[Editor’s Note: This was my fault for this posting late today, but in future weeks we’ll have it served up hot after the episode!]
Outside of a few rejected album reviews drunkenly sent to every music magazine in the country at 4 AM, I rarely get the chance to compare Fox’s batshit Batman prequel Gotham to the music stylings of Taylor Swift. But the show’s Season 4 premiere, titled “Pax Penguina,” provided a surprisingly prescient opportunity to do just that. Much like Swift hinted at her transition from a sugar-laced pop-singer into something angrier and more prone to shop at Hot Topic by declaring the Old Taylor was dead, young Jonathan Crane announced that he, too, has officially become something darker. “Jonathan Crane isn’t here anymore,” he says at the episode’s conclusion. “It’s just the Scarecrow.”
Trust me, the Swift comparison makes more sense than it seems. The death of the “Old Gotham” and rise of the “New Gotham” is the entire point of this show’s existence, that period when muggers and pickpockets were slowly replaced by homicidal clowns and psychotic Trivia Night hosts, and things got so out of control that the town’s richest citizen was forced to dress like a flying rodent and throw bat-shaped ninja stars into criminals’ kneecaps. Jonathan Crane emerging from a closet wielding a fear toxin and acting under the influence of a hallucinated fire-breathing scarecrow is both A) very, very similar to the writing process on “Look What You Made Me Do,” I assume, and B) just the latest sign that Gotham—and Gotham—is still on track to become the supervillain-infested madhouse we all know and love.
Unfortunately, we’re not quite there yet; we’re in the Dark Mid-afternoon before the Dark Night, and Oswald Cobblepot is still trying to enforce his unique brand of violence-based order on the city. The former mayor and current Iceberg Lounge nightclub entrepreneur has introduced the Licenses of Misconduct, a system of Get Out of Jail Free cards for Gotham’s underground that puts crime solely into the hands of professionals, as opposed to your common street urchin or whip-wielding pickpockets with a pun-based affinity for cats. And, against all laws of logic and reasoning, the system works; the crime rate is down, the new Mayor approves, and the people of Gotham City are officially cool with having a pistol waved in their face as long as the person doing it has the proper paperwork.
Of course, Jim Gordon is a Hard Pass on Penguin’s new system, because Jim Gordon hates crime almost as much as he hates unclenching his jaw. Jim Gordon would kick over a little girl’s lemonade stand if she didn’t have a permit. My dude Jim Gordon 100-percent has his badge number tattooed on his body, probably over his heart, and definitely in swirly lettering. What I’m saying is that you know for a fact Jim Gordon is not going to let a criminal rob his local coffee shop, with or without government-mandated permission.
Without any support from his colleagues, however, Jim is forced to turn to a teenage boy in a ski mask. Gotham’s creative team has sworn up and down numerous times that we’re never going to see Batman, but “Pax Penguina” came pretty damn close. What I love about this proto-Batman is how terrible Bruce Wayne is at the job. Sure, he can karate kick with the best of them, but he’s clumsy. He crashes through skylights, is quick to anger and elbow-thrusting when “being a goddamn billionaire” would solve the immediate issue just as easily. He takes his mask off in the middle of a crime scene no less than two times in this episode alone. It’s perfectly endearing. Seeing superheroes fly is fun, but seeing them fall is what keeps us coming back.
What I don’t love is the ways Gotham chooses to squander its own intriguing setup. What has always kept this series from simply becoming Muppet Babies with 90% more beheadings is the subtle themes it manages to occasionally slip under the surface of its balls-to-the-wall writing. The “License of Misconduct” at first appeared to be an interesting look at crime control, a twist on vigilantism and “doing the right thing,” like the grey area in which Batman lives where the ends sometimes, but not always justify some pretty extreme means. But Gotham instead chooses to lean into its worst tendencies, which is less “moral grey area” and more “blend of machismo and casual police brutality.” Jim Gordon isn’t so much upset at Penguin’s system, but embarrassed at the fact it makes the GCPD look useless. First of all, the GCPD is useless. A Girl Scout troop could break in and out of the GCPD station with half a spool of twine and enough can-do spirit. Second of all, the stakes here aren’t half as interesting as they could be. Jim basically wants to take down Penguin because it would be good for The Brand.
This comes to an anticlimactic head at the Iceberg Lounge, Gotham’s most popular luxury destination that also happens to have a frozen corpse as a centerpiece. Jim and Harvey Bullock instigate a showdown at the club between Penguin’s crew and a rogue group of fear toxin-using criminals led by a man named Merton (played by Michael Buscemi, the fear toxin hallucination version of his brother, Steve Buscemi). Thanks to an intervention by Ivy—who I am still not okay with having the mind of a pre-teen, and probably never will—Penguin ends up dosed with the fear toxin himself, bringing to (imagined) life a demonic Edward Nygma and sending Oswald into hysterics. “Penguin or Chicken?” reads the next day’s Gotham Gazette headline, continuing the long-standing tradition that in the comic book world of gods and heroes, the most powerful person is still a clever-ass copywriter with a snappy pun up his sleeve.
Rating: ★★ Fair