‘Gotham’ Season 1 Recap, Episode 3: ‘The Balloonman’ – The Hero ‘Gotham’ Deserves
When it comes to Gotham, two things are clear. One, the Fox crime drama purported to portray the origins of Batman and his criminal counterparts isn’t committed to much precision around the 75-year old mythos. Second, rather than tell the story of the unique and complex process of becoming Batman — a progressive evolution wherein a fearful, inexperienced but persistent youngster is shaped into an unlikely superhero — the show shortcuts to a nearly fully-formed Bruce Wayne in the body of an 11-year old kid.
Collecting police files. Testing endurance. Sneaking up on people. Unless we’re to believe the first three episodes take place in Bruce’s imagination as some part of a posttraumatic delusion, these are hardly behaviors we’d expect to see in a young boy immediately following parental loss — even for one who will grow up to be Batman. The only things missing are his cape and cowl. So for those who get a giggle out of watching a kid play detective and refuse psychotherapy, Gotham delivers. When it comes to villains, classic and original, the show has much more to offer.
Balloonman: The Vigilante Gotham Deserves
Balloonman is literally a giant living gasbag. Nope, wrong. That’s Balloon Man. Balloonman, the new villain created for the third episode of Gotham, is a middle-aged, disillusioned social worker who takes the law into his own hands and murders corrupt high-profile individuals by attaching them to weather balloons. Apparently, after a couple of days of buoyancy, each balloon explodes in the sky, and the fall is what ultimately kills Balloonman’s victims.
Admittedly, death-by-balloon is rather campy and reminiscent of Burton’s or Schumacher’s Batman films; similarly, the flailing, hollering crooks being swept up into the sky by a giant balloon evokes Batman: The Animated Series. Unfortunately for this episode, not much else grabs you when it comes to Balloonman.
In fact, it only takes a few steps for the GCPD to figure this one out. Con man Ronald Danzer is swept into the sky as Balloonman’s first victim, followed by GCPD member Lt. Bill Cranston and Cardinal Quinn — all are known to be unethical yet unstoppable members of Gotham’s society. After discovering that four weather balloons went missing from their manufacturer, detectives Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) and James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) take to the streets to prevent further balloon mayhem. Remembering that Selina “Cat” Kyle (Camren Bicondova) was being transferred to a new juvenile facility as part of agency relocation; Gordon instantly jumps to the conclusion that, clearly, the abandoned building is just the place for balloon-related crimes.
Behind the former juvenile detention center, Gordon and Bullock discover a creepy, suspicious van. Sure enough, Cat’s social worker Davis Lamond (Dan Bakkedahl) grabs Bullock by gunpoint and essentially confesses that he’s murdered Danzer, Cranston and Quinn. “What good are laws?” he shouts. “Why didn’t the law punish them?” He explains that he’s given his life to the “lost children” of Gotham. “I wanted to make a difference…but I decided, ‘no more.’ I would teach them that there are consequences.” Finally, he reveals the last balloon, which Bullock manages to attach onto Lamond’s wrist. As the balloon lifts Lamond off the ground, Gordon leaps and grabs hold of Lamond’s body, unwilling to let him suffer a similar brutal balloon-related death. This reveals Gotham’s magical law of physics because Gordon’s weight jolts the balloon up toward the sky faster. He shouts at Bullock to shoot, and after a bit of suspenseful hesitation, Bullock finally shoots the balloon, sending Gordon and Lamond crashing down.
Balloonman’s philosophy troubles Gordon, but it seems to ignite something in little Bruce (David Mazouz). Seeing the story on the news leads him to explore the idea of vigilantism. If those who should protect — the church, police, legal advocates — are almost indistinguishable from criminals, who, then, will defend the people of Gotham? Bruce immediately knows how he would be different than Balloonman, and he makes it more than clear that he’ll never cross that line. Balloonman killed people — that made him a criminal, too.
As an aside, we wonder whether Lamond’s disguise when attacking Cranston — a dark coat, hat and scarf wrapped around the lower half of his face — was inspired by The Shadow (or, maybe, the Gray Ghost?), which would have made the connection between Balloonman and Batman slightly satisfying, except for the fact that Bruce never saw Lamond’s disguise.
Penguin’s Murder Count Rises
Balloonman is a mere distraction compared to the increasingly pathological Penguin. At the beginning of the episode, Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor) returns to Gotham, takes a satisfying breath of the city’s air, and murders a passerby for sandwich money. In fact, Oswald proves to be the most sociopathic person in the series, killing at least five people (two for sandwiches) by the end of the third episode. Coddled, beaten, and then rejected by his mother figure, Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith), Cobblepot is determined to place himself back into the criminal community. His willpower and self-sufficiency would almost be admirable if he weren’t slicing people’s throats open nearly every time we see him.
