It must be said: the second season of “Gotham” has consistently been a marked improvement on its first year. For any criticisms lobbed at the tone, acting, ideas or general substance of Fox’s pre-Batman drama, the producers have definitely delivered a more interesting and inarguably more entertaining story with their sophomore effort. But as “Year Two” enters its home stretch, the complex storytelling whose various threads are tying together in each scene of tonight’s “Unleashed” episode are kneecapped at every turn by basic failings in storytelling -Â especially when it comes to the behavior and believability of its characters.
The crux of this conundrum are the dueling investigations undertaken by our heroes over the hour. On the one hand, Jim Gordon leads a force intent on taking down Azrael -Â AKA the disgraced, killed, then resurrected Mayor Theo Galavan. Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne is on a quest to nail cadaver reviving mad scientist Hugo Strange for a wave of crimes including the murder of his parents. But as those two storylines collide -Â bringing with them what feels like a dozen little payoffs and callbacks from earlier this year and before -Â the ineptitude of both investigations is staggering to behold.
On Gordon’s side, the former police detective starts out the episode stonewalled in his attempt to lead a charge of policemen to raid Strange’s Arkham Asylum files. Strange has shredded every conceivable piece of evidence before the coppers showed up on his doorstep. It’s almost as if tipping his hand fully to Strange last week wasn’t the best play in Gordon’s playbook, but when has this character ever shown a shred of police knowhow? As the Keystone Cop routine plays out, we’re offered a glimpse at a more satisfying story in the form of perpetual outsider Harvey Bullock being thrust into the role of spiritual leader of the G.C.P.D., but that story is set aside too quickly to be effective -Â a common occurrence for poor Donal Logue all season long.
Instead, the action shifts to the killer Azrael and his own hunt to swipe the actual legendary sword of St. Dumas – buried in a Gotham church with a Galavan forefather. Jim and Harvey are led to the same spot by Tabitha -Â Theo’s faux Catwoman sister who’s spent most of the back half of Season 2 curled up around mob boss Butch just waiting for anything significant to happen to her. Well, happen it does! After Azrael wins a lopsided battle for the sword with the good guys, his sister attempts to break through the facade programmed into his brain by Strange and remind Theo that his real target all this time has been Bruce Wayne. But before the reunion can conclude happily, “Thezrael” stabs his own sister for…being a traitor? The particulars of the imagined slight are never fully explored, but that swing and miss is only the tip of the iceberg.
Out in the city, Bruce Wayne is reconnecting with Selina Kyle – the would-be partner in “crime” that he spurned within the span of one whole episode a while back. The on again, off again dance and its unconvincing nature aside, the boy is tapping his feline felon go into Arkham for evidence that Strange has been committing experiments in reviving the dead. Now, if you were at home wondering why Bruce has been able to put this Lazarus scheme together while the cops are standing around scratching their heads asking, “Who in the world could have brought Galavan back?” you are not alone. But once again, the vagaries of logical police work are set aside the play on plotlines that have been waiting in the wings. Here it’s the idea that Selina’s former pal/arsonist killer Firefly is under Strange’s thumb in Arkham, and so the girl insists on going in alone.
On the edges of the story we see more little threads worming their way back into the show just in time for the finale countdown. There’s the Penguin -Â inexplicably back to his murderous self after so much “I’m a gentle lamb” handwringing. Oswald killed his father’s wicked family and has apparently been chilling in a house with their bodies and no investigation into that whatsoever. Penguin crosses paths with a grieving Butch as a stabbed Tabitha clings to life (do massive stab wounds kill anyone on this show?), and the pair clash and then bond over the lives they once lived under the rule of Fish Mooney. A similar crossing of paths takes place in a particularly funny scene between Ed Nygma and Selina Kyle as the pair cross paths in the vents above Arkham – he’s trying to escape and she’s trying to break in. This kind of awkward bonding between future Batman foes is the kind of black comedy the show should traffic in more often, but as it stands, it’s an afterthought that points Selina in the direction of Strange’s secret science subbasement.
Across town at Stately Wayne Manor, Bruce and Alfred attempt to batten down the hatches only to discover that Azrael is already inside the house. The showdown is a tense and personal piece of action storytelling punctuated by the occasional bit of groan-worthy filler -Â including Gordon’s rush to reach them in a stolen police car that he conveniently forgets has a freaking siren when gets caught in traffic. Afred is wounded beyond the ability to aid young Master Wayne, and so the boy flees to the family garage where for a few moments it appears that Bruce is the one competent crimefighter in the entire series. Yes, leaving his shoes as a fakeout for the villain is a bit predictable, but plowing a fancy car through the bad guy is a bit of action that would make Zack Snyder proud. So it’s all the more dispiriting when after knocking Azrael off his trail, Bruce inexplicably stops and gets out of the car to see if the deranged, ultra-strong killer survived. That failure of Horror Movie Logic 101 is just one of many moment designed for maximum shock value at the expense of any semblance of character logic or consistency, and the audience would be relieved if Gordon arriving on the scene and shooting the bastard was really the end of it. But of course it’s not.
It’s hard to undersell how ridiculous the final fate of “Gotham’s” Azrael is. Penguin and Butch arrive on the doorstep of Wayne Manor (with no explanation to why they pinned this as the place to catch their prey) with a rocket launcher in hand, and it’s a hard contest to tell which part of the scene is more ridiculous. On one hand, there’s the gleeful manner in which the two men murder someone without so much as a “Don’t!” from our so-called heroes. Then of course, it’s hard to beat the wailing, horn-infused butt rock soundtrack that plays over the affair. “Gotham” has always had trouble telling the difference between over the top humor and simply exaggerated grimdark, and this scene encapsulates that dilemma perfectly. Whether the moment was meant to be funny or “kewl,” it simply didn’t work either way.
Absent a confession from Galavan that sees the villain saying, “Hugo Strange is behind it all!” it’s asking too much to think that the world’s finest detective team will piece together what’s happening, so our final moments are spent with Selina Kyle. After infiltrating the Arkham sub-basement, the cat burglar kid overhears definitive (though we’re sure ultimately to be ignored) evidence that Strange was behind it all before she sees what appears to be the show’s grungy take on Killer Croc before working her way into the inner sanctum of the Indian Hill complex. There her former friend waits for her (another inexplicable twist…how would Strange even know who Selina was looking for so quickly?), ready to burn our girl from the face of the earth.
So yes, plenty of chickens have come home to roost in “Gotham.” Penguin is revived. Strange is on the cusp of getting away with it all. Bruce and Gordon are hopelessly confused after a season of obvious clues. It all ties together ideas planted as far back as the Season 1 finale, but when the journey to get here is so obtuse, how much fun can be left for the audience?
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