Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Gotham: “The Balloonman”

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Na-na-na-na-na-na-na-Balloonman!

Na-na-na-na-na-na-na-Balloonman!

If you had any doubts that Gotham was the heir apparent to the 1960s Batman television series, this week’s episode features the debut of Gotham City’s first vigilante, a man that kills criminals by attaching weather balloons to their appendages and sending them floating into the air. It’s an absurd plot development that would feel right at home in a Silver Age comic, but it becomes totally nonsensical in a show that has one foot in a world of gritty realism.

Well, more like a few toes in the world of gritty realism. The visual style of the series leans in the direction of the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy, but the writing becomes more and more cartoonish with each episode. Jim Gordon is a stoic do-gooder gumshoe who loves to stand around with his hands on his hips; Harvey Bullock is the incompetent partner with a warped moral compass and gruff attitude; Oswald Cobblepot is a criminal with delusions of grandeur and a willingness to kill anyone to get what he wants, including a pair of shoes that he could easily buy at a store. And oh yeah, a guy is walking around Gotham City attaching weather balloons to corrupt public servants who likely won’t be punished for their actions.

Let’s get one thing straight: one weather balloon, especially one that is the size of the ones used by Davis “The Balloonman” Lamond (Dan Bakkedahl), cannot carry any human being larger than a very, very small baby. If this episode was about a deranged social worker attaching babies to weather balloons, it would be pretty fucking scary, but using weather balloons as a vigilante’s weapon to kill bad guys is just silly. If I was a child, I would totally buy into the whole schtick, but I’m an adult that passed high-school physics, so the gimmick falls completely flat. And as a Batman fan, I’m shaking my head as I see a version of the mythos where this crap is part of the inspiration for one of the greatest superheroes ever created.

And yet, the Bruce Wayne scenes are the strongest parts of “The Balloonman.” While I hate the idea that Bruce gets the idea to become a vigilante because of Lamond’s actions, everything surrounding that plot point works out very well, making the Bruce and Alfred relationship the primary reason to check in on this show. The sword fight between the duo is the first moment on this series that actually presents something resembling joy, and it is a huge breath of fresh air. This is the kind of Batman foreshadowing I would love to see more of, hinting at elements of Bruce’s future while remembering that he’s still a child. The direction and music work to heighten the lightness of the scene’s early moments, and it creates a very nice point of contrast for when the scene takes a turn for the dramatic. David Mazouz is turning out to be quite a skilled child actor, and he has strong chemistry with Sean Pertwee’s Alfred, who is still stern, but a lot more fun than he was last week.

Alfred is the parent now, and he needs to do what he can to protect a boy who is constantly ripping open old wounds because of the guilt he feels. Bruce plays detective, obsessing over the pictures and information in police reports in hopes of finding a clue, but he needs to pull himself out of Crime Alley if he’s ever going to heal. It’s notable that this episode doesn’t actually bring Gordon into the Bruce storyline, and the development of the story is more natural without forcing a police presence into it. We see Bruce and Alfred work through things on their own, and it gives us an idea of how important this relationship is in forming the man that Bruce will become.

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The female characters on this show are strangely stationary. Fish Mooney rarely leaves her club, and Barbara Kean may own an art gallery, but we never actually see her there. That sense of being trapped applies to their characterizations, and even though the script attempts to expand on Fish and Barbara this week, those developments fail to make them more interesting. We see more of Fish being duplicitous—first by coddling Lazlo before having her thugs get rids of him, and later when she chats with Falcone after setting up an “accident” for his girlfriend—but it’s just more of the same, especially with Jada Pinkett-Smith’s entertaining, but shallow performance. Pinkett-Smith is providing a lot of inspiration for drag queens here, but the longer she stays in this one-note diva mode, the harder it is to accept her character.

Everyone on this show is overacting, remaining in the same exaggerated acting mode that characterized the first two episodes instead of settling into their characters and bringing more weight to their performances. They’re forced into these roles by the scripts, which are putting plot above character instead of having the two elements inform each other. We still know very little about who these characters are outside of their work, and for characters like Barbara Kean, “work” actually means “her fiancé’s work.”

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In “The Balloonman,” Barbara once again exists to serve Jim’s story. Her first conversation with him is a recap that reminds Jim of how much of a hero he is for solving the Wayne murder, working to heighten Jim’s guilt while continuing to cast Barbara as the supportive wife-to-be. Barbara’s second scene brings her unfortunate relationship with Renee Montoya back into the spotlight, revealing that not only were they lesbian lovers, but they were also junkies. And Barbara may be using again. (Nothing says potential drug addict like wet hair.)