Though rapid, Oswald’s transformation from rejected vagrant to busboy in Mafia Don Sal Maroni's restaurant is the most intriguing course of any character on the show. Lying, stealing, and killing his way upward, it’s no shock that he’ll soon run the mob. He’s learned from the best, but it’s doubtful anyone in Gotham has his level of psychopathology. Bullock kills for survival. Balloonman kills for justice. Mooney kills to send a message. Though not yet in the series (or is he?), the Joker kills for thrill. The Penguin kills for a pair of slip-resistant shoes. It’s as if he has a childish, poorly developed concept of right and wrong. His immaturity is his most powerful weapon.
Detective Montoya Reveals Deeper Problems
GCPD Detective Renee Montoya (Victoria Cartagena) is not often seen without her partner Crispus Allen (Andrew Stewart-Jones). In fact, Montoya and Allen were the detectives Oswald sought out to leak information that Ivy’s father was framed and, in fact, not the Waynes’ killer. When she’s not with her partner, Montoya has this habit of breaking into the Gordons’ high-rise loft to threaten/plead with former lover Barbara Kean (Erin Richards).
The character of Renee Montoya, though first appearing in comics as a recurring member of the GCPD, was originally created for Batman: the Animated Series and has been recognized as one of the more prominent Latina -- as well as gay characters -- in American superhero comics. The introduction of Renee as Barbara’s substance abusing, borderline ex-girlfriend adds some layers of unnecessary pathology — perhaps to again underscore that no one in Gotham can be good except for Jim and Barbara?
Nonetheless, with the intention of protecting Barbara, Montoya gives her warnings about Gordon, with conviction that he’s as corrupt as Bullock. She apologizes for betraying Barbara, and although its origin is vague, we’re to understand there’s a significant level of mistrust between them. It’s not clear whether Montoya’s ever victimized Barbara during the course of their relationship, but the hint of threat is there and unwelcomed all around. Barbara really needs to ask for her spare key back.
Alfred Becomes Recognizable
The last time we saw Alfred Pennyworth (Sean Pertwee) act supportive toward Bruce was immediately following the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne. That heartfelt hug may have been comforting to us as viewers, but then we felt major confusion watching Alfred adopt an authoritarian parenting style as Bruce’s caretaker. It’s refreshing, then, to see Alfred playfully nudge Bruce into engaging in imaginary sword-fighting with a couple of fancy canes. This is the first time we see Bruce laugh in the series, a reminder that, after all, he’s a normal little boy.
Their play is interrupted when Alfred discovers a stack of police files in the study. He opens them to reveal graphic photographs of the bodies of Martha and Thomas Wayne. "Your mom and dad," he says, calmly. "Why would you wan to look at these? They'll give you nightmares." Surprisingly, he doesn’t beat Bruce with a cane, which would not have surprised us, given his ill-tempered behavior in past episodes. "I have nightmares already," Bruce shrugs. He explains that he's looking for clues. A more supportive Alfred attempts to comfort Bruce by explaining that Detective Gordon has already promised to find the Waynes’ killer.
Similarly, Alfred is more inquisitive than accusatory when asking why Bruce has skipped some meals. "What's the program? Trying to see how long you can last without eating anything?" Bruce acknowledges that he has no appetite, but we can’t help but wonder if this is another one of his endurance tests. Alfred begins to materialize: “You really need to keep your strength up, Bruce.” Yes, yes he does. Bruce is more likely to listen to a sympathetic, empathic caretaker, one who rewards with praise and affection. Either Alfred is taking parent management training or he is beginning to learn from his mistakes.
Gotham’s introduction of original villains each week is as palatable as it is entertaining, but what stands out the most is the development of characters Cobblepot, Pennyworth, and Gordon.
It seems so peculiar that Balloonman —a throwaway villain— is the influential figure that introduces Bruce to vigilantism. If, as Bruno Heller explained earlier this year, the show is “really about telling the true story of how someone might become the Batman…the psychological truth of that is that he'd be a lot more damaged and a lot more traumatized and strange.” Yet, we’re moving much too quickly toward a Batman-esque hero with few meaningful explanations of how we’re getting there. Bruce can have a wild imagination while cooped up in Wayne Manor, but he certainly shouldn’t have much involvement in neurocriminology this early on. The value of “The Balloonman” is that we do get closer to a promising relationship between Alfred and Bruce. As long as we don’t see Bruce sewing his school uniform into a junior cowl, I’m OK with this.