Gotham S02E16 “Prisoners” REVIEW
Airing in the UK on Channel 5, Mondays, 10pm
Writer: Danny Cannon
Director: Scott White
Essential Plot Points:
- Inmate Jerkface is adjusting to his new life. It’s actually not awful. He eats alone, he jogs, he’s mostly ignored. Just 39.8 years and a wake-up to go.
- Then the Warden tells him he’s being moved to F Block. General population. Where a lot of the guys he put away are being held.
- On the way, the Warden also cheerfully tells Jim that Commissioner Loeb sends his regards.
- MEANWHILE, AT THE VAN DAHL HOUSE!
- Penguin bonds with his father and not even the slightest bit with the rest of the family. Elijah has a hole in his heart and is being given medicine regularly. What he doesn’t realise is that Grace – whom he fell for when he went to her diner after years of being kept in the house – is a golddigger waiting for him to die. He apprenticed as a tailor with his father but it didn’t work out and he ended up being homeschooled.
- Tormented by nightmares of his criminal past, Penguin meets Dad sleepwalking and the pair bond. Finally, Penguin breaks down and admits his past. Elijah forgives him and admits that his own father had dark, violent tendencies and that led to both his death and Elijah being sheltered by his mother. Penguin is stunned by the realisation that he may have inherited his past behaviour.
- MEANWHILE, AT THE GCPD!
- Harv is working every angle and none of them are adding up. In desperation, he goes to see Jim and breaks the news to him that Lee lost the baby. Jim is crushed, and barely seems to notice when an inmate beats him up. Another inmate, Puck, attempts to intervene. They’re both taken to the infirmary while Jim’s assailant is sent to solitary.
- In the infirmary, Jim finds out Puck’s sister was abducted by child snatchers whom Jim brought in. Puck is a sweet, funny, decent kid who’s inside for stealing a car (well, borrowing) to take a girl on a date. He’s sentenced to six years but seems oddly okay about it.
- The Warden arrives and walks them both straight back to genpop. On the way he sneeringly tells Jim that he knows about the miscarriage. Because that’s Lee’s job this week; to be an absent human tragedy that Jim is continually beaten with.
- MEANWHILE, BACK AT THE WEIRDLY PACED COBBLEPOT HOUSEHOLD!
- Grace confronts Elijah with the truth about Penguin. He instantly forgives his son. She resorts to Plan B which is, of course, sex. She sends her daughter to try and seduce Penguin. Penguin, to his eternal credit, reacts exactly like you would.
- MEANWHILE, BACK IN THE BIG HOUSE!
- Jim is warned by a sympathetic guard that his assailant is on his way out of solitary. Jim braces for an attack but instead is held down and forced to watch as Puck gets living hell beaten out of him.
- MEANWHILE, AT ALCOHOL!
- Harv goes to Carmine Falcone for help. For the first time, he makes progress.
- MEANWHILE, BACK AT THE WEIRDLY PACED COBBLEPOT HOUSEHOLD!
- Penguin is being fitted for a suit by his dad when he passes out.
- MEANWHILE, BACK AT THE GRIMMEST EPISODE OF PORRIDGE EVER!
- The sympathetic guard, Bishop, gets Jim in to see Puck. Puck tells him to choose to live and not be beaten by the prison. Jim tells Puck to stay away from him. He’s told it’s movie night and he needs to be ready.
- MEANWHILE, BACK AGAIN AT THE WEIRDLY PACED COBBLEPOT HOUSEHOLD!
- The Doctor tells the Van Dahls it’s time to put Elijah’s affairs in order. He asks Grace to call his lawyer and make arrangements for changes to the will.
- MEANWHILE, BACK AT FOLSOM PRISON!
- Jim is directed to a specific seat and sits watching Seven Brides For Seven Brothers. As the movie hits a high spot, his previous assailant tries to kill him. He’s elbowed out of the way by another man who stabs Jim repeatedly in the chest. He bleeds out on the floor.
- His body is transported out and, as it goes, he snaps upright. Jim’s not dead! It was a telescoping knife and a blood bag and maybe some kind of knockout drug! Yay! Harv, part of the escape team, tries to get him to go but Jim is adamant they need to go back for Puck.
- They do and are confronted by Warden Evil. Bishop knocks him out and tells Jim to get going. They escape! Hurrah!
- MEANWHILE, BACK AT THE COBBLEPOT PLACE!
- Grace decides to poison Penguin. She leaves a decanter with Elijah and Penguin who talk, and Elijah tells Penguin he’s home and loved. He toasts his son with a drink and instantly dies. Grace and the kids have messed up big time.
- MEANWHILE, AT A BRIDGE SOMEWHERE IN GOTHAM COUNTY!
- Jim and the Escape Ambulance are met by Falcone. He gives Jim a choice between leaving the country or staying. Jim wants to find and protect Lee. He goes to tell Puck they made it out, then realises the young man has died of his injuries. He vows to stay and protect Lee and clear his name. Only this time he really REALLY means it.
You get two stories for the price of one here and neither quite work.
Let’s start with Inmate Jerkface. Jim’s time in prison continues the show’s increasing fondness for the dark. It’s a nasty, intimate story that manages to play with both Jim’s guilt and his sense of right and wrong. The opening sequence is arguably one of the most balanced moments he’s had so far in the series. His regulated prison life isn’t a bad one and Jim, for the first time, seems to have made peace with himself.
That, of course, does not last.
What does is the familiar sense of gnawing unease you tend to get with prison stories. Normally that’s a feature not a bug. Here though, it’s made worse by the repeated ways that Lee’s miscarriage is used as a cheap shot on Jim. We talk a little further down about exactly why that’s bad for Lee but it also damages the episode. This plays as unusually mean-spirited even for Gotham and the surprisingly brutal beating Puck takes only drives that home.
