With Cameron Monaghan’s Jerome dispatched last week by a quick stab to the neck, Gotham finds itself switching gears and shifting the focus of its story. Where the first few episodes of the season worked to establish that Gotham was undergoing changes, and that Theo Galavan had a larger plan for the city after orchestrating the Arkham Asylum break, they were also episodes that largely existed to showcase Jerome. He seemed poise to become the next big threat to Gordon and the GCPD, which means that his death swiftly turns the focus not only to more familiar characters like Penguin, but also brings Galavan’s larger plot into light.
That shift in priorities unfortunately means that Gotham reverts back to the same kind of contrived, stilted storytelling that defined much of the first season. “Rise Of The Villains: Strike Force” is an exposition-heavy episode, one that not only feels the need to move along the plot at a brisk pace, much to the detriment of the more patient character work of the first three episodes, but also make sure every single narrative beat is laid out in the plainest terms possible. That means that “Strike Force” moves at a swift clip, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing on paper, but makes Galavan’s rise and the formation of Unit Alpha (very original) Strike Force feel rushed. Where those first few episodes resisted overly simplistic storytelling, “Strike Force” embraces a trite sense of morality and characterization. Be it Michael Chiklis’ hammy turn as Captain Nathaniel Barnes or Theo Galavan becoming more of an outsized villain, it’s an episode that veers too heavily into the cartoonish territory that made last season’s case-of-the-week episodes so tonally jarring and narratively misplaced.
It’s the jarring tone that’s the biggest problem, and it’s something that Gotham has never managed to shake. Perhaps it’s just part of the show’s DNA, but it’s strange to see Gotham do everything it can to become more gritty while also pumping out cartoonish dialogue and performances. For instance, much of the episode centers on Barnes and his creation of a special task force to clean up Gotham and deal with the new threats that have come as a result of the Arkham breakout. It’s a narrative choice that’s meant to feel consequential, and yet it left me cold, and also outright laughing at some of the dialogue. The creation of the strike force, spearheaded by Barnes but put under the command of Gordon, is so overcooked, so laden with military imagery and chest-beating bravado that it feels completely at odds with everything else going on in Gotham. This is an episode where Butch is a consistent comedic presence, death and murder scenes are scored by silly, jangly piano-and-horn tunes, and Nygma talks to himself over and over again, and yet the show plays the Strike Force storyline with a straight face. It’s baffling, and more than anything contributes to an overall feeling of haphazardness, meaning that “Rise Of The Villains: Strike Force” lacks any sort of tonal or narrative cohesion.
More than just tonally inconsistent, “Rise Of The Villains: Strike Force” is a misstep in the season because the script is laughably on-the-nose, making sure that every storyline is thoroughly explained. The entire episode is filled with exposition, each character taking the time to explain their motivations and lay out every step of their plan, a classic case of telling rather than showing, something that Gotham is all too familiar with. When Galavan hopes to recruit Penguin into his cause, which involves assassinating the other mayoral candidates, they exchange words about Theo’s larger plan. He wants to destroy the city in order to build it up anew, showing Penguin some cool digital blueprints like villains tend to do. As if discussing all these plans out loud isn’t painful enough, Penguin then responds by literally laying out the conflicted morality that defines Theo and his twisted goals. “Those are residential areas, so thousands of homes would have to be destroyed,” he says.
Overwritten, exposition-heavy dialogue like this is peppered throughout “Rise Of The Villains: Strike Force.” When Barnes details his Strike Force plan to Gordon–seriously, this episode is largely characters telling other characters what they’re going to do–and Gordon responds by telling him how tough it’s going to be to execute in a city like Gotham, the Captain is quick to reply, “tough is what we eat for breakfast.” Such bravado is meant to drive home the notion that Gordon and Barnes are cut from the same cloth because of their military backgrounds, but it doesn’t feel earned–the hacky line certainly doesn’t help either. Rather than just trust the audience to see the similarities between the two characters, Gotham has them literally explaining to each other how they’re basically the same person.
Even tonight’s B plots, which are typically harmless in a throwaway kind of way, are bogged down by the labored storytelling. There’s the never-ending story of Nygma and his descent into madness. While he finally gets his date with Ms. Kringle, he almost blows it by saying that he’s glad her ex-boyfriend, the man Nygma killed, is dead. Of course Ms. Kringle thinks that he just left town, which should raise a few red flags, but because this is Gotham she just ignores it and moves on with the date. It’s a scene that’s representative of the show’s worst tendencies, including the consistent reliance on narrative beats happening just because it’s time for them to happen, rather than moving at a more organic pace and remaining true to the characters. That extends to Bruce’s plotline as well, where not only does Alfred punch Selina in the face and tell her to stay away from Bruce because the show needs to create tension between the two, but also introduces love interest Silver St. Cloud in the most contrived way possible. When Bruce meets with Theo for lunch, he just so happens to see a young woman playing in a fountain outside the restaurant. Theo notices and says that it’s his niece and would Bruce like to meet her, and thus a love interest is formed, all pretense of a lunch to discuss Bruce’s murdered family thrown out the window. It’s haphazard, lazy storytelling, but that’s “Rise Of The Villains: Strike Force” in a nutshell.
- Never Mind The Bullocks: No quote this week, but rather a small detail. When Barnes comes into the GCPD and immediately intimidates everyone, he calls the cops to attention and they oblige instantly…except for Bullock, who’s about three seconds behind in standing to attention. A small moment, but it made me chuckle.
- I really thought through those first few episodes that Barbara was going to be an interesting character this season, but it appears that Gotham is just interested in using her and Tabitha as sexualized decoration.
- Somehow, Nygma’s transition into the Riddler has been going on for what seems like years while also feeling ridiculously forced.
- Gotham shouldn’t necessarily be held to the standards of other superhero/comic book shows–it’s not trying to do the same types of things, after all–but when I think about Arrow and The Flash and how much I care about the characters on those shows, it only emphasizes how little work is put into making us care about the characters on this show. There’s absolutely no heart here.