If you haven't heard the buzz around the Gotham season finale, it's because there wasn't much. But for those who are still tracking the ins and outs of Fox's beleaguered Batman drama, the talk of the hour is that fan favorite character Harley Quinn was nowhere near the final episode of the third season despite talk from producers that she'd take a bow. Parsing the specific words of the creatives to prove whether or not they "lied" about Harley is a useless exercise, but the idea of that gap between what fans expected and what they got is as succinct an explanation of what's wrong with the show as you can find.
In short, Gotham is a series that breaks its promises.
To the straggling apologists out there, criticisms of the show that curb its failings as "breaking canon" are little more than fan complaints that the show isn't following an arbitrary set of rules. But the idea that the show "is just an Elseworlds" or "takes place on Earth-2" misses the point as well. Really, comparing Gotham to Batman media past, present and future is just a shorthand way of qualifying why it doesn't as an adaptation, a television show or a story experience all together. The real point of those of us who have gone knives out on this bizarre little corner of the DC/WB empire is that Gotham sets the most meager expectations for itself and fails to even deliver on those ideas in a remotely satisfying way.
And there's perhaps no better example of this failing than the lopsided "two-hour finale" for season three (really two episodes burned off in one night) – the ludicrously named "Destiny Calling" and "Heavydirtysoul" which wrap up the even dopier "Rise of the Heroes" mega-arc. Like Gotham finales of the past two years, these episodes work to tie everything together, but in attempting at lining up the narrative ducks in a row, the episodes really reveal how little the writers ideas cohere.
Part one is a straighforward thriller premise: the hunt for a cure to the Alice Tetch virus while the city goes mad from it. Parts of this story run by with little major change – Jim Gordon struggles the entire hour to beat back the virus surging through his veins with no real change or consequence, for example. Other aspects of the story deliver some dramatic moments on paper, but in classic Gotham fashion, nothing truly surprises and mostly the action feels like a retread of previous plot points.
The heart of the hunt centers on Hugo Strange. Though remarkably fun actor B.D. Wong remains entertaining with his wearied, gravely delivery of lines every time either the cops or criminals trying to nab his cure corner him, the character is mostly a walking MacGuffin. Gordon angrily chases Strange for a shot at saving both himself and his renegade ex Lee Thompkins. Meanwhile, a reunited Fish Mooney and Oswald Cobblepot work overtime to secure the cure for their own powerplay in the Gotham underworld. And lurking in the background are the warring factions of the Riddler/Babs/Tabitha/Butch alliance, who are holding things together just long enough to shoot themselves in the foot at the last minute.
There are some chuckle-worthy flourishes here and there in this story. Black humor has always been Gotham's strongest (if most inconsistent) quality, and watching mid-century train station porters politely say, "This exit is closed" only to be thrown through windows by raged-out Gothamites is the kind of dopey social satire that goes down easy. But the actual crossed, double crossed, triple crossed plotting that sees Strange and his cure ping pong from hero to villain and back again is less effective.
The purpose of this whole plotline is really less about finding the cure (because of course the good guys are going to get it) and more about echoing the respect that finally bore out between Fish and Penguin at the very start of this season. Gotham always brings its Act 1 chickens home to roost at the end of a season, and seeing Oswald and the boss lady he once tried to murder team up is supposed to be a major payoff for longtime viewers. But the pace and logic of the reunion is dodgy at best. When Fish dies in Penguin's arms at episode's end, she instructs her supposed protégé to take over the city and burn it to the ground. But what Fish is telling him this? The hard-fought mobster? The outcast mutant? The hypnotic sexpot? The character has been so inconsistent and simply ridiculous that we never have a clear idea of what she wants. And so the reader is left with a ton of setup that never delivers on its ideas and a final payoff that feels entirely disconnected from the years of storytelling that's come before.
That feeling of incongruity is twice as tough to swallow in the Bruce Wayne storyline. Trapped in police HQ with his butler and father-figure Alfred, the pouty boy billionaire voices for the first time the idea that the Shaman/sensei/whatever that Alfred killed last week was "the greatest mentor I ever had." Alfred pleads with Bruce to come to his senses, but the whole story makes no sense. Was Bruce really a true believer? Or was he brainwashed? Is he emotionally attached to the mysterious idea of the Demon's Head? Or did the removal of emotions about his parents' death make that impossible? All of these questions swirl while Alfred attempts to reach the real Bruce, but his fond memories of happy times past can't connect to the audience emotionally when the show is breaking every expectation for how its own logic works. It's simply a mess.
