One of the longest-running issues with Gotham has been its futile search for an identity. For almost two seasons now the show has struggled to define what it is and, more importantly, what it has to offer each and every week. That last point is especially significant in today’s TV climate, where superhero shows are treated with the same amount of reverence afforded so-called prestige dramas; in fact, the age of Peak TV seems to make superhero shows even more popular, as their blend of episodic and serialized storytelling perfectly fit into models of both binge watching and week-to-week appointment viewing.

Advertisement

Every show, to an extent, struggles to define what it is and what it has to offer, but superhero shows like The Flash, Arrow, and Marvel’s Agent Carter have moved through those struggles and come out on the other side with a mostly cohesive vision. You know what you’re getting from them every week in terms of storytelling, visual aesthetic, performances, tone, and themes. The same can’t be said for Gotham, which feels like it’s constantly changing shapes, forging new directions before abandoning them and starting all over again.

I mention Gotham‘s penchant for inconsistency and haphazard storytelling because “Wrath Of The Villains: Azrael” is a fun, engaging episode of television, and yet it still doesn’t feel of a piece with Gotham as a whole. When your show can’t seem to find its own identity, episodes like “Azrael” stand out because of how cohesive they are. The downside is that it also exposes just how scattered every other episode is, once again affirming the inconsistency of the season as a whole. So the question becomes, is it still possible to enjoy Gotham‘s standout episodes for what they are, even as the season itself lacks a sense of forward momentum and creative progress?

There’s no easy answer, but “Azrael” at least suggests that Gotham does have some redeeming qualities mixed into its failed attempts at being a police procedural, superhero show, and lengthy origin story. When Gotham is good it’s not taking itself too seriously while using its supporting performances to craft a story that’s actually fun to watch unfold. “Azrael” succeeds in large part because of the performances, as many of them are firing on all cylinders here. There’s B.D. Wong and Tonya Pinkins bringing a comedic chemistry to Hugo Strange and Ethel Peabody, the dynamic duo of Arkham Asylum. There’s Cory Michael Smith coming into his own as Nygma, injecting the previously limp character with a newfound sense of confidence and playfulness. Then there’s the returning James Frain, who brings Theo Galavan back to life as Azrael, ancient assassin and all-around badass.

Advertisement

Fox’s marketing department would have you believe that this season of Gotham has been all about establishing formidable villains and foes for both the city of Gotham and Jim Gordon, but “Azrael” is really the first time this season where the Big Bad has felt substantial enough to warrant the “Wrath Of The Villains” subheading. Part of that is because Azrael himself is an imposing figure. His armor, cape, and mask visually establish him as a threat, and that’s before he shows that he’s faster and stronger than everyone. More than that though, Azrael is a nice inclusion in the Gotham universe because of how he’s introduced.

The feud between Galavan and Gordon never really reached necessary levels of tension and intrigue in the first half of the season, but it’s a smart choice to use Galavan as Azrael because it injects immediate stakes into the story. For all the talk of Jim Gordon’s sins and having to atone for them, he’s never really had much to reckon with. Sure, he was in Arkham for a bit and Thompkins has all but disappeared, but Gordon himself hasn’t really had to come up against what he’s done in the past. Instead, Gotham has been trotting out stale dialogue crammed with faux gravitas. Even tonight Gordon warns Bruce about killing and vengeance, saying, “it will make you more like the evil you’re trying to fight.”

Azrael is the physical manifestation of Gordon’s sin though, and that makes a difference. The mental battle can only go on for so long, especially since Gotham has basically refused to really engage with the mental battle thus far. Now there’s a physical presence, an actual force to fight, who could push Gordon to his limit and challenge his ethics, determination, and worldview. “Azrael” still indulges in some messy setup for the final few episodes of the season, shoehorning in scenes with Cobblepot, Barbara, Butch, and Tabitha where they don’t really belong, but their inclusion here isn’t enough to derail what’s otherwise a propulsive, forward-thinking hour of Gotham. The show hasn’t figured it all out by any means, and it still struggles to define itself almost every week, but “Azrael” does manage to be both a fun one-off episode and a necessary rocket strapped to the plot to get things moving towards the finale.

Advertisement

Stray observations

  • Never Mind The Bullocks: This week I’m choosing “It’s not so simple, Hoss” strictly because Bullock calling Bruce Wayne “hoss” is hilarious.
  • Seriously, how good are Wong and Pinkins this week? Wong’s impatient, exhausted delivery of “what is it?” when Peabody gets a call form upstairs is perfect.
  • Peabody’s reaction to Strange wanting to put more “stories” into patients: “I still prefer thorazine.”
  • “Generations? That sword was made yesterday.” Where has this version of Peabody been all season?
  • That final scene with Nygma discovering Strange’s hidden bunker, all scored to “I’m Looking Over A Four Leaf Clover,” was delightful.

Advertisement