Synopsis of 2×14: Gun in hand, Bruce Wayne hunts down Matches Malone to get his revenge for his parents’ murder. Gordon looks into Kringle’s disappearance and Nygma’s alibi. Strange runs a test on Cobblepot and releases him from Arkham.
This week’s episode of Gotham, “The Ball of Mud and Meanness,” wants to be about the road Bruce Wayne could have taken and posits a world where he embraces the criminal side of vigilantism. Between Alfred getting into a brawl with a gangster named Cupcake and a subtextually loaded conversation with Jerry, an obsessive Jerome fan and probable future Joker cosplayer, giving him lessons on the criminal underworld. It’s theoretically not a bad idea and it’s loaded with foreshadowing on both sides, particularly with Jerry referencing a host of memorable Joker moments. And then there’s Matches Malone.
I’ve mentioned my obsessive love of Matches Malone as a character and concept before but it bears repeating. Matches is legitimately one of the silliest parts of the Batman mythos and as much as I sort of enjoy Gotham applying its weird Tim Burton-meets-Hot Topic-meets-Suicide Girls aesthetic to the concept, I really hate him being the Wayne killer and it’s sort of clear he’s not the guy the show wants him to be.
He’s played by Michael Bowen here, who obviously wasn’t the shooter from the pilot and doesn’t really have the look you want for Matches. In the comics, Malone’s a charismatic guy, a mover and shaker in Gotham’s underworld who gets by on a wink, a smile and secrets too shocking to be released.
Here, he’s basically the same character Bowen played in Breaking Bad, all malevolent swagger, control and a total lack of disregard for the crimes he commits. They’re really trying to split the difference between the comics’ shooter, small-time hood Joe Chill, with the more obscure, charismatic, and bizarre Malone but he just doesn’t work as the killer.
Significantly better is Malone as a man who’s created too much darkness to ever truly escape it. His conversation with Bruce at gunpoint is loaded with tortured monologuing and commentary on redemption and fate. It’s clearly meant to provide shading to Bruce’s eventual desire to punish all crime, all transgressions, knowing that men can damn themselves but it’s awful overwritten. It’ll be interesting to see if the show follows up with the character and the comics’ eventual use of Malone as another identity at Batman’s command.
But really, Malone is a minor character in Bruce’s larger path to becoming Batman and that’s something the episode actually gets right. Bruce’s letter to Alfred actually feels like it has a solid understanding on Bruce’s war on crime. It doesn’t take the easy way out, pushing Bruce just to target murderers and muggers but shows the character seeing crime as a disease, one he has to fight on a larger, systemic way that doesn’t let anyone get away with their misdeeds.
Batman’s war on crime targeting primarily the working class and impoverished is a criticism often leveled at the character but Gotham at least pays lip service to the larger fight against crime in a really satisfying way and a way that works in its fiction.
Gotham has always painted corporate corruption, bureaucracy and government as the root of crime, with Wayne Enterprises, a corrupt police precinct and mayoral office and the day to day squabbles of those with even the smallest bits of power causing death and destruction across the city.
It works for a young Bruce, one who’s been lied to and manipulated by those same forces, to recognize that reality here. It’s a canny bit of theming and characterization that has become increasingly indicative of the recent string of episodes, some of the best the show has done yet.