Gotham Season 1, Episode 4: We're all just the Penguin's puppets

Review: An improved story arc involving mob-boss warfare proves yet again that the villains in this pre-Batman series are more captivating than the heroes.

Can a lowly, hobbling dishwasher take over Gotham City without anyone noticing?

In the fourth episode of Gotham, the political tangles of government, law enforcement and the rival gangs reach a climax. The disturbed vigilante justice of the first few episodes gives way to organized crime syndicates at war.

The rival crime bosses Carmine Falcone and Dom Maroni each want a piece of the coveted Arkham district of Gotham. At the site of an old mental health hospital, Arkham Asylum, Falcone wants to build a low-income housing project, and Maroni wants to build a waste treatment plant. Before their untimely deaths by an as-yet-unknown assassin, Thomas and Martha Wayne wanted to rebuild the asylum to help Gotham's neediest.

But in the highly political battle for this decaying monument to Gotham's dark decline, the Waynes no longer have a say. It's one crime boss against another, with the hapless mayor (a criminally underutilized Richard Kind) caught in between.

First, a hired assassin takes out a councilman and his aid, who backed Falcone's plan. Then, the same assassin takes out a backer of Maroni's plan. In the midst of the chaos and violence, Oswald Cobblepot makes a play by staging a stick-up at the Maroni-owned restaurant where he has been hired as a dishwasher. The stammering dishwasher becomes a hero, hiding with some of the sought-after cash in a freezer. Maroni promotes him to restaurant manager, and a Machiavellian smile flickers across his dirty face. The Penguin was behind it all.

Though this is no The Wire in terms of complex sociopolitical storylines, the cohesive Arkham arc was one of the best so far. The lukewarm compromise reached between the warring parties highlighted the complications of managing rival constituencies and underscored the corruption at the heart of Gotham. The twist of Cobblepot's involvement in the shakeup between the gangs, while somewhat predictable, laid further groundwork for the rise of what seems to be the season's central villain. The series seems to finally have its feet on the ground. It is slowly gaining balance. In time, it may even run.

While the scenes of the city of Gotham are gorgeous, like something out of a big budget DC Comics flick, and the mostly well-constituted cast does an OK job with what they're given, there is still somewhat of a disconnect in this series. A quarter of the way through its initial 16-episode run (which was increased to a full 22 just this week), the best writing, most intriguing storylines and best acting can be found among the villains, who still don't feel central enough to the story.

Harvey Bullock is boring. He's lazy and corrupt, and he hates his boy scout of a partner. What else can we learn about him? Donal Logue is a good actor, perhaps second on this program only to Robin Lord Taylor (Cobblepot). And plus, he looks great in the role (that hat!). I only wish he was given some worthy material.

Even James Gordon himself, the central protagonist in this swirling ensemble, is boring. Ben McKenzie's flat acting and unending state of agitation are really starting to get old. Does the boy scout detective have any states of emotion beyond anger and trepidation?

Gordon and Barbara's relationship problems are boring, too. When she gave him an ultimatum ("Let me in or let me go"), I wasn't hoping for a raised boom box Say Anything moment. I was just relieved. (Yawn.)

The villains, on the other hand, are impossible to look away from. As the conniving Fish Mooney, Jada Pinkett Smith is superb. Despite the occasionally strained lines of cheesy dialogue the writers put in her mouth, when Pinkett Smith's seductive schemer is on screen, I am hooked. Edward Nygma's (Cory Michael Smith) maniacal grin and pointed syntax captivate in his brief scenes. Even the identity-stealing assassin was more compelling than any of the series' do-gooder protagonists.

And as the shrewd and unassuming Cobblepot, Taylor continues to impress. In scenes where he feels his power growing, the nimble tinge of pleasure in his face and stature are undeniably good. In scenes where he is vexed, his bubbling rage brings goosebumps to the skin. Forget the boy scout cop, his lazy partner, his worried fiance and even that broody orphan in the mansion. I want this guy to win!

In the next episode, "Viper," we meet a superhuman ATM thief with an apparently insatiable taste for milk. Makes sense, right?

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