Lost in a Messy Mob War, Gotham Hits the Reboot Button

Just as the main plot gets mind-numbingly complicated, the mid-season finale shakes things up.

Is there anyone watching Gotham who could concisely summarize what's going on in the show's central overarching storyline—about the mob war between Carmine Falcone and Sal Maroni? The war connects to everything: the police corruption that plagues our protagonist Jim Gordon, the murder of Bruce Wayne's parents, the machinations of lieutenants Fish Mooney and the Penguin. It's tough to keep track of the sheer amount of behind-the-scenes machinations, and it's tougher still to care. The show may even realize this. Ten episodes in, as it prepares to take a break until January, Gotham has transferred Gordon to work at Arkham Asylum among the city's stranger criminals. That's a promising new direction.

I've long argued that Gotham's problem is not the mob itself, just its more boring elements. It's still fun to watch Jada Pinkett Smith as the delightfully over-the-top Fish Mooney. I'm still looking forward to whatever Robin Lord Taylor's Penguin is plotting (although it's coming along oh-so-slowly). But everything else still feels like dead weight. Gotham is too fundamentally wacky to lend real gravitas to its mobsters, no matter how seriously they grumble threats of violence. Which is fine! Who needs another grumbling, serious, knotty tale of good-hearted cops going up against organized crime?

The A-plot of "Lovecraft" centered on the titular Dick Lovecraft (Al Sapienza, forever Mikey Palmice from The Sopranos to me). Lovecraft was Harvey Dent's chief suspect in the Wayne murder case, for some reason, and gets taken out by a team of sexy assassins (there's no other way to describe them) for, I suppose, knowing too much. Lovecraft was introduced last week with very little fanfare, and taken out this week with far too much—it’s tough to care about a character the audience really has no feel for at all. As a central storyline, this all made little sense. But it did offer a way for the Gordon to be reassigned to Arkham Asylum, for failing to protect Lovecraft.

The only reason this episode chugged along at all were the side plots that spun out of the hunt for Lovecraft. First, we had Bruce Wayne and Lil Catwoman also being chased by aforementioned sexy assassins, likely because they were witnesses to the Wayne parents' murders. Their awkward, pubescent flirtation isn't exactly compellingly acted, but it at least has some spark to it—at the very least, David Mazouz and Carmen Bicondova have the potential to develop into solid actors if this show progresses for a few years (which, considering its strong ratings and Fox's miserable development slate, it will).

As Cat and Bruce went on the run, we met up with child Poison Ivy once again, who has only gotten stranger since being thrown into the social-service system in the pilot (Cat is scared of her, which is about all we need to know). We also got a glimpse of the weird Dickensian underbelly Cat operates in, living among urchins in an abandoned warehouse that's just a few steps from Shredder's skateboarder paradise in the old Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. This is what Gotham needs to embrace more—maybe it doesn't make a whole lot of sense that Cat is a teenaged jewel thief who deals with cockney-accented fences, but this is a comic-book show. Things don't have to be plausible, they have to be colorful.

Probably my favorite element of this week's episode was the surprise team-up of proud paramilitary butler Alfred and the increasingly honest corrupt cop Harvey Bullock. Searching for Bruce in Gotham's underworld, they made for an effective pair: The garrulous Harvey could play good cop for a change, while the respectable-looking Alfred could sucker-punch mobsters and shock them into giving up info. Sean Pertwee has done serviceable work in the difficult role of Alfred so far, but he made the most of his biggest showcase to date. In the history of on-screen Batman tales, Alfred had always been a steely British gentleman until Michael Caine's less posh take in Christopher Nolan's films. Pertwee is finding a middle ground between those two archetypes, speaking in a grittier London accent but remaining fairly buttoned-up. He's not a crucial element for Gotham's continued success, but he's helping.

I think it'll suit the show to have some time off and re-focus with Gordon working in Arkham (Morena Baccarin, of Firefly and Homeland, will also join the show for that upcoming arc). It'll probably be a short-term change, but anything that lifts us out of the dull mire of cops versus mobsters will help Gotham, and its central characters, in the long run. Any new show, especially one with this kind of budget and potential, deserves some time to figure itself out—it took Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. a whole year to get good, and a lot of that progress came when it untangled itself from its overbearing comic-book franchise roots. Gotham still needs to do the same.