Calling the second episode of Gotham “Selina Kyle” is just a wee bit disingenuous. It’s not so much a Selina Kyle episode- for one thing, she refuses to be called Selina Kyle, and any attempt to say those words around her will cause an immediate correction with the proper nomenclature: “cat.”
Expecting “Selina Kyle” to include any in-depth look at a young Catwoman’s psyche is a fool’s game. This one’s not about our future clawed criminal; it just happens to involve her, as a victim of our Batman villain of the week (even if it seemed like Gotham wouldn’t be doing that). Like last time, Gordon and Bullock take the lead, on the trail of the little-known, little-seen, probably-murderous Dollmaker.
So yeah, kind of a misnomer with the “Selina Kyle” thing.
Also the Dollmaker isn’t even the biggest villain this week, instead, that’s left up to two very capable character actors, Lili Taylor (Six Feet Under) and Frank Whaley (Ray Donovan, though that weird sense of “I know his face from something indeterminate I saw several years ago” probably stems from his time eating Big Kahuna Burgers in Pulp Fiction). They’re Patti and Doug, two weirdly whimsical folk who trudge around the police-less parts of Gotham, pricking unwanted children with an oversized insta-sleep needle and rounding them up for future somethings (their true objective is never quite clear). But they do keep the kids in a Silence of the Lambs-style room with a bottomless horror pit in it, so we know their motives are not heroic.
Who is the true mastermind behind these kidnappings of Gotham’s least supervised children? According to Doug and Patti, it’s the Dollmaker. And according to Gotham, he’s nobody. We don’t see him and we never know his true motivations (one schmuck assumes it’s to eat wayward children, prompting a diamond line from Bullock: “Selling children for food… is such a thing even possible?”). But that’s probably not accurate, because he’s named multiple times as “The Dollmaker,” and going with a creepy doll theme for cannibalistic crimes is a supervillain branding nightmare.
So let us look to the comics for info on this mysterious Dollmaker. He’s not a particularly noteworthy villain (perfect to fill some time in the second episode of a series that already debuted a half-dozen A-listers in the pilot), and up until 2011 he wasn’t even a Batman villain. But he’s here nonetheless, so let’s continue.
We should note that in each successive form, the Dollmaker was a completely different dude, and that each incarnation grows exponentially edgier every time. First, in 1968, the Dollmaker was one Marcel Mannequin (which is just as ridiculous a supervillain name), a one-off villain in “Plastic Man #10” with some generic killer dolls.
Then, in 2011 a different Dollmaker took on Supergirl. This one was the son of another villain with a messed-up childhood theme, the Toymaker, and his methods were a lot grosser- snatching up children and carving them into killer dolls.
Eight months later came another reboot when “Detective Comics” (where Batman originally debuted) was rebooted along with ever single other DC comic at the tail end of 2011. This most recent Dollmaker was less about the dolls, and more about hacking people’s faces off and stitching bodies together. He was still the son of the Toymaker (although the names have been changed), only now the Toymaker was a cannibal and the Dollmaker wears his preserved face like a mask.
Let this be a lesson to all non-comic readers: comics are great, but not all comics are great, and we should thank the Batgods that only the bare essentials of the Dollmaker made it into “Selina Kyle.”
Now for Selina herself- the most salient thing we know about Gotham’s Selina Kyle is that she was present for the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne, which is a great big ol’ deviation from the traditional comics Wayne-murderings. And thus something of extreme importance. But this one cool, noteworthy piece of Selina’s backstory is used entirely to tease next week’s Gotham, so… we’ll have to dive into it then. For now, know this: Selina Kyle is an orphan, she displays both cat-like reflexes and cat-like eye gouging skills, and the extent of that one henchman’s horrifying Hannibal-esque face wounds (plus her whole “get me Gordon or I’ll tell everyone you raped me” threat) are two mild clues that Gotham’s Catwoman is every bit the antihero you’d expect.
