Finally! The moment we’ve all been waiting for: an episode of Gotham where not only did Detective James Gordon avoid being the least captivating character in Gotham’s menagerie of crooks and carnival freaks, he might have actually been the most captivating.
It’s a fabulous day.
“Penguin’s Umbrella” begins its happy trail to a better, bolder Gordon by tossing aside Gotham’s usual “case of the week, plus assorted mafia intrigue” format. Instead, it’s all organized crime, all the time. Which affects less than you might think, given that every single character on Gotham has at least one tie to the mob underworld, and “Penguin’s Umbrella” can still drop in a new Batman villain in the guise of a Falcone goon we’ve never seen until just now.
We open right where we cut to black last week. Penguin has made a showstopping, musical number-worthy entrance into GCPD headquarters, revealing his aliveness to the world and collectively ruining everyone’s day. Bullock is incensed, because he was just as responsible for offing the Penguin as Gordon was, and a living Penguin most likely means a dead Harvey. Fish Mooney is even more pissed (despite not being at the station, she finds out just as fast – she’s probably got most of those cops on payroll as it is), because failing to whack a guy and letting him waltz into police headquarters is about the worst thing you can do as a mobster. But Gordon’s worse off by far. Not only does he have both Bullock and Fish gunning after him to right those past wrongs by putting several bullets in his body (also Falcone, for good measure), but Barb’s a target as well.
Gordon’s solution? To lose his freaking mind. Which is the greatest possible thing he could have done – not for himself, obviously, but for those of us who’ve been waiting patiently,for this straight-laced do-gooder to finally grow an edgy side.
Screw playing by the rules! The mayor’s corrupt, let’s just go arrest him! And then the head of Gotham’s criminal underworld! With just two men! There’s an underlying, overblown ’80s action hero, FUCK YEAH JUSTICE sensibility that characterizes Gordon throughout “Penguin’s Umbrella,” and it’s catapulted him to the upper tier of characters we’re most interested in. Yes, he may still play a strict lawful good, but now he’s pursuing the letter of the law with unhinged zeal. He’s got nothing to lose, so Gordon’s free to act on his innermost desires and make terrible, flawed decisions in the name of justice.
Many, many terrible, flawed decisions. Because neatly trimmed, tightly laced Gordon was great at everything, and loose cannon Gordon is a walking disaster. In a shootout with Victor Zsasz (Anthony Carrigan), he comes away with two gunshot wounds and several lost pints of blood. His plan for a two-man takedown of all Gotham City crime? Just arrest all criminals and pray they don’t shoot you to death with their superior numbers and firepower, which they certainly will. The only thing saving Gordon’s life this week (well, besides Penguin pulling strings for some unknown reason) was Barb. Had she not come back and gotten herself kidnapped, Gordon would have no reason not to arrest Falcone. And when he tried, he’d almost certainly be riddled with bullets, as Falcone assured him he would be.
But a flawed Gordon is a Gordon we can root for, in what might be Gotham’s best episode yet – at least in terms of straight suspense. Only one honest action sequence (Gordon vs. Zsasz and his two dominatrix-looking henchwomen), but a long succession of tense moments. All of which involved two characters, standing face-to-face and staring. Penguin and Mooney, Penguin and Frankie Carbone, Gordon and Zsasz, Falcone and Maroni. All exquisite. All two people making eye contact and exchanging terse words (and, in Penguin’s case, the occasional stabbing).
Also, it’s worth noting that Bullock has probably graduated to official good guy status with this episode’s events. Charging into Don Falcone’s home with a gun is a pretty permanent way of burning every single bridge you once had with the Gotham City mob.
The one disappointment in “Penguin’s Umbrella?” Victor Zsasz, one of Batman’s creepier villains, who was severely de-creeped for this hour of TV. The outward elements of Zsasz’ persona are all there: bald, uncomfortable to be around, fond of killing others and carving a tally mark into his own skin for each new murder. But mob thuggery isn’t really in Zsasz’s wheelhouse. He’s more the demented serial killer type.
Victor Zsasz debuted in 1992’s “Batman: Shadow of the Bat #1,” where murders fitting Zsasz’s M.O. were happening all over Gotham, but while Zsasz was locked away in Arkham Asylum. Batman pretends to go insane and has himself committed, snooping around Arkham until he can crack the case (spoiler: Arkham held a secret tunnel to the outside world, which Zsasz was making use of). Batman punches Zsasz into submission and throws him in a cell without any tunnels, saving the day in traditional Batman fashion.
