Something Wrong in Gotham

Ivy Pepper from Gotham

Many of you are likely gearing up to begin the fourth season of Gotham on FOX tonight, but I’ve been stalled on the first two seasons. Something, it seems, is wrong in Gotham, something disturbing me on a deep and even subconscious and personal level, making it hard for me to enjoy the series. I’m told season three was far superior to the first two and that “season four is when it’s really going to start getting good!” But those first two seasons laid a terrible foundation whose major faults need to be interrogated. There are deep flaws in the show’s moral underpinnings—the things that make the villains “bad” and the heroes “good”. Gotham promotes classism because the only thing separating the heroes from the villains are wealth.  As a result, because the villains have no choice but to be villains, the show promotes a victim mentality. These problems are rooted in the show’s constant (maybe even thematic) nonchalant exploitation and sensationalism of mental illness in young adults and children.

Batman’s Gotham is the twin city of Superman’s Metropolis. In Bronze Age comics, the two cities were joined by the world’s longest suspension bridge. Metropolis is sleek and shiny and clean, with citizens happily walking the brightly lit avenues. Gotham is perpetual gloom and darkness, with its citizens bundling up against the chill and scurrying from place to place in fear of the city’s crime families and villains. This darkness, and the darkness of the Dark Knight himself are what often make Batman appealing. It’s probably why I was more intrigued by Batman as a teenager, after being into Superman as a kid. Everything in Metropolis is neat and tidy, black-and-white, but there’s always been something a little more complex and ambiguous in Gotham. Batman himself is a shadowy creature lurking in caves and brooding atop the gothic architecture. Unlike Superman, his primary motive is not to do good. His primary motive is vengeance—revenge against the type of people who killed his parents, revenge against the crime syndicates that have disrupted his family’s philanthropic plans for the city, revenge for all that’s been taken from him.

With Batman always treading in this more shadowy underworld, it’s only natural that they take a grittier approach to address the psychology of the criminals. While Superman wraps a steel lamppost around his villains in a nice-and-tidy bow for the police, Batman’s villains are forced into straitjackets and hauled away to Arkham Asylum. Arkham Asylum’s name was originally derived from H.P. Lovecraft’s fictional city Arkham, Mass. In many ways this asylum is the dark heart of Gotham–the city’s perpetual fountain of corruption. Arkham was founded by a young man who murdered his mother and after blacking out that memory believed she’d committed suicide; he turned their mansion into a mental hospital with the goal of helping people so they wouldn’t wind up like his mother (note the irony). Arkham is just as corrupt as Gotham itself, and wound up promoting criminality and insanity in its patients. Harley Quinn, Scarecrow, Lock Up, and Professor Hugo Strange have all been on staff. The patients are too numerous to list, but include The Joker, Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy, Ra’s al Ghul, Riddler, and Two-Face.

With this darker side of Gotham having always been integral to the story of Batman, why did it never bother me until I began watching the television series? Because when Batman comics explored the dark side of superheroes and the mental health issues of villains, it was welcome complexity and originality. In the end, Batman was always the good protagonist because he fought the bad guys. And the bad guys were bad because we saw them consciously choose to take on criminal acts….

But that is where the first season of Gotham failed. The characters that would ultimately become our most notorious super-villains were not doing anything wrong yet. They were, in fact, victims. Many were actually children, neglected or abused by their parents, or orphaned to the streets. In their origin stories, Gotham portrays these future villains as underprivileged, mentally ill children.

Take Jonathan Crane (aka Scarecrow) for example. In the original comics, Jonathan Crane was bullied as a child, but it wasn’t until he was an adult that he began his experiments in terror. This was changed in The New 52 DC comic reboot, which added that his father had run experiments on him. Gotham took this concept to the limit and had young Crane playing a part while his father tortures and kills other children. Later brain scans show that he has been so overdosed on his father’s fear drugs and mentally tortured that he will be destined to be mentally ill for life.

Jerome Valeska (aka Joker) is portrayed on his 9th birthday, when his mother brings home a man and they get drunk and beat him; a blind fortune teller, Cicero, (later discovered to be his real father) tells him to toughen up and it’s good he realizes now that the world doesn’t care about him. When he is eighteen, Jerome has a psychic break and kills his mother, which gets him remanded to Arkham, where of course he falls into the hands of those who will help train him as a criminal.

Ivy Pepper is Gotham’s version of Poison Ivy. Except in the comics, Dr. Isley was a successful botanist raised in a wealthy family before she became Poison Ivy. In Gotham, however, her mean, abusive father is framed for the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents and is killed by Jim Gordon’s partner, Harvey Bullock. This causes Ivy’s mother to commit suicide, and leave Ivy to become a street orphan.

These are just a few of the stories involving villains’ origin stories beginning when they are neglected or mentally ill children. But also, don’t forget that the first season begins with Bruce Wayne being orphaned in the first episode. The second episode is then investigating a child-trafficking ring, where we meet Selina Kyle (aka Cat), yet another orphan.

