Gotham's Arkham Asylum Is Too Bland to Be Scary

The Batman prequel show returns with an episode set inside the notorious mental institution, but fails to tap into its Lovecraftian origins.


After a long holiday break, I'd hoped Gotham would return to our screens with renewed confidence, ready to embrace its strongest, most lurid elements and dispose of the more pedestrian crime drama material. On the face of it, I'd say job done. The episode "Rogues Gallery" was set mostly within Arkham Asylum and focused on a super-villain turning mental patients into zombie soldiers via electroshock therapy. Yet everything still felt flat. Leaving aside the urban sheen of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, it's increasingly clear that the Batman universe has trouble co-existing with the real world (as it should). Why, then, is Gotham's Arkham Asylum a fairly functional-looking institution, lacking any of the Lovecraftian nightmarishness its name suggests?

I grew optimistic near the end of the episode, where our hero Jim Gordon, assigned to Arkham duty as punishment for digging too deep into mob corruption as a GCPD detective, learns that the mental hospital has a creepy basement. "No one's been down there in 10 years," a helpful nurse tells him. Yes, someone uttered the cheeseburger line "no one's been down there in 10 years" on a television show airing in 2015, and it had me perking up with interest. But Gordon's trip only revealed a twist anyone could have seen coming (the patient with the creepy accent and glasses is the mad scientist) and more empty hospital hallways.

"Rogues Gallery" started the action with an unorthodox performance of The Tempest starring Arkham's patients, an effective opening gambit that set up the dynamic between several prisoners and hinted at some smarter long-term plotting. That hope was dashed by the end of the episode: Our electrode-wielding villain escaped to fight another day, and every other remotely interesting character (including a warden played by Isiah Whitlock Jr. of The Wire) was dead or catatonic. Note that I said "remotely interesting," since a love interest for Jim played by Morena Baccarin (last seen as the long-suffering Mrs. Brody on Homeland) is still kicking around, but currently she has as much dimension as his estranged fiancée Barbara.

Remember Barbara? A furrow-browed prop who expressed concern for Jim's safety in the first few episodes, she was handed an ill-fitting relationship crisis subplot to give her something to do, pairing her with investigative detective Renee Montoya, apparently an old flame. As much as I'd like to applaud Gotham for featuring a same-sex relationship with two major characters, Renee and Barbara's chemistry was non-existent from the beginning and the whole plotline felt like a cheap way to spice things up. "Rogues Gallery" saw their time together come to an end; even their final argument felt passionless. If Gotham wishes to continue roughly following Batman chronology, Jim and Barbara will need to marry, but I’d urge the show to pursue other options, given the character's narrative dead weight so far.

Back to the asylum, where a promising ensemble of patients quickly turned into a goofy slideshow of "crazy people" set to a rollicking score as Jim tried to sniff out the brain-zapping villain. I don't know what purpose was really served by having Jim contend with a bunch of gibbering "loonies" in a corny montage, but it certainly didn't make Arkham seem like the frightening place it can be in Batman lore. One of the show's strongest points as an origin story is that it portrays a Gotham City that’s becoming stranger and scarier, almost as if in preparation for Batman's arrival. Why not have Arkham reflect that? An "inmates running the asylum" plot is hacky even when done right, and this wasn't done right.

There's still time for Jim to dig into something more interesting at Arkham. Whether Gotham is planning to use the Asylum to introduce a more famous villain, like the Joker, remains to be seen but that's probably the kick in the pants the show needs, perhaps nearer the end of the season. Jim remains on Arkham duty for now, with Harvey loudly bemoaning his absence from the GCPD (Donal Logue's work here was his best on the show so far) and the mob control plot continuing to percolate.

On that front, this week we saw the ascendant Penguin dressed down by his third mafia don. First Fish Mooney tries to kill him, then Falcone kicks him out, and now Sal Maroni locks him in jail to teach him a lesson? I think we get the point that the Penguin has been maltreated. I've enjoyed John Doman's stately Falcone, less so David Zayas' snippy Maroni, but it's time for the fun gangsters (Fish and Penguin) to take charge. This week's cliffhanger centered on one no-neck underling murdering another—the implications in the ongoing mob war are too dull for me to unpack, but if it gets things moving, I'm all for it. Gotham could have broken out of the gates in 2015. Instead it continues to lag well behind the season's superior TV comic-book adaptations.