Review: Gotham (“Viper”), Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D (“A Hen In The Wolf House”), The Flash (“Things You Can’t Outrun”), Arrow (“Corto Maltese”), Constantine (“Non Est Asylum”)

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

Gotham – “Viper”

“I don’t want revenge. I want to understand how it all works. How Gotham works.”

The GCPD is stretched to its limits dealing with a dangerous new drug, which gives its users immense strength before killing them horribly. Meanwhile, the gang conflict intensifies and Bruce Wayne investigates his own company.

Gotham was always going to have trouble finding stuff for Bruce Wayne to do. You can’t just keep having him have the same conversation with Gordon over and over again. In “Viper”, we start to see a bit more of an evolution, and the beginning of the “World’s Greatest Detective”.

That’s at the core of an otherwise passable confluence type story, where various sub-plots fall in with each other once more. Barbara Gordon and the MCU are, again, nowhere to be seen, and not having to spend time on them really does give Gotham a significant amount of breathing room elsewhere. Gordon and Bullock investigate a drug most source material fans will recognise, which has its ties to Wayne Industries, just as Bruce does his own snooping around his parents’ work. And the imminent gang war is about to kick off in a major way, with Cobblepot, still a rising star, linking all of that to Gordon. Connections are good, and it is gratifying to see Gotham do more of them in later episode than it was early on. There is a still a problem creating viable tension – putting Bruce Wayne and Cobblepot in mortal danger is self-defeating in plot-terms – but the narrative progression is becoming more clear, even in the midst of “villain of the week” procedural elements.

It’s good that there is a sense of moving forward, laying down track for future plot related to the comics and that it seemed like most characters had clearly defined goals and were working towards them, even if the way that they were, like with the case of Fish Mooney, is drawn out and more than a little creepy. That being said, Daniel London wasn’t that stand-out as the episodes antagonist really, mostly due to his lack of dialogue, and he was somewhat matched by Bullock, whose lack of agency is starting to tell a bit more. Bullock doesn’t seem to have any sort of clear arc to follow yet, he’s just sort of there, with the occasionally funny line or a bullet, whatever the scene calls for. These deficiencies in characterisation are things the show can work on.

Likes/Dislikes: I liked the way the drug was handled, as a lead-in to something more down the line. I liked how the mob interactions are being done, with varying elements of violence and rational calculation. I liked how Maroni has been made to look a bit more dangerous. I disliked a good chunk of the dialogue (“In my country…”, “It’s Gotham” etc). I disliked the pointlessness of Selina Kyle’s interjection. I disliked the lack of involvement from Bullock.

I still think that Gotham is improving, but I have yet to see an episode that I can say truly wowed me, unlike any other comic book TV show currently airing. There’s a slow-boil narrative being undertaken in many respects, but part of me feels this is unsuited to this specific genre, which needs a bit more thrills to be viable. But Gotham has set down some roots in “Viper”, and I fervently hope that, down the line, the pay-off will be worth it.

Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D – “A Hen In The Wolf House”

“We need to know what this writing means.”

S.H.I.E.L.D agents are threatened from two directions: the returning Raina (Ruth Negga), working for the mysterious “Doctor” (Kyle MacLachlan), and HYDRA’s newest enforcer Bobbi Morse (Adrienne Palicki).

Skye was a character I disliked for the majority of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D’s first season. I found her to be whiny and annoying, surprisingly stupid in her actions and allowed to get away with too much. But she improved as time went on, getting better as a more stable character even as she became part of the S.H.I.E.L.D infrastructure.

But that process is still ongoing, and “A Hen In The Wolf House” is an episode about Skye, who she is and who her guiding hand is going to be: in essence, it is a battle over who Skye’s soul On the one hand there is an absent and mysterious father figure, whom she is led towards by the darker forces at play in the shows universe. On the other, there is Coulson, full of his own secrets, but ready to be the paternal influence Skye has often lacked. “A Hen In The Wolf House was a good effort at that kind of story, and made me appreciate Skye more even as I had just started to dislike her again. She still has that rebellious streak (which comes with the first mention in a long time of the “Rising Tide” movement that was originally shaping up to be the shows big bad) but it comes with a justification this time, as she moves closer to discovering the more disturbing aspects of Coulson’s latest brushes with mania.

