When Gotham took off for its winter hiatus, it left the underworld in even more disarray than usual. Going into the Gotham April 24 spring premiere, it appears that Oswald Cobblepot may be dead, shot point-blank by his vengeful former best friend — and object of affection — Edward Nygma. And even before that fateful day on the pier, Oswald was beginning to lose the confidence of both Gotham's respectable citizenry and its layers of organized crime. Poised to take advantage of all this distraction is Barbara Kean, stiletto-ed proprietor of Sirens and aspiring crime boss. In the opinion of the woman who plays her, Barbara's gender may be what qualifies her to best run Gotham's criminal element.
"I think it’s an incredible female trait — it’s like multitasking," a relaxed yet deliberate Erin Richards tells me of Barbara's intense focus in an interview at Bustle HQ. "It’s intelligence, drive, and manipulation. She kind of has the whole package, which nobody else except maybe Fish Mooney had."
The April 24 episode is Nygma-focused and titled "How The Riddler Got His Name." But Barbara is arguably the Gotham character who's changed the most since the show debuted in 2014. Richards sees each season as a distinct stage in her character's development.
"The thing about Barbara is that she’s always looking for her place in the world..."
"Because obviously in the first season, she was somebody’s light, or a safe place for Jim. And in the second season she just kind of lost her mind and went full dark side, to the crazy," Richards says. "And then this season, she’s had far more of a direction, and she has a thing that she’s going towards. She wants to be the queen of the underworld and she’s not going to stop until she gets there."
The actor refers to the awakening of Barbara's inner darkness as her "rebirth." And though she didn't know when she signed on to the series just how far Barbara would lean into the city's chasm of depravity, Richards recognized that even the Jim's-love-interest stage of Barbara had her demons. ("More so than just playing an evil character, [I'm] playing someone who has come from a lot of pain.") When those demons were brought to the forefront by The Ogre (Milo Ventimiglia), Barbara shed her skin, in a way. Richards played Barbara's discovery of her new self as a form of "childlike wonder" in Season 2. That wonder has dissipated a bit, and in its place are determination and a goal.
"The thing about Barbara is that she’s always looking for her place in the world," Richards says. "So she thinks this season, [taking over] is what’s going to get her that feeling of 'Oh, this is who I am, and this is where I belong."
Gotham features one of the most detailed and stylized superhero worlds on television right now, and costuming is just another way in which Barbara marks her evolution. In Season 3, Richards has been outfitted in gowns and cocktail dresses that look they they could double as armor and accessorizing with faux-fur, studs that could draw blood, and a pair of "action" boots. It's all as alluring as it is dangerous, because, as Richards says, "Barbara uses her sexuality like she uses every other facet of her personality."
Everything that Barbara says and does is calculated to communicate something to the world, and that includes what she wears. "I think she’s just trying to say 'Don’t mess,'" Richards says of this defined look. "That’s how I feel when I wear it as well."
Richards describes slipping into Barbara's clothes as "putting her on," and praises the show's costuming department for their vision. "Every time I go in there to do a costume change or to try new stuff, it’s just like heaven," she says. "Because it’s playful and hard at the same time, and it’s really useful to me playing her to have a costume like that. It’s a bit like a super suit."
Barbara and her fabulous wardrobe have had no qualms about using the dissension in the ranks of Ed and Oswald to her and Tabitha's advantage. And besides the shadowy Court Of Owls, there are no other major players left to challenge her rise. So the good money should be on Barbara being crowned, right? Maybe, but Richards cautions that "Nothing ever really goes according to plan in Gotham."
Maybe Barbara's bid for city-wide domination won't be halted by another villain, but by the only person left who could reasonably exert any influence over her. Unlike many female villains in the superhero genre, Barbara is refreshingly free of emotional obligations. But Richards denies that Jim and Barbara are over, or ever really will be.
"I guess I’m a bit of a romantic," she explains.
"She is so consumed with this need for power, and I really feel like somewhere right in the heart of that is the idea that Jim is the only thing that can save her," Richards says. "And not because it’s a man saving a woman, but because Jim is the only thing that is vaguely good in Gotham ... I think that they’re kind of forever bonded. There’s something there that can never fully be diminished."
Gotham hasn't been renewed for Season 4 yet, but Richards knows what new life Barbara will be born into if it does live on. "I can’t tell you," she says. "But it is a huge change and a big, dramatic end of season moment."
And that's good news for the actor, because Barbara Kean lives for drama.