Before Gotham found its footing and became the steadily insane bit of comic book fun that it is today, there was…The Balloonman.
“The Balloonman” was just the third episode of creator Bruno Heller‘s DC Comics series, mired in a first season that had no idea what the hell to do about a Batman show that didn’t include Batman. Occasionally it tried to be something hard-boiled, almost a straight adaptation of the Gotham Central comic series, a case-of-the-week Law & Order: Gotham City led by a zero-nonsense Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) so stiff you could replace him with a 2×4 in a suit and nary a viewer would notice. A pair of hardnosed rival detectives, Renee Montoya (Victoria Cartagena) and Crispus Allen (Andrew Stewart-Jones), actually did disappear from the show halfway through the first season and hey, nobody noticed — the first example of Gotham course-correcting.
But mostly, Season 1 played out like the worst person at a Batman movie screening who nudges you in the ribs and says, “That’s the Batman.” Gotham, throughout its first season, was very proud to just roll out a recognizable member of Bruce Wayne’s rogues gallery before they could legally buy alcohol and call it a day. Would it thrill you to watch Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova) drink an exorbitant amount of milk, almost like a cat? Do you think you could guess who Ivy Pepper (Clare Foley) the child who loves plants grows up to be? What if we put a question mark on Edward Nygma’s (Cory Michael Smith) coffee cup for no discernible reason? The whole thing was stylish—Tim Burton meets Jim Lee meets Batman & Robin by way of taking molly inside a Hot Topic—and thoroughly exhausting.
But I couldn’t stop thinking about “The Balloonman”, that early, early episode that followed a homicidal vigilante named Davis Lamond (Dan Bakkedahl) who ties his victims to weather balloons and lets them splat back down to Earth. What a needlessly complicated way to commit murder. How stupidly specific a gimmick. How absurd a storyline. How…genuinely fun? It was a helium-filled burst of personality in a chapter of TV severely lacking in that department. Gotham‘s first go-around ended on a storyline that saw Milo Ventimiglia guest-starring as an absolutely paper-thin villain named The Ogre, and Jim’s fiancée Barbara Kean (Erin Richards) losing her mind after a season spent doing…nothing. Quite literally nothing. The show had a choice to make: Stay as Fox’s resident familiar-face-parade, or lean into the Balloonman of it all.
My friends, Gotham not only leaned into the Balloonman but tied its own damn leg to a weather balloon. It has been ascending into the batshit-o-sphere ever since. As we speak, the series is two episodes into its fifth and final chapter, a season set in a Gotham City completely isolated from the world, and over-run by Mad Max-ass gangs and Frank Miller mutants. Also, Shane West‘s Bane is coming, and he looks like a steampunk Keurig machine. It’s absolutely fascinating to look at where Gotham is now as opposed to where it started, that is, an increasingly deranged journey of self-discovery that saw the show find an identity — albeit an unhinged one.
Most importantly, its characters aren’t just faces you’d recognize on a DC Comics wiki, they’re fully realized characters, with arcs, flaws, and personal tragedies all their own. Like the well-told Batman origin itself, Gotham‘s characters all found their true selves in moments of borderline insanity. Richards has become the show’s low-key, high-energy MVP as a Barbara who embraced her cracked psyche and found it suited her. The scripts stopped giving Cory Michael Smith forced riddles to yell and Robin Lord Taylor‘s Oswald Cobblepot tuna fish sandwiches to eat, and just let the two actors compete to have the biggest blast chewing several pieces of scenery to pieces at a time. (Taylor usually wins, which makes sense; his character does eventually become Burton’s Danny DeVito). Cameron Monaghan, who started off in Season 1 doing a subpar Heath Ledger impression and not much more, has died, been resurrected, died again, and then been re-introduced as a different character en route to becoming one of the most mesmerizing live-action depictions of the Joker in the character’s history. David Mazouz has developed into a fine young Bruce Wayne on a show that so easily could’ve settled on the novelty of a Baby Batman.
Even Ben McKenzie—who has directed two episodes himself and written one—has become the perfect straight man as Jim Gordon; his downright unhealthy level of jaw-clenching isn’t just a form of noir-lite gruffness, it’s a reaction to being the Last Good Man in a city completely gone off the deep end.
It’s hard to tell exactly when Gotham‘s turn happened. The show was still rocky when it returned for Season 2, but delivered a jolt of energy thanks to the presence of two of TV’s great character actors: James Frain, whose ghoul-faced Theo Galavan opened up the show to the mystical lore of DC’s Order of Saint Dumas, and B.D. Wong, whose Doctor Hugo Strange never found a one-syllable word he couldn’t pronounce with six.
But if I had to pinpoint the exact shift in the show, it actually would most likely be Galavan’s death in the appropriately titled Season 2 episode, “Unleashed.” Resurrected from the dead and wearing an Assassin’s Creed cosplay, Galavan arrives to Wayne Manor with righteous murder on his mind, only to meet Oswald Cobblepot…who promptly blows him to shit with a bazooka. It’s such a patently absurd moment, both hilariously anti-climactic and extremely fireworks-factory climactic at the same time. It’s the first moment in Gotham‘s history where I couldn’t quite explain why it brought me such joy, because the show had stopped trying so hard to be anything other than pure, anarchic delight. It was a shot of adrenaline that carried over tenfold into a Season 3 arc literally subtitled “Mad City” that introduced Benedict Samuel‘s Jervis Tetch, the top-hat-wearing, nursery-rhyme-spouting Lewis Carroll enthusiast of the comics who confirmed Gotham‘s new modus operandi: “We’re all mad here.”
Gotham is far from a perfect show. The decision to continually age up the Ivy Pepper character to feel less bad about making her sexy continues to be a sore spot, and the writing still over-relies on its now-trademark “shooting people in the head counts as detective work” trope. The fact anyone still RSVPs to social events in Gotham City expecting not to die horribly is also a leap in logic you simply must accept. But Gotham has become so confident in its over-the-top antics that its glaring flaws feel like part of a messy machine. Mazouz remains its stoic heart, McKenzie its reluctant brain, anchoring a wild ride where an opera-singing pigman feeds homeless people to the rich and that makes perfect sense. It’s a ride that’s ending soon, but one I’m glad decided early to release the safety switch and fly, balloon-like, right off the tracks.
Gotham‘s final season airs Thursdays on Fox.