Cory Michael Smith/Fox

The problem with using “Rise Of The Villains” as this season’s subtitle is that it’s such a generic phrase as to be virtually meaningless. Wasn’t last season also about the rise of the villains? And which villains are we talking about, anyway? If a subtitle is to have any use at all, it’s to bring some sort of focus to the proceedings, but since almost anything that happens on Gotham can fall under that heading, the show is just as prone to sprawl as it has been from the beginning.

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Tonight’s storylines are connected inasmuch as they all spring from Galavan’s presence in Gotham, but since he is barely glimpsed until the episode’s final minutes, “A Bitter Pill To Swallow” still feels like a disparate collection of stories in search of a center. With her brother locked up in Blackgate, Tabitha seeks revenge on Gordon for his role in Barbara’s current comatose condition. She drops in on a casino for assassins (an exclusive clientele elsewhere maybe, but not so much in Gotham) and puts out a hit on Gordon, who is searching for evidence in Galavan’s penthouse apartment.

After dodging the first killer (who I’m going to assume is called the Piano Tuner), Gordon finds himself under siege at Galavan’s, along with the Commish, good cop Parks, and a redshirt from forensics. The onslaught of assassins gives Gordon another chance to engage in his favorite new technique of dangling a criminal out a window, which in turn gives Barnes another chance to lecture him about breaking the rules. Yes, it was funny the first time the guy who played ultimate bad cop Vic Mackey scolded Gordon for mussing a suspect’s hair, but the way it plays out here, Barnes is just one cog in an episode-long machine built to hammer home the message that Jim Gordon is close to crossing the line.

The problem is that Gordon has already crossed back and forth across the line several times in the series to date, and the show still can’t make up its mind where he belongs. When the episode’s final boss, the ridiculous Eduardo Flamingo (a skunk-haired killer who feasts on his victims’ flesh), presents Gordon with the same gun-in-mouth scenario described minutes earlier by Barnes, Gordon seemingly passes the test by letting him live. A few minute later, Flamingo is sinking his teeth into the neck of Parks, one of the few good cops Gordon has encountered on the job. The message here may be that doing the right thing can have unforeseen adverse consequences, but that doesn’t change the fact that it was the right thing to do. But it smells more like Gordon is being punished for going soft. Only time will tell, assuming Gotham even has a coherent point-of-view on the matter.

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Elsewhere, li’l Wayne is still convinced Galavan had the goods on his parents’ killer, and is trying to get the information through Silver St. Cloud. Alfred disapproves, because that’s what Alfred does, once again sending a potential Bruce girlfriend on her way. At least he doesn’t smack Silver in the face, though. A later attempt by Bruce to sneak out of the house is likewise foiled, but in the end Selina shows up again, promising to show Bruce that his new infatuation is bad news.

The most successful strand this week involves Ed nursing Penguin back to health and re-stoking the fire of vengeance in his heart. This is the show’s first true Riddler/Penguin team-up, and it works surprisingly well, unfolding in Nygma’s darkened apartment accompanied by the constant thrum of circling helicopters and the sweep of their lights. Freed of his lovelorn phase, Ed has begun to embrace his dark side in a way that proves infectious, despite Penguin’s initial resistance. “I’ve started murdering people,” he gleefully confides, and while Penguin isn’t impressed with his body count, he does eventually come around to Ed’s viewpoint that men like them weren’t meant to be constrained by loving relationships. Ed’s present to Penguin of one of Gallavan’s lackeys just may be the start of a beautiful friendship.

Stray observations

  • Never Mind The Bullocks: No Bullock tonight. Is Donal Logue moonlighting on some other show?
  • Fun opening shot this week, tracking from some Joker graffiti to the headline about Galavan’s arrest and finally landing on Tabitha en route to the casino.
  • It’s almost inevitable that Barbara will come out of her coma restored to sanity, isn’t it? Having her survive the fall last week already undercut what would have been a genuinely emotional moment, but I enjoyed evil Barbara so much I don’t think I could stand going back to the boring version.
  • Thanks to Kyle Fowle for letting me sit in this week while he tends to rasslin’ matters.

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