Gotham's Lesson in Slow Burn Romance

Gotham was always a show that intrigued me. The darkness, the exploration of villains and heroes before they became who we know them as, and how the show is mostly focused on James Gordon back when he was the main crime fighter. I'd seen about half of the first season when it came out, but it wasn't really the kind of show that interested me back then.

Sometime in September 2020, I decided to give the show another shot because I remembered enjoying the way Gotham started hinting at the relationship between Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle. Though they were children, the episodes I had seen were already setting up the will-they-won't-they relationship that Batman and Catwoman are famous for. And as I rewatched the show, I marveled at the way the writers played with the BatCat slow burn romance. The more I watched, the more I knew that I wanted to explore the writing behind it and break it down as one of the best examples I've seen in a long time.

Warning: Spoilers for the show are ahead, so read at your own risk.

I'll admit that I've never really followed the BatCat romance through comic books. I feel like the movies have done a decent job of playing around with the idea, but none of them have dedicated enough time to truly explore what it means for Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle to be romantically involved.

Going into Gotham, I knew that it was pretty much the only reason I was watching the show again. I wanted to see how the writers would explore the relationship as the characters grow from children into near-adults. What I didn't expect was how much I would learn from the writing and the way it developed one of the best slow-burn romances I've ever seen on television.

To me, the reason why the slow-burn romance works so well is because the writers use these particular elements to make it believable. We get to fall in love with the characters as they fall in love with each other.

humanizing the backstory

It's no secret that Bruce Wayne is a billionaire, and that makes it hard for anyone to date him. But when that person comes from the streets and a broken home? It only gets harder.

As a show, Gotham does a great job of giving more depth to both backstories. Allowing us to see how Bruce becomes Batman and how Selina Kyle becomes Catwoman makes their relationship more interesting gives us more to root for as an audience. Though the common BatCat ship is perhaps one of DC's most popular hero-villain romances, the focus tends to be on what grows out of two adults navigating a complication relationship dynamic. Yet, Gotham creates a compelling backstory for two kids that shows us exactly why the two are so perfect for each other.

In many ways, Selina becomes a rock in Bruce's life after the loss of his parents. As children, she's the first person in his life who understands what it's like to grow up without parents. It makes for a heartbreaking beginning to friendship, but we truly get to see how much Selina wants a family in the way Bruce still has Alfred. Through her attempts to find family, we see Selina put misplaced trust in people who take advantage of her. Her belief in those who can seemingly give her what she wants is frustrating, but it lines up with her desire to make something of herself. Even as she gets older, Selina simply wants something that she can truly call her own. Her journey through the streets and a life of crime give her great dimension as a character and makes the push-and-pull nature of her relationship with Bruce all the more realistic.

Most of us are familiar with the tragic backstory of Bruce Wayne losing his parents, but we don't really see the movies focus on what it was like for him to grow up under Alfred's care. That where this show does a great job of giving us a glimpse into how a child became such a hardened vigilante. The fact that Gotham isn't actually about Batman makes it easier for them to take liberties with exploring his youth. We see Bruce go through many stages of grief and see how watching his parents die begins to affect him. After all, he's a child and it makes sense that he'll act out in the years after their passing. Whether that's through testing how long he can hold his breath or putting himself into dangerous situations, we gain a little more sympathy for the boy when we see how his entire life is shaped by that one night and how it skews what would otherwise be a luxurious puberty.

I love that Gotham took the time to explore both characters' complicated lives because it really gives us a better understanding of why they become the people we know them to be as adults. And since the actors were so young when they were cast, we do get to see them literally grow up on screen too. It's one thing to say that they've grown up together, it's another to watch Bruce Wayne's voice change and see Selina Kyle's features sharpen with age. With this happening on the screen, it becomes easier to follow the natural progression of their relationship as to grows along with them.

developing common ground

There's little common ground for the two to have considering their upbringing. The main thing tying them together is a life without parents, though Selina isn't technically an orphan. Even though Bruce has Alfred, it's not the same as having a father and that's something Selina understands.

Over time, their love for Gotham becomes another thing they have in common. It's expressed differently, but they both want to make sure nothing happens to their city. On opposing sides of the law, they do their best to protect the balance of crime and justice that Gotham needs to function properly. The city wouldn't be itself without criminals running around in the dark as the police try to make things better. And more than most other characters on the show, Bruce and Selina seem to understand that. Though they might get frustrated with each other for being on the other side at times, they accept that they come from different lives and have different ways of making sure their home is taken care of.

As time goes on, Selina begins rubbing off on Bruce in two notable ways. The first being her love of heights and walking on things that really shouldn't be walked on. One of their first major bonding moments happens as she teaches him to balance on a stair railing. It's clear that Bruce is nervous and barely able to keep from falling off, but he does it to impress her and because it secretly lines up with him trying to become a hero. Selina's comfort with heights forces him to be comfortable with it too, and we don't see how much he's grown as a person until he follows her up to a rooftop. His attempts to talk to her fall onto deaf ears until she challenges him to join her on the small ledge, knowing of his previous inability to conquer heights. But his confident stance as he joins her proves how much she's influenced him and allows them to share a moment before Alfred calls his ward away.

