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It’s Gordon vs. Nygma on a solid episode of Gotham

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If there’s something consistent about Gotham it’s that, from week to week, the show remains jumbled. Gotham is often a mess of subplots and character motivations, the show failing to find a way to make everything cohere. “Wrath Of The Villains: Mad Grey Dawn” is only the fourth episode since the show’s winter hiatus, and yet the back half of this season already feels like a lost opportunity, with the show seemingly refusing to construct something compelling out of the pieces that were put into place by the fall finale. Essentially, the back half of this season has spent so much time on relatively meaningless subplots, including a Mr. Freeze story that operated in a vacuum and a Penguin subplot that’s still spinning its wheels, that the real story of Jim Gordon going against everything he believes in, has been lost.

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To be fair, Gotham hasn’t put itself in an enviable position. Since the first season, the show has thrown characters into the mix at an alarming pace, spreading the stories thin as the roster of bad guys and good guys continues to bloat. Too often an episode of Gotham ends up being nothing but snapshots of plot, as if the show is perpetually playing catch up, making sure the audience knows where every character is while failing to actually move the plot forward. Sometimes Gotham feels like a series of season premieres, where the exposition and narrative-arc setup never stops.

“Mad Grey Dawn” jumps around too much for its own good, but it also succeeds, relatively speaking, by getting back to the story of Jim Gordon. Despite the various subplots, this season has always been about Jim Gordon cracking under the pressure of keeping Gotham safe. That lead him to kill Galavan out of a sense of vigilante justice, and now “Mad Grey Dawn” is finally digging back into the consequences of that drastic action. It’s an episode that doesn’t spread itself too thin—though the continuing hardening of Bruce Wayne is a consistent, and extremely dull, waste of time—and instead finds some actual tension in the idea that perhaps Gordon has finally met is match.

What works about the Gordon subplot is that there’s good old-fashioned secrecy and happenstance at the heart of it. Gordon would have likely gotten away with the murder of Galavan if he hadn’t started looking into the presumed disappearance of Miss Kringle, which pushes Nygma to scheme, and forces Internal Affairs to reopen the case after an anonymous witness steps forward. That’s a nice confluence of events that Gotham hardly ever pulls off. Usually the subplots operate independently of one another, meaning that each one only gets a few moments an episode to move its particular story forward, resulting in that jumbled, uneven feeling that persists from week to week. With “Mad Grey Dawn” there’s a sense of urgency, and a feeling of momentum and action.

Part of what makes “Mad Grey Dawn” one of the more appealing hours of Gotham so far this season is the fact that it indulges in basic storytelling. This is a cop show at its core, and “Mad Grey Dawn” works by establishing a cat-and-mouse game between the all-knowing Nygma and the clueless Gordon. Seeing Gordon trying to piece together how the Galavan case could have been reopened while Nygma remains a few steps ahead is genuinely compelling in a way this season hasn’t been, and it’s because the storytelling is so simple. There’s clear conflict, and the why and how remains a mystery to Gordon. Gotham rarely makes things so simple and yet effective—think about how convoluted and self-serious the Bruce Wayne kidnapping plot from the fall was—but “Mad Grey Dawn” does, and it elevates the episode.

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Some of that good storytelling momentum is ruined when a commercial break allows the show to jump ahead four weeks, putting Gordon in prison after Nygma successfully frames him for killing Galavan (even though he did kill Galavan, so it’s not exactly framing). It would have been to nice to see Gotham spend a little more time teasing out the tension, taking its time with the dramatic beats. Instead, “Mad Grey Dawn” speeds the narrative up, and that lessens the emotional impact. When Gordon and Dr. Thompkins have a teary goodbye with Gordon behind bars, it’s not emotionally affecting because Gotham doesn’t spend any time on character development. Thompkins has been angry at Jim ever since the Galavan shooting, scared that he’s becoming something she can’t love, something she can’t stand beside as a romantic partner and colleague. Then, in the span of a commercial break, she’s despondent just thinking about Jim not being in her life. It’s a quick turn that betrays the more patient, compelling storytelling that takes place in the first half of the episode, where Gordon is just trying to figure out what the hell is going on.

Essentially, “Mad Grey Dawn” works when the focus is on Jim and Nygma because there’s meaningful stakes in that storyline for a number of characters, and it’s an example of Gotham managing to actually spin a few subplots into a cohesive whole. Then there’s everything else, from Penguin’s weird introduction to a father he didn’t know he had (played quite appropriately by Paul Reubens) to Bruce’s run-ins with the rougher side of Gotham along with Selina, which all falls flat. There’s no stakes or intrigue to those stories; they just exist, and in an episode where Gotham actually deploys a fun cat-and-mouse game, their flaws stand out all the more clearly.

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Stray observations

  • Never Mind The Bullocks: A Gordon in trouble means a reserved Bullock this week. Hopefully the wisecracker returns soon.
  • I really do appreciate Gotham sticking to its characterization of Bullock as this old school gumshoe detective though. I’m hoping his staunch defense of Gordon will lead to some character depth.
  • By now you all know about my hopes for a Penguin and Nygma spinoff buddy comedy, so you can imagine my delight when Penguin shows up at Nygma’s house all giddy and covered in feathers.
  • So, Barbara is awake. That’s…something.
  • “The me I am now is kind of hitting his stride.” You know Nygma, you’re not wrong.
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