Fox’s “Gotham” has always been more than a little perverse in its relationships. Every romance in the short history of the pre-Batman drama has been doomed to failure in the “suicide pact” kind of way. And while usually these flights of gore are about as blunt as anything else on the show, this week the producers’ attempt at adding a little depth of character to their usual kiss and kill plot. But “Follow The White Rabbit” falls into old, familiar feelings – all the rage of a dramatic story with no kind of beating heart to make us fall in love.
The crux of the episode is a simple idea: the Mad Hatter is out to throw Jim Gordon into one no-win scenario after another with lives both anonymous and beloved on the line. The revenge Jervis Tetch is out to take on Jim is ill defined at best. But putting our hero in a race against the clock where he’s constantly forced to choose the lesser of two evils is the most Christopher Nolan the show has tried to be since its first season. And there are a few cheap thrills to be had in the pulsing moments before Gordon decides to save a hypnotized kid from being hit by a truck rather than rush to stop a pair of tragic newlyweds from jumping to their deaths. But as the story rolls along, holes begin to show up in the logic of the story’s path. And while we might be willing to overlook minor details in a madman’s plan, those gaps hit much harder on the emotional side of this tale.
If opening the episode with the disruption of our soon-to-be street pizza bride and groom wasn’t clue enough, the core of this story is meant to be true love and how Gordon processes that idea. But with each successive step Jim takes down the Hatter’s rabbit hole, the hero becomes frustratingly less defined by the trials at hand. When the Hatter leads Jim to what we presume is a location from his past littered with news clipping about his father’s death, there’s an enticing hint that the serial relationship saboteur’s fear of commitment stems from his own personal backstory. But rather than dig deeper into Gordon than they’ve ever done before, the producers deliver another bit of (admittedly funny) tough guy posturing as Jim hangs up on his would-be tormentor again and again. Tetch screams in anguish that he will make Gordon face the truth of who he really is inside, but the show seems uninterested in actually cracking its lead character open in any meaningful way. Even after the Hatter kidnaps Jim’s current squeeze Valerie Vale and his former love Lee Thompkins, Gordon still feels like he’s playing the part of a desperate man – like a kid in an adult’s jacket.
The stories spinning around this cat-and-mouse plot fare little better in their own search for depth. Blood-poisoned Captain Barnes is still struggling with the “rage-ism” that’s sure to soon overtake him thanks to the weird science legacy of Tetch’s dead sister. But mostly that means he gets testy with a hypnotized suspect and twists a chair back in his hands. The show is still revving its engine here. Meanwhile, when we gather Gordon’s lady loves in Lee’s apartment (because no one would ever look for them there!), the pair of women have some character connection (poured from a Bechdel Test-killing mold though it may be). Lee sees the compulsive workaholic she left in Valerie’s journalistic tunnel vision, but maybe her new romantic rival also has Jim’s street smarts as she cleverly gets at the story info she wants while also breaking them out. But of course, within a moment the women are picked back up by the Hatter’s personal Tweedle Dee and Dum, and they’re back to one-dimensional damsels before too long.
A much more effective and downright weird romance arrives in our B-plot: the story of Penguin’s unrequited love for his mayoral chief of staff Eddie Nygma. And don’t get us wrong. It’s not that Oswald Cobblepot’s queer identity is off-putting in anyway. Actually, kudos to the show for not drawing out this piece of their most popular player’s identity in some clichéd manner. That Oswald has fallen hard for this fellow future villain adds charm to his often sniveling character profile. And as we watch him go through the motions of the pair’s day-to-day operations (inspiring a kid to bully his way into his 3rd grade’s inner circle aside), his inability to express his love is the kind of quirky swerve that occasionally works for the show.
But the weirdness comes in full when Nygma’s side of the equation is revealed. Out to buy a bottle of win, the recently emboldened, certified sane riddle maker bumps into a familiar face. No, it’s not meant to be Kristin Kringle – the coworker Ed manipulated into a relationship and then killed last season. It’s just the very same actress with white hair coming on to him with the surely not awkward line, “I don’t usually talk to people” before dropping a well-placed riddle to catch his wandering…eye. The move is certainly a blow to fans who were already writing their Oswald/Edward slash after last week’s tender moment. But aside from the wrench it throws into the Penguin’s amorous plans, this whole thing is just bizarre. No matter where “Gotham” is taking this one, it’s likely to be ridiculous and ugly in the best way.
The same can’t be said for the ignoble ending of Jim’s hunt to save the women in his life. After a break in the case leads him to Lee’s apartment for a forgettable Wonderland tea party, Gordon works to goad Tetch into blaming himself for his sister’s death. But like most of our boy’s plans, the gambit is low on psychological specifics and self destructs just as Jim’s lone backup – Lee’s doctor fiancé – barges in to be outwitted by the Hatter. Even this moment is severely undercut when our supposed ka-razy villain doesn’t cap the doc but let’s him live. After too many false starts, Tetch demands that Jim declares who he loves more between the two women so that said woman can immediately be killed. Gordon names Lee, which Tetch takes as a cue that Vale is the real deal before shooting the reporter in the gut and fleeing the scene.
This final moment opens up a ton of questions that the show seems uninterested in answering. For one, was Gordon’s move to name Lee an honest moment or his attempt to outwit Tetch, leaving the doctor in the room alive to tend to Vale? As our newer (and therefore expendable in TV terms) character is rushed to the hospital, Gordon admits to Lee, “In the end, I gave him exactly what he wanted.” And what exactly was that? The Hatter continued to crow that his plan was to show Jim who he really was. Is that a failure? A narcissist? A man still in love with Lee? None of these answers quite fit the emotional tone of the scene, which was confused to begin with.
And so we’re left with a muted cliffhanger. Vale is under the scalpel. Gordon is (presumably?) a wreck. The Hatter is at large. And Nygma is on his way back to Casa de Cobblepot to break Penguin’s heart. Some of these stories hold a little promise, but none of them quite add the depth of character the show seems to believe they are. Mostly all we’re left with is bad romance.