Vision Vs. Craftsmanship: Gotham Vs. Cloak & Dagger

Cloak and Dagger is the latest offering from Marvel TV’s latest branch, what I refer to as Marvel Young Adult. Marvel YA currently consists of two shows, Freeform’s Cloak and Dagger and Hulu’s Runaways, which between them demonstrate a house style for the Marvel YA branch. Decompressed storytelling, slow-burn character development, simplistic visuals, grounded characters dealing with fantastical elements being shoved into their lives.

Less charitable terms would include “slow” and “kind of basic,” taking ten episodes to work through pretty simple plot points.

And then there is Gotham.

Gotham is wildly creative in its design and in its villainous characters, often gorgeous in its set design and shot composition. Characters constantly forge and break alliances, make and change plans, and every now and then a maniacal ginger sweeps through to upend everything for a few episodes. It burns through multiple plots over the course of one season, ranging from simple to operatic in scope. And most of them are really, really stupid.

In other words, it’s a wildly inconsistent show with no stable characterizations that has the odd moment or scene of greatness but is mostly a trash fire.

Cloak and Dagger is a grounded, narratively sound show about two young people dealing with real issues like police corruption, corporate greed, and addiction; and also the fantastic, as they both develop magic powers that might mean they’re preordained to save all of New Orleans. So why is it that I struggled to get through its ten episodes so much more than I did Gotham’s latest season? Why am I more excited to see Gotham wrap up than I am to see what Cloak and Dagger does now that all of the origin stuff is out of the way?

I think what it comes down to is craftsmanship vs. vision, and how each show only has one. Cloak and Dagger has craftsmanship. It’s good at building consistent characters and by-the-numbers plot points that, in most but not all cases, build and payoff naturally. They’re just basic and a little dull.

Gotham… well it’s never dull, I’ll give it that. They come up with three ways for all of Gotham to be in peril per season, each big and epic, each gorgeously shot. There are moments, every now and then, usually in a scene featuring Penguin and the Riddler, where the show nearly reaches greatness. However, try to describe any single character arc and you end up sounding like a raving lunatic.

Okay. Let’s throw up some subheaders and look at some specifics.

Craftsmanship

“Skill without imagination is craftsmanship, and gives us many useful objects such as wickerwork picnic baskets.” -Tom Stoppard

So at the lead of Cloak and Dagger are Tyrone and Tandy. Tyrone’s a private school basketball player whose brother was killed by a police officer, Tandy’s living rough and scamming rich douchebags because her father was wrongly blamed by the Roxxon corporation for the destruction of an offshore rig, leaving Tandy and her addict mother broke. And the night Tyrone’s brother and Tandy’s father both died, both thanks in part to that rig explosion, they both washed up on the same beach. And when they’re reunited years later, they discover that the explosion gave them powers. Tandy can summon daggers of light, Tyrone can teleport, and when they touch people, they can see visions of their hopes or fears respectively.

Tandy’s addiction issues are well done and not overplayed, as she goes from being hooked on opioids (I assume, what other prescription pills do you grind up and snort?) to being addicted to a simulation of her father’s voice to freebasing people’s hopes and dreams (our hero, ladies and gentlemen). She’s a tough character to like but easy enough to empathize with. Tyrone is a well-built character, to be sure, and the better of the two. He’s still filled with anger over the death of his brother, and the utter lack of repercussions for the officer involved (who, by the way, is now Bad Lieutenant levels of corrupt), but his parents are riding him to stay on the straightest of narrows lest he die too. His motives make sense, his frustrations are real, his arc speaks to an important issue in the US, and that would all be great, it’s just, it’s just…

No, we’ll get to that later.

Gotham, as I described… well, no fewer than five people have, at one point over the series, launched a scheme of mild to mass destruction in an effort to show Jim Gordon “who he really is,” and it is an ordeal each time and whoever’s doing it is instantly the worst person on the show. Well, okay, that’s not entirely true, it takes a lot to be worse than perpetual nogoodnik Barbara Kean, and not everyone out to prove a point to Jim Gordon manages it.

Ugh. Barbara Kean. I guess the producers like the actress playing her because she has been a train wreck since season one, has almost never been in a good storyline, certainly not as a main character, but she just won’t go away. Death couldn’t do it. Although, really, to be anyone in Gotham’s crime circles you really need to die at least once. It’s like a rite of passage.