Then there’s Puck who may be the oddest character the show has used to date. And remember, this is Gotham. That takes effort.
Puck is a sweet, perceptive car thief who is happily serving a horribly long sentence for an almost victimless crime. His admiration for Jim is nicely handled as it gives Inmate Jerkface a light at the end of the tunnel and he’s well-played too. But, he’s also redundant. We spend a lot of screen time with Puck purely so Jim can get over himself. Once he’s done that, Puck dies and off we go again. There’s a sneaking suspicion of the show running in place, to say nothing of how badly this episode devalues Lee.
That pacing problem is far worse in the second plot. Penguin’s new-found family are front and centre in a series of staccato, oddly paced scenes that take a very long time to not get very far. Once you stop and look you see that’s not entirely fair; Penguin gains a family, learns an interesting thing about his past, bonds with his father and narrowly avoids murder. But when the episode is running those points take an inordinately long time to reach. It’s not that the work itself is inherently awful it’s just… weird. Like changing gear from first to fourth without anything in-between.
Weird and lumpy about sums “Prisoners” up. There’s some excellent Jim stuff, some good Penguin stuff and some major tonal and pacing problems. The show’s still running at speed but this week it maybe stumbles. It’s not a collapse but after last week it’s a definite comedown.
- Jim’s first words on hearing Lee lost the baby are, ‘How is she?” That, right there, is the Jim Gordon that will one day be the beating, battered heart of Gotham.
- “Hey, DON’T LET THIS BEAT YOU!” I really love this version of Harv. His concern for his partner and, at this point, only friend is genuine and touching.
- “I know something you don’t know.”
“Yeah, what’s that?”
“I know what kind of man you are.” Again, that’s Jim Gordon to a tee.
- “You are loved and you are not alone and the sun will come up tomorrow.’ The Penguin family storyline is weird for a whole bunch of reasons. But, somehow, his relationship with his dad is genuine and sweet.
- Continuity! Nice to see Carmine Falcone back. Also a nice meta note that for all the cosmetic changes in Gotham, the old kingpins never quite die.
- Marc Damon Johnson as guard Wilson Bishop is great. The fact we get so little time with this stern, compassionate badass is actually one of the episode’s biggest problems.
- The rest of the supporting cast are also great. Ned Bellamy does his best evil Dan Castellanetta impersonation as the Warden and Peter Mark Kendall is great as Puck. The character himself? Not so much, but the performance is spot on.
- “I’m not going to die in here.” In fairness Puck doesn’t but he doesn’t make it to the end credits. HAS HE NEVER SEEN ANY HORROR MOVIE? EVER?
- Continuity! Jim is assaulted by the brother of a member of the Red Hood gang! Who’s black! Because of course he is!
- And, in fact, he threatens to find Lee and have her gang raped. Because at its worst this is a show that has no concept of boundaries. A point proved by the fact the Warden basically says, “Ha! Your girlfriend lost the baby! You suck at breeding!” to Jim. Which isn’t just a profoundly horrible thing to say but objectifies and denigrates Lee as little more than a faulty womb. This plot is in fact so nasty, it’s left an unpleasant taste in my mouth just writing these words down. Let’s move on.
- Except we can’t, because the episode doesn’t. Puck is fun, sure but he serves no purpose here. Jim’s grieving girlfriend is out there somewhere and he needs to find her. Also? HE HAS BEEN FRAMED FOR A MURDER HE DID NOT COMMIT.
There is no reason for Puck other than to motivate Jim to get justice. Something he’s already motivated to do. And, because it’s Puck’s death that causes him to make the call that actually denigrates Lee even more. Which is an achievement. Just a very bad one.
- The Elijah stuff is paced very strangely. Tonally it seems weird at first too, but that’s more because it’s playing out alongside the strait-laced Blackgate plot which simply serves to make the Elijah plot seem even more absurd.
- But the pacing is very strange. In particular, the discovery that Elijah is going to give everything to Penguin manages to somehow be split across two scenes. The entire thing feels very staccato and for the first time in a while there’s a sense of this being here to serve the arc not the episode.
- The poison smokes and hisses as it hits the carpet. Sure. Why not?
- Where the hell did the bag of blood go? And indeed come from?
- Ned Bellamy has a ton of excellent work to his name. His work as Ed Winston, a deeply traumatised security guard in the much-missed Sarah Conner Chronicles is a standout for us though.
- Marc Damon Johnson is another long-term, consistently impressive character actor. Odds are you’ve seen him as multiple people in Law & Order, Jesse Brandt in Person Of Interest and Colonel Ian Maris in Army Wives.
- Peter Mark Kendall is still another excellent character actor. His work has appeared in The Leftovers, Girls and upcoming movie Louder Than Bombs. He plays Hans on The Americans and Joey Thomas on Chicago Med.
- Jim is in prison for one episode. ONE. I’m not saying I wanted a mini-season of Oz or anything but this plot goes by so fast you almost don’t see it.
- Morena Baccarin isn’t on the show right now because she’s pregnant. Ben Mackenzie’s the dad which goes a LONG way towards explaining just why every Lee and Jim scene is so sweet.
- The song playing over the montage of Jim’s early days in prison is “Gorecki” by Scala and Kolacny Brothers. They’re best known for their haunting piano version of Radiohead’s “Creep” used on the trailer for The Social Network.
- Shot of the week is this. Gotham hunkered low on the horizon.
Review by Alasdair Stuart