Review: Gotham (“Arkham”), Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D (“Face My Enemy”), The Flash (“Fastest Man Alive”), Arrow (“Sara”)

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

Gotham – “Arkham”

“You know why they hire a professional? Cause he finishes the job!”

On the eve of a crucial vote on the future of Gotham’s Arkham district, Gordon and Bullock are tasked with finding a skilled assassin who is targeting politicians.

I’ve noticed some people commenting critically on Gotham’s somewhat varied tone, which switches from deadly serious to campy at the drop of a hat, most notably in its script. But I don’t really see the problem as being that severe. Gotham, which I think is trying to have that OTT comic book feel in a lot of what it does, has its ridiculous elements, but everything in the show has a twisted quality, which “Arkham” exhibits strongly.

Our main plot, like that of “The Balloonman” is a step up from the first couple of episodes. “Richard Gladwell” (Hakeem Kae-Kazim) receives little characterisation, but is still memorable and effective as a villain in a way that makes him more than acceptable as a bad guy of the week. He’s a master of his craft and interesting to boot, but not without his weaknesses or an ability to get caught out, and the hunt of Gordon and Bullock to find him also helped to show off their vastly different methods of tracking down criminals.

That, and it was able to mix into some of the supporting plots well enough. Gotham is still weighted down, but at least in “Arkham”, various strands melded into one briefly, as the brewing gang war, Cobblepot and Bruce Wayne all found themselves with a stake in the Arkham decision. That made for an expansive, well told story, where part of the attraction was in trying to figure out how all these various players were going to come out on top when it came to the iconic mental institution, something bookended by a suitably lengthy epilogue section after the main plot point had been resolved.

That doesn’t mean that it’s all good. Barbara’s interactions with Gordon were fairly strained in this episode, leading to an unlikely ultimatum. And Fish Mooney’s interjection, showing off Gotham’s warped combination of camp elements with serious darkness, just felt distracting and overly sexualised without any point. In fact, four episodes in, it’s fair to say that Gotham has some serious problems with its female character, who nearly all embody very negative traits.

Likes/Dislikes: I liked Cobblepot’s daring in making a self-made step up in the Maroni organisation. I liked the lighting for the final confrontation, nicely backlit. I liked the closing conversation between Gordon and Wayne. I disliked the Joker-esque “try-outs” scene in the Mooney sub-plot. I disliked the conclusion of Cobblepot’s plot in “Arkham” which seemed too neat and tidy. I disliked the way Falcone was seemingly sidelined despite his apparent importance to the main plot.

I think Gotham is on an upward swing now, something to be welcomed. With the additional room provided by a merging of plots and the absence of the MCU, it had the ability to tell a decent story with an interesting villain, and has done some significant set-up for the future. I’m sure plenty of fans will be enticed by the mere mention of the words “Arkham City”.

Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D – “Face My Enemy”

“Nostalgia’s fine. But then life happens. It’s time to deal with reality.”

Agents Coulson and May track down a mysterious painting that features the same alien writing plaguing Coulson’s mind, a painting HYDRA has an interest in as well.

This is a rare thing for Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D: an episode focusing on the Coulson/May relationship. May, inherently, is a tight lipped, hard to read character and I wondered if this setting – something that seemed on the basis of promotion to be a comedy episode (I mean look at the title after watching it) – was the best way to open her up.

But it turned out it was. Another great episode, where Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D managed to not only maintain its new serious and dark tone, but actually work in levity effectively – thank Drew Greenberg for that I would think. Coulson and May’s time at the party allowed for some decent self deprecating humour, but then when the show needed to get back on mission, it did so with a vengeance, with a fine S.H.I.E.L.D/HYDRA showdown. The rivalry between those two organisations actually feels tangible and exciting this season, and that’s something to be very happy about: Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D needs that kind of effective serialisation to succeed.

I like how the Coulson and May relationship has been fleshed out here. They have a past, the nostalgia mentioned above, that might even have bordered on the romantic. But that just makes the crux of the episode harder, as Coulson tries to convince May to kill him if his alien writing fetish goes too far, as it did with Bill Paxton’s Agent Garrett last season. The humour actually works twice as well when Coulson makes the conscious choice to get serious, like even he is getting sick of the quipping deflection going on. And the action, wow. Easy to see why they got Kevin Tancharoen in.

The B-plot was fairly straightforward, but allowed Iain de Caestecker to continue his great work this season, struggling to fit in with a team that is bonding ever tighter together. Yes, the method they came up with to facilitate this was more than a little hackneyed, but it worked, and moved the Fitz character along while offering a few glimpses at the rest of the cast too. An emerging Hunter/Skye relationship has its pitfalls though.

Likes/Dislikes: I liked the final fight scene, which was the best this show has ever done. I liked May’s casual decision to forgo stealth at the party. I increasingly like Reed Diamond’s appearances as Whitehall. I disliked the rampant marginalisation of Trip, which the series is now actually referencing, a terrible sign. I disliked some (some!) of the comedy moments for plothole reasons. I disliked the rampant branding of HYDRA, which is looking increasingly ridiculous.

A great episode and, with the stinger, a decent set-up for next week. Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D really is a million miles away from where it was this time last year. That’s down to a commitment to tone change and an increased sense of serialisation, both of which I hope manage to attract a sufficient core audience.

The Flash – “Fastest Man Alive”

“Nothing is impossible Barry. You taught me that.”

