Two of the greatest TV dramas of all time -- The Sopranos and Mad Men -- often had a habit of wrapping most major plot points up in the penultimate episode of a given season in order to make the finale a more stand alone affair. Fox's pre-Batman drama Gotham leaned in a similar direction with last night's "The Anvil or the Hammer" episode, but that's where the comparisons end.
The spine of the story is the culmination of Gordon's investigation into the charming serial killer The Ogre -- an investigation which takes the audience past the point of no return in some very strange houses. First up is the Ogre's home itself. The state-of-the-art apartment is the place where guest star Milo Ventimiglia led wayward soul Barbara Keane into his own personal torture palace last week, and she didn't seem to mind the fetishistic touches at all. At least we can guess that. While Barbara embracing the killer's deviant side is an interesting premise, the show never gives a hint of it on screen. Rather, we're left to watch the Ogre explain that their passionate night together showed him a side of Babs worthy of saving instead of slaying. Sadly, the rule of thumb in the Gotham writer's playbook remains "Tell, don't show."
After the villain begins to give Barbara the hard sell on why she should willingly join his crusade, Jim chases the case with all the teeth-gritting predictability we've come to know from Ben McKenzie. Bouncing off his clenched performance are his girlfriend -- the psychiatrist who identifies a definite issue with his physical and emotional state only to say, "You're right. Keep doing what you're doing" -- and his partner who seems happy that their flimsy investigation into the disappearance of Jim's ex means he himself gets to visit a spooky brothel. After a whole year of pulling obvious imagery from gangster and horror films, it was no surprise to see Gotham scratch "Eyes Wide Shut Party" off its bucket list. But beyond a leaden "The one thing Bullock can't handle is bestiality" joke, the story was simply another wheel-spinner killing minutes until the detectives could intuitively follow their one lead right to the killer's hideout as always.
Slightly more worthwhile this week is the Penguin's own attempt to put his house in order by introducing it to total chaos. Aside from a brief crossover with Gordon's investigation that contained no narrative momentum (no, the second "double super" favor Jim owes Oswald now doesn't count), the bird-brained mafioso's planned hit on rival Sal Maroni goes south when the guns Penguin left his hitman backfire. Thanks to a Falcone-incriminating message delivered with the failed icing, our boy has incited a full-on mob war in the city. It's one of the first times his scheming isn't driven by his cowardice and a rare hint of the super villain Penguin is supposed to become.
The show tries to mine similar territory with its two other future costume-wearers, but mostly comes up short. After stumbling his way into a gruesome murder last week, Eddie Nygma can't help but leave a clue to his complicity in a fake farewell note to his lady obsession Ms. Kringle. The subliminal message seems to fail, so all we're left with is some dismembered limbs and the idea that Eddie likes riddles. And it's not like the show has ever pointed that out to us 73 times before now. On the opposite side of justice, young Bruce Wayne's investigation into his father's company deadends when he's told his family has been complicit in Wayne Enterprise's criminal activity for generations. Strung around this is the introduction of Lucius Fox (a brief but promising turn from Newsroom alum Chris Chalk) and another depressingly brief engagement with Selina Kyle's brutal murder of a drug addict. For a moment, it seems as through Gotham might cut to the core of Batman's character when Bruce opens up about his revulsion to killing, but instead we're given a superfluous info dump disguised as a tease of the boy's eventual dual identity.
But of all the plotlines that wither on the vine, none is surprising in its awfulness than the path Gordon's case takes us down. After a "catch me if you can" phone call from the Ogre offers up the greatest string of lucky assumptions in Gordon/Bullock non-detective history, we're led to the final house of the episode. Upstate at the home of Barbara's uber-WASP parents, the killer is ready to slit mommy and daddy's throat to prove that he can tap into whatever hidden desires he says lie within her. When Jim and Harvey arrive with guns drawn, the ensuing battle to save Babs where her parents couldn't be arrives without tension or teeth. Our last look at Barbara is one of a blank stare. Did she start to come around to the Ogre's way of thinking? Did the murder of her parents in front of her break her spirit forever? The show is far less interested in exploring any of these questions than it is for using the plotline to make us feel good about Gordon's commitment to his new lady love. The only way the writers could have treated Barbara worse is if they stuffed her in a fridge.
With the promise of an all-out gangster war occupying the majority of next week's finale screen time, it's unlikely Gotham will return to most of these storylines before the year is out. And if they truly end their year so lacking in resolution, perhaps it's best to say they weren't squandered as much as they were put out of their misery.