This is Part Two of a two-part series on Gotham’s cast issues.
Nygma, Butch, Alfred. Lee, Fish, Barbara. As mentioned in Part One, of the six characters killed, injured, or sent away in the waning episodes of Gotham season three, only the female characters are in any danger of being permanently written out of the series.
Butch and Alfred, though suffering seemingly fatal blows, were already shown alive by the end of the season finale, “Heavydirtysoul.” And Nygma, frozen in the up-and-coming Iceberg Lounge, is ripe for revival.
But Jada Pinkett Smith, who had “special guest star” status this season, has likely given her last theatrical performance as Fish Mooney. And leading ladies Lee and Barbara could be permanently finished as well.
And that’s okay.
While I’ve complained bitterly about Arrow killing major female characters, I’m willing to part with the fabulous Barbara Kean, my absolute favorite character on Gotham, for the sake of the story. Gotham’s problem, one that has plagued it since season one, is that it isn’t adept at juggling stories. Despite having a top-billed cast of 15 people, Gotham is still a story that’s largely focused on Jim and Bruce, Edward and Oswald. And while their stories are told continuously, the stories of other characters tend to plod along, largely in the background.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that Jim and Bruce should take a backseat in what is ostensibly an origin story for Commissioner Gordon and Batman, but as it heads into its fourth season, it’s time for Gotham to put some heads on the chopping block. For real.
The writers started with Fish Mooney, who was no longer a regular cast member, but whose appearances took time away from underserved top-billed characters.
Fish is a perfect example of the writers’ inability to let characters go. While it was poetic to see her die in the arms of the man who had killed her the first time, encouraging him as the mentor she once was — before power, greed, and betrayal tore them apart — to make Gotham his, that moment wasn’t enough to justify her return.
Since being pushed off of a roof by Penguin in the season-one finale, “All Happy Families Are Alike,” what has Fish done in her eight appearances (four in season two, and four in season three)? Sure, she freed the freaks in Hugo Strange’s Indian Hill facility; one of those freaks, Marv, would go on to be essential to maturing Ivy; another, 514A, would impersonate Bruce and be crucial to the Court of Owls story line. While freeing those characters was a solid contribution to the overall story, it doesn’t seem like Fish, and Fish alone, was needed to lead the escape from Indian Hill.
And as much as I enjoy Fish’s theatricality — like Bullock, she was one of the show’s saving graces in the early days — the character hasn’t been necessary since season one, so why resurrect her in season two only to kill her again in season three?
Which brings us to Lee. Sigh. Leslie Thompkins entered Gotham as the level-headed foil to Barbara’s tiresome drama. But she leaves as Jim’s troublesome, bitter ex-fiancée. Lee’s role in season three is similar to Barbara’s in season two: She exists mainly to gum up Jim’s plans. Lee’s work, which was crucial to her character in the early days, is negligible in the third season. Ultimately, it seems as if her only role in the story this year was to get Jim to take Tetch’s virus in “Pretty Hate Machine.” Which isn’t a story line that needed 22 episodes of development.
Again, it’s clear that the writers have trouble letting characters go, as Lee, who dramatically leaves Gotham at the end of season three, had already left Gotham after season two’s “Mad Grey Dawn,” where an imprisoned Jim tells a pregnant Lee to leave town, start a new life, and forget he exists.
Lee — who had seemingly moved on from Jim after her miscarriage, who had a new job in Atlanta, and who was in a loving relationship with Mario Calvi — returns to Gotham because Mario is offered a position at Gotham General.
And What has she done since her return? Married Mario. Snarked at Jim. Infected herself on the taunting of an Arkham inmate (medical degree be damned). And forced Jim to infect himself.
Lee could have easily been written out of the show after her season-two departure, but the writers saw fit to drag her back to Gotham, only to send her on her way again. Her first and final scenes in season three are virtual mirror images, making you wonder if the intervening scenes were worth it.
It’s sad to see a helpful, intelligent woman devolve into the vengeful ex-girlfriend, especially since we just watched Barbara grow out of that role. But if Arrow, with its meager-by-comparison season-four cast of seven managed to give Black Canary absolutely nothing to do before killing her in “Eleven-Fifty-Nine,” is it any surprise that the likes of Lee — who is neither a hero nor a villain, and who, like Laurel and Barbara before her, is no longer a viable love interest for the show’s hero — also has absolutely nothing to do except grieve her dead husband and be bitter at Jim (hmm, that sounds familiar. See: Laurel’s season-two arc). Since Gotham can’t, or won’t, write a story for Lee that’s independent from Jim, one that explores her motives and desires separate from the men in her life, it might be best to put her on a train. And, sadly, she won’t be missed.
But Barbara will be. (Though it’s unlikely that she’ll remain dead, as the show couldn’t even commit to killing Butch, a character best described as an affable henchman.) It seems like ages ago that the whiny, privileged Barbara Kean, whom I despised in season one, was put through a crucible and came out the one gold ring to rule them all. Once an unbearable nuisance, Barbara became Jim’s vengeful ex. An unflattering role, yes, but unlike Lee, she was able to make it interesting, thanks to her newfound villainy, mental illness, and the extremes to which she was allowed to go.
Still, the writers didn’t let Barbara go as far as she could. For one, making her a queenpin after the mobster stories had largely been dropped — thanks to the death or departure of Fish, Maroni, and Falcone — meant that her story would always be a B plot.