They’re so thirsty to bring in as many Bat-villains as possible that they introduced Jerome, the proto-Joker, who commits a series of carnival-themed mass murders while acting as Joker-like as possible (even with a sewn-on face at one point, to homage the recent classic “Death of the Family”), but they never commit to him actually being the Joker, because they seem perpetually unwilling to think more than one story ahead. At one point he magically shows up at Wayne Manor (which has the worst security in the known universe, villains stroll into Bruce’s study all the goddamn time) and literally smashes a more interesting plot point.

Gotham is filled with big ideas but very little notion of how to pull them off.

And yet.

Vision

Craftsmanship is what allows Legion showrunner Noah Hawley to craft a tight and compelling story arc each season. Vision is what makes every frame of Legion a painting, the most innovative show on TV.

And I am here to tell you that for all of Cloak and Dagger’s craftsmanship, it has precious little vision.

Okay. Let me back up to that rig explosion for a second. See, while Roxxon is happy to try to pin everything on Tandy’s father, the real cause was that they were cutting corners to save money while trying to drill for a weird and sinister magical energy like it’s oil.

Let me say that again. They are drilling for a weird and sinister magical energy like it’s oil and if that wasn’t enough corporate greed for ten episodes they are doing it sloppily to save money, which puts all of New Orleans at risk because exposure to this weird energy turns people into rage monsters, and every time some douche in a suit tries to save $50 by ignoring the engineers in charge of extracting the dark and sinister soul-juice mortal man was not meant to meddle with, they risk a citywide rage monster outbreak.

That… that should be the main story. Right? Shouldn’t it? Magical force gives two teens superpowers, same magical force threatens to wipe New Orleans off the map? Only Tyrone’s new girlfriend’s voodoo-slinging mother can point Cloak and Dagger to their destiny? Right?

Then why is it only a thing in episodes six, seven, and ten?

This is the main plot. This is what Tyrone and Tandy have been given powers to prevent. And yet it is at best the C-plot of the first season, and the A and B plots are… so, so basic.

Tyrone is out to bring the cop (Officer-now-Detective Connors) who killed his brother to justice. One cop. One cop who has graduated from shooting unarmed black youths to having some unspecified major role in New Orleans’ drug trade, which is being run by one person who maybe is Detective Connors? I don’t know. It is not clear. I think it’s supposed to be a plot point for season two and God I hate it when shows do that.

So with the secret mastermind of New Orleans’ drug supply off the table until next year, Tyrone’s out to bring down one cop. Just one. One committing so many crimes that you’d think it was only a matter of time before he got caught for something.

There are three really big problems with this taking up half of our season, to the point where Detective Connors is still demanding focus while rage zombies are swarming over New Orleans.

First. One corrupt cop doesn’t exactly live up to the likes of Damien Darhk, Wilson Fisk, the Reverse-Flash, or Kilgrave, does it? Doesn’t even live up to The Hand or Vandal goddamn Savage. An effort to bring down one single cop who killed a black youth back in the day is not something I look for in an entire season of a TV show that opens with the Marvel logo. It is, at best, a two-part episode of Elementary.

By comparison, Gotham is endlessly creative in its creation of villains. Robin Lord Taylor’s Oswald Cobblepot is almost enough to keep me invested on his own. Cameron Monaghan’s not-Joker-but-Jokeresque Jerome improves with every outing. But the one highlight I’ll name is Anthony Carrigan’s take on Victor Zsasz, which is possibly… no, definitely… the best version of this B-list Bat-villain ever done. He’s used sparingly but is a delight every time he turns up. Detective Connors is used constantly and wears thin quickly.

Yes, sure, it is extremely difficult for the families of African Americans wrongfully killed by the police to get any sort of justice, but I don’t turn to superhero shows to tell me justice isn’t possible. I have the news for that. And this brings us to point two.

Second. In order to stretch Detective Connors’ schemes out to near the end of episode ten, they need to make the entirety of the NOPD hopelessly, comically corrupt to its very core. There are two good cops in all of New Orleans: Detective Brigid O’Reilly, freshly transferred from Harlem*, and Fuchs, the uniform officer she starts dating. Every other cop in New Orleans is willing to do whatever it takes to cover up any and all crimes Connors commits, up to and including unambiguously murdering other cops. Why? Why is this? Because of the uncle he mentions after he kills Tyrone’s brother, the one who presumably made that go away? Because he’s the N’Awlins drug kingpin they’re keeping in place because hey, at least they know where all the drugs are coming from? Impossible to say. Both of those concepts are hinted at but never explored because Zod Almighty forbid that any actually interesting story points get explored in the first season. No, just put a pin in everything but Connors’ crime spree and Tandy’s daddy issues.

