In its three years on air, maybe the most consistent element of Fox’s pre-Batman drama “Gotham” has been how it continually returns to the idea of origins for the most famous heroes and villains of its namesake city. Bruce Wayne always flirts with being a dedicated detective. Ed Nygma just about turns into a riddle-dropping master criminal. Selina Kyle is a bullwhip away from Catwoman status. And on it goes. But perhaps the most confounding of these near transformations has been the way the series plays with Jim Gordon. In essence, the producers have been more than willing to drag the veteran turned rookie cop through every kind of mud on his way to eventually becoming the white knight commissioner of the G.C.P.D.
But after dithering on it for two and a half seasons, tonight’s “Executioner” episode reveals what could be the final push that puts Gordon on the path to heroism. Problem is that his journey, though wrapped in some ridiculous yet satisfying comedy business, is likely too little too late for this iteration of the character.
From its opening moments, the episode centers on one idea: Gordon vs. Captain Barnes. The mob surgeon that the latter through out a building to his death last week fingered Barnes as his killer to Jim alone, and now our boy is playing it safe with who he shares his suspicions with. Ultimately, only Harvey Bullock is let in on the fact that the G.C.P.D.’s most dedicated Captain may be a deranged killer (though if there was any doubt for the audience, Barnes quashes it by hanging three rap-beating sickos as a side gig). But before Jim can push into proving his case, Barnes himself takes his on again/off again protégé on a hunt for the mob hitman he’s hoping to pin his own crimes on.
What follows is somewhere in between a less nuanced version of “Training Day” or the most miserable remake of “Ride Along” you could imagine. Barnes toys with Gordon over the prospects of his own guilt before admitting his suspect is innocent and then killing him anyway. No, it’s not the Alice Tetch blood poison that’s making the Cap go over the edge just in this minute. Instead, his warped worldview has him thinking that he could turn Gordon into his kind of judge, jury and executioner cop (to borrow a phrase from another deranged comic icon as he does, “I am the law” sums up his new mission). But Gordon finally draws a line in the sand, promising that he won’t kill outside the boundaries of the law…er…anymore.
This is where the crux of this story really falls apart. We’re meant to believe that Gordon has rededicated himself to the high ideals that cops have a higher ethical code. But as Barnes points out, that idea flies in the face of literally every action Jim has taken on the show from the pilot on down. What “Gotham” is trying to do is graft a character arc onto ridiculous extremes. As though the only thing that could turn Jim away from taking the law into his own hands is seeing that practice pushed fully over the edge. In that sense, the producer’s take on the character comes from the Zack Snyder school of superheroics. In the director’s often maligned “Man of Steel,” Superman can only realize that killing is bad once he’s been forced to do it – as if the act of taking a life never seemed monstrous to those of us who haven’t done it. The logic is faulty at best, but regardless of whether you feel a hero needs to overcome their own sins to fully be heroic, the depths the show pushed Gordon through (murdering men to trade favors for the mob and beating witnesses within an inch of their life at the top of the list) have gone way too far for Barnes counterexample to feel honest.
In short, we might watch a more noble Gordon take charge on this show from here on out, but we’ll never really believe it. Still, it’s rad to see him jump out a window to escape Barnes’ gun at least.
The other stories from “Executioner” at least serve up some pleasant surprises as they balance out “Gotham” overtly grim tendencies with its more winning black humor tone – particularly the return of Ivy Pepper. Credit where credit is due, it never seemed possible that the show wouldn’t push into the upper echelons of ick factor when they aged up the pre-teen street urchin to her full Poison Ivy self, but when Ivy reappears to romance a crooked art dealer, there’s scarcely a hint of inappropriate sexuality. Mostly this is mitigated by the fact that Ivy doesn’t need to seduce the men she steals from like a cartoon femme fatale. Instead, the former Middle School dropout has morphed into a master chemist…somehow. She manipulates the properties of plants to make a hypnotic toxin. It makes almost no sense, but it’s better than the alternative.
But the real fun arrives when Ivy bites off more than she can chew – stealing a pricey gem with an irate owner and running for help to Selina and (eventually) Bruce Wayne. Props to actress Maggie Geha for playing the character more like Tom Hanks in “Big” than anything else – all awkward kid stupidity in an adult’s body and an adult’s world. The comic charm of the concept is heightened by the still burgeoning and equally awkward teen romance between Selina and Bruce – still a shockingly strong thread in a show with an awful record for memorable relationship writing. The misfit Scooby gang are soon attacked by cabal of crossbow-wielding assassins as they discover that the (just murdered) owner of Ivy’s gem was hiding in the fake valuable a mysterious key.
Now, odds are this all leads back to the Court of Owls, but a glimmer of hope exists that the show will zig away from that obvious path. One major area “Gotham” suffers from in comparison to other DC Entertainment TV shows is that it never really traffics in the Easter Egg dropping of DC Universe names that fans love. Sure, the highest quality shows in the superhero sphere (“Daredevil” notably) avoid this to serve up more honest, emotional drama. But since “Gotham” failed that test long ago, there’s no reason it couldn’t play with some disparate pieces of DC lore. A perfect example pops up when Ivy looks over a valuable scarab in her dealer’s house. Why not tie the object to never-used Blue Beetle Dan Garrett? Alas, the show seems uninterested in reaching that far afield, but as the crossbow goons inject a little excitement into the kids’ story, it’d be nice if they could pull in the League of Assassins or some other new element rather than be a nonsensical idea wedged into the Court concept (which already has its undead Talons as a go-to foot solider, right?).
Less satisfying but ultimately still entertaining is our latest twist in the increasingly less bizarre Nygma/Penguin/Isabella love triangle. The gist here is that after killing off his competition for Edward’s affections, Cobblepot actually ends up revving up the investigator mind in Nygma. That clockwork characterization serves Ed just fine as he pieces together everything about Isabella’s murder except who’s at fault (though who else would he suspect if not Butch?), but it also seemingly kills the weirdest part of this story. Was Isabella really just a random lookalike who really loved riddles? Even in a show chock full of lame coincidences, that seems a tragically dull turn of events. Hopefully there’s more waiting in the wings for this false-faced librarian.
But where the story falters as a crackpot mystery serial, it hits a home run as a redonkulous romantic comedy. What works about the story isn’t the typical melodrama. It’s the fact that as soon as Penguin has pushed competition away from his secret love, he gets a Nygma he can’t stand. While Oswald was praised for his coming out in fan circles, the show never forgets that he’s a murderous supervillain. And as such, there’s no sweet ending in store here. Penguin is an egomaniac who’s only interest in Ed is how his pal makes him feel. So when the riddle-addled genius turns into sulking sad sack, the comic undercurrent is both pitch black and pitch perfect. At every turn Oswald can only think of himself (“To cheer you up, I had them paint you into MY portrait!”), which is his ultimate downfall in wooing Ed away from a lover’s revenge plot.
Those comedy chops can’t save the episode in the end. When Gordon and Barnes are surrounded by a police force that Bullock has led to the truth, Jim clips the fallen Captain in the shoulder. The move is meant to cement our hero’s status as a reborn white knight while also keeping the unstable Barnes in play for the mid-season finale, but the whole think is the worst kind of predictable plotting. If we’re lucky, “Gotham” will keep leaning on its more colorful and strange stories while opening its world up to more of the DCU. Otherwise, the grimdark of the drama will force the show to kill itself off before long.