Two things are going to happen here in my review for Gotham's latest episode The Balloonman. First, I'm going to discuss the plot which I think was importantly thematic for this episode. Next, I'll tackle the four central characters which were developed alongside the narrative. Everything else (such as the characters that only got minor attention during the episode) will come last.
As always, I'm going to start with my overall assessment.
A MIXED BAG OF GOODIES
Unlike the first two episodes which were creating, finding and experimenting with their respective rhythm and tonality, this third instalment finally tried to establish its focus with a more purposeful sense of direction. Sure, there were still some awkwardly paced moments and scenes but as a sum of its parts, I believe it worked better for the story it was trying to tell and the message it hoped to impart by the end of the episode. The important thing to remember about Gotham as a show in general is that it's usually a trial-and-error sort of thing. It has this ironic ability to take a few steps forward with one aspect and a few steps backwards with another which I believe will continue to be an unavoidable pitfall because this show has multiple subplots and characters that must have enough screen time per episode. This also means that the story/stories themselves may not always have a chance to breathe in between scenes. Still, if you're a casual viewer who doesn't feel the need to dissect and question every creative direction made in the show so far then you're lucky. My reviews shouldn't lessen your enjoyment and liking for this show because that's not the point of writing them in the first place.
I have never been this emotionally invested on a comic book show before as I am with Gotham because it's the universe Batman will operate in someday and I am inherently curious about this adaptation. Just the fact that we have a serialized show about a fictional city from a comic book and an entertaining and complex array of its characters being portrayed by capable actors is for me already a dazzling achievement. Still, since I'm writing these reviews, I can't treat every episode 'lackadaisically' (as Gordon once put it). Gotham is still on its way to find its distinct voice and I understand the difficulty in that. Unlike other shows based on comic books such as Smallville, Arrow and even Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, this show does not have the privilege of having a central figure superhero or team that will drive the course of events in it narrative framework. Gotham is about the city itself and therein lies the challenge and the danger of the show. This latest episode proves that Gotham has a long way to go but the potentials it has are incredibly compelling and thrilling to explore. Though the showrunner, writer and actors are still testing the waters on how to portray their story and roles on screen, I feel that they do understand and enjoy what they are doing with the material, and that's what matters. With that said, let's start talking about the plot and theme of this episode.
WHEN INJUSTICE PLAGUES A CITY, VIGILANTES WILL RISE
The Balloonman episode was thematic in its plot. Here we finally have the writers taking on a social issue that is only appropriate for a show whose titular city is as gritty and disease-ridden as they come. The unbreakable chain of the corrupt system permeating both in the law enforcement and government officials in Gotham has left its citizenry desperate and despondent and, in turn, have to find ways to combat the disease with vicious measures themselves, lest they just give up and get infected. One of them is Davis Lamond (Dan Bakkedahl), a child services social worker who one day decided that enough is enough. In a very Dexter-ish fashion, he took matters in his own hands and confronted a recently reported thieving banker in broad daylight by attaching his wrist to a string of a weather balloon where he was then raised upwards to float away, which is as hilarious yet just as heinous as it looks. The theatrical aspect of such a method of murder is cartoonish but in the most memorable and provoking kind of way.
His next victim was a police officer of questionable ways who beats up suspects during interrogations by day and leans on drug dealers to give him a slice of their profits by night. It was only when Lamond targeted this cop and, after a brief altercation in the middle of the night, hoisted him up the skies with the weather balloon, never to be seen again, that the GCPD felt compelled to stop the murders from escalating. Also, the third victim was a cardinal who is also an alleged child molester (that shot of him in a television screen as he was being flown away was actually funny, but only if you truly believe or want to believe that he did rape children and therefore deserves that punishment). Gordon and Bullock headed the investigation although the latter at first didn't want to take the case as he, once again, reprimands Gordon for stubbornly trying to solve cases that nobody cares about. They did eventually catch Lamond who had an almost tearful soliloquy about his frustration on how much the city and its supposedly law and peace enforcers have failed people like him. After dedicating his whole life serving the lost children of Gotham, he realized that for every public servant who lives an honest life like he does in their city, there are ten more of them who are crooked. And he had enough. It's time to show the thieves and thugs of Gotham that ordinary people like him can fight back.
