Give Fox's "Gotham" this: the show has pushed back against its formula in a few notable ways. While the overall shape of Season 3 has hewn closely to last year's "open with a big crazy arc featuring a classic Batman villain before pivoting to a long conspiracy plotline" in general, the series' proclivity for gonzo storytelling has kept individual characters on their toes. Unlike the show's (admittedly more popular, arguably more successful) CW counterparts, it's tough to know exactly what the hell is going to happen to "Gotham's" cast week in, week out.
That grotesque zig-zag style served this week's "Time Bomb" episode well. The hour focuses on three core plotlines, each infused with their own brand of mystery. And while the long game of the plot is exactly where we've expected it to be for weeks, the series of strange twists punctuating these three stories put the path towards the series most distinguished big bad yet in doubt. Even as the show holds tight to some of its dumbest clichés, it still delivers a few genuinely shocking, satisfying moments.
Starting with the least consequential story in the trinity, the episode spun the story of Ed Nygma and Oswald Cobblepot's murderous love triangle around for good measure. Convinced that former gang rival Butch and his on-again lady Tabitha were responsible for the death of his beloved Isabella, Nygma puts the pair through a mildly "SAW"-like interrogation complete with electroshock switches and a egg-timer guillotine. Of course, we know that it was the Penguin who cut the breaks on poor Isabella's car, but the tension in the story comes with the question of who exactly will put the pieces together first. Oswald is sweating out the conclusion of his secret love's torture session in his own ego-centric fashion while also batting off Babs Keene – herself searching for Butch and Tabby at least in part as a jilted lover of her own.
The scenes where Nygma demands answers from his captives don't quite crackle with the axe-swinging tension the show hopes for, but Cory Michael Smith's increasingly Gorshin-esque take on the future Riddler keeps things flowing nonetheless. The real star of this thread is Barbara, who each week is more fun to watch as actress Erin Richards leans into the absurdity of her "Stabby Babs" status quo. Watching the gleeful socialite do an S&M interrogation of the clerk who sold Nygma his torture gear is a hoot and a half. But by the time the stories collide with Babs bursting in just as Ed simultaneously realizes he's nabbed the wrong pair AND slices off Tabby's hand, the who story falls flat. The hand cutting almost works as a character moment between Tabitha and Butch, but the shock value (or maybe we should say "schlock value") of that event lands with a wet thud as so much of the show's "outrageous" violence does. Still, as Ed wanders off in search of another explanation for his love's demise, at least Babs puts together the real culprit thanks to an inside (cleaning) woman at the Penguin's mansion. If this story morphs into a Babs Vs. Oswald battle with unhinged Ed in the middle, things could be looking up.
The mystery surrounding Bruce Wayne and company's search for the high society killers after Selina Kyle and Ivy Pepper starts out in similarly dull territory but perks up with a twist that opens up the season in surprising ways. After the tween detectives found a target on their back due to a strange key the adult-bodied Ivy stole, their actions dove straight into "Gotham's" overused playbook. Ivy escapes the protection of Wayne Manor by "seducing" Alfred with her laughable super-chemistry powers, but then (as always) the escapee ends up right in the hands of the villains. This time out, the man behind the arrow-shooting assassins is a Russian mobster straight from the school of cartoon villainy. In a way, "Gotham" should almost be proud of how it continues to hold tight to lame mobster stereotypes while also rummaging through the cast lists of far better dramas to make that happen. Though this time out, instead of a depressing cast off from the classic "The Wire," this show picks up actor Costa Ronin who's been delivering for the past two years on the excellent FX drama "The Americans." In any event, what a waste.
But! Despite all that cliché setup, this episode turns away from the expected at the perfect moment. Though Bruce suspects that the killers were sent by the mysterious organization he's been locked in a cold war with all season, it turns out that Ronin's goofily-named Luka Volk is actually part of a strange resistance cell. For the first time in the show, we hear the name of the villains we've known were coming all along: the Court of Owls. And Luka's quest to gather keys of value to the Court not only keep the big villains in the shadows but it also offers up one of the show's better fight scenes in a while when the mobster goes toe-to-toe with a legitimately imposing masked Owl goon. Comic fans know that the Court's power as villains comes from their faceless mystique, and if the show doesn't break that barrier, it could have its first real effective big bad on its hands.
This idea extends out into the story of Jim Gordon – now as ever striving against storytelling mediocrity. This time out, Jim's former lady love Lee sees her fiancé and his mobster father Carmine Falcone (speaking of wasted "Wire" actors) the target of their own seeming mafia hit. The investigation into who's behind the exploding car that didn't quite kill off the Falcone's is another by the numbers piece of the show. Gordon follows the trail past a nicknamed bomb maker barely worth noting, plays out more macho bullshit withe Lee's new man days before their wedding and ultimately puts it together that the son, not the father is the real target with little to go on but intuition. It's a classic Gordon snoozefest through and through.
But at the very end of the episode, we're treated to a series of twists that could at least inject some life into this corner of the universe. Lee comes back to Jim just to talk the night before her nuptials – an event we've all known was coming but at least one that tells us the endgame is in sight. Meanwhile, Carmine actually plays up the part of scary mob boss for maybe the first time in the show's history by brutally interrogating a captured assassin, tying the guy to the Court and then going all in on threatening the woman behind the Owl-centric organization to stay away from his kid. The scene between the two crime powerhouses is the rare "Gotham" showdown full of dread. While the Court feigns indifference to Carmine's threats, he lets it be known that if his son dies, he'll have nothing to live for but bloody revenge. Meanwhile, their designs on the boy prince become clear when young Falcone catches Lee in the act at Jim's and rages out in a manner that can only me he too has been infected by the Tetch blood virus that's been worming its way through the "Mad City" season arc.
All in all, that virus and a few other pieces of comic book flim-flam introduced this year still refuse to feel interesting even ten episodes in. But with so much legitimately mystery and dread working their way into the Court storyline, there's hope that as "Gotham" barrels into its midseason finale, it can dump the hackneyed baggage and push forward into a more strange and subtle war over the city by season's end.