Gotham is not a perfect show, and maybe not even a good show. I’m not going to defend the crazy pacing of Penguin’s rehabilitation/relapse storyline, the utter waste of Tabitha or pretty much any of Bruce’s dialogue, at any point, ever. I’m not going to reverse any of the critiques I leveled against its first season, and I’m not going to pretend I’m not disappointed by the ways in which its second season has failed to live up to my highest hopes.
But there’s this notion about Gotham, most abrasively trumpeted by The AV Club, but parroted elsewhere as received knowledge, that Gotham is a show that struggles with its identity, and particularly that it’s “two shows, and never knows which it wants to be at any time” or some variation thereof.
This is not true now, nor has it ever been true. Gotham has a perfectly coherent identity, possibly one of the most rigidly-defined identities of any show on television right now.
[SPOILERS UP TO BUT NOT INCLUDING THE SEASON TWO FINALE OF GOTHAM]
Not only that, but it’s had that identity from the start. The first shot of the entire series pans over a yellow-lit modern city, then jumps to a grey-lit 90s skyline, cut to Selina Kyle running over an 80s late industrial rooftop, then she stops on a smooth concrete precipice with gargoyles at either side. She looks out over the city, where we see buildings fitting all previous styles and time periods, plus seedy neon and gothic skyscrapers straight from the Burton/Schumacher days. Selina smiles and leaps down to the street level, where we find ourselves in a Chinatown adorned in megascreens.
Gotham‘s identity is complicated and messy, but it is neither confused nor haphazard. At the most fundamental level, Gotham has a gothic identity, in the sense of gothicness that Jack Halberstam outlines in his history of gothic horror, Skin Shows. The idea of the gothic has been reduced to a vague idea of antique dread in popular discourse, but Halberstam shows that what is most characteristic of the gothic is that it is “overdetermined”, or too stuffed with symbolic meaning to stably represent anything in particular at any given time, which is not to say that the gothic represents nothing: Halberstam gives the example of Dracula, who represents both violent masculinity and cunning femininity, idle wealth and scrounging parasitism, even virility and sterility, simultaneously.
The gothic consists in an inconsistent, unstable multiplicity bound together in a singular body, each segment stitched and sutured together, and so undeniably whole, though the skin may strain at times to hold the unity together.
Gotham is concertedly gothic on the level of space, time and genre. I’ve already alluded to how the environment of Gotham City is actually dozens of environments layered on top of each other and mashed together, but this is even more pointed in how the show is a patchwork not just of environments but of time periods. Characters call each other on late 90s/early 00s flip phones and drive cars from every decade from the 40s to the 80s. No one seems to have invented the Internet yet and psychiatric medicine is almost barely past Freud, but Wayne Enterprises has developed advanced genetic engineering. Gotham is Frankenstein’s creature, assembled of myriad parts excavated from across time and space.
Most reviewers have rarely paid even the mildest attention to Gotham‘s intricately nonsensical portrayal of its environment and time period except to occasionally pass a bemused remark on a specific anachronism (not that anything is anachronistic in the absence of a time period), but if you acknowledge this fundamentally gothic character of the show’s aesthetic, it should be clear that it has a similarly gothic sensibility to its genre that completely discredits the notion of a dual or confused identity.
For example, I’ve often heard complaints about how Gordon behaves as if he’s on a dour, serious, bleak prestige drama when he’s actually on an absurdly camp show. First of all, that’s not as true as these critics insist. Gordon often cracks jokes and even has moments bordering on slapstick. But even to the extent that Gordon is more tortured, angsty, grim and serious than other characters, that’s because Gordon is from a dour, serous, bleak prestige drama, he’s just not on it right now. Not only is this deliberate, it’s also hilarious and mined for comedy all the time. What is Bullock and Gordon’s relationship if not the wisecracking too-old-for-this-shit protagonist of an oddball private eye procedural and the tortured antihero of a self-serious prestige crime drama?
Just look at Penguin’s arc for this season. While he starts off in, essentially, a downer sequel to the scramble-to-the-top crime drama that was his life in season one, in the second half of the season he switches first to a Cuckoo’s Nest/Clockwork Orange asylum odyssey, then finds himself in a New England Gothic tale of family intrigue before finally snapping back to his original lunatic brand of messianic criminality. While horribly paced and obviously padded for time, Penguin’s arc alone flits through at least three genres as he advances from trauma to trauma without ever disturbing the genre of the show, because its only genre is every genre.
Gotham is a cop show, but it’s also science fiction, horror, black comedy, conspiracy thriller, noir, even classically gothic, in particular with its portrayal of religious horror. Maybe the last of all its genres is superhero show. All of this is tied together with, yes, a wry and camp sensibility (Mr Freeze snapping at Hugo Strange for turning off his angry metal music is a recent highlight), but also a subtle and powerful dramatic structure.
Finally then, some comments on the structure of Gotham.
Gotham is an origin story, but it’s not an origin story for Gordon or Bruce or even Penguin. Gotham is an origin story for Gotham City, which is why it’s not particularly concerned with rushing Bruce into his cape.
That’s why Lori Petty’s Jeri is projecting pictures of Cameron Monaghan’s Jerome while she performs in “This Ball of Mud and Meanness”. Gotham is about how the relatively unexceptional cesspit in the pilot becomes the metropolitan madhouse of the Joker, so it shows us how the culture of the city is being affected by the emergence of the city’s own villainous freakshow.
That’s why the macro structure of the show is Gordon, Bruce and Penguin fighting their way up through the hierarchy in Gotham City, dispatching the current oligarchs, unaware of the rising tide of madness following at their heels, flooding the corridors of influence they’ve just cleared out in their quests for justice, revenge and power, altering the city forever.
That’s why Azrael is killed so anticlimactically in “Unleashed”, not, as Kyle Fowle at The AV Club thinks, because the writers didn’t know what to do with Azrael but repeat the events of the mid-season finale, but because Azrael is a personal antagonist to the three protagonists, but not a central figure in the structure of Gotham City’s origin story. He is of no consequence to the grander narrative except as one of the many entities shifting the boundaries of the possible in the increasingly insane world of Gotham City. So each of the protagonists makes an attempt on his life, Bruce with his car, Gordon with his gun and, at last, Penguin with his Butchzooka, who finally delivers the hilariously abrupt death owed to a character with an overinflated sense of his own narrative importance, literally, because his entire identity, as either or both of Azrael or Theo Galavan, is a story he tells himself where he is the hero.
That’s why Gotham has phased out its nasty habit from season one of using future comic book villains (or their fathers, in the case of Black Mask and Scarecrow) for cases of the week. Gotham doesn’t even do cases of the week anymore. The show abandoned its procedural elements in favour of the clever, albeit often poorly-paced, grander structure that serves as the skin under which its disparate aesthetic and generic elements are sewn together, the framework that gives Gotham the unity of form that holds its complicated, messy, gothic identity together.
I’m perfectly aware that Gotham is a show with many serious problems in the quality of, among other things, its writing, directing, editing and ensemble management – why is it taking so long for this show to learn how to use any of its female characters but Selina? Why does it keep promoting actors to regular cast – Drew Powell, Jessica Lucas, Nicholas d’Agosto – without actually using them regularly, or at all?
But this “confused identity” or “two shows” cliché is just that – a trite, lazy trope that gives reviewers either unwilling or unable to deal with Gotham‘s real problems, which are problems of craft, a cheap stick to beat the show with instead of doing the work to actually engage with the show critically.