Since its inception, Fox's pre-Batman drama "Gotham" has had a problem. Well, it's had plenty of them, but one of the biggest strikes against the series has been its lead: Jim Gordon. Played by nerd drama and cop show vet Ben McKenzie, the white knight of the G.C.P.D. has at best been a steely one-note part and at worst a growling, teeth-gritting parody of tough guy cliches. But as Season 2 has developed, the series renewed focus on serialized storytelling has given Gordon the pretense of an interesting storyline even when it's been told more than shown.
Tonight's "A Bitter Pill To Swallow" - the penultimate episode of the season's fall run -Â focuses on that seed of a character arc. At stake is whether Jim will succumb to his so-called "Dark Side" and step fully onto the murderous path of so many others in the city. And the tension of that idea plays out over the course of a typically bloody Gotham battle that goes from slick assassination to shootout siege to good, ol' fashioned street brawl with a few detours to supporting players in similar moments of personal crisis.
It all begins with a vengeful request. Theo Galavan's unhinged sister Tabitha (is there another kind on this show?) is looking for criminal justice after the incarceration of her brother and the near fatal fall of her bedroom pal Barbara. Her desire leads her to the latest of "Gotham's" many impeccably designed and ultimately two-dimensional hideouts -Â the lair of an assassin matchmaker called "The Mother" who quickly calls up a gallery of the grotesque to do Gordon in.
The battle goes down on an unlikely field: the crime scene office of disgraced ex-mayor Galavan. One by one, assassins arrive to kill our hero from a twisted piano tuner to waves of gun-toting goons. But of course, all they accomplish is killing off a handful of faceless G.C.P.D. redshirts. Gordon's straight-and-narrow boss Captain Barnes wants to get while the getting is good, but Jim insists on making a stand -Â a proposition that falters as soon as a grazed goon gets a lucky leg stab on Barnes and ensures the two struggling cops will be there until Jim goes bad or proves a hero.
The problem up to this point in the show is that neither the writers nor McKenzie have given the audience a full view of what drives Jim as a character. As awkward as it would be in terms of the storytelling, letting him deliver his full manifesto as plenty of other superhero shows are prone to do would at least give the character a stated goal. Absent that, the actor could push his performance in a way that lets the viewer feel his desires without a specific context. Neither has worked their way to the screen across the first eight episodes of the season, but this time out a drunken, bloody heart-to-heart between Gordon and Barnes gives us as much definition as the future commish has had in a good long while. As Gordon explains it, both his recent violent streak and his desire to go trigger happy while battling Barbara last week has him scared of what he might do. It's a bit boilerplate even for this show, but the path there was at least more fun to watch than most of Jim's scenes. (Bonus points for the kill shot line "You know why I like people with glasses? They look like bullseyes." - the first workable bad ass line in the show's history?)
Meanwhile, proto-Bat villains Penguin and Riddler shack up for a long teased meeting of the psychos. Much like Gordon, the pair have found themselves on the line of new personalities -one embracing his dark side fully for the first time; the other running away from his murderous mistakes. While the slay-happy Eddie Nygma goes full bore nutjob in the most gigglingly cheesy performance since Babs lost it, Penguin's anguish feels a natural turn for the series most celebrated supporting player. And along the arc of the former pulling the latter back into the methods of villainy by helping him embrace the power of being the last man standing, we also get a few legitimate moments of black comedy. This story is all setup for next week, but it's enjoyable setup at least.
Less convincing is young Bruce Wayne's attempts to throw himself at the feet of Silver St. Cloud in a desperate attempt to learn the identity of his parents' killer. While Alfred mostly keeps the tween Batboy from throwing Wayne Enterprises away, it's only a late intervention by Silver's romantic rival Selina Kyle that has the potential to shake the scales from Bruce's eyes.
But the real action of the hour comes with the question of how Gordon will fight his way out of his violent temper. When Eduardo Flamingo -Â a cannibalistic killer somewhat inspired by Grant Morrison's gonzo "Batman & Robin" villain -Â is the final, cop-killing threat thrown at Gordon, Jim goes it alone to save Barnes and the latest "inexperienced but decent" cop in their entourage. With a "KHAAAAAAN!"-esque scream, Gordon stops just short of killing Flamingo and seemingly tempers is bad streak. But of course, the killer later strikes back to kill the gold-hearted rookie. The implication of the whole story is that, shocker, we're still not sure which side of Gordon will win the day. As he asks his girlfriend why she sticks with him despite his incredulous attitude, she says she doesn't know. The audience is likely thinking the same thing.
But some things are looking up in Gotham. The episode's kicker involves the hooded acolytes of the Order of St. Dumas - Galavan's religious revenge cult -Â finally setting into play their plan to destroy the Wayne and the city in one fell swoop. The Azrael-teasing organization have been one of the strongest elements of this season, and so maybe their villainy can outweigh Gordon's ineffectiveness before the hiatus arrives. Hope prevails.