Not satisfied with just making its episode titles laborious and nonsensical, Gotham has extended its commitment to weariness to just about every single subplot this season. Early episodes this winter suggested that perhaps Gotham could find a way to tell a more compelling story with Mr. Freeze. That very vague hope is something anyone who watches this show is getting used to though. There’s a cycle to Gotham that’s as reliable as a Bullock zinger: show promising character arc, abandon it at all costs, shoehorn in some stale, perfunctory subplots, hint at characters becoming canon villains and heroes, then start all over again. It’s exhausting, and so is “Wrath Of The Villains: This Ball Of Mud And Meanness.”

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Let’s lay out the huge problem with “This Ball Of Mud And Meanness” right off the bat: it’s an entire episode built around Bruce Wayne hunting down the man who killed his parents, which is a revenge tale that has no end in sight and also contains no real dramatic stakes. The problem with the “who murdered the Waynes?” story is more than just knowing that Bruce Wayne becomes Batman. With enough good storytelling, we could ignore that fact and just enjoy the process of seeing Bruce get there. But Gotham has no interest in actually digging into the psychology of Bruce Wayne, or how his traumatic experience affected him, or how the corrosion of Gotham, potentially at the hands of his parents, creates the need for villains and heroes. Instead, Gotham continues to coast on the canon. It’s like a mirage in a dry desert; the promise is that if you just keep crawling towards your destination, despite evidence suggesting that once you get there you’ll be disappointed, everything will be fine.

Here’s the thing: Gotham isn’t really telling any stories, or at least not any meaningful ones. The reason that the rise and fall of Victor Fries in the previous episodes worked relatively well is because of the emotional stakes and the attention paid to storytelling. Fries is a product of the city of Gotham, a manifestation of its shady morality and broken bureaucracy. There’s purpose to his struggle, which, by osmosis, gives purpose to the GCPD and the plight of Jim Gordon. In contrast to that, there’s no depth or purpose to Bruce’s search for Matches Malone, and “This Ball Of Mud And Meanness” exposes that.

Much like with the show did with Jim Gordon, “This Ball Of Mud And Meanness” makes a big deal out of whether or not Bruce will kill Matches Malone and cross some sort of line. As always, the actual nuance of this is lost in the mess. Is there something inherently interesting about Bruce Wayne having to deal with growing up amidst violence and having his privileged worldview shattered in the worst way possible? Of course there is, but that’s not what Gotham is looking at. Gotham wants to live off of the idea of its edgier elements while never actually engaging with them. So what’s the point then? If Gotham never really grapples with the inner turmoil of Bruce Wayne, what’s the point of him seeking out Matches Malone and pointing a gun to his head?

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That’s where Gotham has everything backwards. “This Ball Of Mud And Meanness,” and Gotham more generally, seems to think that the mystery of who killed the Waynes is more interesting than how the murder affects Bruce. If Gotham believes that, then of course the storytelling is going to privilege laborious plots with zero emotional consequence, because Gotham is presuming we care less about character insight and more about narrative twists and mysteries. That attitude extends to so much of “This Ball Of Mud And Meanness,” perhaps the most pointless, dull episode of the season so far.

Take, for instance, the story of Penguin and his time in Arkham Asylum. What started out as a fresh look at Arkham, including the introduction of B.D. Wong as Hugo Strange, quickly devolved into tiresome storytelling. The scenes here with Penguin, where he undergoes experiments to get him to be civil and obedient, don’t really achieve anything beyond letting us know that Strange is a little bit unhinged. Again, it’s a case of Gotham coasting on the legacy of the Batman canon. Rather than actually dig into Strange and his experiments, the show throws a few meaningless, uninspired scenes together and says, “see, he’s weird and part of the canon.” It’s infuriating because that’s not how episodic storytelling works. Gotham is refusing to put in any work in terms of giving its world depth; solid set design only gets you so far.

The sloppiness and inconsequential nature of “This Ball Of Mud And Meanness” is the outcome of Gotham being unable to reconcile a serious tonal divide within its show. It’s consistently trying to be two shows at once and it’s utterly failing. That failure is evident in the way episodes are structured, the way story arcs are begun then abandoned, and the way the cast never seems to be on the same page. There are those that understand they’re in a campy show, like tonight’s wonderfully bonkers performance from Lori Petty, and then there’s Ben McKenzie, who’s convinced that he’s on a superhero version of Breaking Bad. Gotham has proven again and again that it can’t handle the balancing act, that it can’t be both campy and gritty, cartoonish and dramatically serious. “This Ball Of Mud And Meanness” is just the latest example.

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Stray observations

  • Never Mind The Bullocks: “For a butler you sure get beat up a lot.”
  • Bruce is living on the streets with Selina now, trying to learn more about how “real” the world is. Look for his fire mixtape next week, folks.
  • Usually Gotham is at least pleasing to look at, but tonight’s episode was rather ugly. Too many harsh colors and a lot of curious lighting.
  • “You are a lot less fun than advertised.” Is that Jeri talking to Gordon, or all of us speaking to Gotham?
  • I’m happy that Penguin’s out of Arkham now. Having one of your best villains/performers locked up is never a good idea.
  • I think I almost rolled my eyes right out of my head when that Bruce Wayne voiceover closed out the episode.

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