Batwoman -- “Gore on Canvas” -- Image Number: BWN205fg_0055r -- Pictured (L-R): Javicia Leslie as Batwoman -- Photo: The CW -- © 2021 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

With the re-casting of its main character between the first and second seasons, there’s no way that a shadow wasn’t going to hang over CW’s Batwoman. We’ve talked about it before. This is technically Batwoman Season 2 , but it’s season 1 in so many of the ways that count. But instead of ignoring it, the show is owning it, and that might be starting to work in its favor, even if we still have lots of questions. Spoilers follow for Batwoman Season 2, Episode 5, “Gore on Canvas.”

“Gore on Canvas”

One thing we’ll definitely keep bringing up is the weirdness of the mystery at the center of the show: “What happened to Kate Kane?” In recasting the character instead of the actress, the showrunners of Batwoman painted themselves into a corner. A recast actress you can shrug off. It breaks the metanarrative for an episode, maybe two, while people get used to the new face of the character. But in swapping out the character, you’re forced to acknowledge the absence of the original. The story of the second Batwoman lives inside the story of the first, to start.

This was kind of inevitable, but it puts the writers in a weird place. I’m fully buying into the tension of the Kate Kane mystery, but definitely not for the reasons the writers intend. At first, I was annoyed; how can they make a mystery out of her disappearance when we know full well she’s not coming back? But now, I’m enthralled. How are they going to resolve this mystery in a satisfying way when we already know the answer to the mystery in a meta sense?

Kate has to be dead, right? There’s no way this ends up with a happy ending. I know it’s going to go badly for the characters, but I’m left wondering if it’ll go badly for the writers, too, or if they’ll be able to pull off an interesting journey to the ending we all know is coming. The tension should be focused entirely on the characters, but instead I feel like I’m watching the writers pull off the narrative equivalent of a 720 Heelflip and hoping they land it instead of completely beefing it.

Jack Napier

With all of that said, Kate’s disappearance is acting as somewhat of a unifying force for the show right now; her fate drives Batwoman, the Crows, and Alice’s stories. Batwoman and Alice both have some personal narrative stuff going on along with that investigation, but it’s definitely in the mix.

This week, Batwoman is following up on a mystery introduced earlier this season, a painting somehow connected to Safiyah. We previously learned that the painting is by Jack Napier. Batman fans will recognize that name as belonging to the man who would become Joker in the 1989 Tim Burton Batman film. Batwoman didn’t initially confirm that connection–it was possible it was just an easter egg for Batman fans. But this week, the show confirms it: Jack Napier is the alias for the Joker in the Arrowverse/CWverse. This continues the network’s trend of mixing and matching source materials for backround information and lore in an effort to make it feel connected without also having to lift lore wholesale.

This Joker, though, isn’t the fun kind who puts bang flags into pistols or releases gas from silly clown balloons. He’s the truly psychopathic type who kills a person and uses their viscera to mark existing paintings, a more macabre version of the museum scene from Batman 1989. Between this and the Joker being canonically dead, it seems like that Batman film is the basic template for the Batman of the Arrowverse. That makes me wonder what  CW Batman prequel series would look like, that builds off of Batman and Batman Returns.

But this isn’t about Napier himself–his painting is a MacGuffin to help tell Ryan’s story.

Trust Me

And this week is about Ryan asserting herself. She’s the one wearing the suit, but Luke (who sits behind a desk), Mary (who is pretty new to Team Batwoman), and Sophie (a literal cop) all have ideas about how Ryan should do her job as Batwoman. Repeatedly, they call her judgment into question. There’s even a great moment where Ryan is talking about not wanting to need Luke’s approval and it cuts to him questioning her judgment. The timing of the cut is funny but also drives the point home.

Ryan is doubting the judgment of all three throughout the episode. Her mission is to steal the Jack Napier “painting” from an underground cabal of art collectors, and Ryan agrees to work with the Crows to infiltrate the so-called Collective. Meanwhile, there’s another art thief on the loose. This is Wolfspider, painting-pilfering charactert from the Batwoman comics.

The way the show handles this character is a bit weird. I like the person behind the mask, a genderqueer socialite who is sort of an amped-up version of a rich shoplifter; they’re looking for excitement and to give other rich people something to talk about. But the show acts like the people of Gotham know who Wolfspider is, despite having never so much as mentioned them in the context of the show.

Despite all this, the character is sort of an impetus for Ryan to be able to assert herself. The Crows sideswipe the thief, who is just wearing well-tailored spandex. Ryan puts her foot down, proving that her distrust of the Crows as well founded, and demonstrates that the people she’s working with need to trust that her judgment needs to be acknowledged.

Trying to find a balance

This week’s episode feels like it balances fleshing out Ryan’s character in a meaningful way and expanding Batwoman’s universe while also trying to deal with the huge albatross the show has designed of itself in the “mystery” of Kate Kane’s fate. The real mark of whether or not this season is successful is whether it can get me wrapped up in the mystery of Kate Kane, instead of having me trying to solve the meta puzzle box of how the writers handle it.

Batwoman airs on The CW on Sundays at 7 PM CST.