Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Gotham Season 1 Episode 5 'Viper' Review

A dangerous new drug has hit the streets of Gotham. A man with a mangled ear is handing out this new drug, Viper, to the unfortunates living in the slums of Gotham. When inhaled, Viper gives those who take it super strength but kills them within a few hours. Who is manufacturing Viper and why is it being given away for free? It’s up to Gordon and Bullock to figure out these mysteries and stop the ever increasing death toll.

So yeah, I’d give a spoiler warning but the big twist of this episode is obvious from about thirty seconds in. A junkie is given a vial of green liquid that immediately gives him super strength. When the episode eventually reveals that Viper is an early form of Bane’s Venom it seems somewhat anti-climactic.

One of the frequent issues with Gotham is the intended audience, or audiences, it wants to reach. Gotham has a bizarre split between trying to be a crime procedural, such as the wire and trying to be a superhero show like Smallville. This episode in particular really suffers from attempting to reach these two completely different audiences. As I’ve said previously 'Gotham' is at its best when it is dealing with morally grey themes, when it is being subtle. Subtlety and super strength do not play well together.

For example, one scene of this episode features Maroni threatening Gordon. The Penguin has been beaten by Maroni in order to gain the truth about his past. Gordon is kidnapped to corroborate this story. This sequence is tense as Gordon is made aware that if his story and the Penguin’s do not match, they will both die. Gordon has no idea what Penguin has said so he is forced to tell the absolute truth, the truth that may still get him killed if it differs from the ‘truth’ that the penguin has given Maroni earlier.

This scene is brilliant. It is a really strong idea and it is very well executed. What makes this scene so successful is the grittiness of it, the real world menace. Later on we get a scene where an old man gives a supervillain speech before taking Viper and destroying his Zimmer frame…

To say 'Gotham' has a problem with inconsistent tone would be somewhat of an understatement. I’m not saying that Batman has to be gritty to be successful. The success of Batman in a variety of tonally different productions has shown that the universe is very adaptable. That being said the 1960’s Batman television show never had a scene where a screaming man was burned alive.

The abrupt tonal shifts are only one of the problems in this episode. The script in general seems to barely hold together. If a stranger handed you a green vial that simply said “Breath Me” on the side, what would you do? Gotham attempts to explain that the people who chose to take it are desperate junkies but this justification doesn’t really work for me. The people taking it have no idea of what it might be; they don’t even know that it’s a drug. The bottle could be filled with toilet cleaner for all they know and yet they immediately use it? I appreciate that an effort has been made to show the desperate nature of the downtrodden in Gotham but this still seems pretty unbelievable.

The reasoning behind why the villain is handing out the drug is also really badly explained. He is trying to stop a drugs company doing something unethical by killing innocent people. Suggesting a character is insane does not automatically justify them doing stupid things. Part of what makes insanity a threatening concept is the alternate skewed versions of reality it creates in the subject.

Irrational behaviour is completely rational to the person doing it. As a writer it is your job to present the motivation, however strange, of your characters. Or you can do what they actually did in the episode and just have Jim Gordon loudly point out that the motivation of the villain doesn’t make sense and hope that the audience will just accept it. Jim Gordon has accepted that the world doesn’t make sense so who are you to argue?

This over-reliance on universal chaos and insanity is becoming a worrying element of modern writing. Many writers try and inject reality into their work by adding an element of random spontaneity to it. Very little of what happens in the world is truly unexplainable however; most things happen due to some level of logical progression, even if that logical progression is hard to fathom. 

Most writers simply use chaos to fill plots holes. They take the attitude that the real world isn’t a well edited narrative so a realistic depiction of the world shouldn’t feature traditional narrative elements. The primary issue with this is that the human mind is preconditioned to find narrative in the world around us. We take events that happen around us and form them into a logical sequence to allow us to understand them. Good and Bad luck are entirely attributed to this view of the world, with good and bad events bound to eventually follow unconnected triggers.

We as an audience expect things to make sense, for them to be explained. We don’t have to like what happened or how it happened but we do need to understand why it happened. This explanation doesn’t have to be direct and in depth; Karma can be enough of a driving force to create a narrative! All you have to do to give a villain basic motivation is make them evil, that’s fine. Once you start suggesting that somebody is insane you open yourself up to a lot of questions that need to be answered. If you don’t answer these questions your writing immediately loses any sense of reality you attempted to add.

So, rant over, what is good about this episode? Surprisingly even with the above complaints Gotham remains an enjoyable show. The cast remain fantastic and it’s nice to see an ensemble show with no obvious weak links performance wise. Sean Pertwee is becoming one of Gotham’s best characters in the form of Alfred. It’s nice to see Alfred realise that he has to enter Bruce’s world in order to watch over him. For all the issues that Gotham has in terms of tone it manages mood brilliantly. The universe of Gotham is feeling increasingly dark and unstable as the series progresses.

Don’t let the huge negative to positive ratio let you think I didn’t enjoy this episode. The reason I rant about the flaws in Gotham is because it has the potential to be a truly great show and keeps making stupid mistakes that hold it back. Hopefully future episodes will be more consistent but even ‘bad’ Gotham is still pretty good.

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