Relatively speaking, “Wrath Of The Villains: Prisoners” is one of the more memorable—Note: memorable ≠ good—episodes of Gotham in recent memory because it isn’t bogged down by all that canon superhero stuff. I’ve mentioned before that the show is usually too overstuffed with characters, most of whom don’t even have a meaningful or engaging arc going on, to really focus in on a single story and make it have an impact. Dramatic stakes get lost in the continuous shuffle of villains and crooked cops, and the ever-shifting morality of Jim Gordon. Without those dramatic stakes Gotham ends up feeling like a parade of villains with no staying power, meaning that there’s no tension to the season-long narrative, meaning that there’s hardly a reason to tune in every week.

“Prisoners” is a case of Gotham’s best and worst tendencies. There are two characters at the heart of this week’s episode, as “Prisoners” focuses solely on two people stuck in situations that may be beyond their control, who are both in those situations because of one another. There’s Jim Gordon, spending weeks—thanks, expository montage!—in prison by generally getting along and staying out of trouble. Then there’s Penguin, who’s found some comfort in his father’s home, in a family he didn’t know he had. These two storylines operate in two completely different ways. The former finds some interesting depth merely by changing the scenery, by putting Gordon into a different situation, whereas the latter is a pointless detour for an otherwise reliable character.

The relative depth in the Gordon subplot comes courtesy of the prison itself. Gotham usually benefits from a scenery shakeup every now and then, and by once again diving into another example of the broken systems in Gotham, the show finds some spark. Sure, the prison story is cliché, as “Prisoners” opens with a montage of Gordon’s day-to-day monotony and then proceeds to hit all the predictable narrative beats—a beat down, a moral stand, a stabbing, an escape—but within that framework is something different from what Gotham usually does, and that’s important. This show could use a little differentiation from week to week, and the prison subplot certainly does that.

There’s meaningful tension in watching Gordon navigate this system that’s pitted against him, and there’s fascinating narrative complexities tucked away underneath all of Gotham‘s more frivolous elements. For instance, we all want Jim Gordon to escape, and we certainly don’t want to see likable guys like Puck take a beating because of him, but we also know that he technically deserves to be right where he is. He did kill Galavan. There’s something interesting in that conflict, and in the fact that Bullock has to turn to Falcone to get Gordon out of prison. Gordon has to use the same corrupt system he fights against every day to free himself. That’s compelling, which is why it’s such a shame the end of the subplot is so melodramatic and overwritten. It’s as if once Gordon is out of prison everything is back to how it was, with Bullock and Falcone reciting cliché lines about Gordon “being a fighter” and “getting knocked down” and how important it is that he get back up and fight some more. It’s too much, especially as Puck’s body, another pointless casualty, is slumped in the front seat.

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I’m not sure the melodrama that ends that segment is worse than the strange, silly tone that permeates the Penguin subplot this week, but it’s certainly close. While the interactions between Paul Reubens and Robin Lord Taylor have been entertaining, there’s not enough weight behind the characters, not enough history or backstory, to justify two full weeks of narrative focus. In essence, when Penguin’s father, Elijah, dies at the end of the episode, poisoned by his wife and her kids after they figure he’s about to write them out of his will, it doesn’t feel consequential or important. Firstly, Penguin has already been through a more substantial and affecting parent death, and secondly, it’s hard to spot any character or story implications within this whole character detour.

Ever since Penguin was committed to Arkham things have gone off the rails for the character. He’s been robbed of his sadistic charm and, even worse, seems to serves no purpose in any larger character arc. The show hit on something intriguing by having Gordon and Penguin share a secret, and yet there’s been very little teasing out of the consequences of their actions. Instead, Cobblepot’s brain has been wiped (mostly) and Gordon is spending time in prison before Bullock gets him out. There’s bound to be consequences at some point—it’d be insane if the show didn’t pay off the slow emergence of Penguin’s memories—but the ease with which the show has chugged along while two of its main characters share a dark secret is rather troubling. It just shows, once again, that Gotham often has too many subplots shooting out in different directions with no plan as to how to wrangle them into something cohesive. “Prisoners” is a nice change of pace, but it’s still fitfully compelling and frustratingly inconsequential in the larger narrative arc of the season.

Stray observations

  • Never Mind The Bullocks: “The real killer is out there somewhere eating donuts and getting laid!” Bullock has an interesting perspective on what murderers do in their spare time.
  • My eyes get a workout every week with this show, as they’re constantly rolling. This week’s beautiful dialogue: “they either leave here on parole or in a body bag…and nobody gets parole.” Seriously?
  • That’s on top of the melodramatic, cringeworthy dialogue at the end of the episode, where Jim, Bullock, and Falcone are on the bridge, which had me nearly in tears with laughter. This show is so self-serious sometimes, and lays it on thick.
  • I’m still trying to figure out what the point of all this Penguin/Elijah nonsense is. It’s a subplot that’s operating in a vacuum, and it’s not adding any value to Penguin or the larger story.
  • Oh, how did I get this far and not mention that Thompkins lost the baby, and that she lost it offscreen because she’s really just a narrative device to further push Gordon towards vengeance and anger. Ugh.
  • It’s probably best if I don’t even comment on the weird rape/murder jokes, right? Okay, cool.

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