Gotham, on the other hand, leaves nothing on the table. Any plotline could get thrown out in five episodes if the showrunner thinks up something he likes more, so they get right to the meat of it as quickly as they can. Sure the plot is possibly, even probably very stupid, but at least you’re not shouting “Get there!” Well, maybe Party Boy Dick Bruce. That overstayed its welcome fast, but in general my point stands.

But the real problem with painting the entire NOPD as this corrupt is that it saps Tyrone’s plotline of that realism that people are likely to use to defend it. Connors doesn’t get away with killing Tyrone’s brother because of the blue code of silence. He doesn’t get acquitted by a grand jury because the defense stacked it with white jurors. No, the entire NOPD twists itself into a pretzel to cover up his every wrongdoing, even when fellow cops are dying. An entire precinct watches him openly plot to murder Tyrone and fellow cop O’Reilly while they’re in handcuffs and just says “Sure.”

That’s not realism, that’s HR from Person of Interest, the organised crime syndicate operating within the NYPD. Except it’s worse than that because HR hadn’t taken over the entire force, and was taken down twice in three seasons. It’s the cartoonishly corrupt police department of Gotham, the police department that agreed to let Oswald “Penguin” Cobblepot take over law enforcement through the issuing of crime licenses. But Jeebas, when that happened, Jim Gordon was able to redeem the entire GCPD in only nine episodes, despite being so terrible at everything he does. Seriously, there isn’t a trap he hasn’t walked gleefully into, a villain he hasn’t tried to fight single-handedly even though it never worked. But even he could redeem a police district by setting a good example.

And the fact that the NOPD is so hopelessly corrupted brings us to problem number three… Connors doesn’t go to jail. He gets swallowed by Tyrone’s powers. Consumed by the “cloak” that his powers manifest. So the moral of Tyrone’s arc is “The system is so broken that the only way to get justice is murder.”

That’s… are we there? Has it gotten that bad? That a show aimed at teens is advocating that murder is the only justice?

I don’t love that**. I don’t know what the real path to justice is, or if there even is one, but superheroes are supposed to leave a little hope that it exists.

*Luke Cage‘s Misty Knight and O’Reilly are established as buds on both shows. Between that and the head of Roxxon saying he has to compete with the Starks and the Rands, there’s more Marvel-universe-connecting than we ever saw on Runaways. But let’s not get excited about crossovers. We all know there won’t be any.

**To specify, I am 100% fine with Detective Connors taking the express train to the Bad Place, I just would have rathered O’Reilly killed him.

And then there’s Tandy

Tandy’s arc is a little less straight-forward, and more tied to Roxxon’s rage zombies. It’s just a little… all over the place. She’s all about grifting, then she’s all about proving that her father wasn’t responsible for the explosion and bringing down Roxxon, then she learns one bad thing that breaks her image of her perfect father… in fairness it was a pretty damn bad thing… and immediately forgets about her dad’s good name (fair, maybe?), the Roxxon assassin who killed her mother’s boyfriend to stop his lawsuit against them (way less fair), and the fact that Roxxon is drilling for magic ooze and being cheap and careless about it which is the entire reason her father is dead. That’s not particularly fair at all. Especially since she forgets all of that in order to become an even worse person than she was before, moving from stealing people’s stuff to stealing their hopes.

It’s not all shoddy writing, though. Not entirely. There is a consistent characterization happening here. Not as rigidly, maddeningly consistent as Gotham’s Jim Gordon, whose character is so consistent he never once learns a lesson about running off to confront a villain without bringing backup, but also not so wildly inconsistent as… everyone else on Gotham. It’s just a bit a slog to get through.

And they know it’s a slog. That’s why the penultimate episode has a framing device in which they keep cutting to one of Tyrone’s teachers explaining the “regression” stage of Joseph’s Campbell’s Hero’s Journey monomyth theory, and how it’s frustrating for the reader/viewer but an important stage in the hero’s story, so we just have to buckle down and get through it.

Couple things.

I) “Regression” is not a stage of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. It’s merely one of the various tropes writers have employed in the “Ordeal” stage. So becoming a worse person than when we met her is not, strictly speaking, a necessary stage of the hero’s journey, it’s just the one they chose, and…

II) Having a character basically step outside of the narrative and explain to the audience that this is going to be frustrating but we promise it’s important demonstrates a deep lack of faith in their own plot point. From the second scene (the first is Tyrone’s new girlfriend Evita’s voodoo-priestess mother doing a rum-based ritual to figure out what, specifically, is dooming New Orleans… I don’t have time to explain that sentence, just read it again and try to keep up), they are apologizing for this entire episode. If that’s something you feel a need to do… then write something else, because your own script is trying to tell you something.

