By Robert Tiemstra ’17 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
“Hope is for Losers, Jim.”
Well folks, we’ve finally made it. Six months since its promising debut, season one of Gotham skids to a halt with an action-packed finale. The pressure on series creator Bruno Heller and episode director Danny Cannon is to create an episode that justifies Gotham’s scattershot approach during its, at times, quite distractingly schizophrenic first season. And while this episode doesn’t quite achieve that, it does make a pretty convincing case for why Gotham would work much better as a miniseries, Agent Carter-style. Let’s face it: even when DC comics is doing something right, they are inadvertently reminding you how Marvel already beat them to it.
But enough with the Marvel/DC comparison. That civil war can (and will) continue to rage among fanboys and fangirls elsewhere. “All Happy Families are Alike” is a funny sort of season finale, because it probably works best if you have not seen the vast majority of Gotham season one, and decide to tune in to see where all the characters you met in the pilot ended up. This episode has such a high concentration of high stakes action, double-crossings, corruption, and violence that it might just be the best episode of the season… if not for some extremely jarring character shifts that occur entirely off-camera.
Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) has had a rough season – he’s been shot, stabbed, beaten, demoted, promoted, and treated with complete disdain on a regular basis – but in this finale, he has a clear mission: Resolve the gang war between Don Maroni (David Zayas) and Don Falcone (John Doman) before this city’s carefully constructed criminal corruption comes crashing down. This inevitably leads us to a situation in which Jim Gordon is protecting Don Falcone from Maroni’s thugs, hoping that if given time, he can restore order to the criminal element in Gotham and prevent the city from descending into anarchy. Gordon realizes there is something fundamentally wrong about this – in an ideal world, both Maroni and Falcone would be behind bars – but once again makes critical judgements based on the least awful choice. The most compelling moments in the entire season have been when we get to see an officer as fundamentally good as Jim Gordon work within a hopelessly corrupt system, and this 3:10 to Yuma-inspired chase plays on those interesting questions, while still saving some devilish twists along the way – the fact that Falcone decides to retire would play as dramatic in another context (and indeed it does at the end of the episode), but when he is the only meager hope Gordon has to restoring order, this only serves to complicate everything.
Another unexpected delight of the mob storyline is how it weaves all the peripheral mob characters together and watch the screen explode with tension and bullets. Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith) makes a triumphant return, and between the cold open and her reappearance mid episode, she not only manages to completely re-do her hairstyle and outfit, but convince Selina Kyle (Camren Biocondova) to join her gang. It goes without saying that these sort of twists play best when we have no idea about how out of character it is for the free-spirited Selina to suddenly become a goon because it is “the coolest gig ever”. Or how a few episodes ago, Fish’s henchmen were a bunch of malnourished prisoners, and now they seem to be gun toting alt-punk concert goers (although, in all fairness to the latter, her henchman do get decimated rather quickly, despite their numbers). A scene where Fish and Maroni negotiate over their new status as Bosses of Gotham while Falcone, Gordon, Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue), and Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor) hang by their respective necks is perhaps one of the best scenes this series has to offer so far – Maroni has been built up effectively as a man who savors hurting his enemies with sadistic word choice, and it is delightfully tense to watch someone with a temper as short as Fish’s react to his verbal jabs.
Another story we get to see resolved in this blender of guns, gangs, and grime is Oswald Cobblepot, who gets some of the meatiest material he’s had to play since earlier this season. It is always a treat to watch Robin Lord Taylor negotiate, bribe, blackmail, and eventually fight his way out of every scrape he’s gotten into during his rise to power, but this is the first episode in which we can see every facet of Cobblepot’s struggle. He goes from being Falcone’s nemesis, to Gordon’s hostage, to Mooney’s hostage, to just another guy with a gun during the course of this gang war. He’s the wild card amongst all the players, who eventually ends up having to confront Fish Mooney on his own, beaten, exhausted, shot, bloody, and desperate. This origin story is impressive not only because it is such a high-stakes game, but because it manages to keep Cobblepot as an underdog, no matter how many of his plans go perfectly (although most of them somehow backfire on him). This way, it actually feels like a triumph when he stands on the rooftop after having made Mooney sleep with the Fishes, and proclaims “I’m king of Gotham!”. It’s an over the top image, to be sure, but the creative team behind this episode does a fantastic job making sure it is an earned one.
But it is the general excellence of the A-Plot that belies why Gotham is a show that would work much better as a more contained piece. Sure, the 22 episode format gave the writers ample opportunities to explore the various nooks and crannies within Bruno Heller’s timeless film noir world, but it also served to quite frequently poke holes in the same universe when certain plots were stretched for time, or apparently only half thought through. And while a 10 episode format would lose some superfluous but fun narrative digressions like the two-episode segway into Arkham Asylum, it would streamline the show, and give us more episodes like the vast majority of this one – episodes that have a clear goal, and surge to it with a calculated sense of abandon, like the material it takes inspiration from (no, we aren’t counting Batman & Robin here). The success of this finale is somewhat tempered by the fact that the plot of the series got sidetracked along the way, before realizing that they did have a goal after all, and quickly doubling back to catch up with itself.
Because of the unfortunate digressions it took, there are some residual character arcs that needed resolution here as well, unfortunately detracting from the main chunk of the episode. Dr. Leslie Thompkins (Morena Baccarin) has often been a reliable voice of reason, when the writers remember about her, and this episode pits her and this series token weakest-link Barbara Kean (Erin Richards) in therapy together. Or rather, Leslie is giving Barbara therapy, and Barbara is giving Leslie her best slasher villain impression. We mentioned in our review last week that Barbara showing signs of Stockholm syndrome from her treatment at the hands of the Ogre was one of the more promising aspects of her character that will go nowhere, but we are happily proven wrong this week! If only the episode had found a more subtle way to reveal her mental break than having her brandish a knife and attempt to murder her more compelling replacement. Likewise, Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith) gets his own origin story scene here, where he starts to go a little mad after jealously murdering the boyfriend of his office crush. These scenes are effectively shot and creepily put you into the to-be-Riddler’s mindset, but they are mostly apropos of nothing substantial in the actual plot department.
In the most bizarre twist of them all, Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) and Alfred Pennyworth (Sean Pertwee) are given the filler section of this episode’s runtime. It is a bit disheartening to end with them, because it not only reminds us how much of the season was held up by their relationship, but also serves to highlight the biggest problem with the show since episode one: It isn’t dramatically compelling to foreshadow Batman when Batman is unlikely to appear in the series at all! If this was an honest origin story, the fluttering bat at the end of the tunnel would have held more weight, but as it is, it amounts to ending the first season of this show on a moment of fan-service, which leaves quite a bad aftertaste.
As it was, Gotham season one was a didactic mess and no mistake. It had moments of greatness, moments of confounding logic, and a baffling number of moments with potential that either went nowhere, or didn’t get close enough to that potential to satisfy. Here’s hoping that this season was a melting pot for the writers to experiment with, rather than an indication of how convoluted the seasons will be from here on out.
Thank you for following along with Emertainment Monthly’s season one coverage of Gotham, hope you enjoyed this journey as much as I have (regardless of the varying quality of the actual show)!
“A knife is a good friend when you have no other.”
Episode Grade: B