‘Gotham’ Recap: Gee, Maybe Harvey Bullock Isn’t Such a Putz After All

By  · Published on October 28th, 2014

FOX

Week in and week out, Donal Logue has been fighting a frenzied competition with Robin Lord Taylor for ‘Most Compellingly Weird Gotham Character.’ Normally, he loses. Harvey Bullock’s great and all (with more streetwise detective backsass than Lennie Briscoe), but beating Taylor’s Penguin in a weird-off is just not feasible.

Still, Penguin is regularly given large portions of each episode to himself, while Bullock is relegated to snide remarks and occasionally playing counterpoint to Jim Gordon’s achingly moral hero cop. Not this week, though. “Spirit of the Goat” is Bullock’s moment in the sun; a moment richly deserved, and perhaps even the first step towards the Hero Bullock we’re all assuming will happen at some point (“hero,” in this case, meaning “non-Mafia-affiliated”).

We open on a much younger Bullock and his previous partner, Dix (Dan Hedaya, an always-reliable source of authority with a slight hint of wiseguy), and much to our surprise, Bullock’s the Gordon and Dix is the Bullock. That is, Bullock’s the idealist, ready to charge into battle (“a white knight,” as Dix puts it) while Dix is the voice of reason, always ready to squash young Bullock’s dreams with Gotham City’s golden rule: “no heroes.”

And on the hunt for a particularly nasty serial killer who calls himself the Spirit of the Goat, Bullock acts the fool and rushes in, leaving Dix to come to the rescue, giving him a pair of busted gams in the process. But at least the Goat was put down for good.

At least, until another body with his exact M.O. (firstborn child of wealthy socialites, asphyxiated with chloroform, rare penny sewn into neck skin) pops up in Gotham City. And because Bullock and Dix installed a kind of copycat fail-safe (never leaking the penny bit to the press), we know for a fact that this killer’s the real deal, coinage and all. Which is a little peculiar, given that Bullock shot him very thoroughly to death several years beforehand. So begins the hunt for a killer that may or may not be possessed by a goat demon, and may or may not be the same man Harvey blew away ten years ago. (Yes, it’s basically the plot of Fallen.)

In both cases, the answer is “may not.” Sorry, all those who went giddy over last week’s “Viper” and its huffable super-strength; “Spirit of the Goat” lays out a convenient explanation for all the supposedly supernatural. Specifically, that the Spirit of the Goat is a particularly nasty therapist who’s been using hypnotherapy to brainwash a few patients into becoming goat-themed killers.

There is, however, one magical transformation that graces this hour of Gotham. Once “Spirit of the Goat” seats Bullock at the center of the story, he mutates into the monstrosity known as Jim Gordon.

Maybe not physically (Gordon’s signature scruff remains intact), but in personality Bullock pulls an odd 180 once he takes the lead on the case. This Bullock has no time for pithy one-liners or comic relief – his laugh count has plummeted. Other than a quick “quit saying that!” after two different Goat Spirits in two different decades lunge at him with the same battle cry, Bullock’s not particularly funny this week (okay, referring to a potential copycat killer as the “Copygoat” is also cute).

His grim heroicness, on the other hand, has shot up something huge. This is a Bullock with a weirdly admirable commitment to justice – did anyone else wonder, back when Bullock was spying on Raymond Earl (our present-day Goat) in the interrogation room, that he was a few seconds away from rushing in and beating a confession out of the guy? And yet Bullock did things Gordon’s way. Stepped back, examined the evidence, employed actual detective work and solved the case entirely by himself.

Even in that final battle, corrupt kill-crazy Bullock was nowhere to be seen. Remember the Bullock who, upon catching the Balloonman, leapt into “You kill people? NOW I KILL YOU” mode and immediately gave the perp a balloon death sentence? Now Bullock’s aiming to incapacitate, not kill, our evil shrink and ignoring the obvious opportunity to pitch that crazed old man over the guardrail to his doom.

(Admittedly, the old-timer was brainwashed and also severely mentally ill and not at all in control of himself; also, between this socialite and last week’s kindly old scientist, what is it with Gotham and elderly men given astounding strength and endurance?)

Don’t expect Gordon-like Bullock to stick around, though. If it’s any indication from our ending cliffhanger, Bullock is very pissed at Gordon for fake-shooting the Penguin, and white knight cops don’t usually react so negatively to preventing a mob execution.

But change or no change, this was something Gotham’s needed for a long time. Six hours in, it’s been firmly established that Bullock, with his clear moral foibles and finely barbed sense of humor, is the more compelling of our two lead cops. Gordon’s getting there too, but slowly. So, so, so very slowly. Mostly because each week sets up a plot device that could, under the right circumstances, give Gordon a sudden and unexpected depth of character. But it never does. We’ll see if being arrested, un-arrested, and a sudden fallout with Bullock is enough to get some verve into future commissioner Jim.

Unfunny Bullock aside, “Spirit of the Goat” lacks one crucial element we’ve gotten from Gotham so far: some tie-in to the comic side of things. Whether it was an obvious pull (“Viper’s” superserum) or tenuous at best (“Arkham” and its pointy-stick villain, who was at least in an episode all about the introduction of Arkham Asylum), there’s usually something for “Batman” readers to point at and say, “That. I know that.”

