Superheroes as a kid were just so much more black and white, weren't they? The good guys and the bad guys were clearly marked, and there was no complication in cheering on your favorite character as they did some criminal ass-whooping. Villains were generally relatively one-dimensional, hell-bent on doing something unequivocally evil, and while the good guy may have the odd moment of internal conflict, it all worked out in time to go make yourself another bowl of Saturday morning cereal.
Now, we are firmly in the grey area, and as a show that focuses on villain backstory, it's no surprise that [Gotham](series:1127075) is playing jump-rope with the line between good and bad. In fact, it's fascinating to see just how far they are taking the idea, and how they are able to play with traditional tropes of good and evil.
Take Penguin, the focus of the show thus far (in terms of villains, anyway) and a career criminal who seems to have zero moral compass in his attempts to rise to the top and get the respect he craves. On the face of it, this should be a completely unrelatable and evil character. He appears to have no real loyalty to anyone except himself, he is a liar and a killer, and a brutal killer at that. Who can forget his trip out of town, where he slaughters the young guys who pick him up hitchiking, simply because they were mean to him?
Except, that's the interesting part. I don't think for a second that Oswald would have hurt them if they had simply been, as he always is, polite. And therein lies one of the most fascinating aspect of the character. Despite being unmistakably "bad", he has better manners than almost anyone else in the show. The cops, the "good guys" are crass, rude and dismissive, while Cobblepot leads the villains in their careful words and calm politeness. It's a truly interesting way to make him more likeable, but also somehow a little more scary.
Fish Mooney, Falcone and Maroni also display this kind of careful adherence to etiquette; there is a lot of posturing, using manners as masks. It's a fascinating idea, and it makes them all the more terrifying when that mask drops, just for a moment, and violence takes it's place. Or, and perhaps even more frightening, when the mask stays firmly put, despite the violence going on. The kings of Gotham gangland may not be quite so simpering as the Penguin, but manners still rule the underground.
Even the single-episode villains follow the trend. So far, the most honestly horrifying short-term evil on the show was in the Dollmaker episode, where the child-snatchers were unfailingly smiling, friendly and polite. They had an obsession with "good behavior" and even when hunting down children to be sold and murdered, never let their own good manners go.
Now lets compare that to the characters who are supposedly on the side of good. Thus far, the most polite person in the police department appears to be Ed Nygma...and we all know how that one is going to turn out. While he is nowhere near as obsequious as Penguin, he clearly has an awareness of the way that social interactions are supposed to go, and appears hurt and confused when he is interrupted or treated badly. (Of course, he also has some difficulty understanding other kinds of social interaction...that hair smelling... but even there, he is unfailingly polite.) If you didn't know that he was going to become the Riddler, he would actually be an incredibly sympathetic character; awkward, smart, shy, trying to do good and being constantly smacked down.
As for the ones doing the smacking? Well, Bullock is clearly intended to be a less-than-good-guy, but in the Batman mythology we know, he finds his way to the right side in the end. So why is it that he is by far the rudest, least mannerly character on the show? Even Gordon himself doesn't stand out as someone that Emily Post would invite over for dinner; while his heart is clearly in the right place, he is often brusque and blunt.
While there are some exceptions (Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle), this is a pattern throughout the show; the bad guys have the best manners. But why? I believe that it is two-fold, intentional and incredibly clever.
For a start, the show as a whole is playing with the viewer's pre-existing sympathies. It's a series created to explain the villains, and in doing so, it makes them much more sympathetic. Understanding a man's desperate desire for respect, his twisted relationship with his mother, his deep need to overcome a lifetime of bullying...well, it makes hating him a lot more complicated. Taking a traditionally "good" character like Bullock and trying to make him hateful, well, that too is a lot easier if he comes across as simply a nasty piece of work. By giving the villains the social graces, it's just another layer to making them ever so slightly more likeable.
The other possible reason for this dichotomy? Well, that's a little more disturbing. It could be that the show is recognizing the fact that old-fashioned manners are actually often perceived as a negative trait in an age where they are increasingly rare. Being "real" is increasingly seen as a good thing, and because manners could be seen as "fake", they aren't sought after. Is the show playing on this viewpoint of it's younger viewers (by "younger" I mean under 30.) ? If the writers recognize that holding one's tongue is no longer an admirable trait, it could actually make the villains more villanous, rather than less, when the follow old rules of social conduct.
Of course, these two possibilities are very much at odds with each other, as one makes the bad guys more likeable, and the other makes them more frightening. Perhaps that is actually part of the point as well; that the show doesn't necessarily seek to make the classic bat-villains better, but simply to explain them. Is the intention not to argue for or against an individual, but simply to raise questions about them? In that case, I think that they are doing it extremely well!
I will continue to wonder where these characters will go, and enjoy the ride of feeling sorry for them in one moment, and then utterly opposed to them the next.
What do you think?