Throughout its first two seasons, Gotham has relied on its cache of villains. While its ever-broadening scope and pantheon of enemies has at times threatened the cohesiveness of the show, Gotham is capitalizing on its third outing to solidify the foundation on which it was built. Thanks to the emergence of the Court of Owls, Bruce Wayne’s sprawling Rogues Gallery is being put in its place while the corrupt history of the city comes to light.
As Bruce’s world is turned upside down, and Gotham blazes new territory, the Court of Owls will become increasingly influential and more difficult to excise from the fabric of the city. While they will undoubtedly wreak havoc in Gotham, the Court of Owls will also play an essential role in the development of Bruce Wayne’s famed alter ego.
The History of the Court
Though they have been in the world of Batman comics for only five years, the Court of Owls has quickly made its mark in DC mythology. First appearing in the New 52 publication of Batman #2, the Court enriched the history of Gotham in newfound ways. Writers Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo recognized an opportunity to transcend the usual narrative of Batman as detective and crime-fighter, opting for a trajectory that would make the Dark Knight a prisoner in his own city. By creating a secret society not unlike the Illuminati, Snyder and Capullo immersed Gotham in a subterranean empire of blackmail and corruption.
Though Bruce is far younger in Gotham than in the New 52, the implications of the Court of Owls remain consistent in both universes.
For centuries, the Court of Owls existed as a folktale in Gotham with a nursery rhyme of their own:
"Beware the Court of Owls, that watches all the time,Ruling Gotham from a shadowed perch, behind granite and lime.They watch you at your hearth, they watch you in your bed.Speak not a whispered word about them, or they'll send the Talon for your head."
It’s an ominous poem, but few citizens in Gotham gave it a second thought. Bruce is an outlier, however, and he remembers blaming the deaths of his parents on the Court of Owls. Indeed, the vicious society has been in operation since the 17th century, predating the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers with a perverse history of their own. In Gotham, the clandestine Court has not only pervaded every industry, government institution, and social class, but it has also been welded into the very architectural underpinnings of the city. For Snyder and Capullo, the Court of Owls functions on a Dan Brown-level of conspiracy, like Free Masons pulling political and social strings in total secrecy.
Like the nocturnal animals for which they’re named, the Court of Owls also serves a literal purpose as the primary predator of bats. They live in the shadows, they see through the darkness, and they feast while the rest of the animal kingdom sleeps.
In the New 52, the Court of Owls placed a kill order on Bruce Wayne after learning of his plans to overhaul Gotham and usher it into a modern renaissance. What prompts the avian cabal to be so threatened? As Bruce discovers, the Court has a physical presence on the 13th floors of countless buildings across Gotham (including Wayne Enterprises itself). After stumbling into their urban nest, Batman is nearly blown to bits before plummeting into the center of a centuries-old maze.
Stuck in the ancient labyrinth of the Court of Owls, Batman becomes the prey while suffering the greatest indignities of his career. In order to stay alive, the enfeebled Dark Knight is forced to drink from a solitary wellspring in the deepest corner of the maze. Though it keeps him hydrated, this tainted liquid corrupts Batman’s mind and causes him to hallucinate. While secretly watched by countless members of the Court (some of whom are humans wearing owl masks, while others appear to be legitimate hybrid creatures), Batman slowly degenerates into a paranoid and feral man, his face and body evolving into a vicious bird-like monster. While trapped in the labyrinth, Batman observes a wall of photos showcasing the many grizzled and gray victims who had been trapped and killed in the maze. Though he refuses to accept his fate, Batman has no recourse for retaliation.
Disturbed and afraid, Batman is not alone. He is being hunted by a lethal assassin known as the Talon, a scythe-wielding zombie who safeguards the Court and faithfully does their bidding. Though he has already been emotionally destroyed by the labyrinth, Batman is nearly killed by the Talon, who stabs him clean through the stomach and bashes him to within an inch of his life. Like a gladiator in the Coliseum, the Talon fights before the Court of Owls who screech out their twisted requests for violence: “His spine! Heee-heeee…pulls his spine!” Though it’s clear the Talon has his own designs for Batman’s death, the Court allows their youngest member to determine his fate: “Hurt him…more,” the doll-like blonde whines, before the Batman is truly broken.
Before he stages a nearly impossible escape from the labyrinth, Batman bears witness to the unmitigating force of the Talon. Though he operates largely by himself (in the comics), this ninja-like assassin hails from a long line of warriors employed by the Court. Many members of the Talons were abducted from circus troupes and brainwashed into doing the bidding of their hawkish employers. To thicken the plot, Batman’s primary foe, the Talon named William Cobb, is actually Dick Grayson’s great-grandfather. Indeed, the ties between the Court of Owls and the Talon are as old as Gotham itself.
Born in 1901, William has long enjoyed the benefits of the super serum created by the Court of Owls, a fusion of silver and gold that gives the Talons immortality and the ability to survive all manner of physical punishment. In the third season of Gotham, it appears this potent recipe is exactly what Kathryn (Elaine Hendrix) demands from Doctor Hugo Strange, the Court of Owls’ primary puppet.
Implications for Gotham
The Court of Owls’ machinations have been felt since the second season. Only in recent weeks have their desires come to bear, however, as the third season established (and finally named) the Court of Owls as the primary antagonist in Gotham. Not only have we learned that Hugo Strange is the Court’s gun-for-hire, but that his ability to resurrect the dead (as he did with Fish Mooney) is the primary reason for his employment.
With Bruce Wayne in adolescent form on the show, Gotham has made some key adjustments to faithfully adapt Snyder and Capullo’s source material. Though he has yet to become Batman, young Bruce may be closer to developing his alter ego than his age suggests. In rejecting the Court of Owls’ Machiavellian antics, the orphan retaliates in kind and forces Kathryn to bargain. Despite being abducted by Talon (Brandon Alan Smith), Bruce Wayne holds his own with the Court of Owls’ maître’ d and lays the roots for the uncompromising shrewdness of the Dark Knight.
Kathryn’s quest for immortality is intriguing, but the function of the Court of Owls transcends her immortal aspirations. If Gotham has become an expansive and unfocused landscape for villainy, the presence of this massively influential and covert society helps redefine the show. While restructuring the Rogues Gallery hierarchy, the Court of Owls also defines the true enemy of Bruce Wayne: Gotham itself. Though nefarious in their own right, the Court of Owls exposes the deep-rooted political and social decay inherent to the seedy city.
Gotham isn’t a meritocracy with a political system of checks and balances. With the Court of Owls operating within their centuries-old perch, it’s clear that Gotham was built on pillars of sand. Now that the Court is back in session, Bruce Wayne comes face to face with what may remain his greatest existential threat. However the remaining episodes evolve, Gotham has made a wise move in adapting Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s rousing tale.
Gotham continues with its fall finale, ‘Beware the Green-Eyed Monster’, at 8pm on FOX.