The Tube: As villains take center stage, ‘Gotham’ forges its own path through the Batman mythos

In this depiction of Gotham City, a teenage Batman is still coming into his own as Detective Gordan struggles to keep his city in check.

The first season of Gotham, FOX’s exploration of the Batman mythos beginning from the moment Thomas and Martha Wayne are murdered, was, at best, uneven. Driven by strong performances, including that of Shueyville, Iowa native Robin Lord Taylor as Penguin, the show nevertheless floundered about as characters and storylines were introduced, dropped and (sometimes) revisited.

The season’s implicit organizing principle was Penguin’s rise from toady to king among Gotham’s gangsters, and Taylor’s performance was gripping enough to sustain interest in the show. Ben McKenzie and Donal Louge also did their fair share of heavy lifting as the idealistic Detective James Gordon and his reluctantly noble partner Harvey Bullock.

Meanwhile, the character of Barbara Kean — the woman Batman fans would naturally expect to eventually marry Gordon and become the mother of Batgirl — was something of an exasperating enigma in season one. Erin Richards played the part well, but was oddly offstage for most of the season, only to return for the final arc—an arc in which her character was transformed and the viewer’s expectations were upended.

Which brings us to the first five episodes of season two (and some spoilers). The second season has an explicit organizing principle, having been tagged with the title “Rise of the Villains.” Barbara Kean is now very much a villain. And perhaps not just any villain. The show drops plenty of hints—including a provocative costume and a well-wielded hammer — that perhaps in this version of the Bat-universe, Barbara Kean will become Harley Quinn, the Joker’s paramour.

But as soon as that idea is firmly established, Gotham upends expectations again by apparently killing off Jerome “this guy’s gotta be the Joker” Valeska (played to disturbing perfection by Cameron Monaghan), who was introduced in season one and seemed poised to be a focal point of season two — right up until his death.

The frustration of expectations is an important step in Gotham’s ongoing development. The show, of course, is deeply beholden to 75 years of mythmaking. But by diverging from both current comic book continuity and long established understanding of the characters in play, Gotham has the opportunity to succeed in its own right, to become more than a collection of Easter eggs and sly nods for Dark Knight devotees to identify and debate.

In that sense, the transformation of Barbara Kean is the most important development on Gotham. On its heels, however, is a motif that results from bringing various costumed, chaos-loving villains on stage while Bruce Wayne is still a teenager and years away from donning his cape and cowl.

In some recent incarnations of the Batman story, it’s arguable that our hero is as much the cause of the chaos as he is the scourge of criminals. A man dressed as a bat and employing various tricks of the trade to seem more mysterious or ferocious than he really is might inspire a certain kind of insanity rather than undermine it. Would Gotham City find itself awash in costumed crazies if there were no Batman?

Gotham’s answer appears to be: Yes. The Maniax, while short lived, are a team of villains (including Barbara and Jerome) without a ready nemesis. Ed Nygma (Cory Michael Smith) seems well on his way toward becoming the Riddler without any encouragement from Batman. And even if Jerome isn’t really the Joker, Gotham makes it clear that the ground in Gotham City is fertile for the growth of such a villain.

As the various villains cast about for their true selves or, in the case of the wicked Theo Galavan (James Frain), dissemble in order to hide a true self—so too do the heroes and the characters — like Selena Kyle (Camren Bicondova) — whose place on the board aren’t fully defined. Barbara pursues crime and Bullock comes back to the GCPD after a stint away because they believe these roles represent their true natures.

Bruce Wayne is looking for his true nature, too, when faced with a choice framed by his deceased father. Will he seek truth or happiness? His father maintains he can’t have both (and our understanding of Batman suggests this is true). And Detective Gordon, who makes a deal with the devil (or at least a Penguin) in the first episode of the second season, is also trying to define himself and his principles in the face of a changing landscape in Gotham City.

Duality is central to the Batman story, but the early going of Gotham’s second season suggests that what we really want is to put away the masks and let everyone—including ourselves—see us for who we truly are.

Rob Cline is the director of maketing and communications for Hancher at the UI, the author of the comic mystery novel Murder by the Slice, and a freelance arts and culture writer. This article originally appeared in Little Village issue 187.

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