With a season subtitle like “Mad City,” a villain like Mad Hatter and an episode – tonight’s “Red Queen” – that takes its name from a hallucinogenic, the promise of “Gotham’s” recent run has always been something a bit trippy. But with this latest, finally drug-fueled tribute to “Alice In Wonderland’s” arrival, the Fox drama played more like a total square’s theoretical description of what drugs are like than a turned on, tuned out journey into the center of Jim Gordon’s psyche. And what’s equally dispiriting about “Red Queen” is that it serves as a sequel to last week’s romance-fueled hostage adventure without making any new progress on the many love stories the show has bitten into lately.
The parade of broken hearts begins with Jim Gordon. After last week’s “Who do you love” showdown saw Jervis Tetch shoot his current girlfriend Valerie Vale through the gut, Jim waits by her side in the hospital. Val comes to only to voice what the audience already suspects – that Gordon’s request for the Hatter to shoot Leslie Thompkins was a poor ploy meant to save Lee and deliver the axe to Val. Though she’s spent the majority of her time on the show playing the part of the aloof fling, the intrepid reporter confesses disappointment that Jim so obviously loves someone else and a strained indifference to the end of their relationship. But Gordon refuses to see things that way. Later in conference with Lee, he stresses that he wanted Val to live, but his ex isn’t having it either.
The entire setup is meant to underscore how little our hero knows about himself even as the rest of the world can see right through him. Problem is that there’s almost nothing on the screen that creates doubt for the viewer. Of course Jim wants Lee back! Why belabor the point? The problem only extends into scenes where his former partner Harvey Bullock castigates him for pretending he’s uninterested in rejoining the police force. Much like the performance Ben McKenzie delivers each week, the character is uncomfortably constipated. So rather than watch the show’s hero scheme or struggle or lie, we watch him stammer and falter. As drama, it’s DOA, and so things perk up slightly when the fugitive Tech reappears to sprinkle Jim with a new strain of psychotic pixie dust that he’ll soon use to drive all of Gotham mad.
But before we can dive into the series of soft lit scenes that comprise Gordon’s trip, the episode has to establish the other dead end relationships ricocheting around Gotham’s city limits. There’s young Bruce Wayne trying to cook a meal for his first official date with Selina Kyle. Though while the preteen romance has been one of the rare bright spots of this season so far, the story barely receives enough screentime to register with viewers outside a general sense that the kids have so much to figure out it may take until their leather-clad adulthood to get there. Meanwhile, Captain Barnes is breaking up with his own sanity as he continues to lose his cool to the blood poisoning provided by Tetch’s late sister. But as always, the show uses police brutality (virus-infused or otherwise) to open doors in investigations, so Barnes beats his way toward Tetch’s warpath in a desperate attempt to find a cure before he totally loses it.
And of course, there’s the one romantic angle the show is playing with a little bit of spark left in its particulars – the unexpected triangle between Penguin, Riddler and the white-haired doppelgänger of the woman the latter murdered in a crazed state. Since regaining his sanity (legally at least) Edward Nygma hasn’t been haunted by the face of Kristin Kringle, but his new main squeeze seems to represent everything he dreamed that relationship should have been rather than a haunting reminder of what was. Still, while “Isabella” seems instantly smitten with Ed, the jealous Mayor Penguin seems to think that he can knock this relationship off its axis and claim Nygma for his own. Approaching the shy librarian for help studying up for a 200-year-old elites dinner he is to attend, Cobblepot drops hints of Ed’s murderous past in hopes that he can suffocate the romance before it gets too deep.
Of all the twists the show could have chosen for this headline-grabbing storyline, leaning hard on Penguin’s cruel criminal nature is arguably one of the lesser expectations. But in its own way, the move extends the story while keeping things fresh. Isabella’s too-good-to-be-true nature is undercut by subtle hints that she’s hiding something from the mayor’s notice and by her instantaneous acceptance of Nygma’s awkward explanations for why he strangled his last girlfriend to death. With the triangle turning from the story of lovesick Oswald to a bizarre war for Edward’s affections being played by two weird manipulators, it’s anyone’s guess as to what the Hell will come next here.
Sadly, things as they’re expected are all we get in the Gordon hallucination sequences that make up the meat of the episode. While the premise of a violent drug trip offers up the opportunity for creators to do literally anything in the world to keep their audience and characters off kilter, “Gotham” instead serves up a by-the-numbers series of mostly flat dream sequences. Guided by an all-too lucid Barbara who explains to Gordon in minute detail that he’s simply on drugs and that nothing he sees is real (because whose bad trip has ever been that cut-and-dry?), Jim peaks in on a number of potential fantasies/nightmares as the hour winds along. Oh look, Jim is haunted by his time in the war. Who’d’ve thunk it? And there’s a sequence where he and Leslie are happily married with two doting kids! How terribly unexpected!
At least Gordon’s clash with his mind’s version of Bruce Wayne came with a wee bit of genuinely strange imagery as Bruce dons a warped mask and pulls a string of bloody pearls from within himself, but even an effective visual can’t overwrite what’s wrong with all of these sequences. In short, they tell us exactly what we (and literally every other character on the show) already knew about Gordon. He feels responsible when he does bad things. He just wants to save people and marry Lee. It’s just so hard being a good guy in a crooked town. Yadda yadda yadda.
The trip ends with perhaps the flattest sequence the show has been toying with engaging with since its inception: a dream where Gordon confronts his own white knight of a father. Last week and at countless points throughout the series, we’ve been teased with the idea that Jim is haunted by his true blue D.A. of a dad’s legacy. But when we finally see him confront the old man, there’s no dramatic turn – no hint of a revelation that can change who Jim is in a key way. Instead, daddy offers up a platitude inscribed on an old family ring: “While we breath, we shall defend.” The message sends Jim back to the only place he could have gone: reenlistment in the police force. Everything plays out in a predictably inert fashion when the potential to play with this character was so much greater.
At least the episode’s final moments hold a few tantalizing keys to where we’re headed next. Aside from Isabella’s potentially sinister undercurrent, we’re offered up a few more twists in the waiting. Jim is revived by Lee’s new fiancé who carries an extremely conspicuous neck bandage, which at this point could mean a number of things but ultimately undercuts his credibility as a romantic rival. Meanwhile Oswald crosses paths with Catherine – the mysterious spokesperson for Gotham’s ultra-secretive Court of Owls – and the Court seems to have plans for the upstart mayor as he climbs the ranks of high society. But in the immediate, all the questions surround Barnes who was able to smash Tetch’s plan to poison the city (and the mayor’s fancy party) with blood drawn from his sister’s corpse. Yet a full cure for the Captain’s timebomb malady is potentially years in the future. And considering how weak the G.C.P.D.’s security is, it’s a decent bet that the Mad Hatter’s scheme to make everyone in the city as mad as Barnes will be isn’t quite dead yet.