But wait! Isn’t this an example of character development for Barbara? As misguided as it may be, the decision to make a Barbara a secret bisexual and former junkie does add new dimensions to her character, but the show’s writers are uninterested in exploring these plot elements with any nuance. These aren’t different sides of her character so much as they are labels given to Barbara to change her relationship with Jim, and that’s what is important. Renee enters Barbara’s home without solicitation, accuses Barbara of being high, tells Barbara that her fiancé killed a man (despite not having any real proof beyond Oswald’s disappearance), and then tries to kiss her. It’s wildly inappropriate behavior for a police officer, but if Renee’s actions can switch up the Barbara/Jim dynamic, who cares if her behavior is totally out of line?

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Over at GCPD, the relationship between Gordon and Bullock continues to run on intense whisper conversations and the occasional jazz-rock montage, a tactic that isn’t working out especially well. Harvey Bullock remains laughably inept at his job, ignoring his obligations as a detective because of his personal feelings toward the Balloonman’s victims, and Gordon is there to tell his partner that he’s doing everything wrong. Donal Logue has the Bullock look, but his characterization is verging on clownish, so comically ambivalent about his job that it’s impossible to take him seriously when the script puts him in a weightier position.

After The Balloonman claims his first victim, a banker who swindled half of Gotham out of its savings, Bullock actually delivers this line: “Danzer was a bum, he got what he deserved. I’m gonna go get a Danish. That’s what I deserve.” Bullock has no motivation to work this case until a crooked cop is killed, and even then it’s not because Bullock feels any sense of fraternity with the deceased, but because he’s worried about his own life now that Balloonman is targeting cops. Bullock is a despicable character, and the longer the show withholds the character’s redeeming qualities, the less interesting he is as a supporting character.

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After spending an entire week away from Gotham City, Oswald Cobblepot returns because the writers probably ran out of idea for how to make the character interesting outside of the city limits. Once inside the city limits, the writers have one idea: keep Oswald killing. He gets recognized in the line for a food truck and gets pulled into an alley by an angry goon, so he cuts the guy’s ACL and then stabs him to death. Assuming the tuna sandwich Oswald buys is approximately $5, he has $95 of the $100 he stole from the dead man, but when he’s finds out he needs to buy new shoes to work in a kitchen, Oswald decides to murder the dishwasher and steal his footwear rather than spending some of that newly acquired dough. Interesting strategy for someone that should be laying low.

Oswald ends up getting the job, putting him in a position where he can listen in on conversations had by Sal Maroni (David Zayas), Falcone’s major rival in the Gotham underworld. This provides the tiniest bit of advancement on the mob war front— Asylum is going to factor into it somehow—but it’s mostly just a way to get Oswald back into the game despite being publicly known as a snitch. He has some sort of plan going on here, as evidenced by his appearance at Gordon’s door during this episode’s cliffhanger, but we’ll have to wait until next week to find out what that is. Assuming, of course, that the cliffhanger is resolved.

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Remember last week’s cliffhanger with Selina Kyle telling Gordon that she knew who really killed the Waynes? Tonight’s episode starts to follow-up on that dangling thread before literally taking a detour through shit, and then Selina disappears for the rest of the story. That’s not necessarily a bad thing because Camren Bicondova isn’t the strongest actor, but it’s frustrating from a plot perspective. Gordon takes Selina back to Crime Alley, then immediately starts wondering why he should believe her instead of getting information he could use to track down the Waynes’ killer. I’m no expert on police procedure, so maybe it’s regular practice to make sure a witness was actually at the scene before getting information, but it all feels like a way to delay the resolution of last week’s cliffhanger for a few more weeks. The Wayne murder investigation is the driving force of this show’s narrative, but the baby steps taken in this episode make that essential aspect of the story feel like an afterthought.

Stray observations:

  • A corrupt cop beats perps with the award he got for his years of service. This show has no concept of subtlety.
  • Everyone in the GCPD is very comfortable with airing dirty laundry in public. Lots of intense conversations about secrets being held where everyone can hear.
  • “The Diddling Priest” is a nickname that is not remotely clever.
  • Did Bullock and Gordon think that balloons go all the way up into space?
  • “Honestly, I just got a chill.”
  • “He killed people. That made him a criminal.” Very nice delivery from David Mazouz on this line.
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