Review: Gotham (“The Balloonman”), Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D (“Making Friends And Influencing People”), The Flash (“City Of Heroes”), Arrow (“The Calm”)

These reviews will be spoiler-free for that particular episode, but will not refrain from discussing details of past episodes.

Gotham – “The Balloonman”

“This city is sick. It’s sick in a way I didn’t realise.”

“This city is sick. It’s sick in a way I didn’t realise.”

Gordon and Bullock investigate a vigilante, who is murdering the corrupt by attaching them to weather balloons. Cobblepot returns to Gotham even as the MCU probe his supposed death.

On the face of it, this is an episode I thought I wouldn’t be that mad about, judging by the somewhat over the top premise. And that premise, right from the moment you see a stereotypical banker type flailing around in the air attached to a balloon, is as campy and weird as Gotham could probably have gone.

But “The Balloonman” is surprisingly effective. Gotham gives its main plot a bit more time to breathe in this episode than it did last week, with the strangely unique manner of the murders giving the investigation into them an additional kick. Moreover, the whole thing is tied effectively to two very important aspects of Gotham and the story that it wants to tell: Gordon’s own perception of how bad things in the city really are, and the formative years of Bruce Wayne.

This is the first time that the plot of a Gotham episode has actually impressed me, managing to say something about the universe without getting bogged down with a routine story. Catching the Balloonman puts Gordon in a position where it is him against the world for a time, which is where his character should be, the chink of light surrounded by darkness. And boy is there darkness, with this episode showcasing, far more than the last two episodes, just how broken Gotham City is. Maybe some of it was a bit of overkill, but Gotham is supposed to be a cesspit. Throw in some great interactions with Bullock – still the shows best element in my opinion, at least so far – and you have a spine that can support the weight of all the other stuff going on.

Cobblepot’s return marks him as the character moving forward the fastest, and the very first scene was great at showing the den of inequity he’s a part of. His rise continues to be violent, but fascinating. Bruce Wayne’s interactions with Alfred are still a little strange, but I loved how the episode developed with him, with the Gordon/Balloonman dynamic almost becoming a substitute battle for Wayne’s soul. The Carmine/Mooney thing continues to trundle along which, along with the MCU/Barbara stuff, has become Gotham’s least interesting sub-plot. Making Montoya and Barbara former lovers is an admittedly interesting narrative choice, but the slow pace of the whole thing just makes it distracting in each episode.

Likes/Dislikes: I liked the “Bullock follows up on his leads” montage. I liked the idea that Gotham’s institutions are so corrupt that vigilantism is seen as inevitable. I liked the end scene, which promises the merging of plots and a new dynamic for Gordon. I disliked some of the visual choices for the victims, which seemed too ridiculous. I disliked the Wayne/Alfred “sword fight” scene.  I disliked, as I have generally, Camren Bicondova’s performance as Kyle, which has been unimpressive and stilted so far.

“The Balloonman” took a shot with a slightly whacky story idea and I think it paid off. Gotham is improving, a bit, and it can stand to spend a bit more time on its main and overarching plots like it does here, in future episodes. It remains a bit rough around the edges, but improvements are to be welcomed.

Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D – “Making Friends And Influencing People”

“Compliance will be rewarded...are you ready to comply?”

“Compliance will be rewarded…are you ready to comply?”

S.H.I.E.L.D tries to step in when former student Donnie “Blizzard” Gill is targeted by HYDRA – whose ranks now include Simmons.

This was a great episode of television, not just continuing the upwards swing of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D’s second season, but also making a case for being one of the shows best episodes full stop.

And it does that in a few ways. First, with the main plot, it utilises the existing universe in a way that the series needs to be doing, bringing back one of the minor “gifted” characters of last season, showing him as an evolved person, in both personality and powers, operating under new circumstances, something mirrored in the journey of Simmons. And then, it is an up close and personal look at this universe’s HYDRA: how it operates, how it recruits and how it goes about its business when it isn’t just trying to take over the world. The HYDRA of “Making Friends…” is an insidious thing, a Nazi remnant with a facade of normalcy, brilliantly shown through Simmons’ painfully normal morning routine on her way to work for a group of terrorists, kidnappers, brainwashers and murderers.

