How does a city get to the point where it needs Batman? Does it start out that way and nobody noticed or had the gumption to act until the Caped Crusader? Is it complacency and corruption amongst the city elite? Or is it created by strategic power vacuums? Does the dreariness of poverty and crime and corruption drive people to level of insanity known as Gotham City? I postulate, and this amazing episode goes to show, that it is a perfect storm of all of the above.
When you’re a gangster- especially a high-ranking one- power and strength are your two best friends. The same can be said for a cop. The minute you are perceived as weak is the minute you lose. And if there’s one thing the main characters in “What The Bird Told Him” hate doing, it’s losing. But someone has to. This episode is a great long term expository episode that ties all elements of the show together with a beautiful, subtle touch. At times the plot is a bit predictable, but even then it’s done so in a unique way. Every move of the proverbial chess piece tells a story and pushes the characters farther and farther down the rabbit hole.
Part of the greatness of Gotham is it’s ambiance- the atmosphere set by the scenery and the directing. This episode starts out with a slam to the face- leather clad Arkham escapees and proto-supervillain Jack Gruber walks beneath a dilapidated L Train on a dank and dirty street while Johnny Cash’s “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” blasts almost in rhythm with the heartbeat of the city. The writers playfully tease us with possibilities of who he might be: is it Mister Freeze? Is he a possible candidate for Man-Bar? (At least those are to two big teases I got). In the end, he is actually The Electrocutioner- a minor member of Batman’s Rogue’s Gallery. Whereas the villains we’re used to from the movies and animated television series are well supplied and dressed or costumed impeccably, this Electrocutioner is haphazard and thrown together. After all, he did just escape from a hospital from the criminally insane- chances are he’s not going to have a whole lot of resources. Nonetheless his methods are brutal and his scheme grand- to kill Mafia Don Salvatore Maroni.
Don Carmine Falcone (played with brilliant subtlety by veteran character actor John Doman), on the other hand, is a proverbial lame duck. In his latent years he has grown soft and fat. Whereas before he would have headed up the gangs with his own bare hands, he now takes serene walks through the park and sips tea in his abundant spare time. This has allowed would be usurper Fish Mooney to place an informer close to him- really close. So close that if Don Falcone found out he would be heartbroken. But even though he has grown complacent in his later years, he is the Don for a reason- he always has an ace in the hole. His ace in this situation- Oswald Cobblepot, a former Mooney employee who now rats on Don Maroni to Don Falcone. He is a snake in the grass-slimey and morose. But he is a necessary puzzle piece for Falcone, so for now he gets to spin his complicated web of lies and deception.
In the last episode we saw our series protagonist- Detective Jim Gordon- bad assing it up as a guard for Arkham Asylum. Despite his best efforts, the real badies got away and are no wreaking havoc on Gotham town. Jim Gordon, however, isn’t going down without a fight. Using his wits he’s able to convince the police commissioner to reinstate him as detective for this case, even though he basically has no idea what he’s doing. It’s a desperation move for a new class of criminal- the proto-super-villain. These are the pioneers for the Jokers and Riddlers and Two Faces to come. Desperate times do indeed call for desperate measures, Detective Gordon spends the majority of the episode relying on blind luck and sheer determination to catch Mr. Gruber and his imbecilic accomplice. Ben McKenzie has always given Gordon a cynical demeanor that hides the heart of a truly good man. He uses his directness to counter the posturing and manipulation of Gotham’s Crime Bosses and political higher-ups, and he does it well.
The whole episode is very stylistic, even at one point blatantly tipping it’s had to a scene from “The Godfather”. (Seriously, can mafia hits only happen at fruit stands?) Whereas the series before now has been a strict exercise in bleakness and ultra-reality, the production crew in this episode take liberties with the lighting and set to really give it the noir look that typifies Batman visuals. In reality, the production staff and director are to be given heaps of praise for this episode. Moments of tension are given time to breathe and develop, while humorous moments are still given their required gravity. A scene that particularly sticks out to me, mainly because of it’s contrast with the rest of the episode, is Barbara Kean’s homecoming. The whole scene felt awkward and forced- exactly how the characters felt. While a novice viewer might see that as bad directing, I see it as a stroke of brilliance. There was no chemistry between the actors in that scene and it tied it together perfectly. It’s little flourishments like that that really elevate this episode into the realm of great television.