Barry Allen, continuing to adapt to his new powers, faces his own self-doubts and a would-be assassin who can create multiple copies of himself.

“Nothing is impossible Barry. You taught me that.”

After a wonderful start, The Flash needs to do some basic groundwork to set itself up properly. The fish is on the hook, now they have to reel it in, by showing that there is room in this universe for much more than a flashy (har har) pilot.

And I think “Fastest Man Alive” does that. It maintains the focus on making Barry a character, complete and whole, who has messy relationships and plenty of doubts over his ability to be a hero. His conflict with Detective West is at the core of the episode, with flashbacks suitably used to showcase just how their interactions evolved. West has been given the chance to be a bit more than the equivalent of Detective Lance of Arrow right from the off, which is a good thing, and I liked the use of the character here, as a cipher for the need to get the “Red Streak” away from the sidelines and into the action properly.

The Flash seems happy to be a show which will throw itself into the superhero aspect wholeheartedly, and not peg itself back through repetitive introspection of its lead or a multitude of obstacles. This episode was good at showcasing those obstacles, through West and Caitlin, and how Barry is able to change minds about how far he can go. It also decided to give Iris a role to play outside of “love interest” by starting her on the Lois Lane path, even if she still seems, unfortunately, to be written as rather dull-witted.

The episode also benefitted from an improved villain. Multiplex is total Z-List, but is suitable for an episode like this, a “villain of the week”. Michael Smith got more time to expand on the character than the show allowed with Weather Wizard last week, and that worked in the episodes favour, both in terms of nifty science/metahuman powers, and in having a villain with a firm rationale. William Sadler, one of TV’s great “that guy” actors, doesn’t really get to offer too much as Simon Stagg, save in a few brief moments with the ever more mysterious Harrison Wells, whose motivations for being Barry’s mentor are one of the shows great attractions.

Likes/Dislikes: I liked the prologue fire rescue, cliché but well done. I liked the introduction of Barry’s “weakness” just as a physical problem for the character. I liked the joke about “Captain Clone” and the good humoured swipe it represents at some of Flash’s villains. I disliked the CGI for the final fight, which was a poor effort at a “Burly Brawl” type sequence. I disliked what I saw as the waste of Sadler. I disliked the lateness of Multiplex’s motivation, which would have been, in my view, better served by coming earlier.

I suspect The Flash will grow into greater serialisation as it goes on. Right now there are the shady shenanigans of Wells, but they have the unfortunate potential to be drawn out for a long time without much more elaboration. I hope soon we’ll be getting more into the murder of Barry’s mother and that much repeated glimpse of “Reverse Flash” (God I hope they don’t call him “Professor Zoom”). “Villain of the week” procedurals are fine, but The Flash needs to be more than that to succeed. As it stands though, it’s a bright, optimistic example of the superhero genre, and not afraid to show that fact of.

Arrow – “Sara”

“Everyone is looking to me to lead. If I grieve, nobody else gets to.”

The team react to the death of Sara in different ways: some guilty, some grieving and some seeking revenge.

Very early on in this episode Felicity namedrops the words “A Death In The Family”, the name of one of DC Comics’ most iconic stories. Maybe “Sara” was trying to craft a tale like that here (aside from firmly establishing that Team Arrow has a bond close enough to use that word). But I find a more apt comparison is with the Joss Whedon penned “The Body” from Buffy The Vampire Slayer, as various characters try to deal with a sudden and terrible loss.

“Sara” isn’t really about the hunt for that characters killer, a plotline that introduces a seemingly important Green Arrow villain only for very little pay-off. It’s about those reactions. Oliver has to try and bury his feelings so he can focus on the job at hand, which quickly turns into a decent introspection over what he expects out of the life he leads. Laurel seeks vengeance and faces the task of telling her father. Felicity revaluates her life and the desirability of the vigilante lifestyle. Diggle comes back into the fold as a matter of loyalty. Roy anguishes over an absent Thea and past regrets.

Everyone is grieving in their own way, reacting in their own manner, and while “Sara” doesn’t quite have the highest level of emotional impact that it could have, I still felt that it did a good job in portraying each member of “Team Arrow” as singularly as possible. New journeys and plot arcs are finding their genesis in this, perhaps the most serious and camp-free episode of Arrow yet.

The flashbacks help a lot. At first I thought they would be an unnecessary distraction, especially given the single episode return of Colin Donnell as Tommy Merlyn. But they ended up tying into the main plot very effectively as, in both instances, Oliver Queen deals with loss, showcasing his own brand of determination. We never had a reaction episode to Tommy’s death like “Sara”, but Arrow has found a place for him in this wake. I was sceptical about the continued use of flashbacks as a narrative device after the end of the second season, but “Sara” proves they can still find a role in these stories.

Likes/Dislikes: I liked the Oliver/Felicity conversation on grieving. I liked the re-emergence of Thea into the narrative. I liked the closing montage. I disliked Ray Palmer’s moments, which characterised him as intensely creepy and overbearing. I disliked the action scenes, which were clearly a secondary concern. I disliked Detective Lance’s lack of involvement.

A strong episode. It isn’t as good as “The Body” obviously, but it hits many of the same themes effectively enough, and gave us a good glimpse of the main cast in a pivotal moment of their lives. Some solid groundwork has also been laid for a few sub-plots going forward, namely those concerning the identity of Sara’s killer and whatever is going on with Thea. And on we go.

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