gotham-selina-kyleEpisode two of Gotham, broadcast last night on FOX-TV, established an interesting theme that makes for an interesting story element and even has some resonance beyond television entertainment. The series depicts the origins of Batman and the major villains he will confront as an adult. The episode deals with the childhood years of three of the show’s major characters: Bruce Wayne, Selina Kyle, and Oswald Cobblepot. In so doing, it brings up the subject of personal responsibility, but doesn’t suggest any easy answers.

It’s interesting to note, after all, that the old “nature versus nurture” argument can be seen as undermining the idea of free will: regardless of whether genes or environment/experiences drive our behavior, the latter is being driven, at least in great part, by something other than our own will. Last night’s episode of Gotham, however, avoids that trap. It does so by examining the similarities and differences between the childhoods and parentage of the three very different characters.

Bruce Wayne, we know will grow up to be Batman, a somewhat troubled hero but a hero nonetheless. Selina Kyle will grow up to be the Catwoman, who has been presented in recent decades as a character torn between conflicting impulses toward both good and evil. Oswald Cobblepot will become the Penguin, a cartoonish villain.

Each of the three characters loses his or her parents at a relatively young age. In Wayne’s case it is through the murder of his parents. Selina Kyle has been orphaned and is living on the streets. Cobblepot lives with his clueless mother (expertly played by Carol Kane), who seems to have provided little guidance or strength of character. She does seem, however, to have attempted to teach him right from wrong.

Cobblepot seems to have inherited some of his mother’s weakness: he is a sneaking, sniveling character whose outbursts of violence indicate a strong streak of sadism. One might speculate that the latter was inherited, but we are given no indication of it. From the beginning, however, Cobblepot is presented as a disloyal backstabber who deservedly is sentenced to death by the crime boss for whom he works. His life is spared by another character, but Cobblepot chooses to double down on his wickedess.

Thus over the course of the series’ first two episodes, Cobblepot evolves from a minor figure in a criminal enterprise into a vicious, irrational killer. In light of these facts, the most reasonable conclusion is that Cobblepot has chosen his path in life and is morally responsible for it.

Selina Kyle has won the genetic lottery: she is intelligent, athletic, attractive, brave, and resourceful.These gifts, however, barely serve to keep her alive and out of the juvenile home as she is living on the streets. What happened to the parents that gave her those genetic gifts is an interesting question. Kyle shows benevolent impulses toward Bruce Wayne and her fellow street children, but she’s willing to do whatever it takes to survive, even threatening to destroy a policeman’s career simply in order to get a chance to talk with Jim Gordon.

Then there is Bruce Wayne. In an important sequence in episode two, we see Bruce testing his pain tolerance by burning his palm over a candle flame, and butler Alfred Pennyworth informs Gordon of the reason he will not interfere in the boy’s choices: the Waynes’ will specified that Alfred should allow Bruce to find his own way in life, making his own choices.

Here the implications of the interest in the characters’ childhoods becomes explicit. Writer Bruno Heller establishes that these three characters, with their very different backgrounds and genetic gifts, share one important characteristic: they’ve all been left to choose their way. Each, we know, will choose a path quite different from the others’.It’s a rich theme for an origin story—or for any story, for that matter.