The magic trick "Gotham" had to pull of this week was to find a way to entertain its audience with what is essentially an hour of wheel-spinning. From its "return of Jerome" mainstage show to the family infighting that marks its subplots, this week's "Smile Like You Mean It" has its sights on setup. We all know that the mother of all showdowns with the Dark Knight-inspired show's take on the Joker is in the offing for next week. So how does the series lead us to that inevitable conclusion in a way that doesn't feel 100% predictable? The answer is with a lot of fan service.
Of course the big selling point here is the return of Jerome – the cackling killer redhead who already left his mark on the city of Gotham. The hour kicks off with the race to his rebirth as stumbling, sweaty acolyte Dwight (played ably by increasing comic media character actor/the same character in "The Dark Knight" David Dastmalchian) attempting to jolt the madman's corpse in a makeshift lab. Meanwhile down at the G.C.P.D., Jim Gordon and company are butting their heads against the idea that the killer may be back from the dead or at least inspiring a new wave of murders. They ransack Dwight's lab just in time to find Jerome's immobile corpse with its face cut off alongside a stack of dead and near-dead hench-types. Always pushing as hard as he can (even in the face of ethics), Gordon goes tough guy on suspects in need of a doctor, crooked cops and even his ex-fiancee Lee. Of course, she's still super pissed that Jim killed her husband on their honeymoon (wouldn't you be?), so she's doing everything she can to push Gordon as far away as possible while she takes her time examining Jerome's body alone.
Was there any of this we didn't see coming? Probably not. But at least for once the obvious "chase down the bad guy" plotline moves at a quick clip and avoids excessive gore (the face removal stuff is oddly tame for this show). Not to mention the sparks that come from minor touches like a needlessly Frankenstein-ian laboratory for Dwight and well-placed zingers revolving around how out of his depth Harvey Bullock is as acting chief. It's all predictable but competent by "Gotham" standards.
Across the city, we downshift into some other by-the-numbers wars, starting with Mayor Oswald's quest to find out who's messing with him. No surprise that his choosing Barbara Kean as his top advisor on this hunt is a huge mistake. But other than a few choice shouting matches in their sparring, this is every bit as predictable as where the Jerome story starts off. Last week the Babs/Nygma/Tabby alliance killed Cobblepot's credibility with the people of Gotham in one fell swoop. This time out, they do the same with his relationship to the mafia with little resistance. All it takes is for them to gun down the bosses of the so-called "five families" while making Penguin play phone tag with a supposedly kidnapped Nygma. Their final revenge is teed up for next time. Maybe that'll give us something interesting.
A similar ho-hum tone highlights the latest in Bruce and Selina's awkward courtship, but at least here we get to a place that feels like Batman. After the wayward cat burglar's mother revealed last week that her mysterious ex Cole was blackmailing her for $100,000, Bruce is ready to pony up twice as much cash to the sleazebag just to keep the peace. Selina fights the idea, but as the second B-plot of the hour, it's probably better that we fast-forward past any theatrics and right to the main point. Mommy was a liar from the jump. Selina rightly tells her off for such an abusive bait-and-switch, but things really feel like a dead end on a story twist that could have brought some new dimensions to a character as old as Batman himself.
The one ray of light quality-wise in this afterthought of a plot is the final confrontation between Selina and Bruce after the deception is revealed. He knew mommy was a liar. It's not like he'd have to be the world's greatest detective to figure it out. But by betting that the payoff would spare Selina's feelings more than the truth, Bruce pushed his "not girlfriend" further away. This would be some dramatic dead weight too, except that the fight between the two young actors sizzles as well as any scene they've had all season, particularly Bruce's grim assertion that he won't fight her no matter what. These are the seeds of the Batman/Catwoman relationship we've been waiting for – the kind of reveal that while not exactly original is at least exactly the kind of fan service you want from this show. Truly, Bruce and Selina's work has been the best material in all of Season 3. Shame that this never elevated beyond the level of subplot.
Luckily, for once the main story of a "Gotham" episode delivers just as much fan service as its best little moments, saving the story of Jerome for another week. The big turn in quality hits when the faceless psycho snaps out of his cold storage coma only to confront Lee. Rather than play this up as a legitimate threat, the producers smartly dive all-in on winking at the audience with a "What did I miss?" rundown of the absurd plotlines that have been taking place since we last say Jerome at the start of Season 2. This stuff kills due in no small part to Morena Baccarin whose every look screams "I'm so over it" with all the self-awareness of a comedian guest-starring on a Tina Fey show. One of the few major improvements "Gotham" made from Season 1 to Season 2 was recasting Barbara from a sad sack socialite to a giggling sociopath. If they take a similar turn with Lee Thompkins, it could only improve things.
The knowing tone continues as Jerome hits the streets in search of his stolen face, as does the Easter Egg quality of the plot. For one, any diehard comic reader spent the hour leaning over to the other people forced to watch this show alongside them and saying things like "So first Tony Daniel cut off Joker's face, and then Snyder and Capullo had him come back and wear it like a mask." Sure, Dwight's face-wearing and Jerome's mask-having didn't carry the sheer weirdness of either comic book plot all that well, but in terms of the simple "Here's how we're recreating the drawings" aspect that modern comic TV traffics in, this was perfectly acceptable material. The same goes for Cameron Monaghan's ongoing homage to Heath Ledger's Joker. The part of Jerome was always a little bit too indebted to the "Dark Knight" take on the clown prince of crime (right down to the scratchy-faced "Ha Ha Ha" graffiti and his comedic/anarchic stealing of a police cruiser), but once you make your peace with the fact that the show isn't even interested in doing something new with the Joker, the mimicry becomes its own kind of soft entertainment. This idea even bleeds into the story itself as Dwight does little more with his "take a network hostage" scheme than play the part of Jerome in awkward sadsack fashion. It's almost a commentary on fan fiction except it's neither too mean nor too nice to really leave any major impression on the viewer.
Maybe the show has just worn us down at this point, but for once "Gotham" predictable plot finale (Gordon stops Dwight's copycat act only to see Jerome kidnap the thief, staple his face back on and then blow up his identity-swapper in a power plant on live TV causing a massive power outage cliffhanger, of course) felt less like a pure insult to the audience and more like a loving pastiche. If the show continues to play with the imagery and tone of Batman stories past with next week's Winter Finale, it may actually leave us wanting more for the first time in...ever.