In terms of the larger narrative, there wasn’t actually much here, but that’s OK: this is the kind of set-up episode I can enjoy, because the set-up was so good. Reed Diamond’s “Dr Whitehall” is coming along nicely as a “big bad” for the season, and that’s without him really doing anything too substantial yet – it’s all been in word rather than deed, but has still been pulled off, even in something as subtle as discussing plant life that can live “for a thousand years” out of the ashes of destruction.

Back in S.H.I.E.L.D HQ we also get a few brief but effective sub-plots. Both this show and Gotham have lots of sub-plots per episode, but what makes Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D’s better is their ability to tell their stories and make their point in a single episode, as opposed to several. Skye takes additional steps as a field agent leading to a fatal moment of decision (boy, has she improved as a character), Fitz is forced to confront his own lack of purpose because of past trauma and even Hunter and May have a little back and forth that serves a larger purpose for the narrative. And there is the larger look at the dichotomy of S.H.I.E.L.D and HYDRA, who, this episode makes clear in a brilliantly understated way, are both capable of operating in the same manner.

It was all done very well, and mixed in with how HYDRA was portrayed – with a chilling amount of creepiness in those brainwashing moments – it made for a great episode.

Likes/Dislikes: I liked the brainwashing sequences in particular. I liked Fitz’ confrontation scene with “the Asset”, Iain De Caestecker is really doing fantastic work this season. I liked Coulson’s grocery lecture. I disliked the constant referring to Skye’s heart rate, which was a bit much. I disliked, again, the minimization of the Trip character, who seems to just sort of hang around now and do little. I disliked the open ended fate of one of the episodes characters, a “Did Jet just die?” moment if ever there was one.

Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D continues to impress every week, and that makes the question mark around its ratings – on a downward trend still, it would seem – very concerning. This is one of the best shows I’m watching right now, and I watch a lot of TV. Long may it continue with episodes like this.

The Flash – “City Of Heroes”

“To understand what I am about to tell you, you need to do something first. You need to believe in the impossible.”

“To understand what I am about to tell you, you need to do something first. You need to believe in the impossible.”

Barry Allen (Grant Gustin), a CSI assistant, is hit by lightning generated by a faulty particle accelerator. Awakening from a nine month coma to find he now has the power of super speed, Allen decides to use this ability to become a hero for his city and find out the truth about his mothers bizarre murder.

With the opening lines above, The Flash enters the broadcast world, an emotional exhortation for the audience to relax into the escapism that defines the comic book genre. And that’s the lead in to a remarkable opening.

What’s really great about “City Of Heroes” is that it has a lot to accomplish – nothing less than a standard superhero origin story, and all that entails – and manages to not only pull it off in 44 minutes, but does it with style. We get introduced to Barry, the inevitably long running love interest Isis (Candice Patton), gruff detective/copdad boss Joe (Jesse L. Martin), potential rival Eddie (Rick Cosnett) and that’s all before the whimsically portrayed origin, as Barry’s life changes with a flash of lightning.

From there, things get more serious (and that’s the tone, markedly different from your standard episode of the originator show, Arrow). We get introduced to the powers, the arrival of new “metahumans” and the Flash support crew: disgraced scientist Harrison Wells (Tom Cavanagh), super serious Caitlin (Danielle Panabaker) and the more relaxed Cisco (Carlos Valdes). All of that is mixed in with horrific flashbacks to the night Allen’s mother was murdered by another “speedster”, which will provide solid groundwork for an overarching plot going forward. Throw in a brief appearance by Arrow’s Stephen Amell, and things were really getting crammed in.

Something has to give, given the time constraints, and in-between adding airs of mystery to Wells and dropping hints about a variety of things, it’s the bad guy of “City Of Heroes” who has to get chopped down, with Clyde Mardon (Chad Rook) getting only a handful of lines and some neat effects as a Weather Wizard stand-in. The Flash chooses to focus almost entirely on its titular character, and that’s fine. Between his “obvious to everyone but her” dynamic with Iris, the Peter Parker-esque wonder at his own powers (lots of brooding heroes recently, making this a breath of fresh air) and his relationship with his wrongfully imprisoned father (beautifully elaborated on by the conclusion, where former Flash actor John Wesley Shipp suitably plays the father), Allen is a strong, well defined character by the conclusion of “City Of Heroes”.

