parental relationships in a realistic and accurate way. The second episode focuses heavily on the undeserved, abused youth of Gotham City, lending some insight into Selina “Cat” Kyle’s troubles as a homeless teen. In fact, the new Fox crime drama dives right into the gritty topics of kidnapping, commercial exploitation of minors, and child self-mutilation. The show fails to tie in those very real horrors to what could be meaningful and redeemable lessons about the characters we loved prior to this prequel series. With so much focus on victimization of youths, this episode’s writing seems to miss the mark when it comes to accurately conceptualizing and explaining child psychology.
Gotham’s second episode follows 13-year-old vagrant Selina “Cat” Kyle (Camren Bicondova) as she outwits the creepy child-trafficking duo Patty and Doug (played by Lily Taylor and Frank Whaley). Like Bruce Wayne, Cat is orphaned. However, she believes that her mother may still be alive somewhere, and she carries a locket with a photo of her. (Lockets and orphans seem to go together.) In either case, she’s been abandoned and has been living on the streets for a considerable amount of time, as evidenced by her self-sufficiency and nimble senses.
The wicked Patty and Doug locate Cat in an alley, along with a number of other homeless youngsters, and attempt to lure them to a food truck on the premise that they’re sent by the Mayor’s “Homeless Outreach Program.” When the teens protest, Patty attacks them with a gigantic poisoned pin. Detective Gordon (Ben McKenzie) later discovers that the drug used in the pin is the sedative “ATC” (a fictional substance) that was used at the now-condemned Arkham Asylum to control disorderly patients. This leads the GCPD to a pharmaceutical company, where Gordon rescues a handful of kids being held in the basement. In the process, he shoots a trafficker confederate, who falls down what looks like a sewer hole. There’s a strange moment where he keeps falling, and the teens and Gordon are suspended in a glance, and we all wonder: How deep is that sewer hole? More importantly, did Gordon just create Sewer King? King Shark? Killer Croc?
Cat manages to get away from the first attack, but is later ambushed by the traffickers who hijack a busload of children being taken upstate to the Alpena Youth Corrections Facility. Things start to get interesting when we learn that Dollmaker is the villain who’s behind the drugging, smuggling and shipping of kids overseas. Gordon manages to intercept the plan at the shipping yard and takes the shaken kiddos to the police department.
It’s disappointing that we don’t ever see Dollmaker or understand the plot behind the child trafficking ring (Cannibalism? Prostitution? Skin Dolls?). Whatever the case, Cat uses the opportunity to team up with Gordon at the GCPD station, offering up her observations as a key witness to the Wayne murders. How she gets to Gordon is a bit uncharacteristic of a young Catwoman—she threatens to say a cop molested her. “I’ll say you touched me,” she warns him. “I’ll scream in about three seconds…” While this does the trick and gets her face time with Gordon, Catwoman would never be one to victimize herself or use an aspect of vulnerability to her advantage. If that was a precursor to her use of sensuality as a tool, it was poorly done. Whether intended or not, it also raises the question of whether Cat has been sexually assaulted at a young age.
After being let go by Detective Jim Gordon, Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor) makes his way on crooked foot through the countryside outskirts of Gotham with a growing plan. He hitches a ride with two young male jock-types who instantly begin ridiculing him. “You look like you crawled out of a cemetery,” one jokes. “Well, I learned my lessons,” Oswald says, vaguely. “I’ll be back, stronger and smarter than ever.” Ignoring this, his new companions continue their mocking. “Has anyone ever told you that when you walk you look like a penguin?” Of course, upon hearing this, Oswald breaks a bottle and slashes the guy’s throat with the shared glass, killing him instantly.
In this episode, we’re introduced to Oswald’s mother (Carol Kane), who speaks nothing but kind, adoring words about her son. Odd-looking and out of touch with reality, Mrs. “Kapelput” describes young Oswald as a faithful, innocent son. “He has never been away this long” his mother tells Detective Montoya and her partner. She appears to be the opposite of Oswald in that she’s gentle and kind. However, it’s clear that she may struggle with her own delusions in that she’s completely unaware of his involvement with Gotham crime. Like Oswald, she has few accurate perceptions of those around her. It’s also notable that Oswald seemed to align closer with Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith), who acted as a caretaker and maternal figure to Oswald before Falcone ordered his death sentence. It’s clear from learning more about these relationships that Oswald desires connections with others (e.g., Mooney, strangers who offer him a ride, etc.). His intolerance for negative emotions such as shame and embarrassment lead to his impulsivity and violence. It’s as if the vital connection to his empathy gets snapped, and his only coping method is through destruction.
Oswald’s carjacking quickly turns to a more devious scheme. He rents a mobile home from an unsuspecting dealer and begins charting his return to Gotham with the serial-killer-esque clippings on the ceiling. Having kept the driver of the car he stole alive, he phones the mother of his victim and asks for ransom. In a weird twist, she doesn’t believe that her son is tied and gagged in a trailer and hangs up on Oswald. The interaction surprises Oswald, but ultimately reminds him that mothers can be uncaring and dismissive. Although we don’t see his next move, it’s implied that he takes out his disappointment on the young man.