I was happy that we got a storyline like this earlier in the season already. A vigilante pre-Batman era is only a natural progression for the story after all. Gotham is a city of opportunities (as mob boss Maroni describes it in another scene, marking his first ever appearance in this episode) and the lowest to the most high-profile of the scum will get whatever they can take for themselves while the rest will suffer at their hands. It's only a matter of time before one man decides to do things in the fringes and Davis Lamond is the first one to step to the plate--and there may be others who desire such a radical change in the status quo, and might do the same now that the citizens are exposed to the idea of a vigilante punishing the bad guys in the name of whatever they perceive to be is justice rightfully served. We can easily apply this to real-life situations. Personally, I live in a third-world country where the government and its public officials are not always trustworthy. Almost everyone in the world has experienced or is currently experiencing some form of unfairness and discrimination and we are more than aware that there has been an on-going blatant exploitation of certain marginalized groups of people in some places across the globe since civilizations started. We might even say that human societies are built and hardened through such disgraceful events.
Gotham is supposed to reflect that harsh truth about urbanized cities and the conceptual narrative of the show focuses on the biggest crime wave to ever hit said city coupled with the string of cases that are kept hushed or dismissed by the mobs that continue to operate and flourish at the expense of the lives of the city's most ordinary citizens. These parasitic crime elements are aided by public officials and law enforcers who do it out of selfishness and self-preservation. With a city so vile, it's perfectly and painfully understandable for men like Davis Lamond to choose an extremist path. Years from now, we will see a masked vigilante like Batman play a more prominent role as the city's self-appointed guardian and crime fighter--its legendary Dark Knight. And we'll accept him readily as the only cure because it's better than the alternative.
As for the writers' concept of a vigilante who uses weather balloons to tie his victims to them as they are whisked away to the heavens, it's definitely an intriguing idea and one that looks absolutely absurd yet terrifying on screen. It's a daring and eye-catching statement and an unusual punishment itself. It's also symbolic of that inherent tendency in all of us to wish our problems away; for example, have them taken up to the sky and disappear forever. My only nitpick is the fact that it didn't even occur to Gordon and Bullock to consult anyone with the basic working knowledge about physics as to what happens after a human body floats on air with a temporary support like that. Heck, it's common sense that a balloon will pop sooner or later so the body attached to it will fall somewhere. It's just weird that they all seem to believe that they will never find the bodies anymore. As a viewer, it slightly irritated me that none of them even care to double-check that stupid assumption until two of these bodies finally dropped on innocent civilians on the street. Other than that, I was pleased with such a ludicrous yet entertaining method of murder. Its absurdity only made Davis Lamond's characterization even more poignant in retrospect.
PERHAPS ONE MAN IS NOT ENOUGH...
PERHAPS ONE MAN IS ALL IT TAKES...
Afterwards, their next scenes were all about Bruce abstaining from eating his meals and Alfred expressing concern about the seemingly random spike of unusual behavior from his young master. One moment Bruce is playing along, exchanging sword blows with him, the next he would become reticent, sitting by himself in his late father's old study room and reading the newspaper's daily content of violence and murder reports. I liked that Bruce is becoming more socially aware of his surroundings, of the city that he was isolated from because of his wealth and privilege. The subtle turning point of which is his last scene in the episode where he watches a news coverage about the Balloonman's capture and the reporter asked a question to the viewers at home: "Who will protect Gotham now?" On cue, Bruce started eating his dinner after hearing that question as if he suddenly found a new purpose to keep his strength up. Granted, this show may not be about Batman but the writers never fail to make sure that their Bruce Wayne is beginning to show signs that the Dark Knight inside him is just waiting for the opportune time to come out.
HARVEY "JUST LET IT GO" BULLOCK
I pointed out in my episode two review that Bullock didn't get much of a chance to shine there but this episode finally put him back on the right track. We see some good moves from him when it comes to finding information about a case suspect (which pretty much includes chats with a colorful roster of prostitutes, drug dealers and police informants around the city). When they finally arrived to the apartment complex of the said suspected perp, we get a very entertainingly choreographed fight scene among Gordon and Bullock as they try to apprehend the suspect and his girlfriend, a tall, mean black lady who threw Bullock around without breaking a sweat. Aside from the comedic appeal of Bullock in his scenes, I also liked the fact that Gordon once again continues to challenge him out of his apathy. A great example of that is when he was caught between Lamond and Gordon's crossfire. Once he got the upper hand, Bullock ties Lamond to one of his weather balloons and would have abandoned him to float to the sky if it wasn't for Gordon jumping after Lamond, holding onto him for dear life as they both get carried off by the balloon. It was a very symbolic scene; to the very end Harvey kept shouting at Gordon to "let it go" while Gordon refuses to give in. Bullock was left with no choice but to shoot down the balloon to rescue his partner. It was a great foreshadowing of the strained relationship of these two in the future where they will both try to force each other to see things their way and the conflicts that such a tension would create should hopefully prove to be exciting in the next episodes.
