When Gotham originally aired, I watched the first episode. Then I watched part of the second episode, was interrupted by… something or other… and then I never watched the show again.
It felt a little flat. It just didn’t grab me. I’m guessing that I was in a mood at the time, because I decided to give the show a second chance last week, and why haven’t I been watching this show?!
I binged my way through the first season and most of the second, and then mentioned it to the spousal unit, which led to this:
Me: “The one thing about this show… seriously… in every Batman incarnation, the one villain I never, ever cared about — didn’t care about him, or his story, didn’t particularly care to see him, or anything — was…”
Him: “The Penguin.”
Me: “Uh… yeah. The Penguin. Wait. How did you know that?”
There is nothing more disturbing than a guy who never seems to remember or notice anything suddenly getting all insightful. Seriously, that’s just kind of… sinister.
But I digress.
So, yeah, the Penguin. He was one of my least-favorite villains, always good for a heavy sigh and a “Not this guy again…” moment of resignation. Putting him on screen always seemed problematic, because who would ever take that guy seriously? He’s not a villain, he’s a caricature. A cartoon. The Arkham games did a decent job of making him a halfway-credible crime lord, but still… he’s just… yeah.
Gotham somehow managed to take my lack of Penguin-love and turn it inside out. He’s one of the most interesting characters on the show, and not only do I find myself feeling sorry for the guy, I find myself rooting for him.
And that “Who would ever take that guy seriously?” attitude becomes his most potent weapon.
Turning things inside out is pretty much the Penguin’s entire origin story on Gotham. The umbrella comes from his lowest-lackey-on-the-ladder job: holding one for his boss, Fish Mooney. The nickname “Penguin” was a cruel joke, and he hated it. Later, after Maroni tells him that he should own the nickname, he does. Both the nickname and the umbrella become symbols of how low he was, and how high he’s risen. Everyone sees him as weak and weird and nonthreatening, and he uses that against them. He’s smart, and he can play a long game. There’s something just fun about watching the Penguin make his moves, and there’s a whole lot of satisfaction when he claws his way to the top.
You’d think that people would eventually learn to take the Penguin seriously, and they do. Sort of. Even when they seem to wise up, they still underestimate him. Even when he tells people that their biggest mistake is underestimating him, they still go and do it (on some level) anyway. He manages to wriggle his way out of everything, and he’s going to keep doing it — because everyone, deep down, is still thinking, “Who would ever take this guy seriously?” No one sees past that uber-weird exterior. Not really. Not for very long.
But the Penguin is evolving, and at some point (probably right around the time that severed heads become a thing), you find yourself really seeing him again… and you realize that the weak, weird, nonthreatening guy has become something else entirely.
Making the Penguin a character that I enjoy watching was hard enough, but for an encore, Gotham made my most-hated villain fun to watch, too.
At one point during the first season, someone says that they’re going to send “Victor” to fetch Gordon, and it didn’t even occur to me to speculate about Victor’s identity. I’m wary of making assumptions. This is all “Batman: The Pre-Sequel” territory, and I’d read enough about the “proto-Joker” to know that making assumptions was a bad idea. When Victor appeared at the GCPD, I took one look at him and said, “Wait, is that Zsasz?” Yes. Yes, it is. Dammit.
Early in Kevin Smith’s Batman: Cacophony, Batman tells us that “of all the lunatics” he’s had to deal with, he hates Zsasz the most. When I read that, I had a mini-fit about it in my head. I fucking hate that guy, too, and every time he shows up, I always think the same thing: if Batman’s going to kill anybody, it should be that guy.
The Batman universe is filled with despicable people doing horrible things, but for me, Zsasz stands out from the crowd. He’s sadistic and irredeemable. He doesn’t give a crap about anybody or anything except killing. Sure, he was once a relatively normal-ish guy who suffered a loss, but I just don’t care. We never really know why the Joker became the Joker, so we don’t have to burden ourselves with any mitigating factors. He’s just the Joker… but at least he has a sense of humor, twisted as it may be. With Zsasz, I couldn’t give two shits about his sad story, because he’s gone so far out over the edge that there’s just no way to even begin to excuse him.
His supposed origin story and the comparisons to Batman just make it worse, as far as I’m concerned. Super-rich Bruce Wayne’s parents were murdered when he was a child; super-rich Victor Zsasz’s parents died in an accident when he was a young adult. Bruce turns into a vigilante (his attitude: help innocent people, because criminals are bad); Victor turns into a serial killer (his attitude: kill innocent people, because life sucks). It pisses me off. He pisses me off.
As far as Gotham is concerned, though, Zsasz is just the creepy-ass killer that the mobsters send when they want to really make a point. That’s all we know. On screen, he comes across like a fugitive assassin from the John Wick universe who ended up in Gotham after taking a side trip through The Crow. For some reason, he often has leather-clad female assassins trailing behind him, like a bunch of really fucked-up ducklings. This relatively narrow (not to mention shallow) depiction actually… works for me. No, really. This Zsasz is creepy and terrible, yes, but he’s the right kind of creepy and terrible. He’s virtually without personality, just a hole in the landscape, and it makes him feel like a living symbol of the insanity and decay that has taken hold of Gotham.
He also has “Funky Town” as his ringtone, which made me laugh out loud. Imagine that. Someone actually made me LOL at something having to do with Victor-fucking-Zsasz.
Zsasz is also a pretty potent symbol of power. We watched Penguin wrangle his way to the top, but the moment when we really knew that he’d stuck the landing was the moment that we saw Zsasz doing his bidding.
This is Gotham, though, and if we know anything about the city, it’s this: the moment that you find yourself winning, you can just bet that there’s a major loss waiting around the corner.