Synopsis of 2×17: Gordon attempts to find out who framed him and unwittingly goes to his target for help. Cobblepot learns the truth of his father’s death and takes revenge. Bruce returns to Wayne Manor.
“Into the Woods,” this week’s episode of Gotham, is an episode where, after a brief intermission, everyone goes back to doing the same shit they always do. Does that sound like good TV to you? Is that what you want? Does it matter? Honestly, I don’t know.
Gotham is such a profound and absolute mess of a show so often it feels as uninterested in creating a story as I am watching it. Honestly, I’ve written that this show has covered the same story and thematic beats so many times, trodding the same ground so many others that there are keys on my keyboard getting worn down far too early.
The episode is ostensibly about characters attempting, to varying degrees of success, to embrace the new roles they’ve been placed in. Gordon struggles with defining himself as a man on the run. Cobblepot loses his new influence but is stuck in his home. Nygma tries to decide whether he will be able to hide his psychopathic tendencies any longer. This in and of itself isn’t a bad hook for an episode and plenty of shows have handled transitional character moments in a compelling way but Gotham has such a weird sense of pace that it rarely allows these sorts of moments to land.
By all accounts, Gordon’s on the run for all of, say, maybe a day and a half before he takes on Nygma and clears his name. Penguin seems to have maybe been a servant at Cobblepot Manor for a long weekend and little more. It’s hard to have these changes mean anything when they’re cycled in and out of the show within an episode, sometimes less.
But this isn’t a show interested in change. Gotham wants to trade in big moments, gut punches like the Barbara Kean cliffhanger or Gordon getting sent to jail or Penguin forcing his stepmother to cannibalize her children but they don’t work the way the show wants them to. They’re not earned, not based in character or long-form storytelling that serialized television, and comic books for that matter, excel at as a medium.
It’s been less than a season since the last time the show has traded in the shock of Barbara playing psychotically domestic and it didn’t work then and doesn’t now. There’s no history there, despite the fact that the show wants us to remember moments like Gordon pushing her out of a window, her killing her parents but Gotham has never made those scenes matter much longer than they last on screen. No one deals with the fallout of those moments, they’re just rushed to the next false climax. Gotham handles continuity in the same way as people entering and exiting a revolving door.
This has always been a problem for this show in regards to its larger meta stories but its increasingly become one in its macro storytelling as well. Take for instance the aforementioned cannibalism from this episode. Gotham clearly intends for this moment to be Cobblepot’s revenge on Grace and the return to his villainous roots. It’s framed as a horrific moment, with Oswald back in his familiar costume and hairdo. We’ve seen him kill a dog a few moments ago. it’s all framed and set as a moment of grand, operatic revenge, more reminiscent of 2001’s Hannibal than anything else.
Then there’s the reveal, one that’s both obvious and meant to be shocking, the intentional feeding of children to parent, but it’s flat. Sure, Grace is shocked but we as an audience aren’t. We’re not as surprised as we’re told that she is. We’re not sympathetic as the Penguin returns. We’re not glad to see Cobblepot bring down a sadistic villain. It’s just another nasty little moment in a show overflowing with them.
Gotham has trafficked in this sort of non-shock storytelling for a long time and it’s become increasingly problematic as the show attempts to build a larger universe and story for itself. The characters are so deeply unsympathetic, so fundamentally unheroic and are never forced to undergo any real change or self-analysis.
There can be no change in a show that doesn’t at least attempt to to examine its setting or characters and Gotham has steadfastly refused to engage in any such critical examination. Frankly, it’s unacceptable and unworthy of a show that on premise alone deserves better.