Living life on the streets means that Selina has picked up combat techniques from the various scuffles she gets into. It's not something we see a lot of in the beginning due to her petty crimes being brushed under the rug and her small stature allowing her easy escapes. As she gets older, she uses combat more often and shows more of a natural aptitude for it than Bruce does. So when she tries to hurt him and he manages to block her kick, it puts them on equal playing ground. The rich kid finally manages to hold his own against the street-smart thief.

It doesn't seem much in terms of common ground, but until this point, Selina has always held the upper ground in being able to defend herself. Knowing that Bruce has been training with a former MI6 agent and still being confident that she can beat him up is a testament to how skilled she is. The moment is tense and frustrating for both of them, but knowing that they're evenly matched gives them confidence in future episodes when they find themselves needing to fight their way out of conflict. They know from this moment that they work well together and can trust each other.

navigating growing up

One of the hardest things to do with this kind of slow-burn romance is making it age appropriate. Bruce is just about 11 when we first meet him on the show and Selina probably isn't much older. So what the heck are pre-teens supposed to do to make the viewers believe they're slowly developing feelings for each other?

Well, aside from the fact that Selina kisses him a few episodes in after daring him to do it multiple times, most of their relationship is born out of friendship. There's plenty of attraction on Bruce's part, but he also truly sees Selina as a friend and someone who grows to mean a lot to him.

The majority of their early interactions are innocent and based around being unlikely friends. No one would expect the billionaire kid's best friend to be a street thief. She helps him get information that would take too long through normal channels and he amuses her with his innocence, occasionally offering a hot meal or two. They intrigue each other because of their different lives, but that makes the friendship work. When Bruce feels the need to toughen up, he spends time in the streets with Selina. And when she needs a reminder that someone cares about her, Bruce is always there.

It's sweet, watching them try not to be awkward around each other in the way middle schoolers often are with their crushes. The circumstances and stakes are a little different, but it's still the first serious crush either of them have had. And it's adorable. I'll admit that I've spent way more time than I should watching YouTube compilations that detail how their initial attraction and interest in each other developed into a tumultuous relationship that kept growing stronger.

Honestly, if it weren't for the fact that Gotham is constantly in trouble because deranged people keep trying to take over, Bruce and Selina would actually be able to enjoy the awkwardness of liking someone and going through puberty at the same time. But the writers do a great job of never forcing them to grow up too quickly in their budding romance. They've already had to act way older than they are because of their personal lives, it's nice to watch them enjoy being kids around each other.

The older they become, the more chances they get at trying to have a romantic relationship that toes the line of being normal. I mean, when your boyfriend is trying to become a vigilante to stop crime and you're one of the best thieves in the business, romance gets a little complicated. But that never stops them from growing together as friends and partners. Though he doesn't like it, Bruce respects Selina's independence and ability to take care of herself. And though she thinks it makes him weak, Selina respects how much Bruce cares for the people around him. It's the main reason for the majority of their fights as they get older, and it remains one of the things bring them back to each other.

I think the culmination of their relationship really comes in Seasons 4 and 5. Selina's affections for the billionaire are tested when he spirals into a self-absorbed playboy to cope with the growing darkness in him. Her attempts to remind him of who he is ultimately fail, but it shows how much she has grown to care and feel for him over the years. Their reconciliation is marked with teenaged sarcasm and jokes, but the actors layer it with hints that the two are more pleased to be friends again than they'd like to admit. And by this point, they're old enough to get away with more than one innocent kiss per season.

The two continue navigating a rocky relationship as the villains begin taking over more and more of Gotham, but they never truly lose sight of their feelings for each other. The last two episodes of Season 4 were heartbreaking enough as they tested the reality of whether Bruce and Selina would actually get to be together. And though the storyline is resolved in Season 5, things are forever altered by those two episodes. It doesn't get any better as the show comes to an end, but the closer we get to the finale, the more moments we get between Bruce and Selina. One of the few comforts is getting to watch them go on a real date for the first time and see them together at a wedding, both of which show us just how much they've grown up since meeting almost five years ago.

realistic obstacles

If there's anything that marks a romance as a true slow burn, it's the number of obstacles that keep them from being together. With these two, there are plenty to choose from. Young age, evil blondes, teenage miscommunication, general life in Gotham, Bruce leaving for several months, getting shot and/or kidnapped, and bad decisions. What makes a compelling story is that all of these are perfectly good reasons why they can't be together.

Of all the things that keep them apart, my favorite is their age. It forces them to act their age and keeps the romance from developing too quickly. Being kids, we do have to let them take their time even if it's clear that their crushes have grown into something more over the years. Neither of them tries to move things forward before it's age appropriate, and it can be argued that even when they're old enough, Bruce's naiveté about the world keeps them from truly getting into a relationship.