Not this week! None of the names tied to the Spirit of the Goat killings have any comic significance (and while some have tried to tie the Goat theme to either Goatboy, a villainous assassin, or an old comic story from the ’40s entitled “The Goat of Gotham City,” those seem a bit flimsy). Neither does Detective Dix. Or Ed Nygma’s unfortunate crush, Kristen Kringle. No Santa-themed Batman villains on record, but there is one Holiday Killer (from the classic “The Long Halloween,” which served as a vague basis for The Dark Knight) who gunned folks down with festive seasonal flair. That was more of a Falcone/Maroni mob thing, though, so weaving in an unrelated GCPD clerk might be tough.

What “Goat” does touch on, though, is something crucial to who Batman is and how he works as a superhero (even if young Bruce is still at least a decade away from doing any Batmanning in earnest): the bat, and the Batman, as a symbol. All that talk from Bruce about the Goat’s choice of an “ungulate” as his “totem” proves that not only has Bruce been reading up on his vocab words, but he’s absorbing the tenets of what makes Batman into Batman. Kinda like in “The Ballooonman,” when the kid saw how a vigilante could rally the people of Gotham against corruption, but a vigilante that kills will rally them too far in the wrong direction. Now, he’s got another lesson to write down: pick an animal, preferably a spooky one, and brand yourself with it. Thus, fear is struck in the hearts of those who oppose you.

And while “seeing a Goat-themed killer on TV” isn’t usually how Bruce Wayne comes to that conclusion, we’ve still got plenty of time for a more official meeting of Bruce and bat symbology. Classic Batman pictures this like so: Bruce is minding his own business in Wayne Manor when a bat swoops in through the window. Bruce promptly loses his shit. Then, upon realizing why he lost his shit (bats are scary), he brands his new persona in their image. This is the way it’s typically done, from Batman’s first-ever origin (1939’s “Detective Comics #33”) through subsequent comic reboots. And ever since, the intimation is obvious: because bats are scary, Batman is also scary.

Speaking plainly of the symbol (or totem, I guess) and its power is less common; but it still creeps up from time to time. “Gotham Central,” the GCPD-heavy series that was essentially The Wire to Gotham’s Batman-based Law & Order, had a whole thing about using the Bat-signal to deter criminals by striking the fear of Batman into their hearts, and how the cops aren’t such a fan of the non-police power in that symbol. Mostly, though, all this totem talk comes from Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Nolan was the one dissecting the symbology of the Bat like it was required reading in a ninth grade English class. How a symbol can be “uncorrupted” or “everlasting.” How it can be contested by the Joker and then soiled by Harvey Dent’s death, because that’s what this city deserves but not what it needs right now. Or burning a giant one into a bridge to inspire the common folk.

When young Brucie brings up fear and totems, this is what it sounds like he’ll be geting into.

And that was largely it for “Spirit of the Goat.” No mafia stuff at all, this week – presumably Falcone is still having that meet-cute with Mooney’s sleeper agent and Maroni is still wrist-deep in lobster. Penguin, too, is given a rushed appearance in “Goat,” stuck in there to remind us, just in case we forgot, of two key Penguin tenets.

  1. The Penguin is Super Creepy: Because it wasn’t uncomfortable enough the way Mama Cobblepot knelt at her son’s feet like he was a Don himself, she barges in on him mid-bath and proceeds to gently sponge his upper torso. Society has dictated an important set of parent/adult child bathroom rules, and the Cobblepots are blasting through damn near all of them. Still, Penguin’s “I don’t even date” line was endearing enough to balance things out. Also very true.
  2. The Penguin Is Still the Best at Stirring Up Crazy: We’ve had six episodes of Gotham so far, and three of those have ended with a Penguin-based cliffhanger. Considering the sheer number of characters with cliffhanger potential, that Penguin delivers so consistently is proof that he’s the criminal genius Gotham neither needs nor deserves, but will end up with anyway. First, a surprise pop-in at the Gordon residence, in “The Balloonman.” Then, a couple of poison cannoli for his would-be robbers in “Arkham.” And now he’s causing mass hysteria at the Gotham Police Headquarters just by showing up. Guy’s a pro.

The Riddler got about the same amount of time this week, but as far as the Riddler goes, that’s a banner improvement. Before “Goat,” Nygma’s role was to be the lab tech guy who made all the other cops uneasy with his grinning murder enthusiasm (basically Dexter, but from the non-sociopath’s point of view). He’s still making people uneasy, but now it’s in the context of a creepy romantic comedy. Because as unnerving as it should be between Ed Nygma and Kristen Kringle, their you rearranged all my files this must have taken hours please get away from me meet-cute is accompanied by the same bouncy awkward background music as the interactions between Bones and Booth, Castle and Beckett, or any of TV’s other dozen interchangeable awkward cop show couples.

We’ve seen so little of Riddler thus far that his endgame is far less obvious (other than, you know, becoming the Riddler), so maybe a few surprises lie in store for us. And, presumably, for Kristen Kringle. Oh, and if you were wondering, Nygma definitely got the memo on picking a totem. I’m assuming we all noticed the glaring green question mark on his coffee mug…

Even when easing up on the comic book material and the Bullock wisecracks, Gotham’s still more than capable of standout TV. It’s doubtful there were any moments in “Spirit of the Goat” that could measure up to last week’s Old Man Rips Walker in Half, or “WHAT’S ALTRUISM?,” but a Gotham that prefers to dwell under the surface of its characters is just fine, too. And maybe next week, we can get the hat trick on uncharacteristically deadly elderly men.