Greetings, spookyfriends! Two weeks ago Sunday was November 2, the Day of the Dead, which may prompt visions of dancing skeletons dressed in their over-the-top best and sugar skulls for a gruesome treat. If you’re of Hispanic extraction (Mexican, mostly), you probably would have been picnicking in the cemetery and remembering your lost loved ones, if it hadn’t been so bloody cold in Chicago (and if you were somewhere else nice and toasty-warm, please don’t tell us: we’re still shivering here; then again, we didn’t get Buffalo’s snow. Never mind). If you’re not Hispanic or from another culture that celebrates All Souls’ Day with anything beyond attending church, then you might have been doing your usual Sunday thing and watching your favorite football team lose – and we should discuss something otherworldly to cheer you up. That leads us to a TV series episode we saw during Halloween Week that provided food for thought about the dead rising again, or at least reincarnating in another body.
Now, we at SpookyThings don’t generally go in for comic book characters or (as they’re known by their adult euphemism) graphic novels. I typically prefer my literature straight and don’t see why melodrama – itself an oversimplification of plot and characters – need be further oversimplified, which is what comics and graphic novels essentially do: pare the action down to the minimum. However, even I can appreciate when a skilled director or screenwriter uses a storyline or mythos taken from a comic-book series to tell a more sophisticated tale or to make a better point. Director Christopher Nolan did exactly that in examining the darker side of human nature in his retelling of the Batman story in his film trilogy Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012) (frankly, Nolan did it so masterfully – even the late film critic Roger Ebert approved – that we really don’t understand why others need to ‘reboot’ the film franchise so soon; they could have easily waited another 10 years for that – but no: someone in Hollywood is greedy and wants to garner more geld before the public’s taste for comic-book characters wanes). (Waynes, get it? Oh, never mind.) But I digress.
The new Fox network TV noir series Gotham is a kind of Batman prequel – a retelling of how Batman came to be while Bruce Wayne is still a newly orphaned boy. Since the Batman mythos doesn’t go back that far except for the fewest, thinnest possible details, that allows contemporary screenwriters and directors a lot of leeway in sketching out the development of characters well beyond young Master Wayne. Indeed, the main character is the young police detective James Gordon (played beautifully by Ben McKenzie, with just the right touch of righteousness, zeal, world-weariness, caution and despair), a ‘boy scout’ cop still early in his career though no longer a rookie. The plots revolve around Gordon’s efforts to remain an ethical, capable cop in a town so thoroughly corrupt that only he, his significant other, Barbara (Erin Richards), and the Wayne household are above reproach – which puts them all in constant danger. None of that would make the series of interest to this blog, but Episode 6 would: it involved much older legends, along with hallucinations, murder, madness and zombie-like mind control, not to mention questions about the reincarnation of evil. Oooh! Gives us shivers just thinking about it.
Michael mentioned in our recent post on Sleepy Hollow that the American author Washington Irving first popularized the nickname “Gotham” for New York City – and that Gotham is allegedly an Anglo-Saxon word meaning goat’s town, town of goats, town where the goats are or, using the definite article, the goat’s town (the devil’s town, perhaps? That might be apt, in this storyline). The episode in question clearly took that last meaning to heart, as the plot revolved around a supposed Spirit of the Goat, the name taken by a serial killer (or killers) in a string of deaths that occurred seven years apart. The goat referred to is a vicious spirit of legend, an ancient boogeyman supposedly being used now as an agent of vengeance.
Moreover, as Randall Milke, the original reputed murderer, had been killed during his arrest by Gordon’s older, boozy, lackadaisical, more corrupt and significantly more cynical partner, Det. Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue), in self defense, we then have the case of an apparent copycat killer seven years later. Except that it can’t be a copycat because the later deaths precisely duplicate the earlier ones in every detail, including one that had never been released to the public or entered into the original case file. The investigators are then faced with the possibility of either a conspiracy that included an unknown partner or protégé of the dead Milke (though this is later disproven, as the later ‘copygoat’ is never found to have any connection to the crazed Milke) or – horrors! – the reincarnation of an evil spirit that possesses people in order to murder. Spooky indeed.
Now, we’re not giving anything away about the episode when we tell you that the evil mastermind behind the murder conspiracy is well versed in myth, legend and old religion. When it comes to mythology and religion, goats generally get a bad shake. They’re literally used as scapegoats in the Old Testament, i.e., as objects upon which people cast out their sins, or as decoys for predators, spiritual or otherwise, or as a reference to unbelievers. A few pagan gods have the heads – or at least the horns – of goats, which then become associated with evil, as in demons, devils, and Satan/Lucifer/Beelzebub himself once monotheism begins to make headway. So, the association of goat figures with evil (or at least with sin and extreme unpleasantness) goes back for millennia.
It’s also not giving away much when we tell you that the murder victims in this episode are the firstborn scions of the most wealthy families of Gotham – the kids of the chief goats, so to speak – people who, in the minds of the killers, because of their extreme greed, callousness, illegal deeds and moral lapses are most responsible for the rampant crime, ongoing corruption and miserable decline of Gotham City itself, which the craven rich at best tolerate and at worst actively abet. The victims – depicted as spoiled, rude, insensitive brats unworthy of the attention they crave – are carefully chosen to garner the least amount of sympathy from the public and to hurt their decadent parents. (The Waynes, on the other hand, seem to have been the only decent, ethical, compassionate philanthropists in town, which is precisely why they were killed early in the pilot episode.)
The murderers do their best to allude to all the negative connotations about wealth, obliquely referencing such Biblical texts as Money is the root of all evil and Jesus’s assertion that it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. The implication is that if the nasty, greedy heirs of the rich die off, the city will be much better off without them, because they won’t be around to tolerate or sponsor a new generation of corruption (as if the poor could solve all the crime and evils of the city by themselves; with what, we wonder – food stamps?? Not bloody likely, and not that we have any sympathy for the 1 percent; but when did evil masterminds ever make sense?). Meanwhile, the covetous wealthy parents would be punished by this sane but still amoral, thoroughly warped, manipulative mastermind, i.e., sociopath.
Clearly, we are meant to see through the mastermind’s thin rationalizations and see the bloodthirsty deeds for the evil they are – especially since they’re accomplished by possession or mind-control. However, because the murders are stopped by the episode’s end but the full extent of the conspiracy isn’t known, we are left with more questions than answers and the upsetting possibility that more macabre deaths – and more possession – may well occur in the future. There will be no easy resolution for poor Jim Gordon, who has other troubles. But at least the viewers are left with the probability that clear-eyed Barbara, who has stood by her man through the first six episodes, will have her constancy vindicated soon, even if that does put Gordon in ever more peril.
(Note to viewers: Yes, there are places in this episode where the plot touches on much later events and legends mentioned in the Batman stories as Nolan in particular told them, some of which weren’t part of the original mythos but rather reflect Nolan’s interpretation or embroidering of it. However, people who have seen Nolan’s trilogy will surely recognize those moments, so we won’t give them away here.)
Since Gotham will doubtless return to more mundane crime- and character-oriented plots next week and the screenwriters probably made this episode a rare foray into religious symbolism and myth, that’s where we’ll leave it. Stay warm out there in the gathering dark – and don’t forget to watch out for bats!
Until next time,
Your spooky scribe, Marie