Gotham has made quick work of revealing its largest shortcoming in its first five episodes. The inability to create a clever, intriguing main narrative that builds tension and effectively disposes of it has plagued the show since the first hour. Each week, the writing and acting improved, but the stories remained flat. Episode six, “Spirit of the Goat” begins to swing that trend in the right direction. Kind of.
Part of the main narrative failings can be attributed to Gotham’s ironic inability to build a backstory around the week’s particular menace. In a show so focused on illustrating how classic DC villains came to be, it has, sadly, forgotten the idea for single-episode adversaries. This week was really no different, but the issue was alleviated slightly by writer Ben Edlund’s clever use of flashback. By opening the episode ten years before present day, Edlund was able to give his antagonist, and especially Bullock’s connection to him, a sense of history. Unlike in other episodes, where the failure to build an interesting villain severely hampered the plot, “Spirit of the Goat” is left relatively unscathed. Because this wasn’t a villain-of-the-week story in the vein of Gotham’s first five episodes. This was a character-driven episode. This was a Harvey Bullock episode.
What Edlund was able to do with episode six is what I had expected of the series’ second episode, “Selina Kyle,” only to be completely dumbfounded with how little that story seemed to care for its titular character. Here, Bullock is the show. It’s an approach Gotham has yet to take, and one it should chase after wildly. The show has desperately needed focus—the kind that allowed Donal Logue, giving his best performance thus far, to stand apart from the myriad of characters that roam Gotham’s streets. Fish Mooney, along with the rest of the mobsters, was blissfully absent, and the Penguin was given only a modicum of screen time. Even Gordon faded to the background. It wasn’t perfect, of course. Trade-offs came in the form of an increased role for Edward Nygma, who remains the most forced, and least subtle inclusion of any well-known Batman foe, as well as an incredibly odd encounter between Baby Bruce and Catgirl. But, for the most part, “The Spirit of the Goat” allowed Bullock to be the star, which, in turn, allowed the audience to truly learn something about the character.
The story itself was well-paced and more clever than most of what has come previously. I would declare this the best writing the show has seen, but the last few episodes have all floated so closely together in a pool of mediocrity, that it’s hard to distinguish which is better than the other. I will say that Edlund’s script had the most creative central plot of any Gotham episode, it’s only real problem being that it tipped its hand far too soon. There is nothing wrong with the audience being ahead of the characters, except for when the viewers are so far ahead that what they see for the majority of the episode is useless; they already know the answer. The saddest part is this could have been avoided with slight tweaks to dialogue or acting in an early scene. Still, what the episode came to was anything if not interesting, a stark improvement for the series.
A large problem still remains in moments of confrontation, though. Nearly every action sequence on Gotham has been bumbling and awkward, and for all “Spirit of the Goat” did to buck other bad habits, it firmly enforced this one. Every fight scene was borderline comical, and I have no idea how the trend can be reversed, other than to limit the hand-to-hand combat to an absolute minimum. Detectives do have guns for a reason, after all.
Without the pressure of possible cancellation looming over their heads, Gotham writers would be wise to follow the trend they’ve started with “Spirit of the Goat.” Slowing down the pace to focus, primarily, on a single character didn’t hamper any of what Gotham plans to bring forth in the coming weeks. Instead, it gave us insight into Bullock, showing us a side we had never seen before. Until this episode, the writers had attempted to build their characters through small patchwork moments that ultimately gave viewers very little knowledge of the person in question. A more singular approach, not dissimilar to the way Lost handled its character building, would give viewers so much more, allowing them to build a relationship with these fictional people that live inside a box in their living room. Because, that’s where Gotham has to succeed. It needs to make us care about these people the writers have all the plans for. If we don’t, those plans won’t matter at all.
I am quick to hold my tongue on a declaration that Gotham is headed in the right direction. If the show were to focus its energies on characters instead of overarching story it would be for the better, but I fear it has no intention of doing that. “The Spirit of the Goat” felt different in all the right ways, so much so that it also felt like an aberration. It would not surprise me if this structure were to disappear swiftly and suddenly, like Batman into the dark night.
•It was tickling to see Bullock, ten years earlier, in the shoes now occupied by Gordon. He had that same young and stubborn demeanor, and the belief that he can always save the day.
•Gotham’s continued lack of subtlety shone brightly this week with Nygma’s question mark mug, only to be slightly redeemed with Bullock’s line of “Holy ghost on a bicycle,” pointing to Burt Ward-era Robin.
•Often, the show feels like a service to fans more than anything. A vehicle to show why and how these characters came to be who they are, which is partly the point, I suppose. But, more often than not, these moments (Selina sneaking into Wayne Manor, Nygma’s love-interest subplot) feel unnecessary, and at odds with the story being told.
Eric Walters is a Detroit-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. For more of his TV musings, follow him on Twitter.