So Tandy is unpleasant. She’s not a natural born hero, she’s an addict given power and it takes her a while to choose to use it wisely. It’s not inherently a bad arc, it’s just really slow, and has an 11th-hour regression that even the show’s writers don’t care for, or at least don’t believe in. She resists being a hero with every fibre of her being for nine and a half episodes. Which is Marvel YA, and kind of Marvel Netflix, all over. They take a story that would normally fit comfortably into a two hour movie and pad and stretch it out into 10-13 episodes. Maybe that’s your thing. Personally, I prefer to have the character decide to be a hero within two episodes and spend the first season learning how exactly to do that through episodic adventures, and that’s something the CW is more than happy to provide me with, but if you’d rather spend ten hours watching Tandy learn to care about something other than herself then hey here that is.

That Forest

Cloak and Dagger does have a few moments of inspiration. Episode three ends with Tyrone and Tandy experiencing a vision representing each other’s pasts and possible futures, bringing each to the conclusion that the other needs to change their approach. It’s a bravura sequence in a season that has, maybe, three of those. But the issue I’m bringing up is that a big chunk of the vision, certainly most of Tyrone’s vision about Tandy, takes place in this one chunk of forest. A lot of visions take place in that one chunk of forest. Don’t know why.

It’s an attempt at vision. It just… doesn’t quite get there. Not compared to the poison-induced fever dream that convinces Bruce Wayne to stop being a jackass and get back to Batmanning in season four of Gotham.

The Framing Devices

Three times over the course of the season, there’s a framing device for an episode. Three times they cut between the main narrative and Evita having something explained to her, usually by her voodoo priestess mother (honestly, I don’t know what else I have to explain there, I said it perfectly clearly all three times), and once by the possibly alcoholic priest (another story given almost no attention so we can focus on trying to prove Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans might be a bad cop) who teaches English at her and Tyrone’s school. Each one of these framing devices has a serious problem to it.

In the first, Evita’s mother does a tarot card reading on Tyrone and Tandy. Over the course of the entire episode. The problem here is that it’s episode six and we’ve never had a framing device untethered to the main narrative before. Tyrone and Tandy’s plots take multiple days to play out, and throughout all of it, Evita’s mother is just slowly dealing out cards. We don’t know that this isn’t supposed to match the timeline of the main stories, we just think she’s taking forever to do a simple card reading. “I’ve been dealing the cards for years,” she says. “This specific reading?” I ask.

The second we talked about. A side character comes a step away from literally apologizing for the ninth episode. Not even Inhumans did that.

And in the third, Evita’s mother walks us through her belief in the Divine Pairings: pairs of people throughout history who came together to save New Orleans from some major crisis, always through one of them dying. This has been what she’s been spending half of the season telling us, that Tyrone and Tandy are a Divine Pairing, a crisis is coming, and one of them will have to die stopping it. Before I tell you the problem with this framing device, let me give it props for setting each story to a cover of “Come Sail Away” that matches the time period. That was neat.

The issue is not the fact that of course neither Tandy nor Tyrone are going to die, they wanted and received a second season. The issue is that a lot of her examples call her whole theory into question. In order…

  1. Two native siblings, one of which drowns herself to stop a famine, the other of which doesn’t really do anything. That’s not a story about a Divine Pairing, that’s a story about one girl who died to appease a mean, mean god or whatever.
  2. Two brothers have a duel over a woman, one of them throws it, and a storm that maybe would have gotten around to menacing New Orleans coincidentally ends as he dies. Honestly I’m a little surprised anyone, even the voodoo community, bothered to write this one down. It was raining and then it wasn’t and also a rich asshole got shot by his brother. Lumping it in with the others smacks of confirmation bias if’n you ask me.
  3. A messenger in the War of 1812 who was carrying word that the war was over and the Battle of New Orleans could call it a day, and the woman who delivered his message after he’s shot in front of her. That’s… there were a lot of other people in that story, lady.
  4. A doctor that’s trying to cure a plague, and injects his own blood into his lover in an attempt to cure him. And when the final, lethal withdrawal of blood cures the doctor’s lover, the plague in general goes away. Again, that’s one person who did a thing and one person who was pretty enough to motivate him, “Divine Pairing” might be stretching things.