Something Gotham does very well is letting the characters take on their own journey. They have goals outside of each other, and that ends up being one of the main reasons they're apart for so long. That and the stubbornness that comes with being a teenager.

Frustrating as it might be that these two spend years circling each other, it adds to the tension they feel when they're in the same room. Especially as they get older, it becomes easier to note the moments when they want more. The desire that's slowly building and becoming age appropriate under all the comfort they have from growing up together. Things change a lot when you go through puberty with someone.

I think one of the best things the show does in terms of keeping them apart is making it all come back down to morality. Bruce has a strong sense of justice and lives in a world that's black and white. Selina's world is a suffocating grey. Even in the GIF above, the two had just gotten into an argument about what to do with money they stole. Bruce throws it away, knowing that the reason he stole it was to prove that he'd picked up some street skills. For Selina, it was a big score to have that much money and something she'd rarely get the chance at again. It's a small scene and it's amusing, but it also shows that they come from different worlds.

Time and time again, they stand in the way of their relationship progressing. Whether that be for legitimate reasons or because they're afraid to be vulnerable, it happens a lot. But that's one of the things that makes their slow burn so well written. Over the course of the show, they're only "dating" for a few episodes before resuming an on-again-off-again relationship that usually ends with one pushing the other away. It builds the tension between them and admittedly, Gotham does a great job of creating realistic reasons for them to be apart.

character connection

Selina is kind of Bruce's only friend. Well, the only friend who is his age. All his other friends are adults. Since they're around the same age, it's easier for them to connect over things that feel like their whole world.

What makes their connection feel so genuine is how they've seen each other be vulnerable in ways most other characters haven't. Selina lived with Bruce in the aftermath of his parents' death and was the first person to make him smile again. She saw the pain he went through and she came back to make him feel better time and time again. No matter how much he pushes her away, she's always there when he needs her most and even better, she knows when he needs her without him having to say it.

On the flip side, Bruce gets to see the girl behind the tough street exterior. They bond over being kids who have seen more than they should and Bruce knows from experience that sometimes it's just an act when Selina says she doesn't care. In many ways, he makes her care. She lets her guard down around him because there's no reason for her to pretend to be anyone else. Like it or not, he accepts the person she is, even if he struggles with it.

It's sweet that he knows she's got him wrapped around her pinky. He's not afraid to admit it because for him, it's the one connection he has that runs as deep as the one he had with his family. In many ways, Selina is also more than that. She's seen the darkness and his struggles with it, yet she never shies away. Even when he can't handle it, she's there and proves that she's far stronger as a person than anyone gives her credit for.

For two characters to know each other and develop a friendship like this takes a lot of clever and intentional writing. It's not easy to keep building on a crush over several years and make it feel as pure and genuine as it was in the beginning. Giving them a clear connection that stands strong despite their differences, obstacles, and people standing in their way is one of the many reasons Gotham created turned this into the best romance on the show.

creating a good ending

Closing out the story of a romance like this is hard, especially when it's technically not their story. It's an origin story for all the main players we'll see when Batman actually becomes the Dark Knight of Gotham, but before that, they're all just people. And it's not time for Batman or Catwoman to be together yet.

Characteristic of a slow burn romance, the two people don't always end up together. Or they do, but they don't. It's kind of confusing, but the hallmark of this trope isn't actually in the characters getting together. Rather, it's the journey that takes them to the end of their relationship, whatever that may be. It seems only fitting that Gotham would play that out to the fullest extent.

A lot of the final season shows Bruce and Selina making their way back to each other after yet another tragedy strikes their relationship. They get their moments and we see what it could be like for them to be together for more than a few episodes. Really be together. But of course, Bruce is a hero and the hero (ironically) rarely gets the girl.

In the end, the story plays out exactly the way it always has. One of them pushes the other away because of how strongly they feel. They're true to their characters because Bruce and Selina wouldn't have played out in any other way. The fact that they care so much for each other makes their relationship so strong, but it's also the greatest downfall they have.

The last few scenes they have together before they're separated again show just how much they've grown as characters over the last five years. Truly teenagers on the cusp of adulthood, they've shared a lot of life together. And though they never get to say those three little words, a certain wedding scene would argue that they didn't need to. The way they look at each other is enough to convey years of feelings.

So yes, the reason why I got back into Gotham was solely to watch this romance play out. I might not have liked the ending exactly, but I think it was true to their characters, and I'd rather have that.

The show did an excellent job of employing all the things it takes to successfully draw out a slow-burn romance. They built it over several years, allowed the characters to struggle through being apart, gave them realistic reasons not to be together, and sprinkled in just enough to make the whole thing worth it. And to me, it's going down as one of the most well-written and well-acted slow burn romances ever to be part of TV.

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