Fox's Batman-inspired drama Gotham returned last night amid the gloom and doom of the newly reopened Arkham Asylum. And after a first half of the season that, at its best moments, was an ill-fitting mash-up of ultra seriousness and oddball thrills, the real mystery behind the gates of the city's madhouse was whether the show would finally come together. Appropriately, the episode titled "Rogues' Gallery" was all about characters trying to reinvent themselves.
The road to redemption starts with Jim Gordon. Since his demotion from homicide detective for being Gotham's last honest cop, he's been subjected to playing orderly while the inmates of Arkham stage a bizarre version of Shakespeare's The Tempest. The stormy play provided a solid, if obvious, launching ground. Dressed in ragged costumes culled from leftover cleaning supplies, the inmates -- led by professorial nutjob Jack Gruber as Prospero, hint-hint -- chew through the play's most famed scene in a fashion almost as disconnected as their audience of drooling psychos. It would be all Gordon could do to stay awake if it wasn't for the unexpected violent outburst of an inmate known as Frogman.
After a near-riot breaks out, not even weirdly innocent nurse Dorothy Duncan (played by Gotham's most recent triumphant character-actor guest star Allyce Beasley) can save Jim from the wrath of Arkham head Dr. Gerry Lang (played by Gotham's most recent disappointingly wastedWire alum Isiah Whitlock Jr.). While Dr. Lang is ready to knock Gordon a further peg down the chain that somehow stretches from the city police force to hospital security, the former detective at least finds an ally in the form of Asylum M.D. Leslie Thompkins (played with a little charm by Morena Baccarin). Even a casual comics reader knows that only the purest heart of gold rests inside Thompkins, but as Gotham's first truly good character, the doctor doesn't need any deep internal drama to feel like a welcome addition. So for now she proves a fine foil for Gordon as he attempts to rebuild himself into an effective cop.
But when Frogman shows up comatose in Thompkins' infirmary, thanks to some mysterious late-night electroshock therapy, the show slides right back into its familiar groove. As Gordon hashes it out with Lang over whether Arkham reopened too early and with too little funding, the episode finds its first big failure on switching things up from the first half of the season. The thematic building blocks of the show -- bald-faced corruption and institutional stupidity -- feel the same, despite the more atmospheric digs. And Gordon's investigation into his own boneheaded security staff and a round of cackling inmates seems a bit more comic-booky (in a good way) than the street tough shakedowns from earlier in the year. But ultimately, the episode is built on the same "grasp wildly until a suspect falls into our laps" procedural format that fell so flat before.
On the other side of the show, the mob scene in Gotham equally struggles to change into something new. Fish Mooney's quest to replace Falcone has morphed into a desire to be seen as Big Boss potential by the current don's old-school underlings. The bridge between the woman she is and the leader she wants to be is Butch -- her seemingly untrustworthy right-hand man who has neighborhood connections with a Scorsese casting reject named Saviano.
Meanwhile, the Penguin attempts his own reinvention as tough-guy enforcer for Sal Maroni's mob, but all his "we own the police" bluster can't stop him from being laughed at by dock workers and thrown into central lockup by beat cops. Robin Lord Taylor's standout performance as the hobbled villain-to-be offers up its requisite moments of fun, but ultimately his storyline does little more this go-round than to establish a newfound resentment of Maroni's "I'm the smart guy here" manners.
Similarly, Donal Logue, who's been mostly wasted until this point, is finally starting to find his voice as Gordon's former partner Harvey Bullock. Perhaps the only character in the episode who's fully turned into something different than he was in the pilot, Bullock pumps some life into the show as he snarks his way through showdowns with the Penguin and Dr. Lang. The cop who has no shits left to give is a good look on the character.
As the hour moves along, most of the plot points fall into place with little surprise but some enjoyable flourishes. Obviously the "too nice to be normal" Nurse Duncan is secretly an inmate from Arkham's previous tour of duty who's been living in its rancid basement for more than a decade. And of course, Gordon only learns this after she attacks Thompkins and releases the inmates for a wild time. But when Duncan is trampled to death by the mob she unleashed, Gotham's intermittent black humor takes center stage for a genuinely weird moment befitting its premise.
The same can't be said of the episode's C-plot involving Gordon's absent fiancée Barbara. Since leaving him to return to the arms of her former lover Renee Montoya, Babs has fallen into a pill addiction that only serves to ramp up the melodrama of their flat romance (which is better than the producers playing it for titillation, but still). When Barbara makes a last-ditch phone call to Jim for support, the voice of a 10-year-old girl pretending to be a woman on the other end (an apartment-crashing Ivy, whose dead-end story barely deserves a mention beyond this) is enough to drive her further away from everyone. Maybe the audience will get lucky and she won't come back.
Watching Gotham swing between its stranger, over-the-top sequences and its deathly serious ones is instructive in a way. If the show could find a way to make the by-the-numbers crime drama aspects as stylized as its Batman mythologizing, it'd be a lot better for it. The episode starts to get that balance right as we watch Butch meet with Saviano to hash out whether a betrayal of Fish can work for both of them. Drenched in out-of-date cars and a '50s girl group soundtrack, the scene feels like a knowing pastiche of old-school mobster clichés up until the point Butch caps his childhood friend and cements his position as a supporter of Mooney's "change is necessary" philosophy.
Unfortunately, the full episode doesn't quite embrace that kind of change or the quirkiness that set it up enough to be memorable. When Gordon and company realize the nurse and the electroshock spree were all the plan of the Lang-murdering escapee Gruber (Prospero strikes!), it feels more like an afterthought than the carnival twist the story could use. Even as it reaches toward a stronger, more confident tone, Gotham can't quite change into a good drama yet.