Likes/Dislikes: I liked the general pacing of the episode, which felt like it was tripping along nicely rather than rushed, even with the mammoth amount of stuff required. I liked the simplicity of the “final battle” and what it represented for Allen. I liked the stinger scene, and all of the possibilities going forward it might offer. I disliked some of the references to the larger Flash mythos – especially the one involving the cage. I disliked the overly-repeated “Barry running” moments prior to his transformation, which was belabouring the point. I disliked the “Speak English” line given by Isis when Allen said something vaguely scientific – let’s not turn her into that kind of character.

The Flash is off to a really great start, with one of best pilot episodes I’ve seen in a while (make it a two parter/flesh out the bad guy, and it could have been a Flash movie). Lots of intriguing things have been established that can be followed up on, and it’s all wrapped around the very likeable and sympathetic main character. Thoroughly looking forward to the next instalment.

Arrow – “The Calm”

 “I’m scared of what would happen if I let myself be Oliver Queen.”

“I’m scared of what would happen if I let myself be Oliver Queen.”

Starling City has never been more crime free, thanks to the work of Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell) and his team. Taking the opportunity, Oliver tries to move forward a blossoming relationship with hacker Felicity Smoak (Emily Bett Ricards) but danger is not far behind, in the form of a new “Count Vertigo” (Peter Stomare).

Arrow has been a serious guilty pleasure of mine for the last couple of years, but I’ll admit I wondered how much longevity the show would have, especially on the back of the mania of its last few second season episodes.

“The Calm” appears to try and take Arrow in a new direction, but in truth a lot of plots and sub-plots are getting rehashed to bits, which is unfortunate. The general feel of things takes its cues from Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, between the fear drugs of Begins and a city where crime has been curtailed like the beginning of Rises. Like The Flash pilot it connects to, “The Calm” decides to focus on its main character over its villain – this “Count” being a pale shade of the wonderfully over the top edition of previous years – and the result is hit and miss.

Oliver’s relationship with Felicity, even here, seems painfully awkward and inevitably going nowhere fast. That might be one of the reasons Brandon Routh’s Ray Palmer has been thrown into the mix, to give her a love interest that won’t detract from the sort of crazy action that is at the backbone of Arrow – maybe the creators have decided they want to end this “Will they, won’t they” dynamic, which I think would be a good thing.

God knows there is drama aplenty all around. Oliver argues with Diggle (David Ramsey) over his safety, Detective Lance (Paul Blackthorne) seems to be dying and Sara’s (Caity Lotz) return presages more heartbreak. There’s also the new dynamic in the flashbacks, set in Hong Kong, where wig-wearing Oliver struggles under the confinement imposed on him by a currently motiveless Amanda Waller (Cynthia Addai-Robinson). But even while Arrow maintains the nominally dark tone, it keeps up with the campy ridiculousness that makes it so entertaining, between unnecessary spin moves, bad jokes, incomprehensible hacker talk and unlikely solutions to literal ticking bombs.

Likes/Dislikes: I liked the way Arrow is now an accepted part of the community. I liked how Oliver is still a putz when it comes to corporate activities. I liked the way “Team Arrow” seems like a well-oiled machine. I disliked the villains generally, who were fairly obvious knock-offs. I disliked the way Roy Harper (Colton Haynes) was relegated in plot terms (waiting for Thea (Willie Holland) to come back?) I disliked some of the “romance” scenes between Oliver and Felicity.

So, we still have Oliver struggling to balance personal and superhero lives, we still have the Lance family drama, we have another quasi love triangle involving Oliver and Felicity, we have another Count Vertigo, we still have similar corporate skulduggery, we still have “Oliver trying to survive in harsh foreign environment” flashbacks, we still have Diggle being pushed to the side. A lot of “The Calm” seems too much like what has gone before. But while I felt the majority of this episode was a little humdrum, the stinger certainly grabbed my attention, as Arrow made a very fateful choice about its narrative. It remains to be seen whether that narrative is just going to be more of the same, or will head off towards new places and new problems.

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