Gotham has handled its villains in many different ways. The Penguin is an example of fine craftsmanship, honed over an entire season and becoming the sleezy-yet-genius underworld mobster. Other well-known baddies, like Nygma or Ivy, are narrative caulk used only to fill up an episode’s runtime.
This episode’s main villain, Doctor Crane, falls somewhere in the middle. As the father figure of Bruce Wayne’s fear-obsessed nemesis, Scarecrow, his name holds immediate weight and his personal story arc transcends the uninteresting filler bad guys that have proliferated Gotham as of late. But it’s also the continuation of an annoying trend. Scarecrow is a great Batman villain, and viewers get to see him… as a kid. Poison Ivy? A kid. Catwoman? A kid. I’d be surprised if we don’t see more kid villains in the future. There’s nothing wrong with the kid actors themselves—most of them do an amicable job—but do viewers really need to see Scarecrow, the master of fear, as a scared little kid? It’s the Darth Vader/Jake Lloyd curse all over again.
But before getting too far ahead, let’s start at the beginning. In typical Gotham fashion, the episode kicks off with a murder, a particularly gruesome one as an unnamed, bespectacled man strings up his unsuspecting victim and tosses him off a building’s edge. The next day, Bullock surveys the crime scene, now having to look over his shoulder since his partner, Jim Gordon, put away one of the GCPD’s most-crooked cops last episode. Officer Essen reminds Bullock that some cops wouldn’t mind tossing him right off the rooftop for revenge.
This moment is a perfect example of wasted dialogue. It completely fails to follow Chekov’s Gun. Essen tells Bullock to watch his back, and cops kind of… glower at him… and then it’s never mentioned again. This is all just narrative bloat that Gotham doesn’t need. With a show that has so many characters that need to fight for screen time, Gotham needs every minute it can get and moments like these just seem wasteful.
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Anyway, while Gotham’s finest begins tracking down a new macabre killer, Oswald Cobblepot is having some problems all his own. After helping Falcone dispatch of Fish Mooney, taking over her club, and narrowly escaping death (again), the Penguin neglects to confirm that Falcone’s right-hand killer snubbed Mooney for good. This seems like a huge mistake/plot hole. As someone so methodically conniving as Penguin, it’s extremely hard to believe Cobblepot wouldn’t ask the simple question, “Um, did you kill her?” Not to do so would open up the obvious opportunity to phone up Maroni and completely rat him out, which of course, is exactly what happens.
As Mooney lays out Penguin’s long term con, Maroni smiles through his teeth and tells he’d like Penguin to go with him on a business trip “to meet a guy and get a thing.” Okay, not the best lie ever but then again Cobblepot is in no position to refuse. Fast-forwarding a bit, Maroni takes Cobblepot to a secluded cabin, pretty much confirming Cobblepot’s fears, which until this point were only suspicions.
This entire scene in the woods is more evidence that Gotham is a better mobster show than a police procedural. Cobblepot is a rat in a cage waiting for any chance to escape his dire circumstance. Maroni offers it to him in the form of a gun. And after a great exchange of truth-telling, Penguin attempts to shoot Maroni, only to find the gun is filled with blanks. Maroni quickly wrestles him to the floor and knocks him out cold.
The fatal flaw of comic book characters and mobsters is the need to exact revenge through an elaborate death. Maroni wants to crush Penguin in a car compactor and send whatever comes out to Falcone. But in the last second, Penguin (once again) weasels his way out of death. Seeing a billboard for the junkyard and calling the number, Penguin preys on the owner’s (and current compactor operator’s) sense of survival, saying that Falcone will kill him when he finds out what he’s done. He buys it. Penguin escapes. Maroni is pissed. The gangster divorce is a messy one, but now Penguin is openly in the service of Falcone. What he doesn’t yet seem to realize is Penguin’s purpose to Falcone was to be a mole. With that role compromised, will Falcone also think Penguin’s time is up?
