Credit: Jeff Neumann/FOX

The best joke in Gotham is that Gotham keeps getting worse. New lunatics kept finding new reasons to smear makeup on their face and paint the town red with brainblood. Then the bridges exploded the city into a feudal madman island. Now the water’s turned nasty green from toxic chemicals. In the context of this downward spiral, I often wonder if Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) is secretly the weirdest character on the show. Years into the ongoing criminal nightmare of his GCPD existence, he maintains a perfectly combed stalwart bearing, tie tied tight against the apocalypse.

Thursday’s episode, “The Trial of Jim Gordon,” focuses squarely on the good captain. He’s dreaming of reunification with the mainland. But the city’s running low on clean water, and gang activity is skyrocketing. (Because this is Gotham, the gangs all have kooky themewear: gas masks and mutant visors, club kid hair and I think I spotted a couple cowboys.) Gordon organizes a gang meeting, which seems like one bad idea, at the house of Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor), another bad idea. “It’s like you won’t be satisfied until you sacrifice yourself!” says Lee (Morena Baccarin), Gordon’s renewed flame.

“Trial of Jim Gordon” is an immensely satisfying episode, all the more impressive since it feels like one last tee-up for the show’s final three episodes. It’s directed by Erin Richards, the actress who plays Barbara, and written by McKenzie himself. Sometimes when actors write or direct an episode of their TV show, the result is a talky conversation piece: uncomplicated visuals, more shot, reverse-shot dialogue scenes. Instead, McKenzie wrote himself a wild trip to purgatory. And Richards directs with glossy flair, filling the screen with eerie close-ups on Poison Ivy’d gents and lightbeams blasting behind silhouettes.

Gordon gets shot in the chest at the gang meeting, and spends the episode staring down oblivion in a courtroom beyond space and time. Also in that courtroom: another Jim Gordon, saying every nasty thing Gordon’s ever thought about himself. (“He’s failed Gotham at every turn!”) In a clever bit of symmetry, Bruce (David Mazouz) is having similar feelings. In the years since his parents’ death, his attempts to save Gotham have often seemed to attract bad, city-destroying influences. Should he leave town after reunification?

Both characters have struggled the most, I think, with Gotham’s status as a very long origin story. While everyone else on the cast slithers all across the spectrum of morality, the show always has a bit of tunnel vision toward the eventuality of the good-guy Batman myth: Commissioner Gordon and the Dark Knight, working together for heroic purposes.

So I like how “The Trial of Jim Gordon” taps into the deeper suspicion that their destiny is also a kind of doom. “It won’t always be like this,” Gordon tells Lee. Except it probably will always be like this — maybe worse! “I don’t think things are ever gonna be normal,” Bruce tells Selina (Camren Bicondova), and boy is he right.

Meanwhile: What fun gets crammed into this episode! Ivy (Peyton List) is back, love-slaving every action man in town. That includes Zsasz, played with increasing good cheer by Anthony Carrigan. Carrigan’s star has risen after his wondrous turn on Barry. It’s great to see him find new strains of chatterbox comedy — and kind of remarkable, given how totally brutal the Zsasz character was in the comics of my youth. (“I’m really taking the time to stop and smell the roses these days,” he says, “Like, actual roses. They’re great!”) And a bit of mutual Ivy-fication leads to my favorite exchange of the episode, between Bruce and Lucius Fox (Chris Chalk).

Lucius: “It’s not glamorous work, but we are helping to save the lives of thousands of people.”

Bruce: “People, ugh.”

Lucius: “I’m sorry, did you just say, ‘People, ugh’?”

Bruce: “Lucius, what if I told you I have in my possession the most intoxicating perfume you’ll ever smell?”

Lucius: “I would tell you that’s an abrupt change of topic. Can we go back to the part where you said ‘People, ugh’?”

Richards herself gets a standout scene with the gang leaders, hosting an underworld get-together full of poisoned chalices. Barbara’s still struggling with complicated feelings about Gordon and Gotham itself. Should she stay, and try to build a new life adjacent to her baby daddy? Should she flee by submarine, taking her child far from this metropolis of criminal id? (ASIDE: I realized, probably later than everyone, something intriguing about Barbara’s pregnancy. It seems very likely that she is pregnant with some version of Barbara Gordon, later to become a caped crusader in her own right. Is Gotham secretly a Batgirl origin story??? END OF ASIDE.)

Intriguingly, Ivy’s motivations in this episode run right alongside what Gordon and Bruce are feeling. In her flora-first perspective, Gotham is a place that’s been going downhill since before the Industrial Revolution. She’s a furious local Lorax, speaking bloody murder for the trees.

The episode almost ends on a sweet, symphonic note. Gordon lives, a month passes, and all the non-murderous characters assemble at the GCPD to witness his wedding to Lee. A bit of autobiography here — McKenzie and Baccarin got real-world married a couple years ago! — and I did like how Harvey (Donal Logue) made sure to mention that time Lee tried to kill Jim, though I wish there’d been room to really dig into their whole five-ring-circus romantic history.

Bruce also kissed Selina, a bit of joy piled atop joy. You wonder if this is as close to a happy ending as Gotham will ever allow. (It was, apparently, the last episode filmed, a fact that adds some subliminal glow to the wedding sequence.) We know from the season premiere that there’s a battle looming, with a literal army trying to invade Gotham. And we know, vaguely, that the future doesn’t hold much security for Bruce Wayne, Selina Kyle, Jim Gordon, or the people in their lives. Maybe Barbara and Ivy have the right idea. Leave Gotham to the trees.

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