And it’s a great episode because of everything else that goes along with that. Two maniacs – the “Doctor” and Whitehall – threaten S.H.I.E.L.D in different ways, in particular Skye and Simmons, whose undercover work is getting ever more dicey. The introduction of Palacki’s Mockingbird helps to give that sub-plot a jolt and Raina’s interactions with Coulson are always a treat. Everything gets blended seamlessly together and, with that rather horrific opening, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D just keeps going right on with its newly acquired dark tone. It’s good stuff, helping to mark HYDRA out as the very potent and capable threat they need to be, and their leadership as the legitimate bad guys the show needs to have.

Likes/Dislikes: I liked the fight scenes, which kept up the good work of “Face Your Enemy”. I increasingly like Simon Kassianides’s role of Bakshi, Whitehall’s right hand man. I liked that the “writing” sub-plot is finally going somewhere. I disliked the reference to Hellcow (Seriously?). I disliked the Hunter/Morse scene towards the conclusion. I disliked, once more, the fact that Trip is just sort of there now.

Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D’s second season continues its brilliant run, easily the best of the lot when it comes to comic book TV currently airing. Every week there is decent characterisation, groundwork for stuff to come and good storytelling. Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D has found its way, and I hope that this remains the state of affairs.

The Flash – “Things You Can’t Outrun”

“Some things Barry, you can’t fight. Some things you just have to live with.”

Barry Allen faces a new metahuman menace on a revenge mission, while Caitlin relives the death of her fiancée in the particle accelerator accident.

Sad to say, but The Flash takes a significant step backwards this week in my eyes. The pilot was amazing, the second episode entertained. But the third episode is essentially the same as the second, in so many of its plot beats.

Barry takes on the latest threat, another Z-level bad guy with a unique power who has an axe to grind against the people who wronged him. He struggles to deal with it, gets defeated all too easily in one instance but (it shouldn’t come as much of a spoiler), doubts himself, gets a pep talk from Detective West and manages to get it right eventually. Even in the timing and some smaller details did “Things You Can’t Outrun” match “Fastest Man Alive” and “City Of Heroes”.

Our villain, Kyle “Mist” Nimbus (Anthony Carrigan), lacks any good dialogue or decent characterisation, and his encounters with Barry seem absolutely humdrum as a result, just happening because the episode just sort of needs it to happen. Tying into it is more soul searching and gnashing of teeth over Barry’s father, which is probably necessary for the narrative but already seems like well worn ground.

It’s the supporting cast who has to step up, but even there the material leaves a bland taste in the mouth. The flashbacks focusing on Caitlin were cliché to the hilt, with The Flash stretching even its rudimentary knowledge of particle acceleration to the breaking point, though the introduction of “Ronnie Raymond” (Robbie Amell) poses some potential interesting things to come. Meanwhile, Iris and Eddie sneak around Detective West, with an ending you will see coming a mile off. Neither B nor C-plot really land.

Likes/Dislikes: I liked Panabaker’s performance. I liked some of the exchanges between Barry and West.I liked the pre-stinger ending. I disliked the continuing repetitiveness of the arc of Wells. I disliked the jokey way Cisco is continually naming the antagonists. I disliked any scene involving the particle accelerator.

The result is an episode that makes you feel as if The Flash has suddenly stalled, and in the same week its initial running time was practically doubled by the network, a huge sign of faith. But The Flash, for all the positivity it has garnered for its first two episodes, has set off some alarm bells with this, a very lazy procedural episode with very little redeeming value.

Arrow – “Corto Maltese”

“Every warrior must learn the simple truth: that pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.”

Oliver heads to the South American island of Corto Maltese seeking his sister Thea (Willa Holland) who secretly continues training with her father Malcolm Merlyn (John Barrowman).

Eschewing the traditionally Oliver-flashbacks and splitting the main cast up, Arrow chooses to mix things up a little here, with three of the four plot threats in “Corto Maltese” focusing around its female characters and how they are adapting to very changed circumstances in the new season.

The strongest is easily that of Thea, one of the characters I’ve often thought Arrow had trouble finding something to do with. Now, finally, they seem to have an arc for her that can last more than a few episodes and lead to some interesting encounters as we move forward. Thea remains caught between the forces represented by Oliver and Merlyn, and what each represents, but what is made clear is that she is becoming a stronger, more clinical, person. Her interactions with these figures – which also includes “what might have been” Roy – show this in subtle ways, that leave us with the impression of a girl who has risen from conflicted emotional feelings to claim a path and a destiny that is still a bit of a mystery to us, but one that she is committed to.

