If you’re watching TV in 2016 and love superhero stories, you’re probably trying to figure out how to cram everything into your weekly schedule. There’s a glut of options out there, and they run the gamut from more self-serious fare and procedurals to fun-loving romps and campy, self-aware tributes. There’s no shortage of choices, and yet there are clear examples of certain stories standing out from the pack. With its second season, Arrow crafted a near-perfect season-long arc involving Oliver Queen and his old island buddy/foe Slade Wilson, and the first season of The Flash overcame some early sluggishness to create a compelling mix of origin story and mythmaking. Those two seasons are tonally different, but they succeed for the same reason: their plots are anchored in meaningful character work and relatable stakes. Both seasons aren’t just empty action, but rather use their plot to explore deeper emotions; from Oliver dealing with the sense of responsibility he had in creating the monstrous version of Slade Wilson, to Barry confronting is own limitations and culpability in his battle with another speedster and his mentor.
Essentially, meaningful emotions keep the superhero genre grounded; churning out “cool” characters and moments only works for so long, and there’s certainly no lasting impression. This is something that Gotham doesn’t seem to understand. Both The Flash and Arrow, in those exemplary seasons, made us care about the characters on the screen not because they’re cool superheroes, but because they’re people. They’re flawed and heroic and scared and boisterous and insecure. Sure, they have some badass abilities, but they’re human at their core. That allows us to be emotionally invested in their struggles no matter how ludicrous they are (see: time travel, second Earths, and Leagues of Assassins). That’s not only important to the superhero-based genre, but to episodic storytelling in general. If there’s no reason to care about the struggle of the characters, there’s no reason to tune in each and every week.
Gotham consistently tosses emotional investment to the side. Or, rather, a lack of emotional investment in these characters (Gordon, Bruce Wayne, Selina Kyle, etc.) is a product of the show’s style of storytelling, which is more about “moments” than it is carefully-planned and executed arcs. “Wrath Of The Villains: A Legion Of Horribles” certainly backs up the latter point, that Gotham’s insistent focus on cramming characters and subplots into its main story (when there actually is a main story) leaves a lot to be desired. When you’ve finished watching “A Legion Of Horribles” you’re left with a distinct feeling that something happened, but also that none of it matters. When the most memorable and impactful moment is the return of a character everybody knew was coming back because of heavy promotion, there’s a serious problem.
What’s fascinating, in a trainwreck kind of way, is that Gotham has so many interesting pieces to work with. There’s Indian Hill, run by a man who has a connection to Thomas Wayne and perhaps even ordered his murder. There’s Strange’s ability to bring people back from the dead and give them new lives. There’s Gordon’s culpability in murdering Galavan and Penguin’s knowledge of it all, mixed with Bruce’s glorification of the future Commissioner and his dead father. Those plot points should work to the show’s advantage as they’re every bit as outlandish and potentially deep as anything on The Flash or Arrow. Gotham refuses to engage with its most intriguing themes and ideas though.
What that means is that rather than having the penultimate episode of the season focus on complex matters like Gordon’s culpability in the trauma of Gotham, or Bruce’s reckoning with a world beyond his sheltered understanding, the episode instead churns out faux gravitas in the form of the resurrection of Fish Mooney, and yet another escape/break out/break-in subplot. I’ve hit on the show’s trouble with crafting stories out of Bruce Wayne being in danger before, so there’s no need to hammer it home again, but at what point does the problem move from being that there’s no stakes to Bruce being in danger to the fact that Gotham doesn’t have any other ideas? Gotham has a tendency to recycle storylines, and “A Legion of Horribles” is yet another example of that. Once again Bruce is in danger, Gordon, Bullock, Alfred, and the GCPD are trying to save him, and criminals like Penguin and Mooney may be used in the fight. How is this any different than the fall finale?
We’ve seen this same scenario play out again and again. The players keep changing, but the structure of the game remains the same. So, when Fish Mooney proves that she remembers who she is and confidently utters, “I’m Fish Mooney, bitch” it’s a fun moment, but nothing more. Gotham is filled with such moments, seemingly crafted for marketing purposes and the social media hype machine, but there’s no show around them, meaning that there’s no resonance and no reason to stick around and see how things play out. Going back to season two of Arrow, there are plenty of big, fun moments, including when Slade Wilson is revealed in his current form, menacing and ready to destroy everything Oliver Queen loves. It’s the type of “holy shit, this is so cool” moment that Gotham goes for almost every week. What Gotham doesn’t realize though is that the moment in Arrow is built on a foundation of solid character work. We understand the history of Oliver and Slade and how it will impact the story being told, and that leaves us both wanting more and worried about what’s to come. When Fish Mooney comes back, or when Firefly appears again and tries to take out Selina, or when Nygma is in charge of getting information out of Bruce Wayne, they are “moments” as well, but there’s no emotional impact because Gotham hasn’t done enough to make us care about these characters or their actions.
“A Legion Of Horribles” acts as a representation of Gotham‘s larger storytelling issues. It seems to operate in a vacuum, where previous plot twists and details have no bearing on current events. Gotham trots out twists and turns in order to create drama, but fails to understand that immediate shock or intrigue doesn’t translate to engaging long-term storytelling. It looks like Gotham is heading towards a guns-blazing finale next week (complete with fake Jim Gordon!), but there’s a good chance all of the firepower and confrontations won’t mean a thing.
- Never Mind The Bullocks: As much as I’d love to transcribe Bullock’s whole improvised media scrum because it’s just so much fun watching him try to be a by-the-books Captain, I’ll stick to a shorter sample. His response to being asked if he can confirm Azrael was Galavan: “Well seeing as how the suspect is now meat dust, a positive identification would be difficult.”
- I was laughing as hard as Strange was when fake Jim Gordon was revealed. Hilarious. I’d be okay with Gotham committing to that loony tone.
- Welcome back, Jada Pinkett Smith. Here’s hoping you get a little time to chew some scenery next episode.
- Nygma with the sartorial burn on Bruce: “I think you’re not quite grasping the power dynamic here, turtleneck.”
- It’s a good thing Peabody isn’t too suspicious, otherwise Fox would have been captured way earlier.
- I’m admittedly intrigued by the Court showing up, but that’s the show’s modus operandi. It teases cool canon character moments and then fails to craft a consequential story around them.