This post will contain spoilers for the first season of Gotham.
I’m not the typical comic book property fan. I don’t care about canon from book to screen – I’m able to read, and if I wanted to experience the adventures in the pages, I’m more than capable of consuming them – but I do care about consistency within the story itself.
That’s where Gotham has failed. The first season of the show started with such promise, but the weaving plot threads stumbled along the way and betrayed that potential.
The pilot episode premiered back in September with a bang, introducing squeaky clean Lieutenant James Gordon to the gritty and grimy of Gotham City. His first case is the Wayne murders, and we get the clear dichotomy between lawful good Gordon and his partner (and embodiment of the city) Harvey Bullock. The further dynamics established with Oswald “Penguin” Cobblepot defying his employer, up and coming crime boss Fish Mooney (a new character to the Bat-Catalog), and the city’s officials being beholden to the Falcone and Maroni crime families intrigued me.
In the first couple of episodes, the threads were clearly established. I wanted this show, billed as an origin for Jim Gordon, to succeed.
Jim Gordon has always been a great supporting character in my opinion. He’s typically portrayed as a paragon of law whose methods of cleaning up Gotham won’t work, but he can’t violate his moral fiber to personally use methods that will work. Hence, he turns to the man who can do what the law cannot, and we get a vigilante called Batman.
With this in mind, I was excited for this show. Gotham’s Jim Gordon had everything stacked against him from the very beginning: The crime families are in a cold war, and everyone including the police are afraid to go against the status quo and either lose their power or bring that power down upon them. I wasn’t expecting him to clean up the city, since that’s Batman’s job in the next decade, but rather make enough of an impact (and survive long enough) to become the commissioner who enables Batman’s crusade.
The first quarter of the season led me to believe that the season arc would revolve around the mob cold war. Instead, it focused on a considerable deal more, including trying to establish origins for all of the Bat-Villains. Trying to develop all of those threads killed the momentum of the first season, especially in the middle third.
How would I have approached it?
The overarching story should have been about the mob cold war, culminating (as it partially did in the finale) with Fish Mooney having played both sides against each other and Cobblepot having played her, sought his revenge, and stolen her victory to become the new boss of organized crime. Falcone could survive and slink into retirement as he did, and Maroni could remain dead. The entire Dollmaker subplot could have been completely excised, as it just felt like filler to stretch the season and remove Fish from the playing field until the finale.
Under that umbrella, the first subplot could have been Gordon’s efforts to stem the corruption in the police force. I loved his defiance of the mayor and commissioner, and his outwitting them when they tried to silence him by demoting and reassigning him. I loved the commissioner’s attempt to discredit and/or remove Gordon’s threat to his power by setting the Ogre on the detective’s trail.
What I didn’t like was the Barbara Kean subplot.
If the writers follow the comics, which I don’t expect, Barbara is eventually supposed to marry Gordon and start a family with him. The problem is that they have removed any sympathy I have for the character by stripping away the promise of her being an emotional anchor and support for Gordon in a city that stands against him. If they wanted to make her more complex, the troubled backstory they provided sufficient complexity, and they could have removed Gordon’s support by sending Barbara off to work through her issues but still remain sympathetic to the audience and Gordon.
As it stands with this multiple personality/nonsensical drugged-by-the-Ogre-fugue-state storyline, if they choose to reunite them later it will feel artificial. She may or may not have killed her parents in cold blood. A lawful good character like Gordon wouldn’t settle for that. Even if she’s dead after attacking Leslie Thompkins, who should not have been counseling someone with a conflict of interest, she’s still not someone that Gordon would name his daughter after.
Also, where did Renee Montoya and Crispus Allen go? These two could have been fantastic allies to help rally behind Gordon as he stems the police department’s corruption. Instead, they are wasted. So is the subplot about the commissioner’s illegitimate daughter, which Gordon could have used to topple Commissioner Loeb after the Ogre storyline started.
This subplot could have been resolved with a power vacuum in the Mayor’s office after Gordon reveals the corruption and mob ties. District Attorney Harvey Dent, Montoya, and Allen stand with Gordon, and the next season is set up for a subplot with a now scared commissioner secretly teaming with Bullock to find a way to stop Gordon’s crusade. This also opens the door for the typical “Penguin runs for Mayor” storyline.
The second subplot could have been Bruce Wayne’s quest for the truth, which was actually one of my favorite parts of the season even though it was only tangentially related to Gordon’s story. Both he and Gordon know that Pepper was a scapegoat in the pilot, and the investigation could have been handed off to Wayne as Gordon got pulled into the first subplot’s machinations. The investigation could have proceeded pretty much the way that it did, but tightened up with less involvement from Gordon. Bruce earns his “world’s greatest detective” stripes by unraveling the secrets, digging into Wayne Enterprises, and going through the cloak-and-dagger that he and Selina Kyle performed. Sure, have Bruce discover the cave and how his father also fought against the corruption in his own corporate house. But Bruce Wayne’s story should be minimized in a series about Gordon’s origins, and as such, he should have been involved for about only 60 to 75 percent of the entire season’s episodes.
As this subplot ends, Wayne gains an ally against the corporation in Lucius Fox, he and Alfred grow much closer as he recovers from the trauma of the murder of his parents and discovers his new life’s calling, and Selina departs just as she did to join Fish Mooney (in a more meaningful capacity than the twenty minutes in the season finale) before slinking into the shadows after Fish’s death. This sets up a smaller subplot for Season Two where Bruce discovers his heritage, Wayne Enterprises potentially endorses Cobblepot for mayor, and Bruce and Alfred decide to travel abroad and start rallying allies against the corporation. Bring back Sean Pertwee from time to time, but leave Bruce to evolve into the cape and cowl. There are also opportunities for Falcone to return in a limited capacity to provide information (for a price) regarding the Wayne murders.
Finally, each season should focus on evolving one (and only one) Bat-Villain, with the Penguin and possibly (and minimally) Selina Kyle as common threads. The second season could start showing cracks in the good façade of Harvey Dent or perform a longer and more realistic slip into schizophrenia for Edward “Riddler” Nygma. Nygma was best when he was subtly creepy, and by the end of Season One, he lost that quality in the sudden 180 spin into complete supervillain mode, which also removed some of the magic in the series. Even better, remove the schizophrenia and simply make him completely sane and malevolently intelligent. Not every villain needs to have some kind of psychological break.
Overall, Gotham is a mess, but I don’t think it’s unsalvageable. I’ll be tuning in for the first part of Season Two, but I can’t guarantee much more beyond that if it doesn’t start pulling together. The show needs a clear roadmap for every season to help it reach the potential that I still see. The acting is great from many of the starring roles, and they deserve the chance to shine in a tight and coherent story.