As nail-on-the-head obvious as elements of the show have been, it’s a surprise Gotham didn’t title last night’s episode “Send in the Clowns.” But even as the drama is attempting to show a little more restraint and enjoy a little more strangeness, show runner Bruno Heller’s attempt to merge the origins of two of Batman’s biggest characters in “The Blind Fortune Teller” falls short on both sides.
Although it opens with a kind of montage covering the cast of the show, the action of the episode really starts at Haley’s Circus. While the acrobats of the family troupe The Flying Graysons spin above head, Jim Gordon and Leslie Thompkins enjoy a rare moment of romantic bliss. But as with all good things in Gotham, the moment is short lived. When a clown car careens into view and spills out a pack of angry goofs looking to beat on Grayson patriarch Alphonse, Gordon’s response is to predictably step into the middle of the ruckus and demand they obey him. Luckily, our boy Jim has more solid police work ahead of him.
As Jim and Leslie investigate the origins of the riot, they discover a decades-old beef between a carny version of the Hatfields and McCoys. This latest skirmish was born out of Alphonse’s romance with a snake charmer also claimed by the clown family known as the Lloyds. Of course, that selfsame snake charmer is nowhere to be found on site as her son Jerome stammers and stares at his feet while trying to account for her absence. Gordon’s suggestion that they let loose the woman’s python (a prelude to its sniffing out her murdered boy hidden in a haystack) is maybe Gotham’s first fully inspired moment of detection – the kind of creepy procedural twist the show desperately needs.
Speaking of which, the recasting of the Grayson family is one of the bright spots of the episode, taking John Grayson and his young lover Mary Lloyd and turning them into the circus’ Romeo and Juliet. Like the show’s more interesting twists, the move makes the audience have some honest doubt as to how the characters will arrive at their final (and tragic) destination, but its also built on character work that gives us a reason to watch beyond “Your outfit looks like…some kind of Robin!” jokes. Watching the eventual parents of Dick Grayson snipe at each other utterly convinced that the others’ family is responsible for the killing isn’t subtle by any means, but it’s a real story worth digging into.
The winning carnival tone of the episode kicks into high gear as Cicero, the titular future-seer. steps into the picture to give Gordon his only real lead. Endlessly creepy and accompanied by one of the show’s best anachronistic side characters in a Davy Crocket-obsessed boy accomplice, Cicero adds a wrinkle to the proceedings that complicates not only the investigation but Gordon’s love life. Sure, Leslie’s insistence of believing in the possibility of the supernatural and her drive to follow up on the fortune teller’s leads immediately are both as out of place as most of her dialogue with Jim is across the hour. But even though the romantic story falls flat, the overall plot holds together surprisingly well as the pair find a bloody weapon carved with Satanic symbols right where the blind man hinted it would be.
That discovery of the murder weapon is, however, where the episode goes off the rails in service of fan pandering. Gordon immediately knows that the clue indicates that Cicero is secretly Jerome’s father and is covering up the boy’s murder of his own mother. How does he do this? It must be some kind of super police nose, because putting that story together flies past any kind of logical payoff or general common sense. The whole “solution” to the crime comes because the episode was approaching the 45-minute mark and because the producers desperately want to put Jerome in a scene where he can be revealed as the cackling madman that could possibly potentially be seen by the audience as the Joker. It completely derails any interest we had in the Grayson’s blood feud in favor of a different kind of fan service.
And while there are small charms to be had in the reveal – actor Cameron Monaghan’s psychotic laughter was one of the show’s most effective scenery chewing moments – the whole enterprise fell flat. In comic books, continuity issues trumping character work always kills real storytelling, and in Gotham a similar kind of unearned payoff seems to kill whatever good moments the show builds for itself. We never truly get a sense of who John and Mary Grayson are as they reconcile and plan to wed in a 12 second scene that lacks all human emotion, nor do we really understand what the root of the anarchic fervor that could drive Jerome to being the Clown Prince of Crime is (instead he just says “whore” a lot…whoopee).
Worst of all, the show spends so much time trying to have both halves of its continuity porn wedged into the proceedings that every other plotline in the series is given short shrift. Bruce Wayne’s confrontation of the Wayne Enterprises board over their unethical practices comes late and without teeth. Penguin’s failing club is a series of ill-fitting clips punctuated by a half-decent reveal that Falcone has tapped Fish’s old assistant Butch (somehow brainwashed by Zasz, who can apparently do that now) to help out. Fish’s revolt against her mystery jailers firms up the point of that story (it was organ farming) a bit, but there is no real change in it. And the much feared return of Barbara wastes its black comedy potential as she stumbles into Cat and Ivy’s lives with some eye-rolling melodrama of Babs catching Jim and Leslie in the act.
At this point, Gotham is hitting a “two steps forward, one step back” territory that’s anything but funny.
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