As far as its "style over substance" reputation goes, the opening to this week's all-new "Gotham" went all in. The desperate "Mr. Freeze" has broken his way into the Easter Eggily named Axis Chemicals to steal more of the liquid hydrogen he needs to continue his icy reign. And as Jim Gordon leads a team of G.C.P.D. officers to capture the cold criminal, does he formulate a plan of attack? Does he think like a detective? Nah. He just says, "This guy's a dangerous nut. Let's do this" and leads his men into a den of death made up with special effects.
But while this gruesome cold open (ba-dum splash!) is every bit "Gotham" as expected, the sad thing about Monday night's "A Dead Man Feels No Cold" episode is that it comes right up to the edge of telling a story that's a little more sophisticated and then pulls it away at the last moment. Of course, at least there are a lot of dead bodies thrown in the mix to distract from the broad, basic storytelling. On this show, you take what you can get.
Freeze's crime spree has a purpose, of course. He's trying to secure the release of his mysteriously and terminally ill wife Nora (thankfully the producers shied away from a "Macgregor's Syndrome" nod). And while no one questions the legality of holding a suspected murderer's sick wife in police lockup for days, everyone on the force agrees they can't cave to this cop-killing madman. So Jim Gordon's superior Captain Barnes comes up with a hot plan: transfer Nora to the civilian-free Arkham Asylum for medical care in order to draw Freeze out into the open on the police's terms. It's a classic TV cop gambit which sets a time clock to an inevitable confrontation. But that fight isn't the point. The entire battle serves only as backdrop to push the stories of our core cast forward, inch by inch.
The smallest motions on that front belong to Bruce Wayne and his somewhat faithful butler Alfred. Having returned from a post mayoral bloodbath trip overseas, young Master Wayne is dead set on tracking down the mysterious "M. Malone" - the man he believes is responsible for killing his parents. Not even an incredibly awkward therapeutic session with Dr. Leslie Thompkins can dissuade Bruce's dark side from coming on strong, but Alfred himself is at least able to pull one promise form the future Dark Knight. When Alfred produces the full name of a killer called Patrick "Matches" Malone, he makes his young charge promise that the butler and the butler alone will pull the trigger to commit to the Wayne family revenge. Of course, later in the episode Bruce tells his preteen partner Selina Kyle that he has every intention of going through with the murder himself. When challenged that a killing will change him, the steely-eyed boy says, "That's what I'm counting on." Pause this until next week.
Meanwhile in Arkham, deposed master mobster the Penguin finds himself firmly under the thumb of the sadistic Hugo Strange and fellow awkward hair style enthusiast/gal Friday Miss Peabody. The pair have been putting Oswald under the brain-scrambling shock treatments that make up their experimental brainwashing practices, but for the time being, Penguin resists. However, when he bumps into his "old friend" Jim Gordon on the Arkham grounds, Cobblepot is incapable of getting a sympathetic hand to stop the torture. The juicy detail here is that Oswald's ravings that Jim killed Theo Galavan get back to Strange's ears, but the real question is whether Cobblepot himself -Â the man who's entire purpose on the show has been to weasel his way out of every death trap put before him -Â can find a path out of Arkham. Again, pause.
The real story that carries this week, however, belongs to Gordon and his pregnant, impatient lady love Leslie. The esteemed Dr. Thompkins has every reason to be short with her baby daddy these days as Jim signs on the line almost too quickly with Barnes' batty plan to use an innocent and ill woman as bait for a super powered psychotic. But that dynamic is placed on a simmer as the couple heads to Arkham (him to capture Freeze, her to care for Nora). While there, Jim takes off to fail in every conceivable way at being the leader of a crack police squad (though Hugo Strange's security systems monkey wrenches didn't help either). Leslie spends her time whispering sweet insults in the ear of Jim's braindead ex-fiance Barbara.
But after Freeze is given a way through the Asylum and past the police by Strange, things draw into sharp focus. The cold gun-crazy scientist and his rapidly failing wife are meant as a mirror for the relationship of our so-called heroic leads. While Victor has let his quest to save Nora corrupt him, Jim submits to every impulse he has to defend "the greater good." One man may be further down the path of zealot-like corruption, but the contours are the same and both their partners suffer as a result. This idea gets underlined as Freeze takes back Nora but insists Leslie come along to keep her alive until he can encase her in ice.
Where things go off the rail is when the trio arrive at the Fries household where Nora sends Victor out of the room on an obvious-to-the-audience ploy. Once the women are alone, Nora opens up to Leslie about her regrets. It's almost a workable moment in the plotline when she says of Victor, "I saw the man that he was becoming, and I did nothing because I loved him." It's a little on the nose, but it gets the job done. "Gotham" fully becomes "Gotham," however when the show double underlines the whole damn thing in permanent red marker by having Nora add in, "You know what that's like, don't you?" NO DUH. Oh "Gotham." Never use a hammer when an atom bomb will do. The whole shebang serves as a prompt for Leslie to reassert herself in her own relationship and (maybe) prove a path for Jim's redemption.
The rest of the episode roles out as expected. Nora kills herself rather than live to see the fallout of her husband's actions. Victor tries to do the same but survives to become the always cold villain comics fans know and love. He's held in secret by Strange who recruits him for a project of his own -Â reviving dead villains including Galavan.
With that last image, the show opens the door to Jim's salvation in a direct way, which is nice if the moral center of Batman's universe being a cold-blooded killer bothered you. But for the most part, this installment of the show provides a nice counterpoint to Season 2's opening run. There we had a gonzo and gruesome homage to Batman's greatest villain. Here we get a reasonably faithful real origin for one of the top players on his C-list (Batman's got a deep bench, y'all). In both cases, the show attempts to goose excitement out of the familiar before shifting into long terms stories. While the potential for anything that's not blissfully stupid seems impossible on that front, at least you can say that "Gotham" is pushing into some uncharted territory in Batman's mass media career. But it's still not enough to thaw our contempt for what this show could have been.