That takes care of the new in Gotham, but the old (the one week old, anyway) continues to show off the same strengths we saw last week. The series’ tone- colorful yet grim, cartoony yet graphically violent- seems so much clearer after a taking in a second hour. Gotham is a happy medium between the two most prominent Batmen in film. In one corner is the gritty realism of Christopher Nolan, which explains why Catwoman doesn’t dress like a cat but instead wears goggles that almost resemble cat ears, and why it’s necessary that we explain that a ridiculous name like Cobblepot isn’t really Cobblepot, but spoken like “Kappleput” (is that any less ridiculous? No, not really).
But then from the Burton school comes the venerable Mrs. Cobblepot, a Helena Bonham Carter lookalike who dresses like she crashed through the bargain bin at a Hallowen store, in a home that’s 50% cobweb and 50% antique drapery.
Gotham blends the two with an admirable amount of skill. It allows a little of the Burton goofy gothic to seep into the straight-edge realism, but tries to craft more ridiculous villains like The Penguin or the Riddler into regular(ish) real world Joes. Seen for just a few more minutes this week, the Riddler is regular GCPD employee who just happens to speak in overly complicated guessing games and entirely inappropriate grinning spells. In his heart of hearts he’s Jim Carrey in green spandex and an awful ruby red flat top. On the outside, he’d fit nicely in any hypothetical Dark Knight sequel.
Fish Mooney and the Penguin, though- they continue to shine as our two brightest villains. Fish is somehow more enigmatic than E. Nigma, and continues to bounce between five or six different personalities- debonair socialite Fish, “just wait until I can tear his throat out with my teeth” Fish, flirty Fish, manipulative mobster Fish, and at least two or three others. Smith knows exactly what her role here is. She’s here to be more grounded than the guy who will stab you if you mention his resemblance to a certain flightless bird, but more loony than your average mafia don. And within those constraints, Jada Pinkett Smith knows just how to balance the two.
The Penguin, though. The Penguin. Robin Lord Taylor is absolutely crushing this role. During the Penguin’s foray outside of Gotham City, it’s like he’s been warped out of a period piece and is desperately trying to claw his way back in. A sniveling Jonah Hill in Superbad-type (am I the only one getting that vibe?) who’s just as comfortable with a killing or kidnapping.
Which brings up another important Batman cliche: villains who overshadow the heroes. And in a Batman series with no Batman and an entire series’ worth of villains, this is at least four elephants on a kitchen scale’s worth of imbalance. The Penguin has command of every second of screen time he’s given. Gordon is an upstanding hero with far less awesome conflict nestled inside him. “Selina Kyle” hints at something a little more tempestuous within Gordon- he’s a clean cop forced to play the dirty cop in order to be the cleanest cop of all. But this idea isn’t that prevalent in “Selina Kyle”- a few lines, really- and Ben McKenzie tends to throw ’em out there with an unsubtle military-ness.
Bullock, though, has moved past the shock of being Evil Bullock, and seems to have settled comfortably into being the bad cop in a very traditional good cop/bad cop setup. He’s still practicing indiscriminate use of police brutality, but he’s not openly advocating that Gordon execute his enemies. He’s moving up, ever so slugglishly.
“Selina Kyle” definitely knows what was so addicting about the Gotham pilot, and it knows how to build those elements up in episode two. Now, if it could just give Gordon that meatiness he lacks and we’ll really be getting somewhere.
To close, here’s a fun piece of entirely baseless conspiracy theory speculation to leave you on. Remember Fish Mooney’s “exercise” buddy? Who gets a severe stomach punching for mostly no reason from Falcone’s goons? His name is Lazlo. And there is precisely one Lazlo in the Batman universe: Lazlo Valentin, a.k.a Professor Pyg, a lunatic in a pig mask who likes to warp his followers into mind-controlled robo-doll monsters.
And at precisely 1:58 in this new Gotham trailer is a man in a pig mask.
Food for thought.