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After a first season defined by case-of-the-week procedural stories, Gotham returned in its second season with the goal of crafting a longer narrative arc. Theo Galavan became the focus of Gotham, moving from possibly gold-hearted philanthropist to evil mastermind determined to settle a centuries old blood feud with the Wayne family by killing Bruce Wayne. That story was Gotham‘s first attempt at sidestepping its procedural origins— though various villains certainly popped in and out throughout this season’s first half—and, for the most part, the show fell flat. It had trouble balancing the need for new villains, which is a major part of just about every superhero show on TV right now, while also advancing the main story, which was the crumbling of Jim Gordon’s morality.

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Perhaps now that Gordon has officially crossed the line after executing Galavan in the fall finale, Gotham can progress with higher stakes. It would seem that the show is ready to move forward with a similar structure to the first half of its season, as “Wrath Of The Villains: Mr. Freeze” sets up a villain that’s sure to be around for quite a few episodes. Where the show failed with Galavan though, there’s signs that it might succeed with Mr. Freeze. One of the biggest problems with the Galavan character arc was that it was built upon so little backstory. The Order of St. Dumas played a big role in Galavan’s plot to murder Bruce Wayne, and yet the show failed to tell us anything about them, robbing the whole storyline of significant stakes. With “Mr. Freeze,” Gotham puts in the necessary work of setting up Mr. Freeze not only as a villain with clear motivations, but also someone significantly more dangerous than Gordon has seen before.

Gotham sticks with the fairly typical Mr. Freeze backstory, painting Victor Fries as a somewhat sympathetic villain, a man who goes to far while trying to save his terminally ill wife. Gotham doesn’t excuse his behavior so much as ground his deadly experiments in a certain amount of pathos. For the first time in awhile, Gotham actually takes the time to explore how a villain is created in the city of Gotham—you would think that a season branded in its early going as “Rise Of The Villains” would have done so sooner—and it certainly pays off. Nathan Darrow takes some time off from pleasuring the Underwoods to turn in a solid performance as Victor Fries, the desperation of his situation coming across in Darrow’s often vacant, pained look. He’s a man at the end of his rope, and Gotham does a good job of showing how the city of Gotham can turn a man from desperate to dangerous in a hurry.

Of course, there’s more to “Mr. Freeze” than Mr. Freeze; there’s also the big question of where Jim Gordon goes now that he’s been cleared of all charges in the murder of Theo Galavan. Not everybody believes his story, as both Dent and Barnes barely conceal their skepticism, but for now he’s legally off the hook and back to work, lying to Thompkins about the story while he’s at it. Gordon getting back to work and hiding his true actions from everyone is a predictable development, but it’s one that’s welcome. For too long Gotham has told us that Gordon is complicated, or something close to an anti-hero, and yet has never put in the work to make that true. Now, Gordon has a secret, and it’s a dark one, and the idea that it could come back to haunt him in any number of ways adds a much needed sense of urgency to this season, and a jolt of motivation to the character.

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Meanwhile, the Gotham underworld is going through its own changes. Butch, who remains the best character on this show purely because he’s legitimate comic relief, is running things now that Cobblepot is making a home of Arkham Asylum. He’s using a drill bit on his hand to undertake unlicensed dentistry, at least until Tabitha Galavan shows up and says she wants to work with him. It’s really just the seed of more to come, but Gotham could use the shakeup. Theo never really felt like much of a threat, but if Butch and the much more menacing and volatile Tabitha team up, things could get interesting, especially if/when Cobblepot finds his way out of Arkham.

Ultimately, “Wrath Of The Villains: Mr. Freeze” does an admirable job of doing a soft reset. With Theo Galavan out of the picture, Gotham puts in the work to establish a new threat to the city, and the show’s sudden interest in backstory is, at the very least, a promising sign that perhaps Gotham won’t drop the ball with this particular villain. Add to that the fact that Gordon is harboring a secret that could alienate him from the ones he loves and put him in prison, and there’s suddenly some stakes in a season that’s largely avoided dramatic tension or compelling storytelling.

Stray observations

  • Never Mind The Bullocks: “You don’t deserve these lips.”
  • That melting body was wonderfully disgusting.
  • Are we any closer to getting the Nygma and Cobblepot spinoff I so desperately need?
  • “I’m not glum. I’m just thinking.” Bless you, Butch.
  • No sign of Bruce this week, but Selina Kyle did see Tabitha pitch (with a bit of seduction) a partnership to Butch.
  • “I’m sorry for that. Such an exquisite vase.”
  • B.D. Wong as Hugo Strange is excellent casting.

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