Every so often, Fox’s Batman origins drama “Gotham” will see its stars align. While the show is frequently a mess of mixed motivations, gruesome gore and thin story logic, the occasional hour of the program ties its disparate threads together with one singular purpose. This week’s “Blood Rush” found a common theme for the grim denizens of the comic book city, but even a shared launching pad can’t quite launch the series past its many flaws.
From top to bottom, “Blood Rush” is all about character struggling with their past mistakes – starting with Captain Barnes. Poisoned by the toxic blood of Alice Tetch, the hard-nosed policeman opens the episode with a choice he’ll live to regret. After spotting a suspiciously bloody truck driver, Barnes follows the scum to his layer where he’s employed melting down bodies for the mob. The hatchetman pleads that he’s not a killer, just a clean up guy, but the thought still makes Barnes’ blood boil. The rage that’s been threatening to overtake the character finally does its job, and he ends up creating a murder case twice as grizzly as the one he stumbled upon.
It can’t go without mention just how gruesome the story’s particulars are from start to finish. In a show that airs in the traditionally family-friendly 8:00 hour, the cold open features a bloody torso sitting in a bathtub before moving on to crime scene photos where Barnes has decapitated the cleaner with his bare hands. But the objection here is not out of some sense of prudish fear-mongering about “saving the children.” The real problem with “Gotham’s” gore is that it undercuts moments that should really be bone-chilling. As Barnes struggles to overcome the murder he’s committed and find peace with the poison Jervis Tetch promises will soon drive him mad with voices, the Captain’s quest features a number of scenes where the audience might be on the edge of their seat. Particularly, Barnes’ interrogation of the cleaners middle man with a broken bottle has a jittery feel as the officer’s makeshift weapon continues to slip and dig into the thugs cheek. This slight and scary loss of control would be a much more powerful image if the entire hour wasn’t so uselessly dripping in B-movie horror imagery. But there you have it.
The sense that our leads are struggling to shake off their past mistakes extends far beyond Barnes and into the life of Jim Gordon as well. Back on the police force in his old position, Jim is dealing with what exactly working so close to his ex Lee Thompkins – especially when her fancy engagement party with mob son #1 Dr. Falcone is just around the corner. Gordon continues to insist he feels nothing for Thompkins as character after character reminds him he’s full of it. The story is full of constipated denials and tough guy posturing as most of Jim Gordon’s romances are, so the result is the worst kind of slow boil – the one where we all know that he’s going to come around to his feelings eventually. There’s a little more juice in Jim’s first case back on the job as he and Harvey are tasked with finding the man who decapitated Barnes’ cleaner…by Barnes himself! But any thrill to be had there is shifted towards Barnes’ own story. A much clearer new thrill comes from the unlikely source of Barbara Kean – who crashes Lee’s engagement party to taunt the domesticated doctor with the idea that she really misses the adrenaline ride that comes with dating Gordon. It’s the first hint that we’ve seen on why Lee would ever come back to Jim, and the self-destructive impulse at the heart of it rings truer than most of the beats on this faltering story.
There are plenty of oddly exciting moments to go around as we reach our third guilt-ridden Gothamite: Edward Nygma. Haunted by the memory of the lover he killed and worried that said memory will ruin his relationship with the lookalike woman he’s currently seeing (only on this show!), Eddie looks to his boss/secret admirer Oswald Cobblepot to break it off with walking mystery librarian Isabella. When the Mayor of Gotham and the white-haired bookworm do meet face-to-face, she turns the tables on the weasely Penguin quickly. So much about this story should be run straight to the internet’s mockery mills, but somehow watching Penguin stammer his way through denials that he loves Ed is strangely endearing. Plus, whatever secret lies at the heart of this Kristen Kringle doppelgänger could be fun. It certainly puts a smile on the face of the viewer to watch Isabella dress up like Kringle to lure Ed back in with a scene that feels almost like a parody of/almost like an homage to Frank Miller’s infamous “Leave the masks on” Batman sex scene. Either way, when Cobblepot has Isabella’s breaks cut (which she is pretty calm about, all things considered) it’s obviously not the end of this traumatic triangle.
But in the end, the regret train of the episode pulls into its most expected station. When Barnes arrests the face-swapping mob doctor who was behind the body-dumping scene to begin with only to see the surgeon released due to the corrupt system, where else would everyone converge but at Lee’s engagement party? This is maybe the 12th episode of “Gotham” to see all forces good and evil clash at a high society soiree, but the fireworks here are dull as dirt. Jim’s showdown with Lee’s new man holds no bite. Harvey Bullock’s drinking jokes fall flat. And while Barnes’ breaking point while he pushes the deplorable doctor through a wall into a near fatal drop has some tense action beats, the late-game revelation that Gordon now knows Barnes is the killer feels formulaic.
When you add up all the haunted pasts running through this episode, the show is still leaning on predictable plotting dressed up in toothless gore. Jim’s return to the white knight role against Barnes’ madman “I am the law!” proclamations don’t promise a thrilling resolution. But in the meantime, we can at least speculate on the new absurdities to arrive in the Nygma/Cobblepot/Isabella story (my bet is on Barnes’ doctoring having face-swapped Kringle) and hope the next time “Gotham” synchs its stories, the result will have more sizzle.