Gotham Season 2 set visit with Ben McKenzie, Erin Richards: A (better) world without the bat?

Gotham Season 2 cast

It is going to be another long night. I am working a case at my desk, paging through files, taking calls, following up leads, and a vic is cooling in the morgue while my perp is still on the loose. All I want in the world is a nip of whiskey from the flask I keep in the bottom right drawer, and maybe also to make the collar. Meanwhile, the Yanks are headed to the World Series, and I was offered home plate seats, but I can’t go because my wife, who is going into labor with twins, wants to leave me because of the job. I think she’s also sleeping with my old partner.

It's just another day at the GCPD. 

Correction: It is just another day at the massive GCPD set of Fox’s Gotham, Season 2 (subtitled "Rise of the Villains"), on a Brooklyn soundstage in the real Gotham, New York City. And actress is Erin Richards is giving me direction while taking pics. She’s throwing scenarios at me to make me pound the desk, and shout at the phone, because my fictional detective’s world is falling apart around me. But the same could be said about the crumbling world of the Fox series.

But what a delight it is to watch Gotham City fall apart on screen this season as the Gotham series comes together.

A confident enthusiasm has obviously taken hold of the cast when I visit the set just more than a week ago. Before select members of the media are go on a tour with Ben McKenzie (who plays Jim Gordon), David Mazouz (Bruce Wayne), Erin Richards (Barbara Kean), Sean Pertwee (Alfred Pennyworth), Camren Bicondova (Selina Kyle), Nicholas D'Agosto (Harvey Dent) and Chris Chalk (Lucius Fox), we screen the first two episodes of the season, premiering tonight. The legal-aged actors then join us for cocktails, which takes on a celebratory vibe because, frankly, this show has nailed it and they know it.

After a first season of ups and downs, and finding its ground as a semi-procedural villain-of-the-week Batman show without Batman, Gotham feels like a whole new show – and one that is fully realized, fun and bizarro. And thankfully, it feels less beholden to the Batman mythos (and at times seems to take joy in breaking bad from that mythos). Instead, to recount a comic-book nerd conversation, this could be a parallel-universe post-Flashpoint Gotham City where Batman never showed up, or showed up to a town already overrun by weirdness and psycho killers (qu'est-ce que c'est?).

For instance, I give you Richards’ Barbara Kean, Season 2.

In the opening moments of the season premiere (after a great montage accompanied by Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day”), Barbara and Jerome (played by Cameron Monaghan) have a crazy chat in Arkham Asylum. At first, one might think the show is setting up their version of the Joker and Harley Quinn. While Jerome gets some Tim Burton-esque scenes to channel a Jack Nicholson Joker, Barbara is a character to watch for the long haul. As she relishes in her badness, Barbara establishes herself as a brilliant archnemesis to Gordon. 

We are in throne room set of actor Robin Lord Taylor’s Penguin. It is a long, dark, elegant room decorated by gruesome painting reminiscent of Goya, and dominated by a massive table from which the scheming king of the underworld can enjoy fine wine and murder. This is not Richards’ main hangout on the show. Instead, that would be baddie Theo Galavan’s well-lit deco penthouse set. Still, she slips very comfortably into Penguin’s power chair, and speaks to Barbara’s rise to villainy after spending most of the first season as Jim Gordon’s ivory tower girlfriend without much agency.

“It’s so much fun,” she says. “It’s like somebody has given me free reign to do whatever I want, so when I get the scripts, I open them up and see a million ways I could play this right now, and each way is just as fun as the last.”

Richards also has thoughts about the apartment set where she was relegated for much of the first season.

“Oh my god, when they destroyed that apartment, I was like, ‘Thank you!’” she said. “But we needed that, so we could be this; say this first episode was the beginning, there would be no reference point to who she was. You need that history to understand how far she’s come, and how far she’s broken out of her cage to this new world.”

As for a new world, she said there is no bat-talk on the set.

“It’s Gotham talk. It is its own entity. It is not ready for Batman yet.”

“There is so much darkness, and it’s only going to get bigger, and bigger,” she adds. “Obviously, he will transpire, and save the day in the future, but right now, it’s just going to keep going in don’t want [Gotham City] to be saved. We’re telling the story before the savior comes in, which, to me, is more exciting.”

When asked about that theory Barbara will become The Joker, Richards only says, “I have a great poker face; you’re not getting anything out of me.”

However, she did say that her character gets to play a lot with Monaghan in Episode 3, which she promises also has a “huge surprise.”

 “My performance in three is pretty big,” she says. “Cameron and I were potentially trying to outdo one another; there is a bit of theatrical element to that episode, so I get to put on a little show.”

Richards' on-screen ex, Ben McKenzie, speaks highly of her new role as one of Gotham’s rogues, and one that fits in more with the show in its current form.

