The fall finale of Gotham, “Lovecraft,” despite being infused with charisma courtesy of Donal Logue and Sean Pertwee, was evidence of just how strained the stories that are meant to be the heart of this show are. Week in and week out, Gotham has flailed about in an attempt to balance its gritty, noir-tinged ambitions with its more predominant procedural tendencies. Achieving such a balance isn’t necessarily a futile effort–there are plenty of shows out there that have managed to blend comedy and procedural with heavy drama–but thus far, the show has done little in assuring viewers that a confident and compelling vision unique to Gotham is in the works. Instead, as seen with this week’s episode, “Rogues’ Gallery,” the show continues to pile on characters and killer-of-the-week storylines with little regard for an overarching narrative, or even a sense of identity. There’s a lot of pieces here, but few of them fit together.
“Rogues’ Gallery,” much like Gotham as a whole, suffers from a baffling identity crisis, as evidenced in the episode’s opening moments. In the span of just a few minutes, we’re re-introduced to all the relevant storylines via a montage. We see Jim Gordon on guard at Arkham Asylum as the inmates put on an incompetent production of Shakespeare. We see Harvey Bullock quietly pondering his life, or perhaps his next fedora purchase, while drinking from a flask. We see Selina Kyle peering out into the rain, also pondering, and Barbara sleeping next to Montoya, bottles of pills strewn about the nightstand. Establishing where these characters are isn’t a misguided move, but the execution is off and indicative of what plagues this show as a whole. One minute we’re meant to be laughing at the crazy Asylum patients and their strange rendition of Shakespeare, and the next we’re meant to be contemplating the seriousness of the situation Gordon has got himself into, and how widespread corruption has corroded the city of Gotham and allowed good guys like Gordon to be buried. There’s a frustrating imbalance here, all in the first few minutes. It’s jarring to go from a comical stage play to an investigation into amateur shock therapy, followed shortly by an exploration of deeply-felt insecurity in romantic relationships. Gotham wants to be too many things at once, and it’s to the detriment of narrative precision and intrigue.
This is chiefly an issue with the writing, where tone is often established and relevant themes buttressed. Throughout its first season, Gotham has teetered between ham-fisted, cliché dialogue that necessarily services a more campy vision, and ham-fisted, cliché dialogue that feels like an exposition dump that’s at odds with the tone of each story. In “Rogues’ Gallery,” such tonal dissonance is most obviously represented in the storyline where Gordon attempts to find out who has been conducting electroshock therapy on the inmates, much to the chagrin of Clay Dav…umm, Dr. Lang.
The beginning of the investigation is delivered through another montage, this one even more offensive and ridiculous than the one that opened the show. Within the montage, Gordon sits down with a handful of patients for one-on-one interviews. The patients run the gamut of what can be considered “crazy” in Arkham Asylum, and the portrayal of these patients, which the show is using as a moment of levity, if not outright comedy, is at odds with the supposed seriousness of the investigation. Gotham wants us to understand that Gotham, and Arkham Asylum, is a dangerous place. It’s corrupt and overrun with criminals of all sorts. This is the gritty drama part, the part that, within an ideal show, would allow us to connect with Gordon, giving us palpable, relatable causes for his actions and politics. Instead, the scene is played for laughs, and not only is it a slightly offensive portrayal of people with mental health issues, it also undercuts that gritty drama stuff. What’s a real shame though is that there are interesting aspects to the storyline. Dr. Lang laments the underfunding of the asylum as just “the nature of municipal operations,” a wonderful hint at just how far gone the city of Gotham really is. Couple that with the scene where Gordon confronts a member of the staff about not reporting his lost keys, and the staffer admits to withholding the information because he would have been docked a week’s pay, and suddenly you have a more thorough and nuanced understanding of what Gotham is as a city, an entity, and as a driver of narrative action. But those are small scenes tucked away inside a larger mess of exposition and cartoonish performances.
Ultimately, “Rogues’ Gallery” fails on two necessary levels: it doesn’t present a compelling or narratively necessary case-of-the-week, and it continues the trend of thematic and tonal confusion. The episode is Gotham spinning its wheels. Sure, a few plot points are hit; we have the introduction of Dr. Leslie Thompkins and Butch’s hit on a potential threat to Mooney’s power. But outside of those moments, ”Rogues’ Gallery” is a trifling hour of television.
- The blowup between Barbara and Montoya is embarrassing in terms of storytelling. There’s no buildup of character or backstory, which is necessary for the scene to pack any emotional punch. We’re just supposed to suddenly understand that these two are toxic for each other? Having Montoya utter “this was a mistake, we shouldn’t see each other again,” doesn’t count as meaningful insight into what’s meant to be a significant relationship. It’s another case of the show’s writers telling us something rather than showing us.
- Donal Logue and Isiah Whitlock Jr. deserve better than the scenes they were given here. In particular, that “interrogation” scene, where Dr. Lang and Bullock begin to put the pieces together in terms of the electroshock therapy case, is nothing but an information dump. It’s tough watching these veterans deliver such contrived lines of dialogue.
- I liked that the scenes in the Asylum seem to be shot in a way that’s slightly off-kilter. The camera was tilted at some weird angles that hinted at the disorienting nature of the asylum and Gordon’s situation.
- Cobblepot is like a Bonsai tree to Maroni. He’s also a monkey, and Maroni is the zookeeper. Maroni loves ridiculous, scattered metaphors.
- Ivy apparently does a pretty good impression of an impassioned, older lover. Or, Barbara is a character who, when not being told what to think or do by a man, is not able to think clearly for herself. It’s a tough call.