If conflict is the essential building block of drama, then perhaps tension is the key ingredient of the modern TV drama. Does the audience feel ot simmering underneath the surface of the characters? Can they anticipate where the story is going? Will they ever be surprised?
By those measures, last night's episode of Gotham got started on a path toward real tension. And although it's still a long way from firing on all cylinders, at least the producers have found a way to leave us hanging.
The ominously titled "Spirit of the Goat" kicks off in Gotham's past. It's an odd move for a show already hedging its bets on the idea that everything you see comes before something you know, but as a rookie detective Harvey Bullock walks through an old, upsetting case, you finally start to see more depth to the dirty cop. Years ago, Bullock was a do-gooder paired with his own cynical veteran in Detective Dix (played by the always welcome Dan Hedaya). As Harvey and Dix track down the high-society serial killer known as the Spirit of the Goat, Bullock is raring to not only catch the criminal but also rescue his latest victim. When he fails to save either the young socialite from death or his partner from a crippling blow, blowing way the Son of the Goat is a small consolation.
Fast forward to today, and the tension is ramping up all over the series. At home, Gordon is nearing a breaking point with his fiancee Barbara. After weeks of weakly hemming and hawing over Jim's secretive nature, the show finally puts its cards (somewhat) on the table by having the pair come to an understanding on what the detective can and can't bring home with him. But of course, Barbara's former lover and current Major Crimes detective, Renee Montoya, is still pushing at the situation with an eye toward nailing Jim for the murder of Oswald Cobblepot. The doubt cast in the viewer's mind as to whether Barbara will stand by her man is one of the first true unknowns the series has offered.
(Note: if you're playing the Gotham plot-hole drinking game, take a shot whenever you realize Montoya is ready to arrest Jim Gordon for a crime she heard was committed ... not one for which there is any tangible evidence).
Meanwhile, Bullock is thrown for a loop when the Son of the Goat seemingly returns to start murdering the young and fabulous of Gotham. The detective's certainty that he killed the original combines with a convenient "We left this nonsensical part of his modus operandi out of the official report" clue that's popping up on the new victims to again raise some real doubt as to what's going on. Here in its sixth episode, Gotham has found its first compelling mystery. And more so than simply making the reader question whether this killer is a science-fictional conceit, a reincarnated spirit or something else, the shock that hits Harvey brings the character his first real depth to date.
To the credit of the show, Donal Logue's Bullock never grabs anyone by the collar and screams in their face, "Don't you get it? I used to be an optimistic detective too!" That said, the hints to Bullock's hidden halo are easy to spot from a mile away as he interrogates the victim's parents and their oddly intrusive therapist Dr. Marks with equal vigor. When the investigation into how the Goat killings could be repeated leads to the now-institutionalized Dix, the small touch of Harvey taking care of his wounded partner years later isn't unexpected, but it is effective. Again, there's tension in Bullock now. There's an element to him that raises questions rather than browbeats clichés; the show is moving him into a new place.
Speaking of which, GCPD lab tech Edward Nygma also found scenes this week that let him be something beyond Basil Exposition. As written by The Tick creator and longtime Supernatural scribe Ben Edlund, the scenes where Nygma tries and fails to impress office file clerk Kristin Kringle don't quite carry the spark of black humor that Gotham's best moments convey, but at least the future villain's bumbling through boxes of files is a funny diversion.
Ultimately, the mystery behind the new Son of the Goat is blown wide open by a classic Gotham turn that's mostly circumstantial, but at least there's a little detective work thrown in. After finding the new killer at the site of Bullock and Dix's original showdown (because apparently the top-rated drama of the new season can't afford to build two creepy sets), Bullock notices a tremor in the hand of the killer that matches one the first victim's father displayed. This leads, immediately, to a confrontation/confession with Dr. Marks. The quick turn and resolution is heavily indebted to what is perhaps Gotham's biggest non-comic influence: Dick Wolf's Law & Order franchise. But while it's almost impossible to completely suspend disbelief whenever a villain just throws his or her hands up in the air and yells "Yeah, I did it!" at least the victory for Harvey feels earned here as much as it feels discovered.
By episode's ends, the Goat case is again finally wrapped, but Bullock and Gordon can't rest long on their laurels, as Montoya and her partner have finally found an eye witness to the so-called shooting of Cobblepot. The dominoes that fall after that do so quickly: Gordon is placed in cuffs while proclaiming his innocence; Bullock is taken along, as it's thought he and his partner are in on one lie; and then Oswald himself shows up at police headquarters (apparently because it was just time for that to happen), ultimately unraveling not only Montoya's case but also Jim and Harvey's friendship.
No, none of this is groundbreaking TV, but with a slight cliffhanger ending, Gotham found a way to inject some of that tension – some of that doubt as to the outcome – into the show exactly when it needed it. For once, there's a reason to tune in next week beyond "It's a Batman show."