While the pilot of Gotham set the bar low with its ham-handed sincerity, the real test was always going to be the second episode. Writer Bruno Heller and director Danny Cannon got us all in the door with a slick looking first episode loaded with fan service and some sterling character work. Thankfully, episode two, “Selina Kyle” continues that trend with aplomb by throwing viewers into the fold of Gotham and letting the show find its legs, albeit a bit unsteady, amid the heavy shadows of other adaptations.
The cold open of the episode is a particularly nasty bit of business involving a pair of chipper WASPs who kidnap children to ship overseas to someone called the Dollmaker. Right from frame one, Heller serves up a choice bit of grimdark, but it is the casting of veteran character actors Lili Taylor and Frank Whaley that keep it from devolving into a charmless slog. The strength of this episode, and more than likely the whole show going forward, is its cast and guest stars. Taylor and Whaley particularly delight throughout as the main antagonists of this episode; radiating a sweet savagery as they smile and murder their way through the episode. While these guest stars shine, the recurring cast also holds there own as they settle into their roles and the tone of the episode. Ben McKenzie’s Gordon is a ticking time bomb already as he grits through his dialogue and picks fights with almost every single character he interacts with. The pilot played Gordon as a simmering pot of rage, but in “Selina Kyle” it seems Gordon is already primed to explode. Its an interesting choice from McKenzie, but at least he realizes when he needs to tone it down, which works in his favor here. Donal Logue continues to be a scene stealer, always quick with a rebuke or one-liner. Heller gives most of the laugh lines to Bullock and Logue nails every one. For example, right after the cold open, Gordon inspects a body while Bullock saunters up with a single coffee. “I got you one but I dropped it.”, he says as he quaffs his. I watched this episode twice and I laughed each time. Logue also flashes Harvey’s mean streak, marking this first appearance of Bullock’s famous phone book used to beat confessions out of perps. Gotham is an ugly city, and Donal Logue may be a perfect face for that ugliness.
The MVP of the episode though, once again, goes to Jada Pinkett Smith, who I may just end up calling Queen Jada for the duration of my coverage of Gotham. She absolutely kills yet again. The obvious comparisons of Eartha Kitt have been made numerous times throughout the dialogue about Gotham; while somewhat accurate, Smith is doing something else entirely, making the character and probably the show her own. Bruno Heller, even just in these two episodes, tends to inject a certain pomposity into the script, which is more than okay for a show like Gotham. We expected it to be kinda goofy, right? And while it is much darker than I was expecting, the dialogue still sounds a bit loftier than what normal people would sound. Comic books, right? Smith is the best actor handling the delivery of the scripts so far. While Logue and McKenzie are sticking close to the shore, Smith is going way the hell out of sea and she isn’t treading water. Just look at the scene where Fish and Carmine Falcone have a drink in her club. That entire scene is written within an inch of its life and I never once didn’t believe Smith’s performance. Smith also makes gourmet meals out of lines like “I swear by my sainted mother’s grave I will kill that man with my bare hands and teeth.”. Even if this show falls apart completely, I will watch it as long as Jada Pinkett Smith is still on it.
Indeed, the villains shine in the spotlight of episode two. As Gordon and Bullock work the case, good portions of the episodes actions are also centered around the rise of Robin Lord Taylor’s Cobblepot and the exploits of Cameron Bicondova’s Seli…erm…Cat. While Bicondova actually gets a speaking role in the episode that bares her name, she still fails to really pop in the episode as a whole. I will admit, this episode handles her tendency to climb around better than the pilot, she still just seems to be blankly reacting to the action around her. She does have a nice moment with a crying boy aboard a bus, where she reassures him that juvie isn’t so bad and to go for the eyes in fights, but she still comes across as bland in a show stocked with colorful characters. Cory Michael Smith’s Ngyma also crashes and burns again in his single scene back in the GCPD. Even the other characters find him annoying as he just grins and stands around, hovering like some human wink. I was most excited about the inclusion of Ngyma, because he’s one of my favorite rogues, but so far, he’s been my biggest complaint.
Robin Lord Taylor, however, I now totally get, so now I don’t feel like the weird one anymore. Most of the episode’s stark cinematic style comes from the scenes in which Cobblepot kills his way into a small foothold in the boonies around Gotham City; these scenes heavy with Fincher-esque blues with the spires of Gotham looming heavy in the background. Taylor plays these scenes cordial and polite until they aren’t and it is a sick joy to watch. “You must have been quite the scamp.”, he almost purrs to a hostage right after his parents refused to believe his ransom demands. The Penguin has always seemed a bit one note to me on the page, but Taylor’s genteel and vicious performance is making me think twice about his position on the favorite Bat rogues list. Taylor’s performance is also bolstered and informed by the appearance of Carol Kane as his doting mother, Gertrude Kapelput. Kane, of course, is the queen we all know she can be as she finds the heart beneath the insane wig and caked on make up, but her name is the more interesting facet. Now we know that Oswald’s rage not only stems from him being overlooked, but him desperate trying to fit in. He even goes so far as to Anglicize his name, adding that layer of tragedy that we all know and expect from Bat villains. Heller also gives us a tasty bit of fan service as Gertrude is interviewed by Montoya and Allen, future vets of Gotham’s Freak Beat.
Even if none of these characters had gone over with the audience during “Selina Kyle”, it would still look amazing. Director Danny Cannon sets up most shots as if they were grid tranisitions in a comic book, with the backgrounds dominating the screen while the characters look small against them. Cannon also has the opportunity the dig around in more lurid locations with this episode, in particular the grimy dungeon that the kidnaped kids are held in and the greenish glow of the pharmacy that is above it. Cannon goes out of this way this episode to showcase some of the different sets we will be seeing throughout the season, but makes the effort to shoot them in different ways from the pilot. Gone are the crane shots of sets from the pilot and in their place are long tracking shots, emphasizing either negative space or the details of the set. Say what you will about the show, at least it is trying its best to be cinematic. Showrunner Bruno Heller also adds some fanboy muscle into his writer’s room, appointing Ben Edlund as executive producer. I’m sure we will be experiencing and discussing his influence on the show in upcoming episodes but, for now, it is heartening to see his name pop up during the opening credits.
Is this a perfect show just yet? Absolutely not. Is it a show attempting to make the most of the potential of its pilot and cast? Absolutely. “Selina Kyle” shows Gotham committing to its premise by taking the route of case-of-the-week storytelling; a model that shows that they could do interesting things in terms of character and guest casting. While this may not sustain the show indefinitely, or distract from some of its more tone deaf characters, it is still a serviceable enough episode to keep casual fans interesting for at least another episode or two. It makes sense that Gotham, even pre-Batman, was filled with flamboyant and dangerous lunatics, and the hook of Gordon and Bullock (as well as Montoya and Allen) having to track them down every week still holds novelty to me. Episode two even integrated Selina into the larger plot, albeit a bit clumsily. If the pilot showed promise to you, episode two will show you an attempt to capitalize on that promise. Though don’t expect to like Ngyma just yet.
Join us next week when people get murdered by the balloons from The Prisoner!