To the credit of "Gotham," at least the prisoner who declared "I'm not gonna die in here" in tonight's episode didn't actually die IN the prison.
Otherwise, the latest installment of Fox's pre-Batman drama was an hour-long journey into some of the most hackneyed cliches available in crime and punishment fiction. The "so on the nose it may as well be cosplaying as Patch Adams" titled "Prisoners" zeroed in on two of the shows top players and then put them through the a series of dime-store pulp "twists" that had all the spontaneity of a perpetual motion machine.
Let's start with Jim Gordon. After being improbably framed for killing a fellow cop, our big hero man falls to his farthest point yet by joining the prison population of Blackgate prison. The food is pukey mush. His days are endless, soul-sucking repetition. The warden is a corrupt, vindictive goon whose sole motivation for screwing with Gordon's life is that he used to be pals with the Comish that Jim deposed. Yadda yadda yadda. You get the picture.
On the other side of town, Oswald Cobblepot is stuck in a completely different deadend rehashing. After having rediscovered his long lost father, the once and future Penguin is now learning all sorts of useful contrivances. Daddy's new family isn't really his family at all but instead is an obviously gold-digging waitress who stole his heart and quickly moved in with her two equally rotten 20-something kids. While this storyline is every bit the desperate chase for the old man's money that you'd expect, there are a few moments where the characters in the drama come across as so bitingly stupid that the audience may think the producers are in on the joke. If this were a parody of backstabbing moneygrabber melodramas, it would be so much more fun. But scene after scene, the story on both sides turns directly into the place you guessed it'd go in the opening minutes.
In Blackgate, Gordon is hounded by the mustache-twirling warden and a flavorless convict whose brother Jim supposedly killed. On his own side, our boy has a good-hearted prisoner who stole a car to impress a girl and a guard who for no reason decides to help him escape. The see-saw of the plot is so flat it's barely worth mentioning. They try to make Gordon fight back. He won't. They put carthief boy into the infirmary. He doesn't care. They decided to shiv him during a screening of "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers." He bleeds out? No...of course it was all a ruse. Of course Harvey Bullock has teamed with vanished mob boss Carmine Falcone to break him out via a body bag. Of course Gordon goes back for his wounded pal only to have him die on the outskirts of town.
Even the one moment that's meant to be the most profound and affecting of the entire hour is ground into blandness. When Bullock reveals to Jim that his girlfriend Leslie lost their child, the father-to-be simply grimaces. Ben McKenzie has never been an emotive or engaging leading man in this show, but if there was ever a moment that called on him to try and do more than glower, this was it.
To say that Oswald's story has more life in it is like comparing a cadaver to someone who's flatlining. Bit by bit, our Penguin grows closer to dad and proves his nice guy bonafides by confessing to his monstrous mob sins. Dad forgives, but lurking in the background are the trio of dimwits bent on cutting the golden boy out of a possible inheritance. Everything from exposing him to awkward seduction fails, so Momma plans on poisoning Oswald before dad can change his will to presumably disinherit her family. Of course the finale involves dad declaring his plan to do just that and then immediately drinking the poison wine. What an utter waste of Paul Reubens. The whole thing makes even less sense because at this point, wouldn't killing dad be exactly what the flimflam fam wants? How can Oswald lay any claim to the mansion now? Who even cares?
That's the real problem with the episode. "Gotham" has always had a way of quickly pushing through stories that could be multi-episode arcs in order to get back to the status quo of their regular set pieces. But this time out, the urgency of the producers to put pedal to metal resulted in an hour of TV that sincerely wasted the time of the audience on every conceivable level. Pray that next week there is literally no mention of what's come before, though we likely won't be that lucky.