Gotham: 302 “Burn The Witch” Review
Reviewed by Charlie Pickard.
“You had to come back, didn’t you?”
“Like a bad penny.”
Following last week’s decent re-introduction to Gotham, this episode wasted no time in moving stories forward with a tighter focus. What resulted was an episode that was both better and worse than its predecessor, but enjoyable nonetheless.
After providing plenty of breadth but not much depth in ‘Better to Reign in Hell…’, this week’s offering was much more stream-lined – something I hoped the series would do in order to tell more focused stories. I was pleasantly surprised that writer Ken Woodruff managed this just two episodes in, as Gotham sometimes takes several weeks before it hits its stride.
The episode wasted no time in addressing last week’s enticing cliff-hanger, with Bruce Wayne coming face-to-face with the leader of the Court of Owls, Kathryn. Instead of having a war of words, they discuss matters in a civilised way. Bruce agrees to stop investigating his parents’ murders and shockingly offers Kathryn control of Wayne Enterprises; he later reveals to Alfred that this is a cunning ruse. The Court of Owls appear to be the villains of at least this half of the season, and it was encouraging that they appeared in just the opening scene. They remain an enigma for now, which allowed Fish Mooney to be the central focus of the episode.
Jada Pinkett Smith was the highlight of the episode for me. A figure of derision to many, I thought she was excellent throughout. We follow her plight as she seeks the incarcerated Hugo Strange, desperate to be cured by her ‘creator’. Unfortunately for Fish, he has nothing to offer. The despondence conveyed by Smith purely though her eyes was incredible; she was expressive and heartfelt, a dying woman begging her father for help. Despite being a villain, it was easy to empathise with her.
Fish meets Penguin, who seeks retribution against her once more. We finally learn why she didn’t kill him when they met under the bridge – it was because she views the Penguin as her creation, the former umbrella-boy who is now the King of Gotham. I thought this was a very interesting notion, as Fish acts almost as a mother to Penguin, who will evolve into one of Batman’s most infamous foes. We usually meet these characters in their prime, so it was intriguing to view Fish as the ‘creator’ of the Penguin who we know so well in other media.
The entire cast were in fine form. David Mazouz was convincing again, showing the inner turmoil in Bruce Wayne as he dealt with the Court, as well as playing the eerie doppelgänger who was the latest ‘visitor’ to break into Wayne Manor. (Perhaps Alfred should just leave the windows open at this point?) Ben McKenzie continued his turn as a more cynical Jim Gordon, Robin Lord Taylor played a conflicted Penguin, and it was a treat to see the eminent B. D. Wong reprise his role as Hugo Strange.
Valerie Vale displayed smarts in her scenes with Gordon. It was refreshing to see a female character represented so three-dimensionally. Despite ultimately functioning as Gordon’s love interest, as we see at the end when she kisses him, she also has a brain, always being one step ahead of him. Jamie Chung and Ben McKenzie have promising chemistry, and I anticipate seeing how someone who could easily have been a damsel will instead keep him on his toes.
The latest addition to the main cast, Maggie Geha, showed potential in her limited screen-time as the aged Ivy Pepper. The lecherous man who took her home added an uneasy element to her story, given that her body may have aged but her mind is still that of a child. It seemed extreme to murder him for not watering his plants, but that was reflective of how under-cooked this sub-plot was. As such, I will offer my take on Ivy’s re-casting when I review an episode which gives her more prominence.
The episode was sharply written by Woodruff, who was efficient in his handling of plot. The dark tone mixed well with lighter elements such as the wordplay between Gordon, Bullock and Mooney, which contained some cracking lines. Humour was used sparingly to punctuate the gloomy tone, to great effect.
The episode’s title, ‘Burn the Witch’, perhaps refers to the pyre of Indian Hill monsters that Penguin’s mob burnt near the end. They, like women believed to be witches in the past, were feared and targeted for being different. This is a poignant concept, as it is not their fault that they were experimented on, but Hugo Strange’s instead. He changed those who were defenceless and they ended up killed and burning in the night, like the many defenceless women centuries before them. Even worse was the fact that it was Gordon’s fault for sending Penguin’s mob to fight them. He indirectly caused bloodshed, and showed no remorse in the aftermath. He certainly doesn’t seem ready to give up being a carefree bounty hunter just yet.
The return of Lee promises to throw a spanner in the works for Gordon. It shouldn’t do, as Lee has moved on and now Gordon has, but I would be surprised if we don’t get a contrived love-triangle. It’s convenient that Lee returns exactly when Gordon has his first kiss with someone else, instead or weeks before or after it, but most shows wring as much drama out of a situation as they can, and Gotham is no different. The cliff-hanger was good, but not a patch on the one the previous week.
Danny Cannon, remaining in the director’s chair, impressed again. His understated style was effective in such a lean episode – with a story this tight, he understands the need for restraint. There were no show-stoppers or technical masterpieces like a couple of shots last week, but he crafted a fast-paced tale that was easy on the eye and placed the story front and centre. The fluidity of his directorial style is exemplified in the opening scene, consisting of an array of shots: close-ups, low-angles, medium-shots, full shots; all edited together smoothly to ensure the audience is hooked for the next forty-three minutes.
Likewise, the music was superb throughout the episode. It built the tone throughout the opening scene and complemented the perpetual action that entailed, offering a mix of ambient, brooding themes that contrasted with some of the lighter ones, such as the Penguin’s leitmotif.
On another note, the set design was brilliant across the board. The greatest one was the room in which Bruce spoke to Kathryn in the cold open: a concoction of polished tables, plush chairs and grand curtains (coupled with the creepy masks Kathryn and the Talon wear), it had an air of regality about it.
It would be remiss not to mention the impressive special effects work. The woman who had super-speed and the one who could produce electricity both looked great, and were akin to something on The Flash. Such effects may be new waters for Gotham, but those in charge are certainly adept at sailing them.
This was another enjoyable yet unremarkable episode. It felt as though we were in the middle of a mini-arc dealing with Fish’s send-off, similar to the one with Jerome at the beginning of Season Two. With any luck, this will mean the real meat of Season Three is yet to come.