So really it’s no surprise Tandy and Tyrone defy their supposed destiny. The Divine Pairing theory has some holes in it. What we really have, at most, is a dark force that agrees to stop screwing with the New Orleans area if someone good offs themself, and also a possibly apocryphal anecdote about the War of 1812.

You never have to worry about Gotham having a larger meaning it fails to live up to. Mostly from lack of effort on their part to have a larger meaning. Basically they just keep coming up with excuses to say “It’s a new day in Gotham,” and the only way they can fail to pay that off is if the last shot of the finale isn’t Bruce putting on his Batman costume for the first time while Jim Gordon repeats the line.

Random Cloak and Dagger thoughts

  • To reiterate, Tandy sees a Roxxon assassin kill her would-be step-dad to silence the lawsuit he was helping her mother with, and she just… forgets about it. Moves on. Makes a deal with Roxxon like they don’t have an assassin who cleans up their messes, and won’t risk catastrophe to save less money than she was demanding. That’s beyond Jim Gordon-level foolish, that is season one Iron Fist Danny Rand-level dumb.
  • Oliver Queen and Barry Allen have made some questionable decisions these past six seasons but they’ve never freebased stolen hopes. That was an extreme regression for the penultimate episode.
  • While explaining that this regression that sorry, we know you hate, was going to forge Tandy and Tyrone into stronger heroes (well Tandy had nowhere to go but up, really), it also hints that we’re witnessing Detective O’Reilly’s origin as a villain. Guess we’ll see where that’s heading next season. I’m okay with it. The actress was pretty good.
  • The commentary on US race relations is pretty spot-on. It was just done better on Black Lightning. Which again managed to show that cops can be bad and/or racist without turning the entire police force into Cobra from GI Joe.
  • It’s early days yet but I can basically guarantee you’re not going to be seeing Tyrone’s name under “Best Male Lead” next June. He’s trying his best but he’s got a ways to go.

Random Gotham thoughts

  • This is the worst thing Gotham has ever done, and it involves Ivy Pepper, who we’re made to believe from episode one will later be Poison Ivy, despite the fact that even Joel Schumacher knew that Poison Ivy’s name is Pamela Isely. Anyway, in season one and two, she’s a young girl, but twice over the course of the show she’s magically aged-up into older bodies that emerge wearing her old clothes, now small and clingy to show off the new body’s… matured shape. It is also made clear, at least the first time, that her mind didn’t age up with her. Starting in season three Ivy Pepper has the mind of a 12 year old but a body the producers are legally free to sexualize, and that’s gross, that’s a gross thing they did, it’s gross.
  • I never knew how much I wanted Mr. Freeze to fight Firefly until it happened in season two and it was gorgeous.
  • Speaking of Mr. Freeze, I appreciate how they dispensed with an old tradition, as Harvey Bullock insists Victor Fries’ name isn’t pronounced “Freeze.” He says “No, I’m good with last names. It’s not ‘freeze,’ it’s ‘frice.'” Turns out he’s right.
  • Also clever, if sadly short-lived… Ra’s Al Ghul dispatches colourful assassins to reclaim a special dagger from Bruce Wayne. When they fail, and the GCPD becomes involved, he tries a new tactic… he shows up at the GCPD in glasses and a sweater-vest saying “Hello, I’m Ra’s Al Ghul from the Nanda Parbat consulate, may we have our cultural artifact back please?” If the GCPD hadn’t been answering to Penguin at the time it would have worked. And it’s something Arrowverse Ra’s Al Ghul would never have thought up. That’s three times Gotham has done a villain better than you, Arrow, get it together.

And finally, my conclusion

Am I saying Gotham is a better show than Cloak and Dagger? No. That’s a not a statement I or anyone could stand behind. Better than Inhumans, sure, better than Iron Fist, yes, but better than Cloak and Dagger, not so much.

It is, however, so much more watchable. Gotham’s good episodes may be vastly outnumbered by the bad ones, but I keep tuning back in because for every plotline that has me screaming in complaint, there’s another where I have to see where it’s going.

Cloak and Dagger… I knew within two episodes where the bulk of this was going, and was very swiftly impatient for it to hurry up and get there. It didn’t help that they leaned into the previous season’s most overplayed and annoying trope.

Cloak and Dagger has very solid fundamentals. But they need to think bigger. They need to commit to a central narrative, and make it one that’s fun to watch now and then.

They need vision.

Until then… No Man’s Land for the final season of Gotham? Where are they going with that?

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