Of the numerous things plaguing Gotham, the one I’ve continually harped on is the inclusion of too many characters, all of whom have several stories to tell. Naturally, the idea of adding yet another face last night was met, in my home, with an audible groan. But I was, pleasantly, put in my place when “Harvey Dent” wasn’t bogged down by the introduction of yet another classic name from the Batman canon, but instead played out as one of the tightest, and best, episodes of the Fox drama thus far.
At the heart of last night’s successful episode was a smartly crafted main narrative that, for once, didn’t stand alone, but was connected to the season’s overarching story. I’ve been pleading, for weeks, for Gotham writers to forego the villain-of-the-week format, and instead tell the larger story they want to tell in a more serialized form. “Harvey Dent” found a happy medium between those two ideas, presenting a story that both stood on its own for the hour, and also served as connective tissue (and reminder) of the mob war that is rumbling in Gotham. Even more promising, though, was the way side-stories were handled. There was enough screen time spent on Selina and Bruce becoming buddy-buddy, though not so much as to detract from the main plot, while Penguin’s schemes and the ongoing Wayne murder investigation were given an appropriately small focus. Hopefully, the writers are finally beginning to understand that they need not tell their stories at breakneck speed. In this episode, the stories were given time to breathe, while other plots popped in at the right times to remind viewers they were happening exactly where they should be: in the background.
There wasn’t a great deal of tension in “Harvey Dent,” but it didn’t bother. This hour felt like a slow burn, a building block leading to something larger. And that’s fine, especially when the writing is creative enough to procure genuine intrigue from viewers, which this episode did quite well. Normally, I am quick to make hypotheses, and with Gotham I am, more often than not, right about where an episode is headed. Last night, though, I was happy to concede that I wasn’t quite sure where everything was going and why it was all happening. Why an explosives expert with a history of mental maladies was broken out of Blackgate by Russian gangsters made little sense to me, at first, but once the reasoning was revealed, it was all crystal clear. Of course this was a play by Fish Mooney, who has thus far seemed so out of her depth that the very fact her chest still rises and falls with each passing minute is hard to believe, but in “Harvey Dent,” with practically the least amount of screen time she’s had all season, Mooney proved that she may yet be a force in this war.
What made me happier though, was the way this episode was able to work character development into its main plot, particularly with Edward Nigma. Gotham has lacked subtlety thus far, with one of the biggest offenders being Cory Michael Smith’s portrayal of the man who will become The Riddler. While last night still lacked a subtle touch in certain areas (more on that later), with Nigma it was decidedly better than past episodes. Perhaps I am just softening, but I’m starting to come to grips with this take on Batman’s most enigmatic villain. He’s an offbeat goofball, who dips too far into fringe weirdness for my taste, but also an under-appreciated genius. In previous episodes, though, the under-appreciated aspect has been leaned on too heavily, and his existence as a forensics expert with the GCPD has seemed forced at best. Nearly all of his scenes have been included merely as a means of showing the audience why he’ll become The Riddler as opposed to how. And as a result, his storyline has epitomized Gotham at its worst, a show that is a middling middle-man with nothing new or interesting to say about the years before Batman. “Harvey Dent” included moments where Nigma was a weird goofball, solving riddles while solving other riddles, but all of his scenes served a purpose. And, for once, he was useful to Bullock and Gordon’s investigation. It was a welcome turn, to feel as though a scene involving Nigma wasn’t being wedged into a story where he needn’t be.
The episode handled its titular character similarly well, save for the subtlety. Though, once again, Gotham failed to focus an episode named after a character about that character, in this instance it was a good thing. Harvey Dent’s minor involvement was all that was needed, and Nicholas D’Agosto is off to an impressive start embodying one of DC’s most notorious baddies. For anyone who saw D’Agosto in Masters of Sex’s first season, his casting as Dent was unsurprising. The juggle he managed to pull off as Ethan Haas, making the audience like him, loathe him and like him all over again, was nothing short of miraculous. D’Agosto is a dynamic performer, with the charm and wit needed to express Harvey’s lighter side, and the manic energy to display the darker. The only disappointment in the first appearance of Harvey Dent was the speed with which the writers unveiled the shadowy elements of the councilman’s personality. I expected a slower unroll, though we all know who Dent is to become, given the number of villain’s already occupying the screen. Instead, there was heavy focus on Dent’s trademark double-headed coin (which was fine in the first instance, but more annoying with each recurring mention), and a scene in which Dent became, not just a little unfriendly, but threatened a man’s life. I would be more upset with this direction if it weren’t so fun to watch D’Agosto twist and turn. The possibilities moving forward with Dent are endless, that is, if D’Agosto continues to light up the screen as he did in his debut.
Finally, the Selina/Bruce storyline, which I fully expected to bore me to tears, added a dynamic this show has sorely missed: fun. While it’s attempted before, Gotham has failed to find much humor in its stories, at least much intended humor. David Mazouz remains awkward and emotionally stunted as young Bruce, but it was genuinely fun to watch him and Camren Bicondova (Selina Kyle) interact. At first, it felt like another forced storyline (of how Batman and Catwoman’s relationship first began), but it turned into something heartwarming and, needfully, lighthearted.
?I’ve written before that, in order for Gotham to succeed with it’s expansive story, it needs to hook viewers with individual episodes that allow us to invest in the plot. “Harvey Dent” was one of those episodes. It presented a smart, tight story that was connected to the larger narrative, as opposed to the fractured episodes we’ve seen often in the first nine weeks. On top of that, it found a way to build its characters without detracting from its main plot, and even injected a bit of light amusement. Maybe most importantly, though, “Harvey Dent” brought a new character that didn’t weigh anything down, but instead opened a bevy of doors through which the show could walk moving forward.
Eric Walters is a Detroit-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. For more of his TV musings, follow him on Twitter.