To me, Barbara has become one of the greatest creatures to grace Gotham, and she is gravely underused, but many, many others feel that she gets too much screen time. And I can understand their warped sense of reality, because the show keeps Babs, Tabs, and Butch around without actually giving them much to do.
Barbara spent most of season three plotting to rule Gotham’s criminal underground (and running The Sirens, I guess), but that story was told in bursts and spurts, we barely see her interacting with other crime bosses, and most of the physical violence and scheming necessary to achieve such a takeover happen offscreen. Instead, when we see Barbara onscreen, it’s usually when her plot intersects with Jim’s, Nygma’s, or Penguin’s. She teams up with Nygma in the second half of the season in order to take down Penguin and take over the crime families. But most viewers will remember that story for Penguin and Riddler’s cycle of revenge, with Barbara and her team being but a footnote.
To Barbara fans, this is frustrating because we want to see her plans come to fruition in the forefront of the story; for Barbara despisers, her slow-burning plans and here-and-there scenes get in the way of more interesting story lines.
I doubt we’ve seen the last of Barbara Queen, but if Gotham continues with its 15-person regular cast, my guess is that she’ll never get the screen time necessary to fully flesh out her stories.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. If the writers are unwilling to write several characters out of the story completely, they could at least demote a few to recurring.
If contracts are largely meaningless (for instance, Willa Holland, who plays a top-billed character on Arrow, was contracted for only 14 of 23 episodes in season five, while Rick Gonzalez, who plays recurring character Rene Ramirez, appeared in 21 episodes), what exactly separates a top-billed character from a recurring character? For me, expectations. I expect a top-billed character to be integral to the story, but on Gotham most of them aren’t.
Take Ivy, for example, who was matured offscreen between the first and second episodes of the third season. Adult Ivy, played by Maggie Geha, debuted in episode two, “Burn the Witch,” and is a top-billed character, while the younger Ivy (Clare Foley) was merely a recurring character. But what has Gotham done with Adult Ivy to justify this promotion? Absolutely nothing. With the exception of stumbling upon a Court of Owls plot, which she promptly handed over to Bruce and Selina before disappearing, Ivy did nothing of significance in the first half of the season.
In the second half, she saved both Penguin and Selina from the grip of death, but spent her little screen time playing Penguin’s inept (adorable) assistant. All told, Ivy appeared in 11 episodes this season (though she didn’t have any lines in the season finale). It’s a step up from her previous season totals (six in season one, and three in season two), sure, but it’s still less than Butch had in his recurring-character days. Ivy’s promotion suggested that she’d be getting meatier story lines, but she never did. While the ditzy innocence of Adult Ivy is good for a laugh, and is prefered over the dourness of younger Ivy, neither version of the character has felt necessary.
Meanwhile, recurring character Kathryn Monroe of the Court of Owls also appeared in 11 episodes. Due to the distinction in their billing, I don’t really think about Kathryn when she’s not around. She appears, serves her purpose, and leaves. But the writers keep top-billed characters like Ivy and Barnes and Jervis (who appeared in 12 and 10 season-three episodes, respectively) simmering in the background while they are no longer essential to the story, giving them screen time that could be used to forward other, more pressing story lines.
To its credit, Gotham has had eight top-billed female characters, more than Arrow (four) and The Flash (two) have had in their combined eight seasons, but quantity doesn’t equal quality. And Selina’s development doesn’t exactly equate to, say, Caitlin’s on The Flash.
Season three ends with Selina and Tabitha teaming up, something I’m very much looking forward to seeing. But neither Selina nor Tabitha have really driven their own stories. As Lee so helpfully pointed out in the season-three finale, Tabitha has always been a sidekick. First to Theo, and then to Barbara. Hopefully, the show gives her the screen time necessary to grow, so that she’s a formidable opponent to Barbara (if she does return) not only physically, but also intellectually.
To devote more time to characters like Selina, Tabitha, and Bullock, Gotham’s writing room will have to kill a few darlings.
Lee is gone, hopefully for good. And of the 14 remaining top-billed characters, it’s safe to say that these six white men will always be safe: Jim, Bruce, Oswald, Edward, Alfred and Bullock. Leaving Barbara, Selina, Tabitha, Ivy, Jervis, Barnes, Butch, and Lucius.
As mentioned above, Barnes, Jervis, and Ivy can easily be relegated to recurring status. As can Butch and Lucius, who both only appeared in 12 episodes in season three. (Though it pains me to wish for the demotion of Foxy, the only black man in the regular cast.) That would cut the regular cast down to nine, still slightly larger than other comic-book adaptations. (The latest seasons of The Flash, Arrow, Supergirl, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. all had seven top-billed characters; iZombie had six; and only Legends of Tomorrow broke into the double digits with ten.)
As Gotham heads into season four, I hope the writers have the strength to let some of these characters go. I know they’ll likely add regular characters — the season-four Big Bad(s) and a woman or two to replace Barbara and Lee, if their exits are indeed permanent. But I hope they look back on season three and realize that some characters (ahem, Barnes) were inessential.
I’m looking forward to any casting announcements that may come out of the San Diego Comic-Con (July 19–23), but I especially hope to hear that some actors are either being demoted to “special guest star” status or are leaving the cast entirely.
Pervasive cast issues aside, Gotham is one of the best comic-book adaptations in today’s very crowded field. It has amazing visuals, an enticing ambiguous time setting, theatrical performances, and enjoyable stories. But those stories could be stronger, if only there weren’t so many regular characters fighting for a piece of it.