Gotham Circles Back to Where it Began, None the Wiser
The show is out of Arkham Asylum and back to its inert mob war, still desperately in need of a change in pace.
After a two-week jaunt in Arkham Asylum, Gotham is right back to where it started: Jim Gordon is a Gotham PD detective, Carmine Falcone is engaged in an internal mob war with too many participants, and the show continues to feel like it's waiting to introduce another prequel-ized Batman villain in hopes that'll make matters more compelling. When the show sent Gordon to Arkham as a mid-season cliffhanger there was no indication that his reassignment would be a long-term fix, but the change in scenery failed to even kickstart Gotham's many stagnant story arcs.
Gordon's time in Arkham really just served to introduce a new love interest: Leslie Thompkins, played by Morena Baccarin, a great actress whose talents far outsize the weak material she's gotten so far. Thompkins is a somewhat important character in the Batman universe, sometimes written as a surrogate mother figure for Bruce Wayne in his younger years, so Baccarin might be around for the long haul. If so, she's going to need something to do beyond playing an object of Jim's affection. It's borderline shameful how thinly sketched Gotham's female cast is—outside of the teenaged Cat and the lovably bonkers Fish Mooney, the ensemble is a bunch of grunting men in suits, along with romantic props like Barbara who mostly function as damsels in distress when the plot requires.
Aside from Thompkins' introduction, Arkham was just a device to vault Jim Gordon into greater fame, as he helped bring down an escaped mad scientist who controls people via electroshock therapy. With that collar came the reinstatement of his badge and partnership with Harvey Bullock—fine stuff that nonetheless puts the show no closer to an overarching goal for Gordon. He's climbed the ladder a little further, but we already know he'll be police commissioner one day. Sure, he may get back to digging into the city's ongoing mob war, but the first half of this season has revealed that to be a depressingly futile task. At least the show finally introduced the incumbent commissioner Gillian Loeb this week—well-played by Peter Scolari as a slimy operator with no spine.
Confusing or not, the mob war continues apace, with Fish Mooney finally making her big play by fake-kidnapping the comely young woman she had put in Falcone's service. This plant was designed to play on Falcone’s weird love of his dead, "sainted" mother—by imitating her behavior, she had him fall desperately in love with her. The staged kidnapping was designed to nudge Falcone into retirement, but he eventually saw through the ruse with the help of the squirmy Penguin, strangled his mistress (in a rather upsetting scene), and promised retribution for Fish.
To be sure, Gotham is a network TV show, and so it often drags its plots out in hopes of generating some momentum. But at a certain point it becomes unclear why these mobsters aren't just killing each other: If Fish is sick of Falcone, then why not just kill him off? Why mount such a convoluted scheme and tell it to the loose-lipped Penguin, who seems to work for a different mobster every week? Same goes for Falcone—this is the umpteenth betrayal he's suffered at Fish's hands, so maybe it's time to get rid of her for good? In general, the more Jada Pinkett Smith onscreen the better, but from a writing perspective, her character isn't holding any cards.
That's the problem with Gotham's mob war—it only seems important because there are a ton of characters involved. But there's no complexity to their motivations—everyone just wants to be the boss, and they’re all happy to sit in their home base devising ways to pull it off. If one character were actually in charge, Gordon would have an intriguing antagonist on his hands; instead, the show has a two-pronged approach, with the never-ending mob machinations on one side and Gordon fighting a freak-of-the-week on the other.
Gotham needs to start knitting things together fast—and again, it's probably going to take a big character from the Batman universe to do it. At this point, perhaps the best the show can hope for is the kind of scenario that just played out with Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on ABC, which seemed stuck in the mud for almost its entire first year before getting a jump start in its last few episodes and becoming a dazzling action epic in its ongoing second season.
There's always hope for a turnaround, but if you keep waiting, how big is your audience going to be when you pull finally it off?