Gotham Recap: Thrilled By The Ghosts of Jokers Past

When we last left Fox's pre-Batman drama "Gotham," the entire series seemed at a crossroads. For the first time, the show seemed to have twisted its various plot threads into unknown territory. Ed Nygma had teamed up with his jilted rivals to take down the Penguin. Bruce Wayne's battle against the Court of Owls had been upended by the arrival of Selina Kyle's mother. And James Gordon had just killed his love's husband in a manner that left all doubts hanging as to whether he'd saved a life or committed a murder. That last one also typified the "Gotham" spirit – namely that even when delivering a dramatic twist, the show can't escape the total ridiculousness in its DNA.

And so with its January return for a very brief three-episode run, the show appropriately delivers "Ghosts" – an hour of television literally haunted by plotlines past. The quality of these stories varies about as wildly as we've come to expect from the show, but for once the drama finds its balance where it matters. Because when it comes to the core kickoff story of this January run, Batman fans are dished up an Easter Egg-driven action story that ranks high in the show's lifespan.

But let's start with the literal haunting of Oswald Cobblepot. The Penguin starts off the hour at the cusp of political success. Even though his workplace crush has abandoned him, the mayor of Gotham is riding his highest poll numbers ever, has a new suck-up deputy and is barreling down on a major TV interview to cement his legacy. But screw all that because he's also got a Ghost Dad! Yes, the great Paul Reubens returns to slum it up on this show as a spook after daddy dearest's remains were grave robbed. Dropping Oswald hints that "the birthday boy" is out to get him, the spirit certainly seems to be legit. And Hell, why not? They've done every other crazy thing on this show to date. The further over the edge "Gotham" can push it, the better.

And push things over the edge is this story's modus operandi. Penguin stumbles upon his father's stolen remains and immediately places the blame on his new boot-licker simply for holding a piece of birthday cake. The mayor brutally beats the brains out of his staffer and then immediately steps out into his TV interview in full Lady Macbeth mode. When dad's ghost pops back up during a line of questioning about his own murder...well, coming off as unhinged is the least of Oswald's problems. All of this is a piece with Penguin's story to date in the series – continually out of his depth and sniveling his way back into power by luck as much as by guile. This character has worked better than any other on "Gotham" simply because both the story and the actor have held firm to the sheer silliness of the part. When it turns out that the whole story was just a put-on by Nygma (aided by the series' take on Clayface) things veer back into melodrama, but what carries it all is the carnival tone that lets you know you can't take any of this too seriously.

Playing for a bit more serious but avoiding sliding all the way into groan-worthy territory is the continuation of Selina's story. The teenage waif wants nothing to do with Mama Maria until Bruce convinces her that parents are kind of a rare commodity (a box full of baby shoes didn't hurt heal the wounds either). The whole story stinks of soap opera in the worst way, and if you think about any of the details too hard, you'll get a nosebleed (Mom was gone for eleven years, and Selina remembers all of this from age five?). But the producers keep things afloat with the few charm arrows they have in their quiver. Specifically, the brief hints of awkward teen romance between Bruce and the Cat girl remain an easy yet successful way to keep things light, and a family dinner scene in the kitchen of Wayne Manor evokes a similar bit in Tim Burton's "Batman" in the best way.

We leave this story with Maria taking Selina to meet...what we suppose is her father? It's at least some deadbeat, that's for sure, and one who's holding a pricey debt over Mom's head. When Selina clues faux-dad to the fact that she has Wayne money at the ready, it both puts a target on Bruce's back and makes us wonder whether this whole mother/daughter reunion wasn't just a ploy to milk cash out of the girl's rich friends. Either way, even without a lot of meat on the bone, this story of the past coming back to haunt the kid is hardly enough to derail the episode.

Ultimately, the real thrust of the hour belongs to Jim Gordon, who's fighting a war on two fronts, and for once the star of the show's screentime rises above its grim trappings. Some time after killing Mario Falcone, Jim is still lurking at family events he's really not welcome at. His obstinacy not only draws the sharpest possible rebuke from Lee Thompkins-Falcone. It also puts him on the hit list of the entire mob family. But these by-the-numbers developments reach past their mafia clichés in all instances. Small scenes like the heads up hitman Zsaz gives Jim before the shit hits the fan add loads of personality ("You're a good egg," the cold-blooded killer says, and we believe his sincerity!).

But really what makes the story work is the lightning speed with which the show swerves away from its worst tendencies. Lee's reappearance at first comes off like yet another "his ex has gone crazy" story, complete with some awkward over-acting by the usually subdued Morena Baccarin. But as the hour zips along with Gordon and Harvey Bullock dodging bullets from the diffident Zsaz, we quickly see Lee shy away from how the ordering of a hit would darken her soul – especially after she comes face-to-face with the madness that her husband had in his blood thanks to a visit from the ticking time bomb that is Arkham-bound Captain Barnes. All of this stuff could be excruciating if it was dragged out over five episodes the way the show typically does. But as a run-and-gun one off, we're allowed to just thrill to the weirdness of it all. It might even make the obvious incoming reunion between Jim and Lee easier to swallow.

But if one entertaining Jim Gordon story wasn't blessing enough on this hour, the B-plot of "Ghosts" proves to be the only real ghost story we care about: the impending rebirth of Jerome. In between dodging his own assassination attempt, Jim leads Harvey on an investigation into mysteriously revived cadavers with ties to the infamous Indian Hill lab. Our stalwart cops follow too-creepy-for-his-own-good morgue employee Dwight to an underground club that worships the maniac killer with the red hair – a fitting follow up to the viral insanity angle the show planted when Jerome bit it early in Season 2.

Now, of course, this is all preamble to a sci-fi resurrection of the show's proto-Joker as anyone following the news knew was coming anyway, but the reason the story works is not just the carefree pacing that helps the rest of the hour. It's the sharp eye to Easter Egg details that the producers have embedded into the proceedings. Just as Paul Reubens himself was semi-reviving the part he played as Oswald Cobblepot's father in "Batman Returns," actor David Dastmalchian is returning to the world of Gotham after a very memorable cameo as one of the Joker's cackling lackeys in Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight." Comic fans know the actor's comedic chops from his recent turn in "Ant-Man," but his ability to put on a crazed smile and bug the Hell out of his eyes marked his last big DCU part, and it's those skills which make him the perfect foil to revive Jerome. Those little nods to DC history are something that "Gotham" has always struggled to deliver well even as literally every other DC show is chock full of stunt-casting and guest characters galore. But for once, this series feels like it knows where its place in the history of Batman on film is – the overblown mutant crime drama it's tried to be at its best moments.

As we step into two more episodes focusing on Dwight's jumpstarting of Jerome's body, let's pray that "Gotham" has finally found it's voice. More crazy than grim. More adventure than horror. Because if the show can keep this level in place for only two more episodes, we may be looking at the first fully successful arc the show has ever delivered.

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