Zsasz never really ascended to the highest levels of Batman’s rogues gallery; normally he’s seen only in the context of Arkham Asylum or Blackgate Prison (just getting out or just getting in), and his status as a throat-cutting serial murderer means he’s unlikely to show up in anything but the darkest Batman media. Video games? Sure, so long as they’re specifically not for children (or the LEGO Batman series, weirdly enough). Animated series? Not a chance.
But as he continued popping up in Batman books, Zsasz’s methods and motivations became better known. He’s a sociopath/nihilist who believes all life is meaningless, and the best solution for a useless existence is to end it. As befitting a truly creepy serial killer, he’s not particularly fond of guns and prefers to dispatch his victims at knifepoint. And while none of that appears to apply to Gotham’s version of Zsasz, here’s a few facts to keep in mind.
- Zsasz served as a Falcone hitman once before, as a quickie role in Batman Begins.
- This is prequel Zsasz, as nearly every aspect of Gotham is prequel Batman. Zsasz has plenty of time to ditch the rigors of working life and take up killing full-time; presumably leading to the far crazier Zsasz we’re familiar with today.
Also: Anthony Carrigan, who plays Zsasz, has been having a banner month for TV supervillains. Carrigan appeared on an episode of The Flash two weeks ago as another unsettling bald psychopath: Kyle Nimbus, aka The Mist, capable of turning his body into a noxious green gas cloud.
But while Zsasz was hunting down Gordon and his loved ones, and Gordon was burning his hero cop rule book, the Penguin was doing his usual manipulator shtick. It’s a textbook series of Penguin plays (and after seven episodes, that playbook is pretty dog-eared). Goad Maroni into whacking Nicklai, bribe Frankie Carbone’s henchmen into turning on him, kill Carbone and wipe away one spot between Penguin and absolute power (in theory, Penguin would probably have to explain to someone why Carbone was stabbed to death in a gunfight, but it seems we’re all just going to ignore that).
It’s all the usual Penguin manipulation. But then, a twist! At the end of the hour, Gotham cunningly reveals that the Penguin has had a secret alliance with Don Falcone this whole time! Well, this whole time after the pilot.
The news is big, but not the game changer it might appear to be (don’t act like the Penguin snitching on someone is some unbelievable out-of-character swerve). Oswald Cobblepot will still spend his days weaseling his way up the organize crime ladder, he’ll still reside just behind Sal Maroni for the foreseeable future and Fish Mooney still very much wants to see him drawn and quartered. But here’s what a Penguin/Falcone partnership means for Gotham: the Penguin isn’t the wild card he appeared to be. He’s not some lone bird (birds were definitely a recurring motif last night, from Penguin to Falcone, honking like a goose and tending to caged chickens) on a tiny gonzo revenge streak; instead, Penguin’s making a power play with the strongest backing Gotham City could conceivably offer.
When Penguin comes gunning for Fish Mooney or Maroni, it won’t be as a lone agent who’s wormed his way to the top. It’ll be with the full force of Don Maroni, arguably the most powerful person in Gotham. That no one else knows this means that everyone is massively underestimating Penguin, and that’s likely to be the undoing of more than a few characters. Also, at some point Penguin will likely turn on Falcone, because my god, why would you trust the Penguin with anything he has snitched on every single character in this series at least once.
What we see of Penguin and Falcone together is weirdly endearing. They embrace and stand under an umbrella, almost like father and son (Gotham is developing a knack for the gorgeous end-of-episode shot, be it an expansive park view, a sudden Gordon-on-Bullock lunge, or this week’s umbrella view). It’s possible Penguin might actually respect Falcone – especially since the mobsters he’s paired up with in the past have all treated him like a lap dog or, at best, a tool to be used against Falcone. But chances are, Penguin will turn on Falcone at some point. It’s in his nature.
There’s bound to be an episode further down the line that breaks more new ground then “Penguin’s Umbrella,” but a solid Penguin plot twist and a Gordon that’s actually entertaining are more than enough for now. And there’s potential for some truly wonderful material when our new Power Penguin finds himself in the same room as our loose-cannon Gordon. Most important of all, thanks to “Penguin’s Umbrella,” Crispus Allen/Renee Montoya are officially on the same team as Harvey Bullock.
Gordon might be cool now, but can we get an episode with just these three? The interplay would be killer.