After all this murder innuendo, Gotham takes an unprecedented amount of time to develop three separate relationships. First, there’s Gordon and Thompkins. The show opts to turn Gordon into a rusty dating mess, unable to comprehend the subtle clues that Thompkins throws his way. So she transforms into being super blunt. It’s a little cliché, but it works here and is so far much better than Gordon’s train wreck relationship with Barbara.
The second is one that’s been slowly developing for a few episodes, Nygma and Ms. Kringle. Nygma is starting to grow into his own. He may perpetuate the tired stereotype that all nerdy people are also socially inept, but his awkwardness and his potential for deviousness is beginning to fill out his character. Although Nygma’s role of late is to be the annoying paramour to Kringle, this episode he decides to get rid of Gotham’s inept medical surgeon by stuffing his locker full of body parts. The disturbing scene is more than enough for GCPD to tender his resignation, and Gordon’s new GF goes on to conveniently accept the open job vacancy.
The last new relationship is Bullock and Scottie Mullens, a community volunteer who heads a support group for people with phobias, with which our hanged man was a member (heights, go figure). Bullock is temporarily stunned when he meets Mullens at the precinct for questioning. It’s fun to see Harvey in a complete role reversal from his normal slovenly, cocksure attitude. More awesomely, Mullens doesn’t put up with his shit, so he’s at a complete disadvantage. He stumbles through his sentences, acting like some cripplingly shy high school kid asking his crush out to prom.
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After Gordon and Bullock luckily thwart another attempted manslaughter having to do with a man, pigs, and lots of weirdness, Bullock begins to have suspicions that the killer is actually someone within Mullens’ support group, considering his intimate knowledge of his victims’ fears. Partly motivated to be with Mullens but also investigate members of the phobia group, Bullock has a heartfelt moment revealing his fear of death, which like “okay, everyone is afraid of that” but it’s one of very few emotional moments Gotham is ever able to wring from Bullock.
After Dr. Crane, who audiences have openly known is the man behind this episode’s madness, kidnaps Mullens, Bullock jumps into action. This move by Crane didn’t really seem to make much sense. Crane knew that Bullock was a cop, but despite him sitting right in front of him, he took this opportunity to abduct his next victim. It’s possible that Crane has a sick compulsion, a need to kill his victims regularly that leaves him vulnerable to the occasional oversight, but he’s very calm and intelligent whenever we see him. Who knows.
Crane drags Mullens to a swimming pool that she almost drowned in when she was a child. Meanwhile Gordon and Bullock are tipped off by Mullens’ mother that the pool might be where he’s headed. Before the cop duo is able to bust up Crane’s murder, Crane’s son, Jonathan, the future successor to the Scarecrow throne, walks in while his dad has Mullens bound and gagged. He responds with childlike innocence, uncertain of what his father is trying to achieve. But his dad quickly spits out what seems like a well-practiced doctrine that what they’re doing is for the greater good. Yeah, it’s a cliché villain motivation that doesn’t really make sense in this context, but he’s crazy so whatever.
Bullock and Gordon eventually do show up, guns blazing, and save Mullens but Doctor Crane, and his son, elude capture—able to terrorize Gotham another day.
Overall this episode provides great mobster action, creepy serial killer mystery, and even a few heartwarming love stories tossed in. However, this show is still a bloated mess. Do you remember Renee Montoya and Crispus Allen? Where. The. Hell. Did. They. Go? Are they main characters or not? None of the cops beside Gordon and Bullock, and arguably Essen, have any kind of character. Cops are more like cartoonish cardboard cutouts than actual people. Also, the narrative continues to be filled with scenes that just feel like a waste of time and just muck up the show’s flow.
“The Fearsome Dr. Crane” is an example of Gotham I’d like to see more of. It is by no means the best episode, but it doesn’t feel like a complete waste of 45 minutes either. It’s like a cop procedural filler done right or an episode of The Wire done wrong. But if this show should fear anything, it should fear be labeled simply “good enough.”