In its third season, virtually any TV show worth its salt is at least able to play on the familiarity of its characters. By then, relationships have been established. Battles have been fought. Friendships have been built. Even the most average superhero show can revel in the quirks of its cast when they're 40+ episodes in.
But Fox's "Gotham" is far from an average show. With the second installment of Season 3's "Mad City" arc, "Burn The Witch," the show works hard to reset its particulars by speeding past what's come before. But despite a few standout elements, the results are too close to the nonsensical plot mechanics that sunk its previous years on air. And even when the story tries to pull out an old familiar feeling, the results are unconvincing at best.
The episode opens with one of the few bright spots in the current rotation, though even that is fraught with confusion. Bruce Wayne has been brought before the mystery masked woman who appears to have called the shots on everything from his parents murders to his company's mutant making. In two episodes, this thread has been the very best use of the boy who would be the Bat in the show's history. Bruce feels more cunning and charming when he threatens a boardroom or negotiates with criminals than he ever has before. But even as the producers work to build up the future vigilante's mastermind chops, the bottom falls out of the whole affair.
Anyone who's read a Batman comic in the past five years knows the feathery mask the villain wears here is meant to evoke the Court of Owls – Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo's recent secret society who draw their narrative power from their total anonymity. So why does their representative unmask within moments of appearing on screen? Even more bewildering is the so-called "deal" Bruce strikes with his now less formidable foes – agreeing to give up his whole quest for the vague notion that they won't kill him and his faithful butler. Setting aside the fact that a character whose whole life revolves around avenging his parents would never shrug that mission off for anything, the deal puts the breaks on the young hero's very effective agency in order to throw the curveball of his doppelgänger into the mix for most of the year.
Another swing and a miss comes with the reinvention of Ivy Pepper – the young character that the show never figured out how to use. Aged up by her encounter with one of Fish Mooney's mutant goons last week, the future Poison Ivy steps out of the filth of Gotham Harbor in a state of shock. In the crazy world of superhero TV, these kinds of plot twists can lead to all kinds of character work, but (particularly with Poison Ivy's historical role as a two-dimensional femme fatale despite some modern rehabilitation) the fear is that this Ivy is only older to throw some eye candy at the male audience. So far they haven't played that card hard yet and hopefully won't considering the character's 14-year-old status. But having her murder a two-dimensional trucker whose character is defined by the line "my ex left some clothes when she went" is hardly an exciting or empowering development.
But those reinventions are the sideshow for the hour, and the main attraction reassembles elements that previous seasons ran through ad nauseam. Jim Gordon is on the search for the latest mutant mastermind iteration of Fish Mooney. The police department is uninterested in having him on the scene. Meanwhile, Fish is on the hunt for Hugo Strange to save her life and using Harvey Bullock to get to him. On the edges of all the action is the Penguin, stirring the pot of anti-mutant hysteria in the public. Theoretically, all these threads should be deepened by the history these characters share. But instead, each cast member wanders through the motions that the plot dictates. When Fish captures Harvey, there's no real electricity between two characters who supposedly had a flirty rapport just over a year ago. Gordon is slapped down by his former Captain like a rookie who's never once solved a case. And on and on, there's no tension or mystery in what anyone wants or where anything is going. (though at least Jim's meeting with his "crazy ex" Barbara has some ridiculous humor to carry it beyond its total lack of real character work)
The characters collide at the "secret government location" where Strange is being held (because in this universe, spooky mansions can be used for anything), and once assembled, the supposed Mexican standoff between Jim and Fish is somehow more tepid than the tough guy showdown between Captain Barnes and Penguin's angry mob outside. Never is there any real drama in the story because for the umpteenth time, we're gathering together a bunch of characters with weak motivations and letting them kill off a bunch of redshirts before running off into the woods. The only moment that tries to pay off what's come before in any real emotional way is a backwoods showdown between Penguin and Fish where the latter offers up a monologue about how she still cares for her former manservant in some small way. But as Penguin lets his gun drop, the emotion of the moment seems forced and paint-by-numbers rather than real.
All in all, the hour is one lacking in stakes, characterization, mystery and tension. This show can be entertaining when it goes for broke with absolutely gonzo plotting and wild-eyed, scenery-chewing performances. Tonight delivered none of that.
If there's one silver lining to the proceedings, it's newcomer Jamie Chung as reporter Valerie Vale. She has little to do beyond act like a textbook TV investigator for whom every lead brings her right to the edge of the action, but at least she delivers those lines with some charm. Her kiss with Gordon at episode's end could be seen a mile away, but at least the triangle being set up between the pair and the returning Leslie Thompkins holds some soapy promise. Maybe that will be the story that pays off in some way down the line. Otherwise, "Gotham" would be better off pretending the first seasons didn't exist and cranking up the craziness to 11.