It’s matched by the others. Laurel continues to mourn in private, but takes her first steps down the vigilante path herself, with the help of newcomer J.R. Ramirez, playing Ted “Wildcat” Grant. It’s a predictable arc, but one that is already showing it has legs, with Laurel driven by a rage that surpasses all other demons in her life and encountering some serious setbacks early on. And, briefly but effectively, Felicity settles in under the watchful eyes of Ray Palmer. This too has its obvious elements, but one of the closing scenes throws up a tantalising aspect for Brandon Routh’s character.

It’s all centred around a Mission: Impossible style escapade for the male characters, as Diggle goes after some classified data, held by Mark “Manhunter” Shaw (David Cubitt), with the help of Roy and Oliver. It’s good to see Diggle take the lead in such an adventure, and its good to see “Team Arrow” kick some ass in a new setting, but the whole thing was just a little shallow for my tastes, seemingly existing just so we could have some of Arrow’s traditional action. It felt a bit like a Suicide Squad tale without the Suicide Squad.

Likes/Dislikes: I liked the myriad of Thea conversations, that all added something to her narrative in this episode. I liked how Laurel’s first ventures into vigilantism went badly. I liked the focus on Diggle’s family: he is a character. I disliked the material given to Barrowman, which didn’t really add much to him. I disliked the dialogue between Felicity and Palmer, which was just a bit too OTT. I disliked the cascading epilogue, which was overly lengthy.

This is actually one of the shows better episodes generally. It managed to make room for some entertaining moments for just about all of its major or recurring characters, which all meant something to all of them in some way or another. That’s actually rare enough to find in a show like this, and it still managed to get some action in too. A fine effort, and indicative of a certain upswing in quality – in a more traditional sense – that Arrow has enjoyed so far in this season. Is it done being campy? And if so, is that a bad thing?

Constantine – “Non Est Asylum”

“If you’re not confused you’re not doing it right.”

John Constantine (Matt Ryan): exorcist, demon hunter, detective. After a failed attempt to banish some terrible memories, the “master of the dark arts” travels to Atlanta, Georgia to protect demon target Liv Aberdine (Lucy Griffiths), the daughter of an old friend.

I can’t claim to be too enamoured with the Constantine character like others are. Perhaps only his brief part in The Sandman series enthralled me: everything else belonged to a gothic fantasy universe that never held much appeal. But, there’s certainly scope for a TV series in that universe, but one that might struggle to be little more than a Supernatural clone (minus a male lead).

There was something really off about this pilot to me. It wasn’t the plot, which was basic if not spectacular. It wasn’t the script, which had some charm and intrigue to it. It wasn’t the visuals, which were fine for the medium. I think it was just the acting: Constantine completely failed to suck me in via the lax performances of its cast, or maybe a combination of that and the direction.

Everyone in “Non Est Asylum” (“It is not my refuge” or maybe “There is no refuge”) if you’re wondering) seems to be on set on their own, talking to nothing just off camera. And even in the rare moments when two characters share the camera (and it’s always just two it seems) it doesn’t really get any better. The delivery of lines by Ryan, Liv or angelic handler Manny (Harold Perrineau) is like they are reading for an audio book or something, with such a lack of emotive power or buyability, Griffiths especially. It’s nothing laughable, just very, very flat. Dour. Uninspired.

That kind of cripples Constantine. Hopefully it’s just a pilot issue that has been sorted, because the rest of this episode was fine, as I said. Poor tortured John Constantine has his traumas, but like Sam and Dean before him, isn’t satisfied with just wallowing, and goes about getting some payback on the demons that haunt him, with all of the snark and English wit that is associated with him. Add in some rituals, fiery circles and a battle between the forces of heaven and hell, and you have yourself a mythos.

The Supernatural comparison is very apt: throw in a brother for John and a change in accent and you’d be watching something very close. But there is a sense that Constantine can be a bit darker, especially compared to the way Supernatural has gone off the rails in the last few years. I was reminded of Supernatural’s earlier years in parts, which is a good thing, provided Constantine can shake the feeling of travelling down a road well worn.

Likes/Dislikes: I liked the asylum opening, with Miles Anderson’s psychiatrist. I liked the horror moments, which were simple but well done. I liked the (sorry/not sorry for the spoiler) decision to work out the Liv character. I disliked Jeremy Davies’ hacker stereotype. I disliked elements of the finale, which made the titular character look a little gullible. And I really, really disliked the acting.

It’s a rough start for Constantine, without a doubt. The sense that you are watching individual characters spout their lines as opposed to any kind of ensemble or back and forth dialogue pair is striking, and will need some rapid work to fix. But it should have enough, on the basis of this pilot, to do that. Fix that horrible flaw, and this will be a very watchable show.

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