In part two, things get way messier with the arrival of Ra's Al Ghul. While the casting of beloved nerd actor Alexander Siddig was announced with much fanfare, the villain only appears on screen for about five minutes, voicing warmed over Denny O'Neil dialogue which somehow convinces Bruce to stab Alfred through the chest. Then Bruce immediately realizes this is a mistake (um...no shit, kid!) before the Demon's Head laughs away the entire affair as some kind of vague test complete with lines about being "my knight in the darkness" before giving Bruce a method of reviving his mentor via an unnamed Lazarus Pit.
Sincerely, what was the point of this scene outside generating headlines for the character and casting? It was the worst kind of fan Easter Egg – one totally devoid of story purpose or even a sense of fun. A total waste.
The brunt of the episode fares a little better by focusing on the cops vs. robbers aspect of this crime-ridden city. The first act sees Gordon setup a "high-stakes swap" to turn the collared Penguin over to Riddler for Jervis Tetch (whose blood contains the cure) just as Ed Nygma's ill-fitting band of allies feel they've got the city right where they want it. And from the ensuing shootout on down, the criminal side of the equation is at least buzzy, ridiculous fun. While most of the show has always been a slog, it's undeniable that actors like Robin Lord Taylor, Cory Michael Smith and Erin Richards have improved by miles as they've embraced the unrealistic, unhinged nature of their characters.
Here, the long-simmering, long-suffering war between Penguin and Riddler hits its predictable "return to the beginning" grace notes but at least allows the stars to go for it with gusto. These would-be partners and maybe more hash it out in a stolen police squad car over the idea of love – supposedly the core theme of their season storyline. Penguin loved Ed. Ed loved a mystery doppelgänger of the girl he murdered (still an amazingly weird dropped ball). And in the end, they both love killing more than anything else. It's nice though that the show decided not to press that idea into melodrama and instead swerve back into the villainous, triple-crossing, scenery-chewing glory of one more showdown on the Gotham docks. Another retread of the "glory days" of the pilot, but still clever in its twisty plot and final showdown that sees Riddler frozen in a block of ice to become a centerpiece of Oswald's next underworld night club.
Similarly, the love triangle between Babs, Tabitha and Butch finds its end with overacting fireworks. The 22-episode order of a network season dragged this story long past the point of believability, but at least it delivered a few shock moments (Babs' headshot on Butch), a decent fight scene (Babs vs. Tabs with an electrifying finish) and a worthy Easter Egg twist (Butch's real name being the Solomon Grundy alter ego Cyrus Gold). If this show were always just a balls-out shoot 'em up, Gotham critics would have a lot less to complain about.
But ultimately, the writers of Gotham feel that they must try and deliver real drama alongside their batshit slayings, and both the Gordon story and the Bruce story make a stab at heartfelt conclusions. For Jim, the finish involves giving himself over to the virus (which makes him a killer in his own eyes, even though embracing that idea sees him kill no one) only to be talked back from a biological super weapon thanks to Harvey's earnest intervention (oh, Donal Logue! Someday this show may give you material worthy of your talent!). Jim pops himself and Lee with the cure just in time to see her leave Gotham again (another call back to a previous story with no real resonance). Here "Dear John" letter is supposed to give Gordon the fuel to become the white knight that Gotham really needs – a pure cop fueled by hope instead of hate.
Similarly, Bruce is tearful at Alfred's hospital bed confronting the idea that he doesn't know who he is. The butler wakes just in time to give the boys some vague life advice – that you need to find a center to keep yourself whole. In an episode-ending tag, a ski-masked Bruce stops a mugging similar to the one that killed his parents and supposedly finds the center that will lead him to become a superhero.
These two last-minute turns are supposedly the payoff for the arc name "Rise of the Heroes," but like everything on this show, the promise of that name tastes like ash. It's laughable to think that the producers of Gotham ever had any intention other than to build up their characters into facsimile versions of the comic book legends that inspired this show, and with this final change-up, they've failed that goal on every level. Gordon has spent three seasons on this show beating suspects, breaking laws and committing cold-blooded murders. Bruce threw an innocent man out a window, stood by while criminals had their throats slit in place of justice and finally was complicit in the poisoning of innocents. This is not a path that heroes take – not any kind of hero that people can be expected to root for like they've rooted for the Batman and Gotham's Commissioner for decades. There is no secret twist that makes this work. It's not an "alternate universe" story (such a lame bit of message board hand-waving). It's simply a really bad story that also happens to be one of the worst adaptations of the DC Comics characters ever.
In a just world, these scenes would be the last we ever heard from Fox's Gotham. The Grundy tag aside, everything here was obviously shot to feel like a series finale in case the show didn't get its last-minute renewal. But between a struggling network and a studio bent on hitting a syndication order, Gotham will limp on for another year of murder, stupidity and the occasional pretty effects shot. But no matter how long it goes for, it'll never be more than a rough bump in the road of a franchise that's earned its place in the pop culture canon, so we can be thankful that even this dreck can't derail Batman forever.