“We’re having fun turning Barbara from a character who had trouble fitting into the basic story we’re telling into a character people just love for how bad she is, how evil she is, how damaged she is, emotionally,” he says, and adds she’s has much to do this season. 

About his own character’s journey in Season 2, McKenzie says Gordon is still a true hero who wants to be a white knight, but he is slipping into more gray territory as a “good guy in a bad city having to do increasingly bad things in order to get something done.” 

“What’s interesting is what happens is when Jim becomes so morally corrupt that Bruce, himself, calls Jim out,” he says. “Not for failing in his mission to find his parents’ killer, but failing in falling off the moral high ground he was on.”

The two-level set where McKenzie’s Gordon cracks the cases is enormous. The desks are scattered with case files, photos, and detritus of a cop shop that’s seen a lot of action with much, much more to come early in the second season. Walking through the area, McKenzie points out one of his favorite elements on the set: The framed photo of Richard Kind’s Mayor Aubrey James. At one point, he takes a seat at his own desk -- across from that of partner Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) and outside the captain’s office -- and takes a call about a case. The set is familiar from the first season, but a close look reveals hints about how much this show is diverging from comic book canon.

When asked, McKenzie says Gotham Season 2 feels like a whole new world, and one that is not slavish to a Batman we’ve known from 75 years worth of history. He says the show is taking ownership over its own universe – which will also be revealed by the introduction of new characters, such as Michael Chiklis’ Captain Barnes -- and is “completely reoriented” this season.
“In our version of the story, Bruce Wayne does not become Batman unless Jim Gordon is Jim Gordon...I help manifest Batman, and we can take our time,” he says. McKenzie says they remain respectful of the intention of the series, but that they can use new characters in conjunction with those from the Batman mythology to imbue the spirit and create it anew.

“There is so many different ways to attack this thing. And if we’re making an entertaining show, relax; we’ll get to the Batman stuff.”

However, McKenzie admits the first season got “sidetracked into a procedural type show” that was less complex because his role was to effectively catch the bad guy established in the first act. Clearly excited about the revamped direction of the show, the actor says, “There will never be a case of the week, hopefully, ever again.” 

“There will always be a serialized element, which opens up the world to a much richer, deeper relationship between all the characters.”

One of those characters benefitting this season is Sean Pertwee. He is the butler Alfred Pennyworth on the show, but, right now, he is playing photographer for me. We are in the study of stately Wayne Manor, where burgeoning detective Bruce hunts for clues about his parents’ murder and his father’s business. He points out a few items, such as the large painting of The Exodus, in the old money mansion. But he chooses instead to pose me in front of the fireplace, which pushes in and, on screen, reveals a hidden stairwell that leads to a cave that may or may not be populated with bats.

In the comics, an elderly Pennyworth has military training that aids him as Batman’s advisor and medic. But Pertwee’s younger, middle-aged butler actually gets out in the world to charm, threaten, and fight. He says Alfred questions his mortality this year, and his oath to Thomas Wayne to protect Bruce might also mean being drawing on his own character’s darkness to deal with the young boy’s. 

In the first three episodes of Season 2, Pertwee gets great character moments to interact with others, not unlike Alfred’s first season highlights with Fish Mooney and his old friend Reggie. In the second episode, he has what he says is a great story arc with another well-known supporting player from the Batverse. One scene in particular – which Pertwee says was a version of the audition process he had with executive producer Bruno Heller -- has Alfred dropping the proper English grammar and going full London East End, and using that vernacular like a weapon.

“What I personally loved about the scene is they read each other,” says Pertwee. “It’s kind of a fencing match...he is also interviewing someone to join the ranks of operation good guys, and boy does Gotham need them.

But Pertwee also says we’ll see Alfred use his fists, his “chaps,” as weapons again in an “off the charts” episode early this season.

“You’ll see him fly again in Episode 3; he’s let out the chaps again, which is always fun when you see what Alfred is really capable of,” he says. 

Speaking to the season as a whole, he adds, “We’re building up to something massive at the moment.”

“The story arcs are much longer now; they’re three or four episodes now, like what is happening to Doctor Who. You have a cliffhanger at the end of each episode, but there’s a bigger arc.”

After a few hours on set, watching the cast interact and get excited by the new episodes, Pertwee sends me off with a summation of Gotham, Season 2. He says the show is really flying now, and they are coming out of the gate on Monday night, “not with an arrogant swagger, but a confident gait.”

Case closed? Tune in tonight and see for yourself.

Check out the gallery below for images of our set visit to Gotham, including a brief glimpse at new areas like Edward Nygma’s apartment, Galavan's penthouse, Penguin's lair, and the not-quite Batcave. Also, enjoy many shots of the cast playing around.

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