Synopsis of 3×5, 3×6 and 3×7: Cobblepot rings in his rule over Gotham while Nygma consolidates power. Tetch wants revenge for Alice’s death and forces Gordon to make a deadly choice. Gordon is dosed with a powerful hallucinogen as Tetch sets out to kill off Gotham’s economic elite.
While the third season is still clearly taking shape at this point, it’s combining the Tim Burton Batman movies with the aesthetics and styles of the sleaziest thrillers the ‘90s had to offer to create something more thematically cohesive than the show’s ever ben. Whether it works better, well, that’s another story.
I will say this, in “Anything for You,” “Follow the White Rabbit” and “Red Queen,” Gotham does its best at telling a more exciting cohesive story than it has since the first season’s mob drama. Over the three episodes the consequences of Gordon’s first face off with Jarvis Tetch play out on a grand stage, with Gordon’s first true super villain nemesis unleashing his revenge on as many Gothamites as he can.
For fans of the comics who, inexplicably, are still watching the show, it’s a relationship that’s going to feel a little forced, in the same way Chuck Dixon’s run on Nightwing attempted to link Dick Grayson and Two-Face as archenemies that just never quite worked.
There’s just not a lot here that makes it feel as if Gordon’s really that desperate to stop Tetch at any point. In “White Rabbit,” when Tetch sets an escalating series of challenges for Gordon’s morality, it mostly feels like a reflection on the Mad Hatter’s insanity but the writing wants to imply that Gordon’s loathing for the killer is at least a little mutual, particularly as Jim reminds Tetch of his childhood torture of Alice. It’s hard to buy though and this is a rare case where I mostly blame Ben McKenzie’s portrayal of Gordon.
This season’s attempt to take Gordon out of the GCPD felt character-based after the second season but there never seemed to be much of a guiding principle to this year’s incarnation of the character.
Naturally, it makes sense for Gordon to be adrift and the scripts back that up but McKenzie plays him as a blank slate instead of a man lost. He’s just reactive, giving Bruce girl advice or hassling Harvey or making seemingly random decisions about Lee and Valerie. It just doesn’t work very well, for the most part.
“Red Queen” tries to play this to the show’s benefit with an extended dream sequence after Tetch doses Gordon with the titular drug. Gordon’s hallucinations are as on-the-nose as you expect this show to be, with a masked Bruce Wayne looking to the future, Penguin seeing Gordon as a brother-in-arms and Barbara constantly looming over Gordon’s psyche as something of a warning of what he could become.
Barbara’s become something of the show’s campy comic relief this year, with her relationship with Tabitha and taking over a villains cabaret bar sanding off her rough edges in favor of something a little goofier. It’s a better look than the would-be serial killer dom she was stuck playing last year and “Red Queen” wrings some genuine pathos out of it as well. At one point, Gordon asks “Do you miss the person you used to be” and it’s the closest the show has comet examining the real tragedy at the heart of her character as well as the horrors she and Gordon have seen over the last three years.
In the same way, Cobblepot benefits from the show’s long memory this season. While his feelings about Nygma have been hinted at since the beginning of the season, the reveal about Penguin’s sexuality feels organic and based in what we know about the character.
Cobblepot’s first need has always been in approval and support from those closest to him. He craves affirmation and Nygma offers that in spades. The problem is in how little he understands Ed’s motives. Nygma’s playing his cards pretty close to his chest, both in “Anything for You” and “Red Queen” and Cobblepot’s either too obtuse or too inarticulate to pick up the clues about his companion’s motives.
By no means do these three episodes represent a turning point for Gotham. The show still maintains an odd town that lurches wildly from lurid melodrama to black comedy but it’s wildly more confident, embracing the dark and campy tone the show’s danced around for much of last year. That confidence matters and it’s arguably the first time the show has felt like a worthy use of both its license and bizarre cast of characters.