Apparently, Alfred (Sean Pertwee) is having a difficult time handling his new role as guardian of little Bruce Wayne. We may have been relieved to see him express compassion and support for Bruce at the scene of Thomas and Martha Wayne’s murder. Now we’re wondering where that compassion went. Alfred has been short-tempered, gruff, impatient, and dismissive of Bruce. In the beginning of the episode, Bruce is experimenting with a candle’s flame, holding his hand over the fire to test his tolerance. When Alfred discovers he’s been engaging in this behavior, he’s immediately enraged. “You stupid little boy!” he barks, as he grabs Bruce’s hand and shakes it firmly. As if overwhelmed by his own rage, he pulls Bruce into a smothering hug, consoling him and whispering, “It’s alright.”
Dude. It’s not alright. First, the period of time immediately after parental loss is critical. Supportive, trustworthy and predictable relationships are key in ensuring that Bruce overcomes any risk of developing behavioral or emotional problems like Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Second, because Alfred seems uncharacteristically harsh and inexplicably irritated during most of his interactions with Bruce, we begin to wonder about underlying processes—Alfred might carry feelings of blame toward Bruce, perhaps even faulting him for the death of the Waynes.
We’re always so fixated with Bruce’s functioning that we often forget that Alfred, too, lost two very important people in his life in a tragic, sudden way. He could be struggling to keep it together, and we may be witnessing his reactions and attempts to control his emotions. In fact, post-traumatic responses include severe emotional distress when reminded of the trauma, negative feelings about others, difficulty maintaining close relationships, and irritable, angry outbursts. We seem to be seeing these signs in Alfred. If Alfred had prior experiences with PTSD from combat stress, the recent, sudden loss of the Waynes may trigger those feelings of grief, guilt and hopelessness. I’d give credit to the writers for taking it in this direction, giving Alfred some deeper psychological struggles in the wake of the tragedy, but I wonder if his authoritarian caretaking is intended to give way to Bruce and Jim Gordon developing a more therapeutic relationship. Apparently, Gordon has to remain the only nice guy in town.
Gotham’s version of Alfred may make more sense (and earn our respect) when we see him appear at the Gotham City Police Department, asking Detective Gordon for help. “Would it be convenient to visit us?” he requests. When Gordon explains that he’s never had children of his own, Alfred explains: “The boy respects you.” He’s showing a level of compassion and humility again by seeking support for Bruce.
Later, when Gordon arrives at Wayne Manor, Alfred reveals his concerns about Bruce. “He’s not been sleeping. He’s had nightmares…He’s hurting himself.”
“Is he getting professional help?” Gordon asks. Alfred explains that Bruce would never see a psychiatrist. “That’s the rule,” he states, “I’ll raise the boy the way his father told me to raise him…Trust him to choose his own course.” I’m not sure at what point Alfred would decide to seek professional help for Bruce (Irreparable self-injury? Suicide attempt?), and it seems unethical for Gordon, who is a mandated reporter of child maltreatment, to ignore a guardian’s denial of mental health services for a troubled child. While it’s true that young children often protest against mental health services, or show disinterest in therapy, it’s the duty of adoptive caretakers and mandated reporters to provide access to formal supports. It’s also disappointing to learn that Bruce may not have the important wisdom and nurturing from Dr. Leslie Thompkins in this story.
The unfortunate loss for us is that Alfred has always been a character that we can empathize and relate to, a person who’s usually the most balanced and calm in crises, and one who makes us feel better when he’s consoling Bruce.
Are we to know that Bruce is troubled because he’s listening to death metal and sketching morbid drawings in black ink? Is this the writers’ way of letting us know Bruce is in distress, or in control? Channeling and expressing emotions in a focused manner (through play, music, or art) at such a young age is actually a hopeful sign. More commonly, children who are dealing with tragic loss (and, especially, exposure to violence) experience difficulty focusing, show disorganized thinking, struggle with nightmares, and appear irritated, sad, and anxious. Those would be the more alarming behaviors that Alfred should be worried about. In addition, self-injurious behaviors (e.g., cutting or burning oneself) is also very common following a stressor or tragedy, as a singular, unhealthy way the child or adolescent regains control of their intense feelings. It’s a transference of psychological pain to physical pain, a short distraction. However, when we see a young Bruce Wayne calmly burn his palm to the point of permanent scarring, we realize he’s actually not engaging in self-mutilation; rather, he’s deliberately and unemotionally strengthening his pain tolerance as if he’s going to suit up already.
Gotham doesn’t need a mini-Batman. We have the entire season ahead of us to establish Bruce’s determined, headstrong mission to rid the city of evil—why not begin the story by explaining the emotional and behavioral changes that actually follow childhood trauma? Why not establish Bruce’s fascinating, heroic qualities like his undying curiosity, deductive reasoning and adaptive capacity?
Similar questions arise for the Penguin, Poison Ivy, and other supervillains already squeezed into the show. This is why we’re tuning in, right? We want to understand the precursors of insanity. We want the realistic portrayal of the social environment that makes someone resort to a life of isolation, rejection and embitterment. We also want to understand the depths of compassion, resilience, and inexplicable hope amongst such corruption and victimization. We want to understand how justice becomes the single most important virtue for a person. We’re waiting for you to make it work, Gotham.