Even the scenes between Edward Nygma and his unrequited love, though comical, are still heartbreaking. One scene in particular could have brought the episode to a screeching halt. Instead, Cory Michael Smith’s creepy yet sweet and endearing portrayal of the future Riddler tugs at our heart-strings. I really feel that if they ever do get to the point in the series that Nygma becomes The Riddler it will be amazingly powerful. Set ups like that abound in this episode. When Gordon finally gets the chance to confront The Electrocutioner, it almost feels like a panel from a Silver Age comic book. I’ll go ahead and spoil it for you- he defeats The Electrocutioner by throwing a cup of water on his suit. That simple. I almost expected The Electrocutioner to shout “Oh no, my one weakness: Waaaaaattterrrrrrrrr!” But instead of feeling campy, it feels poignant. The city isn’t quite ready for heroes like Batman yet.
The other side of the story hits you like an anvil. Carmine Falcone is beat. He accepts defeat and an offer to go live in the country with Liza, Fish’s mole. Not her literal mole- that would be disgusting for a guy to just live with a mole he plucked off someone. No, Liza is the woman Fish hired to get close to him because she resembled his “sainted mother.” When Falcone does find out about her betrayal- by Penguin, no less- he is utterly heartbroken. But it is just the galvanization needed, because just when it seemed like Falcone was down for the count, he rises from the ashes. In a brutal, heartbreaking final scene between Falcone and Liza, we see exactly the beast that Fish has inadvertently unleashed. A civilized caveman, a gentlemanly lion, Falcone shows us how he became dawn with just one bare hand. It is absolutely brutal and savage, but done so with a touch of grace and sadness.
With Falcone “feeling alive again” for the first time in years and The Electrocutioner in the headlines, Gotham now trembles in its foundation. It may not be Batman’s city just yet, but it is quickly getting there. The whole episode is a giant push for why Gotham needs Batman- and Bruce hasn’t even needed to show up for the past two episodes.
Though the script is slightly predictable in a few places, it is easily elevated by subtle acting, brilliant directing and interesting takes on old ideas.
The resolution (or at the very least major plot point) in the Fish-Penguin-Liza-Falcone-Maroni sublot is unendingly stasifying.
The whole episode serves to illustrate the inherent insanity and brutality in its pre-Batman days.
Ben McKenzie as Jim Gordon. A billy bad ass through and through, McKenzie gives Gordon just the right amount of cynicism and pain to make him a truly compelling lead character.
John Doman as Carmine Falcone. The veteran actor continues to lend a patient subtlety to the character that, even with his perceived docility, makes him a threatening character.
Robin Lord Taylor as Oswald “Penguin” Cobblepot. I can’t rave enough about Mr. Taylor’s Penguin. It’s his neurotic charm, his casual psychosis, his elegant paranoia. He’s a gentlemanly scum and basket case with great elocution. It’s such a perverse dichotomy that he is endlessly entertaining to watch and massively unpredictable.
Christopher Heyerdahl as Jack Gruber/Jack Buchinsky. I highlighted Mr. Heyerdahl’s portrayal in last weeks episode. This week he carries the same intensity but has far more screen time.
Cory Michael Smith as Edward Nygma. I think Nygma is bound to become a fan favorite and, if he does, all credit is due to Cory Michael Smith’s portrayal. Whereas Penguin’s creepiness is…well, creepy, Smith finds a way to make Nygma’s creepiness endearing. He does it so well that I actually have a hard time seeing him as villain. Even if he does don the question marks, it will probably be more as a sympathetic lost soul than as a bad guy.