Gotham recap: 'Balloonman'
A vigilante named Balloonman kills only Gotham's corrupt and puts Jim Gordon's own allegiances to justice in question.
Is Batman a hero? The honest gut reaction would be “yes, of course. He punishes the wicked, protects the innocent—100 percent hero material.” But in the eyes of the law, the answer has always been a moral gray area. Yes, he protects the innocent but under his own authority. In a way, any vigilante is an affront to justice, even if it brings about greater good.
Gotham’s third episode, “Balloonman,” deals with these issues of morality and lawfulness behind vigilantism. But instead of the caped crusader, Gotham’s new pseudo-hero is known as “Balloonman.” Although not quite as threatening a name, the two vigilantes share a similar modus operandi. For one, they only target the guilty and the corrupt. Batman with a flurry of martial art moves and the Balloonman by handcuffing his crooked quarry to a weather balloon. Both have the same desired effect: less criminals, safer streets. But where Batman keeps Gotham’s prisons in business, the Balloonman’s bodies take up residence in morgues.
Of all unsuspecting people, the rough-edged Harvey Bullock kicks off this episode’s main philosophical musing with four words: “public service or murder?” This question comes right after Balloonman has just claimed his first victim, a con man masquerading as a philanthropist responsible for ruining the lives of an untold number of Gotham residents. Bullock is quick to brush off the case as a bad guy meeting a just end, but Jim Gordon, being the good cop to Bullock’s very bad cop, thinks otherwise.
Before following leads and hunting down Gotham’s newest vigilante, the shows takes a moment to address lingering questions from last week. First, Oswald Cobblepot is back in town after only a one-episode hiatus. Despite Cobblepot, once again, being great in almost every scene he’s in, his return to Gotham feels premature. The Penguin’s wake of carnage outside the city felt like it was building up to something more sinister. But despite a hasty return, Cobblepot appears to have something sinister planned all the same.
Second, Allen and Montoya are still trying to track down Cobblepot’s killer, who of course doesn’t really exist because Cobblepot is very much alive and very much killing people. The duo makes a stop at Fish Mooney’s, Cobblepot’s most recent employer. For being seasoned cops and part of Gotham’s major crimes unit, Allen and Montoya must not have taken Cop Training 101—they trust the words of known crime bosses as undisputed fact and seem content enough to call Gordon out in the middle of the police station on murder charges that lack tons of actual evidence. Not to say that Gotham is known for its sterling police force, but squandering these potentially compelling characters on, what the audience knows, is a complete wild goose chase leaves their scenes pretty boring and lacking any real drama.
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The biggest loose end that still needs some tying is Selina Kyle’s big reveal last week: She knows who killed the Waynes. After being temporarily released from juvie, Kyle returns with Gordon to the dingy street where the Waynes were murdered. Soon Gordon’s able to confirm Kyle as a witness after spending some time sewer diving for a stolen wallet, but she gives Gordon the slip leaving him pretty much right where he started.
With “Balloonman,” many of Gotham’s characters are starting to feel more comfortable in their skin. Penguin is filled with unpredictable violence that’s always a pleasure to watch. Cat has made significant strides now that the show’s abandoned her silent, moody persona. Even Gordon and Bullock’s partnership is starting to settle into a classic noir dynamic. The problem is Gotham still has a few too many blank slates. Allen and Montoya are glaring examples. People like the Captain Sarah Essen (Zabryna Guevara) and Fish Mooney feel a little one dimensional, but Barbara continues to be a strange conundrum. She wears two different faces throughout this episode. The one that’s seen most often is the role of caring fiance and confidant of Jim Gordon, and the other is the much more raw, pissed off ex-lover of detective Renee Montoya. When Jim’s around, she’s loving, wide-eyed, attentive, if maybe a little boring. But in Montoya’s scene, she’s fiery, smoking weed, looking tired, and just generally more compelling. It’s hard to say which character is the real Barbara and which is the fake, but exploring that answer in further episodes will hopefully give her some much-needed depth.
Weaved among these hold-over plot threads from past episodes, there’s still the problem of an unnamed vigilante killing people with weather balloons. After a not-so-great cop in the GCPD becomes the Balloonman’s second victim, Gotham becomes frenzied, primarily in support of these grisly acts. In a traditional news report cutscene, Gotham shows a “man on the street” reaction to the recent high-altitude killings, and it’s not completely different from cutscenes used in past comics and films showing Gotham’s support for the caped crusader instead. This builds Balloonman up as some kind of proto-Batman, like a vigilante dress rehearsal before the main event.
After Gordon and Bullock work over various criminal types in Gotham’s seedy underbelly and the vigilante claims a third victim, there’s a break in the case in the form of release papers curiously signed by Gordon taking sole ownership of Selina Kyle. Gordon quickly connects the mental dots revealing the true identity of the killer, Davis Lamond, the short, balding, and unassuming periphery character when Selina was delivered to the GCPD in the episode’s opening minutes. This leap from juvenile counselor to killer is an incredibly convenient plot device, but it’s no more coincidental than the comic plots from which this show draws inspiration.
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In the episode’s closing moments, Lamond, a.k.a. Balloonman, delivers his manifesto of sorts to Gordon with Bullock at gunpoint, spouting off how laws only protect the villains of the city while everyone else suffers. Even after the Balloonman is foiled and carted away, this classic conundrum remains and is a similar motive that drives Bruce Wayne to don his very own cowl. However, there’s one significant difference between vigilantes like the Balloonman and the Dark Knight. Batman sees the inherent flaws in legal justice and the laws that govern them, but he still ultimately respects them. And it’s all because of Jim Gordon.
Earlier in the episode, a conversation between Barbara and Jim focuses on Gordon’s tested faith in being a detective:
Gordon: Yesterday, the first victim, Ronald Danzer, was a con man. Nobody cared. Now that a cop’s been targeted, the investigation will get all the support it needs. It’s not right. Everybody has to matter, or nobody matters. Otherwise people lose faith, and that’s how you get vigilantes.
Gordon doesn’t demonize vigilantes themselves as villains but rather its their actions that reveal their true character. Bullock pretty much confirms this as Lamond holds him at gunpoint near the episode’s conclusion:
Bullock: You’re wasting your breath. My partner thinks you’re as bad as the scum you kill…
Later, Bruce Wayne makes a similar proclamation—that the Balloonman was a killer, and that made him a criminal, too. Previous episodes have slipped that Wayne is closely following Gordon’s goings on. In “Balloonman,” Wayne not only follows Gordon though the Balloonman case but also puts his own amateur detective skills to work regarding his parents’ murder. Gordon’s own thoughts on justice have a huge influence on Bruce—and that is what makes Batman different from other murderous vigilantes. The Balloonman is a product of old Gotham, a city without Jim Gordon that was awash in corruption with no hope for redemption. Earlier in the episode, when Gordon asks Barbara if he actually gives the city any hope she responds with “yes” but for the wrong reasons. Gordon does give hope, specifically to one person, someone destined to change Gotham forever.
Batman is a hero, and Jim Gordon helped make him one.