Sometimes you see something on TV, and one tiny little thing – a name or a face – juts out. Then at some indeterminate point in the future, another indeterminate detail and another mind-jut. Synapses start firing, pieces come together an odd TV bloodlust sets in, and suddenly you’ve figured it all out. You know the twist that’s sure to come, thanks to the entirely crackpot theory that seems so very real when formed in the midst of conspiracy frenzy.
I will admit that this was me last week. A character named Lazlo and a pig mask in a trailer, and I was sold – clearly, this week’s Gotham was bound to feature Professor Pyg, a Batman villain sporting a pink piggy face and the first name of Lazlo.
A villain who, it turns out, has basically nothing to do with “The Balloonman.” My bad on that one, guys. Instead, this third hour of Gotham was all about… the Balloonman. Who’da thunk it?
Rather than a canonical supervillain, this Balloonman is a couple different characters rolled into one. The name comes from the old one-off villain Metal Men. A poofy pink blimp with vaguely humanoid shape and features, the Balloon Man terrorized the Metal Men (themselves a team of T-1000ish robots composed of different metals including Gold, Iron, Lead, Platinum, Mercury and Tin) in a single comic, 1967’s “Metal Men #24.” Forty years later, he returned as The Balloonatic (different moniker, same basic villainy) to do the same thing in 2007’s “Metal Men #2.”
Other than the name and a general balloon theme, this Balloon Man has essentially nothing to do with Gotham’s Balloonman. But throw in a pig mask (probably just a quick wink-and-a-nod to Gotham viewers who know of Professor Pyg) and an all-new character and backstory, and we’ve got our man.
You see, ol’ Balloony here is sick of the corruption in Gotham. Sick to death of it. And because corruption is also the infrastructure that’s keeping Gotham upright, Balloony (real name Davis Lamond, played by Veep and The Daily Show vet Dan Bakkedahl), is standing up for the little guy the only way he can. With murderous extremism.
To get Lamond’s point across, “The Ballooman” acts as a showcase for all the seedy petty-to-white-collar crime that is Gotham City’s backbone. In two mirror montages (both with the same cold blue-grey palette and rockin’ drum beat), we get a proud display of the crime-weaved-into-crime-weaved-into-crime that is Gotham. Prostitutes! Minor theft! Drugs! Beatings! To the Penguin, these are the sounds of home. To Bullock, they’re a network he can tap into to figure out just who’s causing these festive balloon deaths. After seeing both, it almost makes you sympathize with those who’re accustomed to the comforts of constant graft. And it’s a little clearer why Jim Gordon and his straight-arrow morality are grinding on the happy perpetual-crime-motion machine of Gotham City.
All that lawbreaking, and the one social worker killing his way to a lawbreaker-free society (there may be a fundamental flaw in that plan) lead us to our Bat-Theme of the week. Which is The No-Kill Rule.
Even if you’ve never picked up a comic, chances are you know the gist of this one. Batman doesn’t kill. He doesn’t even think of it. Criminals kill; criminals killed Batman’s parents; Batman would never stoop to such a lowness and take a life in the name of justice. Killing would make Batman just another cheap thug in search of cheap revenge.
Although for obvious reasons, the No-Kill Rule requires you to ignore that time in Batman Begins when Bats skirted around the No-Kill Rule by letting Ra’s Al Ghul plummet to his death in a fiery train explosion.
Or that time in Batman Returns when Batman shoved a cartoon bomb down a man’s pants and grinned like a maniac as he burst into bits.
Also: tackling Two-Face to his death in The Dark Knight, burying the KGBeast alive “Cask of Amontillado”-style and leaving him to rot in “Batman #420,” and all the many (many) neck-breakings that occurred in early Batman issues before the No-Kill Rule was really a thing.
So more of a figurative rule (mostly it applies to Batman refusing to kill the Joker even though the Joker always breaks out of Arkham and immediately kicks off another killing spree), but important to “The Ballooman” nonetheless. Because without it, Gotham would be so much worse than it is right now. The city is one giant slippery slope argument waiting to be proved right. The Balloonman kills a couple of corrupt officials, and suddenly the Gotham crowds are cheering his name like a folk hero. He kills the bad guys. They love him. And they learn by example, because from that one TV appearance, Gotham citizens are more than prepared to take up the killing in his name.
- “Hey, maybe he should kill my landlord too. That guy’s a prick!”
- “Yeah! And Chuck took the last apple turnover- I wanted that! I’m a force for justice!” Stabs Chuck.
- Then, rioting.
We need heroes like Gordon and young Bruce to draw a line in a sand and tell these extremely impressionable people that justice is right, but killing is wrong. It’s a lesson Gordon teaches Bullock by force, putting his own life in immediate balloon jeopardy and fussing with him until he finally does the right thing by sparing the Balloonman’s life.
For the most part, Bullock seemed less evil last week (and at certain times this week, like when waxing romantic about his danish), but catching the bad guy and immediately turning to “Ha ha! I kill you now!” drags him right back down to the baddest of bad cops.
As far as the “catch the bad guy” police procedural story goes, Gotham has been far more serialized than early quotes made it seem. Three episodes in and its structure very much resembles The Shield; one group of characters solves our case of the week, the others keep the big arcs thrumming along. Which is totally fine. There are far worse (and few better) cop shows to find inspiration from.
And in “The Balloonman,” the Penguin’s been charged with our the big story push. Clearly, Bruno Heller and the rest of the Gotham creative team realize how perfect Robin Lord Taylor’s Penguin is (is it too early to call Taylor as the #1 Penguin performance of all time? It’s not like he has a ton of competition), and they’re shoving him to the forefront of each episode. Good on them.
This week, the quacking prince of crime has returned to the city he calls home, to work his way through the classic rags-to-riches, Vito Corleone/Tony Montana crime tale. He’s washing dishes in a mob-owned Italian restaurant, for god’s sake. His new name is Paolo! And, just as importantly, the mobster that Cobblepot’s getting cozy with is Sal Maroni (Dexter’s David Zayas), a Batman regular famous for two things. One, throwing a vial of acid at Harvey Dent and creating Two-Face. And two, getting into all kinds of gang warfare with Gotham’s other leading mob stereotype, Carmine Falcone.
We’ve got our Falcone. We’ve got our Maroni. And we’ve got a supervillain who’s clearly intent on playing every single side (Gordon included, given that nifty little cliffhanger) against each other. At this point it doesn’t even matter that the hundred other villains Gotham has teased have amounted to zilch (example: Selina Kyle’s big Wayne murder cliffhanger gave us no new information and no real story momentum) because the Penguin is so captivating and so mesmerizingly planning-and-plotting villainous that we barely even need other bad guys. Even though more bad guys are sure to come.
Gotham is coming together with unbelievable speed for a show that’s barely been around three weeks. Already, it’s given me that “I will commit horrible deeds to see what happens next” feeling, something most shows don’t truly cultivate until half a season’s worth of buildup. Can Gotham keep this momentum up? Will Gordon stop coming off so stiff? Whose snack will reign supreme: Bullock’s danish or the Penguin’s tuna sandwich?
All that and more next week.