HOME IS WHERE THE HURT IS
Oswald Cobblepot's storyline is disconnected from the main story itself but it's a supplement I eagerly watched as it unfolded and that's primarily because Robin Lord Taylor lends his interpretation and performance for Cobblepot before he was Penguin with such an electrifying magnetism. I was such a ardent fan of this actor and character from the get-go, honestly, so I can't help but root for him to rise as a formidable player in the mob game. However, I would agree that his actions from the moment he stepped back into the city until he appeared at the end at Gordon's doorstep have been crazy ridiculous and a tad unrealistic. He went around murdering two men so easily and without any complications, and the latter was disposed of merely because he matched Cobblepot's foot size and the dishwasher job he coveted. It was also quite convenient for him to be working at a restaurant which opposing crime boss Maroni (played by David Sayas, and who needs to have more appearances from now on, especially since he seemed to take an easy liking with Cobblepot and I want to see how that goes from there) so happens to be a loyal patron of. Yes, viewers are going to have to suspend their belief for a while as we watch Cobblepot's scenes in this episode which wasn't really that hard because Taylor is endlessly fascinating. His Cobblepot is seemingly frail but outlandishly vicious and that's such a comic-book characterization that just makes him all the more uncomfortably endearing (at least for me). The show wasted no time getting him and Gordon meet again after their brief introduction in the pilot episode and it was a great way to end the episode too. Cobblepot's "old friend" quip at Gordon was chilling. I did theorize that he will owe Gordon something for sparing his life not so long ago, but I know that he'll also try to find a way to use Gordon and I am hoping for that mind game to commence by the next episode.
Granted she did try to equalize things with her boss Falcone by having his own paramour beat up like he did hers back in the last episode, but even that felt awkward and predictable to watch. I need Smith to dominate more in her next scenes. She was so promising in her debut and the writers need to get her making more decisive actions that actually have an impact in the story. Having her act in the sidelines with her personal dramas that are barely interesting would eventually lose the audience's investment on her character which hasn't been that strong to begin with.
I could say the same for Barbara Kean. As sweet as she is and as much as I like her relationship with Gordon and actress Erin Richard's chemistry with Ben Mckenzie, I don't understand her purpose in the show at all except as a soundboard that acknowledges what a good man Gordon is. AND WHAT IS IT WITH WOMEN OF THIS SHOW AND THEIR INSISTENCE TO STAY IN ONE LOCATION? It was said that she owned an art gallery so how about show us her place of work then? Doesn't she have a life, a career, outside being the live-in girlfriend of the male lead? This needs to change soon. AND IT JUST MIGHT, thanks to Cobblepot making a house call. Hopefully, Gordon will stop keeping things from Barbara Kean and include her in this delicious action about to unfold. I really like Erin Richards for the role and I hope they can utilize her character soon.
Her only other interaction is with former girlfriend Montoya who had visited her twice now to once again try to convince her that Gordon is corrupt cop while passive-aggressively tries to win her over. How many times should we rehash this conversation? Montoya's character is not making me sympathetic to her motivations. Major Crimes Unit seem to think of their department as the good guys and the GCPD as the bad guys but I really don't see any proof to support this. Allen and Montoya continue to beat around the bush, following a cold trail pertaining to Oswald Cobblepot's disappearance. Sure, we get some additional information about Barbara and Montoya's relationship history (which pretty much has something to do with drug addiction) but these two women have yet to feel like real characters with real issues and problems the viewers want to care about or even enjoy watching. Meanwhile, Camren Bicondova's Selina Kyle quickly goes away after the first ten minutes of the episode which was okay because she has served her purpose last episode and there really was no reason for her to be here anymore. But at least that child actress got her due. So how about the adult women of this show get some too, especially Fish Mooney whom I'm just dying to see proclaim an all-out battle against her boss Falcone. Can we please get to that now?
While you're fixing the character narratives of these women, how about give the audience more Arkham Asylum material? That plot point was only teased for a few dialogue exchanges in this episode and I feel that it will be a major arc since it ties both to the mob conflicts and the Wayne Foundation.
We have a long way to go, Gotham, but I will keep watching, hoping for the best.
FINAL VERDICT: 3.75 STARS
This week's instalment allowed itself to tackle a thematic plot, but the female cast consequentially fell out of the line of sight because of the direction the story has to take and pull back from. Nevertheless, this episode has found a voice that people might actually care to listen to and invest more time on.