Balloon Man Review: Gotham Is the Salvador Dali of Superhero Shows
Balloon Man was not a perfect episode, by any means. It showcased all the usual flaws of the show, chief among them a lack of subtlety, an inability to slow down the pacing during essential characterization, and the continued uselessness of Barbara (although I'm happy to see an LGBT character on a mainstream show, on Fox no less, even if she's useless). But there was so much to love about this episode, especially the Balloon Man plot, which demonstrated that Gotham is finally starting to negotiate its own niche as a delicate balance between Christian Bale-level self-seriousness and Joker-like black humor and absurdity.
I can see why the Balloon Man's arc was divisive; many have derided the plotline involving a serial killer who ties his victims to weather balloons as Adam West-level camp. I'm not usually a fan of camp, but I thought it was perfect. It was both shocking and silly, it made me laugh at first, but upon further reflection, it's actually a horrifyingly bad way to go. It's the same formula that makes Penguin the show's breakout character; his showmanship and grandiosity verge on silly, but he's so viciously violent and sadistic that his humor is sufficiently dark.
Although I don't like when shows get too winky, this episode was also helped by a measure of self-awareness. The cops were cartoonishly corrupt (which is to be expected since it's basically the premise of the series, although a little more subtlety wouldn't hurt), but they were also hilariously idiotic. It's an old joke that all fictional cops are incompetent in order to keep up the dramatic tension, but they were so open about Harvey and Gordon's stupidity that it became funny rather than contrived. My favorite moment of the episode: their suspect asks them, "Do you not know how weather balloons work?" They give blank stares, Ben McKenzie giving me Ryan Atwood flashbacks, and he essentially says, "They pop." (This moment makes that *splat* death all the funnier.)
This episode also gets a lot of credit for beginning to explore some complex ideas about ethics and vigilantism. Gordon, little Bruce Wayne, and the Balloon Man all represented different reactions to the "sickness" of Gotham (and boy, is Gotham sick). Despite the funnies, Balloon Man is a cold-blooded killer, no two ways about it. He kills people using a terrifying, drawn-out method intended to make the victims suffer. But the cops (minus white knight Gordon) can't care enough to try to catch him because he's killing corrupt people. (Let's bask in the irony of that for a moment.) But even more disturbingly, the public is rallying behind him. He is the "hero" Gotham needs right now, which is a testament to just how sick Gotham is. They're not even ready for the "dark knight" type of vigilantism if they're ready to worship a serial killer. The moment in which a newscaster asks, "Who will defend Gotham now?" while Bruce Wayne intently watches the television and says, "He killed people, that makes him a criminal too," was entirely cheesy and I could have done without it, but it got the job done. Gordon is the white knight, the army man, he believes that if you keep your head down and follow the rules, all good things will follow. Bruce will be influenced by both Gordon and the villains of this crazy town, and find a happy medium.
So far, the show is good, but if it's going to be great, it needs to keep up the absurdity and commit to engaging with the ethics of vigilantism. There have been too many narratives about Batman (or *not* about Batman, as the case may be) that don't think critically enough about the question of who has the right to commit acts of violence, invade others' privacy, and pass judgment on others. (I'm even okay with Bruce retaining Batman's needlessly dogmatic and often hypocritical "no-kill rule," as long as the show engages with it critically at some point.) These questions are not only interesting, but timely, and even fun shows like Gotham shouldn't be afraid to be thoughtful on occasion.
This was a great quotation that perfectly encapsulates Gordon's idealistic, humanistic philosophy: "Everyone has to matter, or no one matters. Then people lose faith, and that's when you get vigilantes."
I loved that Balloon Man turned out to be sort of a nobody, rather than a larger-than-life, anarchic, sociopathic mastermind. It was a more subtle characterization from this show than I've come to expect.
Joker Watch: I suppose it was Balloon Man himself, since balloons are a reference to clowns? But when he first showed up he also had a pig mask, which seemed like a reference to Professor Pyg.