"Gotham" Recap: The Arkham Asylum Bomb Underwhelms

While its second season has swung wildly in terms of tone and the particulars of its plot threads, "Gotham" wrapped its current run with an unexpectedly stand-alone episode tonight. After weeks of winding, illogical story twists, the season-ending "Transference" delivers a standard "race against the clock" adventure where the various factions battle over the fate of the Indian Hill complex. And while the story displays both the good and bad qualities of this show in full, it's preoccupation with the question of "Who controls Wayne Enterprises?" falls flat with an answer comic fans knew weeks ago and casual viewers will find anti-climactic.

As with all things "Gotham," the central story of Jim Gordon both drives the action and drags it down. We've got twice this Jim this time as the real deal starts out strapped down in Arkham's basement getting the third degree from Hugo Strange, who's able to crack the former detective's mind with a little bit of chemical inducement. Meanwhile, the clayfaced doppelgänger Strange uses to get the police off his track stands completely out of place in the G.C.P.D. headquarters and fails at each turn to shake Gordon's inquisitive friends from the real truth.

The two Gordons are almost an exaggerated picture of what this show is and what it could be. Real Jim is pushed into revealing flavorless "revelations" about his guilt conscience over his relationship with both his father and his baby mama. The interrogation scenes are a slog on the way to Jim's release where he reverts right back to square-jawed hero mode as he leads the ragtag team of heroes to stopping a bomb Strange has set to destroy Arkham and all evidence of his experiments...but more on that in a moment. Overall, this is everything that's flat and false about the character that's supposed to be our entry into this weird world. On the other hand, the clay Jim is a wacky and wobbly part that allows actor Ben McKenzie to have fun on screen for the first time in two years. He's great as the grinning idiot who's more interested in screwing Gordon's ex than he is keeping his cover up. This is the "Gotham" that occasionally sneaks up through the melodramatic mess, and if the show would commit to going full crazy, it'd be much more entertaining.

The rest of the cast are pushed around this plot in a series of mostly forgettable nailbiters. Bruce Wayne and Lucius Fox match wits with Edward Nygma in a toothless death trap over the same "Who controls the company?" query before joining Jim's crusade. A short dream sequence where Bruce recalls his parents' murder breaks in to supposedly add back some thematic resonance/set up a late game reveal but skids by with little impact on the viewer in the moment. Meanwhile, the mutated Fish Mooney uses her new powers of persuasion to hypnotize Strange's major domo with the hope of escaping the madhouse entirely. The big question hanging over the character is whether "Gotham" (and actress Jada Pinkett-Smith) is interested in leaving the door open for the Season 1 standout to play a future role. Elsewhere a new crime triumvirate of Penguin, Butch and Babs creep, but their stories are mostly wrapped by now - only here to cap off other more important plot points. Then last and depressingly least, Strange himself is caught between a rock and a hard place as his mysterious puppet masters force him to nuke (literally) his entire operation without carrying out any of his pet projects.

That last one is depressing because nearly everything about the Strange story reeks of wasted potential. Not only has BD Wong's admirable scenery chewing been given some of the weakest motivations and story logic of any character all season, but in this late stage of the game, everything we have been able to hold onto about the character is thrown out with the bathwater. This Strange was supposed to be a renegade scientist who was committed to his weirdo creations, but when threatened by his masters, the evil fiend folds like a card table and walks out with little or no care for what becomes of his most creations - except the prominent pair of Mr. Freeze and Firefly - and with very little to recommend him as a worthy villain to hang an entire season on.

The finale fight plays out with a few fun moments but mostly a lack of real tension or urgency. Strange attempts suicide when Freeze and Firely attack each other, but he miraculously lives to tell Gordon and company that his bomb is about to blow not just Arkham but possibly the entire city if it reacts with the nuclear material in the basement. The heroes are very slow to respond to this news as Jim and Bruce in particular just got through a pair of unconvincing monologues where they admit their own hubris. When Bruce and Lucius rush to the basement with Nygma's help to defuse the bomb, no one doubts that they'll get the job done with seconds to spare. At least their dumb luck method of pouring water on it when Strange's abandoned secondary asks for a drink elicits a laugh.

In a slightly more exciting thread, Fish hijacks a bus full of Strange's unformed mutants to maker her way to freedom and runs smack dab into both the forces of justice (Harvey Bullock and company finally wising up to clay Jim's ruse) and chaos (the Penguin/Butch crew who are out to kill Strange...for reasons). The bus crashes and allows Fish a "She's still alive!" moment that would ring a little truer if we saw her do anything beyond scaring Penguin or if we saw Butch do anything beyond run away from his former boss/love. But at least Jada has a chance of popping up in that coveted supporting player role.

The resolution of this siege of Arkham story underwhelms in every way. Gordon commits himself to finding Leslie Thompkins and repairing their relationship - which we knew would happen. Bruce dedicates himself to tracking down this shadowy organization that supposedly runs everything in Gotham - which comic fans and newbies alike would call a weak sauce reveal considering the source material. All the villains are in the wind except Strange - who will hopefully gain some interesting qualities in a season off or never be heard from again, either way. And in the last moments, Fish's bus full of creatures breaks out of their crash thanks to an old homeless woman, and amongst them is...Bruce Wayne?

It's the kind of final reveal that will still ring true with TV only audiences and fire up the fan theory machine with comic people (did that Wayne flashback indicate cloning or what?)...but only barely. As always, "Gotham" delivers the bare minimum in terms of drama, logic and fan service. With the state of network drama what it is, that'll be enough to deliver another underwhelming mess of a season, but this level of quality can't last long in an era overrun with better superhero options on TV and almost everywhere else.

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