Gotham “The Mask” – Review

Gotham’s latest villain of the week – finance mogul Richard Sionis (aka The Mask) – sets Gordon and Bullock on their latest case when a man is killed in a zero-sum death match designed to double as an employment qualifier. Sionis’s villainy is appreciated for its believable grounding in the accurate, everyday horror of real-world finance. Writers waste an opportunity when they detach horror from reality; the truly horrific grabs us precisely because it can readily be derived from what is already true about our world as it is. On that front, Gotham was on its A-game last night.

Throughout the episode, Gordon and Bullock continue to butt heads. Still rightfully angry about his fellow officers abandoning him to Victor Zsasz last week, Jim resumes pursuit of justice with just a little too much vengeance for a city like Gotham. Bullock’s loyalty to Gordon is solid, but he has no qualms contesting his partner’s excessive idealism. When he tries to remind Gordon, “You gotta go along to get along,” Gordon quickly respond with “No, I don’t.” Trouble is, we know Gordon does not entirely believe that. He knows there are stakes to his quixotic crusade, and that he will continually be confronted with the cost of doing business entirely on the up-and-up. The question of what Gordon’s principles are worth, and what price he’s willing to pay for them, remains the core premise of the show, and it only ever benefits when that is made as explicit as possible.

Ed Nygma/the future-Riddler gets a decent turn in this episode, at one point posing an absurd riddle to the victim’s corpse during an autopsy, which it turns out he does not have authorization to perform. I currently have very mixed feelings about him as a character – on the one hand I do find him plenty creepy, and in that sense, his origin story is thus far effective. On the other hand, unlike the Penguin, Nygma currently serves very little purpose to the overall narrative, and his random appearances often read as pointless, distracting shoe-ins. He needs to either have a consistent, substantive role in the weekly procedural narratives, or his appearances need to do something for the plot other than provide banal forensic insight via eccentric riddle. The bottom line is that he pulls focus, consistently to no end, which is the real problem. Gotham needs to do something with him; he is too big a character to be put only to occasional, perfunctory use, or to server mainly as creepy window-dressing.

And speaking of dissatisfying characterizations, Gotham’s interpretation of Alfred has been a perpetual thorn in my side since the series began, and it really came to a head in last night’s episode. I am not unilaterally adverse to revisions in adaptations; I don’t think strict loyalty to the source material, or previous adaptations, is inherently a virtue. But I find I just cannot accord Alfred’s curious pugilism credulity. This week finds Bruce returning to school and when he quickly becomes the target of another boy’s bullying, Alfred helps to resolve the problem by driving Bruce to the boy’s house, giving the young Wayne his father’s watch, and standing by while Bruce bloodies the other boy’s face with it. While I find Bruce’s unresolved anger beneath his quiet, philosophical façade quite believable, Alfred’s management of it registers as fundamentally dubious.

I don’t mind that Alfred is a bit rougher around the edges in Gotham. The issue, for me, comes down to the fact that Alfred’s role in the larger Batman universe has typically been to temper Bruce’s violent impulses, not inflate them. Bruce Wayne is a character always in danger of tipping over into the villainy of the people he fights, and Alfred is consistently posited as the primary force guiding him back towards restraint, towards his own humanity.

To make Alfred such an enabler of Bruce’s more aggressive tendencies is a complete 180 that does not service the narrative and is endlessly off-putting. Unfortunately, I don’t know how the show could back-track it at this point, but it is a choice that either needs further justification or ought to serve as the beginning of a character arc that steers ultimately away from that dynamic. He’s Bruce’s foster-parent, after all, not his boxing coach, and he really ought to act as such. Otherwise, the crucial moral compass that gives Batman’s vigilantism any moral legitimacy whatsoever is ultimately without foundation.

Notable Lines:

A mask hides the face but frees the soul. A mask speaks the truth. ~ Richard Sionis

You may not have put down Cobblepot, jimmy boy, but you got a demon in you. You can call yourself a solider, but all this fighting Falcone, fighting other cops, you love it. So when you find something that seems remotely possible, call me. ~ Bullock

Define normal and make a good case for it. ~ Bruce Wayne

What do a dead man, a cruise ship and an emu have in common? Correct, nothing. ~ Ed Nygma

Liza: You are rich. People are afraid of you. Isn’t that enough?
Fish: No, it’s not.

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