There are a lot of reasons why Gotham has failed to deliver anything compelling in its last few episodes, but one of the biggest issues is the all-around lack of a propulsive narrative. Whereas the first few episodes of the season worked to establish Theo Galavan as the city’s latest threat, along with his new band of villains, the last few weeks have been rather listless. That leaves Galavan feeling like nothing more than a tertiary character and, even more harmful to the impact of the show, leaves Gordon and the GCPD with no foe and no sense of purpose.

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“Rise Of The Villains: Mommy’s Little Monster” works to correct that by finally showing signs that there’s a larger, overarching narrative to this second season. Whether or not that story will remain compelling across the entirety of this season is, of course, still up in the air, but if there’s anything that Gotham can benefit from it’s a more concrete structure. After all, Gotham has a tendency to shift gears far too often, to focus on too many characters at once, creating episodes that don’t feel part of a whole and often fail to move plot and character insights forward without relying on contrived devices and tropes. This week’s episode is a relative improvement given that the writers mostly stick to telling a single story, which is the rise of Galavan to the position of Mayor and the eventual reveal of his true nature to Gordon.

Part of what makes this week’s episode more compelling than previous installments is the fact that there’s a clear plot progression from the beginning of the episode to the end. “Mommy’s Little Monster” begins by finally paying off the intertwined story of Penguin and Galavan, with the twists and turns such a payoff involves. Penguin thinks he’s finally found his mother, but it’s actually a trap to laid by Butch to get his old boss killed. Then, Galavan agrees to let Mrs. Penguin go, only to have Tabitha kill her while she’s in Penguin’s arms. It’s cold blooded stuff, but the difference between this death and every other one on the show is that this one serves a purpose. It further cements the demented nature of Tabitha and Theo while also giving the escaping Penguin all the motivation he needs to go after Theo, which in turn allows for, potentially, another uneasy alliance between Penguin and Gordon.

Essentially, “Mommy’s Little Monster” finally starts to put all the pieces together, and while everything doesn’t necessarily fit and the larger picture is still to be revealed, at least there’s the semblance of cohesion and attention being paid to a season-long story. Just about every beat in the episode works toward the goal of pitting Gordon against Galavan while also muddying the waters and throwing in the variable that is Penguin. There’s still a lot of grating elements in the episode, especially when Bullock recites lines like, “no one’s telling the truth; this is Gotham,” but he’s at least getting at what makes Gotham, and Gotham, interesting: that sense of allegiances switching at any moment. Too much of this season has felt stale and predictable, and while this week’s shift towards the more combustible doesn’t mean Gotham is immediately back on track, there is the sense that a shift in character dynamics and loyalties can help the show shake off some of the cobwebs and begin to look towards a more promising future.

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And who would have thought that after suffering through endless iterations of the same storyline that part of that promising future would be Nygma and his turn into the Riddler? Nygma has consistently been the worst part of Gotham for over a season now, due in large part to the show treating his character as nothing but a secondary curiosity. His entire character arc has consisted of an awkward romance with Kringle. Seriously, that’s it. Sure, he murdered her abusive boyfriend, but that bit of plot is more of an inciting incident than anything else. “Mommy’s Little Monster” makes it clear though that with a little attention paid to character psyche and motivation, Nygma can be more than just a caricature.

The transformation of Nygma in this episode is one of those rare examples of Gotham striking the perfect balance in tone. It’s at turns funny, morbid, and tense, feelings that the show has trouble mustering on a weekly basis in a larger context, never mind when applied to an individual storyline. There’s real sadness to the fact that Kringle is dead, and there’s emotion in Nygma using his alter ego to block out the fact that he killed her, that despite all his best intentions, he’s responsible for ending her life. That kind of origin story has an immediate impact, something most of the character reveals on the show have been lacking. Add to that the touches of humor, including Kringle’s hand being placed in a vending machine behind a row of Ladyfingers, and Nygma’s unraveling of his alter ego’s riddles being set to the smooth lounge sounds of Louis Prima’s “Closer To The Bone,” and you have a B-plot that actually feels fresh and fun, not the typical slog that usually defines a Nygma story.

There’s no telling if the cohesive threads in “Mommy’s Little Monster” will hold together and begin to unravel at just the right time, but at least the episode shows signs of what Gotham can be. This is an episode with a bevy of solid Bullock one-liners, a determined and menacing Penguin, and a clear narrative complete with fun twists and contemplation of forthcoming consequences—we’ll just ignore the horrible (pre?) teen love triangle for now. It’s not perfect, but it’s Gotham with a purpose, and that’s more than can be said for most of this season so far.

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Stray observations

  • Never Mind The Bullocks: “Questions like that are above my paygrade and below my sense of wonder.”
  • “You probably have half a mind to turn yourself in. Luckily, I have the other half.”
  • Some solid action scenes tonight, including the climax at the Mayor’s party and Zsasz going after Butch.
  • Imagine what would have happened if Gordon’s police force didn’t explicitly state, step by step over the walkie-talkies, what their plan to get Galavan out was!?!?
  • Can we get back to a Penguin and Gordon alliance now? Their strange and reluctant partnership has always had great storytelling potential.
  • So, um, is Barbara still a character?

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