This is an edgy series; adding layers of grit to characters we were growing to love as personalities more than fear viscerally. For example after decades of Catwoman evolving from her original role as a seductive villainess to a genuinely-loving anti-heroine, as known for cuddling her namesakes as moving like them, it’s quite a shock to see her claw someone’s eyes out, albeit perfectly in line with her theme; meanwhile Penguin, once most recognized for his odd appearance, mannerisms, and interests, is quickly becoming most notable here for his willingness to stab people for petty reasons, with no apparent fears of reprisal. Hence, it’s a whole other type of shock for the series to introduce a villain on par with Adam West’s Batman show in apparent silliness, though not without entertainment value.
Indeed, the titular Balloonman (Dan Bakkedahl) steals every scene he is in, and also provides the set up for an almost Family Guy-esque slapstick scene he’s not in himself. That he feels so incredibly alien next to everything else in this series so far might actually make it even funnier in a way. The juxtaposition is nailed home almost immediately; as he struts forth in a pig mask and kills corrupt businessman Arnold Danzer (Clark Middleton) in his ridiculously contrived manner, soon after which Detective Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) defers to his now-infamous advice to Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) to let this case go, as if anyone can just ignore a story this strange!
At the same time this is happening, however, the episode is dealing in extremely diverse moral themes, and examining what happens when different attitudes collide. Bullock, though fudging as usual, is this time not only doing it for self-preservation; he also knows Danzer was a sleazebag, and is in no hurry to squelch the man whom he feels did Gotham a favor by killing him. Naturally, Detective Jim Gordon does not agree, and things get more dire for the pair when the brutal-but-humorous vigilante kills a highly-esteemed-but-sadistic cop (James Colby), forcing the whole department’s feet to the fire. Gordon also conflicts in ethics with Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova), who falls somewhere between himself and the Balloonman in being an idealist with little respect for the law but seemingly without malice. Jim doesn’t trust Selina, even though she has offered him his holy grail in the form of a first-hand lead on the Wayne murderer. Within minutes of them arriving in Crime Alley, Selina ends up both impressing and annoying him with her street-smarts.
Similar clashes of egos are happening on the bad side. Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor) and Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith) further their conspiracies to take on more power, the former being awkward and driven to evil by anger, and the latter being suave and driven to evil by lust and a general yearning for creature comforts. Both also have their own plans to ruin Jim Gordon with damning information, unique in that each reflects the villain’s limited understanding of the events in the pilot. Meanwhile, Carmine Falcone (John Doman) and a newly-introduced mobster can smell the coming war that these young uppity rivals might start, and the title character nurses a grudge against both the villains and the people who are supposedly law-abiding citizens, being in the opinion of Jim Gordon and Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz), a villain himself for his murderous means.
It’s disappointing that this episode offered no resolve to the cliffhanger Cobblepot left on last time, and that his character hasn’t been given the chance for development in general. The first two episodes made it seem as though being in exile from Gotham would help empower him to the point he could feel like a legitimate threat; maybe by making him wiser and more restrained, or by somehow inheriting a lot of money, or by forming a gang in other cities to help his invasion. Instead, he’s back too soon with little maturation beyond his knife-crazy self in the pilot, and is starting to feel like a karma Houdini. Granted; Gotham is a corrupt place where a lot of crime goes unreported and unfought, but it’s simply too hard to believe that a man who’s made numerous enemies on both sides of the law can just come right back in with no disguise and not get more repercussions than he does. While so far he is still entertaining, he is getting far too predictable to persist in this role for much longer.
Ultimately, The Balloonman is entertaining, but the haunting feeling is that it’s not for the right reasons. The titular character is simply too goofy for the theme of lost faith in authority that he’s supposed to embody, while Oswald Cobblepot seems to be evolving into a parody of his new self despite that this is supposed to be about characters evolving to their more iconic selves. The portent storm of widespread conspiracy and distrust looks exciting, but it will take better characterization to make it effective.
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