This week’s Gotham was missing something: the Gotham City Police. Which was nice. It’s hard to root for a cop show where the cops are, by nature of your supervillain-packed setting, powerless. It’s becoming clearer and clearer that Gotham’s biggest problem is that it can’t really be a cop show since its hero Jim Gordon doesn’t really have the power to affect major change or even fight crime. The new episode, “Penguin’s Umbrella,” made that fact abundantly clear by having Gordon trying and failing to arrest the city’s mayor and leading crime boss.
So, Gordon’s firing blanks. But someone more interesting has emerged. The titular Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor), has been again revealed to be far more powerful than his sniveling, manic demeanor might suggest. Since being mock-executed by Gordon in the pilot, the Penguin has crawled his way back to Gotham, and found a high-ranking spot in the crew of Salvatore Maroni (David Zayas), the biggest rival to reigning Don Carmine Falcone (John Doman). At the end of “Penguin’s Umbrella,” the limping, slippery gangster met with Falcone (at his chicken coop) and confirmed that he’d been working for him all along.
It’s too bad that this nice plot twist was revealed in the most ham-fisted way possible. The quiet, authoritative Falcone is a much more compelling mobster than the more stereotypical-seeming Maroni, so if the Penguin is actually working to take him down, that’s a good thing. But did we really need a two-minute flashback where the Penguin painstakingly predicted everything that happened over the past six episodes as part of some grand plea to Falcone? He might as well have ended his verbal essay with “And then I’ll meet you in secret in your chicken coop and we’ll reminisce about this conversation,” so detailed was his recapping of the season thus far.
Still, Penguin remains Gotham’s most absorbing character by a long shot. Taylor is leaning into some of the comic-book character’s well-known traits (his irregular gait and penchant for manic behavior) without crossing the line into pure camp. It’s tough to play a character called the Penguin and get taken seriously as a figure possessed of great intellect and capacity for violence, but Taylor is mostly pulling it off. While the scheming of fellow aquatic gangster Fish Mooney is enjoyably bonkers, she’s probably too crazy to last for the long long term. Penguin is a much more believable underworld operator.
Now, if only the show could give him a real adversary to deal with, because Jim Gordon isn’t it. His big power play to take down Falcone and the Mayor (who is in the mob’s pocket) collapsed spectacularly when Falcone threatened the life of Barbara, the woman he loves. Well, ostensibly loves. The fact that the Barbara character is Gotham’s biggest flaw couldn’t have been clearer in this episode. When you’re fighting crime, as Batman will often find in the future, being attached to the people around you is a liability—but not even Jim Gordon seems to fully believe that he’s attached to Barbara. Sure, no one wants to see an innocent lady die, but their chemistry is so weak that even their happy reunion at the end of the episode felt cold and stilted.
Gordon’s problem extends beyond Barbara—he’s also just 10 years too early to affect any significant change in Gotham City, as the weekly presence of a very young Bruce Wayne continually reminds us. I was happy to see Gordon get his partner Harvey Bullock on board as a good cop this week, a development I’ve been waiting for, but the next step is having that partnership feel fruitful outside of arresting the occasional Arkham Asylum escapee.
Seven episodes in, this show already has the difficult problem that its villains are far more fascinating than its heroes. That’s not too uncommon a complaint for a comic-book show—in fact, Batman might not be one of the five most interesting characters in The Dark Knight, and that movie is fantastic. But it means you’re spending half of your airtime every week on dull serial-killer plots or ineffectual efforts to take down the mob. There’s been plenty of plot progression on the criminal side of things in Gotham. Now it’s time for the cops to step up.