The problem with dealing with all of these characters when they are children is that it corrupts any sense of right and wrong. Well, good, you might argue, that’s what Gotham is all about: Corruption! Blurring the lines? Great! Let’s do it! Well, I’d be willing to go along for that ride, except it’s left me unable to cheer for anybody. I wouldn’t mind an antihero—being able to get behind any of these characters that have historically been villains, and consider them as the new protagonists. That’s what I found myself wanting to do. Gotham is such a terrible, corrupt place and such horrible things have happened to these orphans that I would love to be able to want them to grow up and begin robbing the other criminals and destroying parts of the city and taking down the awful police force. But the show didn’t quite get me there (except maybe for a short while when The Joker was finding his first taste of power). I didn’t feel eager for battle. I wasn’t hungry for criminal enterprise. All I felt from watching these poor, neglected, abused, mentally ill children… was pity.

And not only that, but while I was feeling pity for the future villains of Gotham, what was I feeling toward the future “heroes” of Gotham? I wasn’t rooting for them. What I felt for the supposed heroes was resentment.

Maybe it’s not that I resent Bruce Wayne. He is, after all, a pretty good-natured child, even though he is driven only by vengeance; that’s only natural given his circumstances. What I resent is that the dividing line between good and evil in Gotham is wealth. Ivy Pepper and Bruce Wayne are essentially orphaned from the same incident. But Ivy Pepper becomes a street orphan. Bruce Wayne has a mansion and a butler. It would seem that this distinction is the only thing that dictates which of them will become a villain and which will become a hero. Ivy is portrayed as a homeless orphan, walking around in a confused state and nobody wants to be near her because she is dirty and smelly. In fact, all of the villains seem to share this same financial plight: from circus orphan Joker to Fish Mooney (whose backstory is that she was orphaned and rose from poverty through the criminal ranks) to Cobblepot (aka Penguin) who is cheated out of his father’s will. Nearly all of the notable characters in Gotham have been orphaned. Those who were wealthy will be the good guys, those who are poor will be the bad guys.

Once you realize that this is the situation and that wealth determines who is on the right side of the law, you start wanting to root for the underdog. You realize Jerome and Ivy and Selina (and even that pitiable socially awkward and hallucinating E. Nygma) are all just victims of circumstance. At this point you realize that because of the corrupt, crime-ridden nature of Gotham, their only hope for survival is to be criminal. And if they must be criminal to survive, you might as well cheer them on, and celebrate when they become the best criminals they can be! Right? Right! Except the Gotham series doesn’t even allow this to happen (at least, not in the first two seasons). We get to witness their pitiable origin stories, but as soon as they start growing into their powers, they are cut back down or shipped off to Arkham where more stuff will happen that will make us even more sorry for them. Keep in mind, the only time we get to see Jonathan Crane is when he is an abused child, his father mentally torturing him. We know he will become Scarecrow a decade or more later, but all we get now is to see how he’s been victimized.

This perpetuates the victim mentality. I would hate to imagine that somewhere a disadvantaged orphan child sees this show. (And let me insert that part of my being frustrated with the show on a personal level is because my own parents died when I was a child). What does Gotham teach us orphans? It teaches us that the world/the system is corrupt and nobody cares for us; we are already criminals in the eyes of a class-based society that has no good mental health care. Our only option is to turn to crime. We will never be Bruce Wayne. Why? Because we don’t have a butler. And, dammit, to top it all off, Gotham doesn’t even teach us how to be successful criminals!

You can’t cheer for the villains, even though you might want to. And you can’t cheer for Bruce Wayne, because he’s just a privileged brat. And really, you might consider that the only thing (aside from wealth) making him the “good guy” is that he is the one who wins. He’s just as mentally ill as everybody else, just as much the orphan. If it was The Joker wiping out all of the other criminals instead of Batman (which he would love doing for giggles), then surely Commissioner Gordon would one day be shining a clown spotlight into the sky instead of a bat.

If there is a single bright light in Gotham, it is Selina Kyle (aka Cat). Like virtually everybody else, she is an orphan. She lives on the streets. But unlike all the other characters, who pretty much drift aimlessly towards whatever fate society hands them, Selina actually makes choices. You might say Detective Gordon does as well since he doesn’t just become a corrupt cop, but Selina has strength and guts when faced with a more complex situation than Gordon. She could live in the Wayne Mansion, but she turns it down because she doesn’t want to be pitied and doesn’t want to lose her street skills.  She rejects classism. She will commit crimes if it suits her. She will ally with criminals if it gets her what she wants, or she will just as quickly ally with Wayne. She cares for Wayne but won’t show it because to do so would weaken her (and maybe she even knows it would weaken him). With Cat, you already have the feeling that whether she becomes a villain or a superhero, she’ll be okay. And you’ll enjoy rooting for her. I wish the same could be said for more of the show’s characters.

Reading the comics growing up, I viewed Batman as a hero who was using his money to defeat evil. After two seasons of Gotham, Batman has become a symbol of wealth and entitlement—an example of how the elite ruling class gets to determine what is right and wrong and uses its privileged power to hold down those less fortunate–to perpetuate their poverty and reinforce their lowly places as outcasts at the fringes of society. And how the wealthy serve only the pursuit of more wealth, and rather than helping their fellow citizens by establishing good mental health care, they criminalize those below them to maintain their artificially inflated stations in life.

Ivy Pepper from Gotham

Ivy Pepper from Gotham

About author

Gunnar Norskog / Gunnar Norskog

Gunnar Norskog writes speculative fiction, science fiction, fantasy, horror, and steampunk. He is a member of Clarion West, Class of 2016.

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