Fox’s Gotham ended its winter run with a surprisingly strong episode that leaned on the tone and mythos of its Batman comics inspirations in the best way. So of course the back third of season 3 has been a tour of misery.
But even as the series has culled up its stupidest qualities and thrown out a half-dozen harebrained plotlines, it’s hard to explain how low things have gotten. But here’s a shot: this week’s episode opens with the dumbest, most nonsensical scene in the show’s history. And while the rest of “Pretty Hate Machine” (they’re just naming episodes after cooler things they have in the office now, huh?) is a fast-paced hour of television, nothing in it can rise above the pure brainlessness of the narrative.
The hour opens with the Court of Owls as the Shaman – their still nameless “leader” – returning to Gotham’s grand council to confront them about their ordering of the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne. Setting aside the fact that the show has glossed over any kind of truly dramatic or emotional moment to confirm that this was in fact the answer to what was the central mystery of the series from its pilot through its first two seasons, the confrontation is leaden. A random Court member defends the choice even when the Shaman pulls out a brainwashed Bruce Wayne and threatens “judgement.” Then when the Shaman tries to pressure Bruce in to taking vengeance for his parents’ murders (which…why would he when he’s supposedly been robbed of all emotion when it comes to this act?), Bruce balks. The Shaman orders the slitting of the entire council’s throats, making the hero of our entire story – of this entire universe – complicit in cold-blooded murder. It’s a spectacular failure of the Batman mythos in addition to being a nonsensical, undramatic scene.
From there, the episode spins out three plotlines that feel completely disconnected from each other even as everything should theoretically be coming together – a fact particularly true of the Penguin/Riddler “War.” Those sneer quotes could go double for Oswald Cobblepot as the fallen mob boss continues to talk about his “army” of freaks – a force which amounts to three whole people, two of whom have abandoned him. But rather than get lost in the weeds of this idea, it’s better to look at the big picture of what doesn’t work in this story. While Riddler, Barbara, Tabitha and Butch have lined up against Penguin, the story mostly shutters any connection to the Court or the rest of the season to watch one side of the conflict overcome the other only to have the tables turn five or six times from there. The writers offer up little flourishes as things develop (mostly Babs continuing to denigrate her cohorts because she’s a bad girrrrrrrrrl), but for the most part the back and forth is lacking in menace or merit. We never feel like these sides will actually go to war or that either Oswald or Ed Nygma will get the upper hand. So when long-missing Fish Mooney shows up during their final climactic faceoff and steals Oswald away, we don’t even bother asking how the hell she tracked them all down. The viewer just has to throw their arms up and say, “Okay, I guess this is what’s happening now.”
A similar feeling hangs over the story of Jim Gordon and Lee Thompkins. Due to narrative necessity, Jim pieces together everything about both Lee’s infecting herself with the Alice Tetch virus and the Court’s plan to bomb the city with said disease without one investigative hoop to jump through. (Really, could none of this have been better set up in the dreary weeks that proceeded now?) But once he arrives to meet his infected ex, Jim is knocked out by a Lee who swears to love him dearly. Her mission is now to force Jim to infect himself – thereby discovering his true self or unleashing his dark side or whatever the hell her excuse is in any given scene. Truly, all you need to know about what the show has done to its female lead is that once she’s been infected by a madness virus, she goes straight out and puts on some spooky Elvira makeup.
Lee’s plot involves burying Jim alive with a syringe of the virus and then revealing her whole plan at police headquarters so she can watch them fail to save him from suffocating from the comfort of a holding cell. And the plan works! We know the idea is that the claustrophobia of being buried alive is supposed to make this whole scenario a nail-biter, but the bit has been done to death in movies and on TV by this point that the only real way to tell this story ends with Jim escaping because he’s infected himself with the virus just in time to race and stop the Court’s bomb from blowing up.
And it’s really that last thread that really sinks this entire ship. Running parallel to Jim’s battle to escape Lee’s insanity is Alfred’s quest to find Bruce and get him away from the Court. Just as Jim’s story plays with the question of whether Gordon will escape by guile or be forced to take the darker path to saving Gotham, Alfred is confronted with the question of whether or not young Master Wayne has truly turned to the side of the devils. But unlike the near certainty of Jim’s plot, the audience here is desperate to see Bruce turn it around. We can’t really be watching the boy who would be Batman not only standing by while murder is committed but willingly participate in the slaughter of thousands of citizens of the city he’s meant to protect, can we?
It is our sad duty to report that that is exactly what Gotham has done. Sure, Alfred intervenes just in time to let the Shaman be the one who pulls the trigger on the Tetch bomb. But in all ways that count, Bruce is not only on board with this plan but a solider fighting for the death of his city. It’s as willful a misreading of the Batman story as one could conjure and the kind of action that comes from the Zack Snyder playbook of comics adapting. Just like the often reviled “Man of Steel” where the hero has to break their most sacred rules in order to become the person the audience wants to cheer for, the producers of “Gotham” feel that they need to make Bruce the worst kind of puppet in order to turn him into Batman. It’s an utterly awful, stupid way to approach this material, but what else is new.
If there’s anything to be said about the hour that is good it’s that things have finally started to speed along. We jump over entire scenes in the tapestry of this tale in order to cram as many characters and as many explosions as possible into the proceedings. So while what we’re watching is dreck, at least it’s zippy dreck.
Doubtlessly, the internet will ooo and ahh over the hint that it’s Ra’s Al Ghul behind everything from the Court to Bruce’s parents being killed to the bomb (and a version cribbed entirely from Christopher Nolan’s take if we’re not mistaken). But who cares? If the hero of a story is treated so shabbily by the creatives, what hope is there that a villain will save the day in next week’s finale?