By Darren Franich
April 18, 2019 at 09:00 PM EDT
Barbara Nitke/FOX
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I think there are two ideal viewers for Gotham, the origin saga that aired its triumphantly ludicrous penultimate episode on Fox this week.

On one hand, it would help to watch knowing absolutely nothing about the eighty-year cultural history of source material. How I wish I could Eternal Sunshine-ify the Batcyclopedia out of my brain, and let the clashing waves of Gotham‘s all-the-toys adaptation process wash over my innocent eyes!

Here’s a Gothic street-dirt crime opera, set in a version of the past where everything is either futuristic or Medieval, full of scientists mad enough for silent horror movies who conduct gore-soaked experiments sexy-violent enough for Andy Warhol horror movies. And those scientists work for corrupt politicians avenging immortal terrorist fathers. And those corrupt politicians hire SEAL Team-type badasses to launch bazooka attacks on refugee populations beyond America’s borders.

Gotham combines the whole multimedia canon of its fictional universe with the trending-est topics in our real world’s canon. Then, it smashes those unlikely ingredients into snortable chunks of madcap narrative. Is anyone experiencing Batman for the first time with Gotham? Is that theoretical someone the luckiest Batman fan alive?

Conversely, it helps to watch Gotham and overthink everything about its depiction of the Caped Crusader. Thursday’s episode is, in many respects, a refurbishing of 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises, itself a cross-referencing of a few different ’90s era Bat-tales. “They Did What?” concludes Gotham‘s season-long “No Man’s Land” arc, pitting the hero-villain denizens of the semi-destroyed title town against an army of attackers.

As in Dark Knight Rises, the bridges around Gotham’s Manhattan-y island have been blown, stranding citizens in a maniac city. As in Rises, the big-muscle baddie is Bane, played here by Shane West. And once again, the baddie behind the baddie is a secret daughter of Ra’s Al-Ghul. It’s Nyssa (Jaime Murray), not Talia like in Rises, though that’s a distinction I barely understand. (Nyssa is also in the Arrowverse, but that’s a different Nyssa, it’s all here in this multiverse chart.)

Gotham‘s daughter-seeks-city-destroying-vengeance-for-her-dead-father plotline rhymes directly with Rises‘ twist-reveal. The fun is in the details, though. And this rollercoaster episode — directed by Carol Banker and written by Tze Chun — is stuffed with details. In Dark Knight Rises, the U.S. army lingered on the outskirts of Gotham. Here, the U.S. army is the invading force — led by Bane, who takes command by killing the previous commander. (That full-blown Visigoth behavior earns nary a blink from the other, nominally-not-insane soldiers.)

And where Dark Knight Rises dead-ended into a dopey messianic portrayal of Batman’s singular importance — Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne flying off to an explosive, generation-inspiring “death” — Gotham concludes its private apocalypse with a kooky-marvelous ode to, like, communal strength. Old enemies set their differences aside to protect their crazy town. See Robin Lord Taylor’s Penguin, who gets a showcase moment to end all showcase moments. He could flee the incoming army, he tells Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie), hop a sub across the river to live like a King in the land of normals:

But then what? Stand on the shores of the mainland and watch the army burn it to the ground? Then watch tasteless industrialists and vapid politicians rebuild it? My life is etched on the walls of every alley and dirty warehouse here. My blood lives in its broken concrete. I’m staying to fight for my legacy.

It matters, I think, that the character saying this is the Penguin, a cultural icon whose legacy has been backbenched in the DC rogues’ gallery for a couple creator generations now. In the baton-pass of influence between Frank Miller and Christopher Nolan, Penguin lost prominence in the most popular notion of Gotham City. He was a residual cartoon weirdo in gritty-grimdark days. Is Gotham commenting on this? Later in the episode, Penguin mourns a loss of influence with eternal frenemesis Ed Nygma (Cory Michael Smith) — and the Riddler is another Bat-icon pushed out of the limelight in the Nolan era, an unmistakable camp artifact in a green suit. “Our accomplishments have been erased!” Penguin moans. “Our brilliant minds underrated!”

What I’ll always cherish about Gotham is how it never underrated anything about Batman. It was bloodier than the recent serious movies, and also sillier than the Adam West TV show. It dedicated itself to telling a serialized story while whiplashing ally-enemies through romantic relationships and resurrections. I think “They Did What?” had the single greatest scene in any Gotham outing — or at least, the best scene to not feature Cameron Monaghan, who promises to return in next week’s finale as some sort of person who jokes. It’s that last Penguin-Riddler sequence, when the two criminals hug each other close. Simultaneously, they hold up knives to each other’s back. Simultaneously, they lower those knives. They love each other! They want to kill each other! They everything each other!

Part of the magic of this episode comes from West’s goofy-grand performance. His appearance on the show is a clever bit of stuntcasting: West was a teen idol in the Walk to Remember days around the time that McKenzie played the Chino kid moving to The O.C. In Gotham‘s telling, Bane’s an old army buddy of Gordon, a similar-but-different badass who turned way corrupt while Gordon stayed straight and narrow. By the time Bane marches toward the GCPD, he looks like one of those Resident Evil genefreak bosses, the kind of techno-biologic monstrosity who seems to be bleeding tumors out of his biceps.

It’s the best screen version of Bane ever, I think — admittedly not a high bar to hit, but Gotham nailed something by transforming the character into the Dark Link version of Gordon. Bane’s always been a thug, but now he’s a government-backed thug out to kill innocent people and level whole city blocks for, quoth Penguin, “tasteless industrialists and vapid politicians.” Whereas Gordon winds up triumphant by aligning himself with every morally ambiguous element he knows.

“They Did What?” is the show at its soapiest, too. The child of Jim and Barbara (Erin Richards) was born like two seconds ago, and she’s already a symbol for Gotham’s future. Nyssa threatens to steal her away and raise her as an Al-Ghul. So there’s a vibrant maternal showdown, when Barbara and Jim battle for their daughter’s life. One thing to note about this scene: Nyssa absolutely wails on Gordon, knocking him off his feet multiple times. Meanwhile, Barbara singlehandedly takes down three minions on her own (this lady just gave birth!), and it’s only her late assistance that vanquishes Nyssa.

Barbara is Gotham‘s best creation. It’s her brainchild to name her daughter “Barbara Lee Gordon,” branding the avatar of the next generation with the names of a local hero dude and two occasionally nefarious powerful women. The Gotham revival I want to see would pick up with little Barbara Lee two decades hence, when she’s a Batgirl beyond our wildest imaginations, raised between an Amazon-gangster mom and a gruff Commissioner dad married to the former Queen of the Narrows.

“They Did What?” moves one step forward to the more obvious origin business, sending Bruce (David Mazouz) on a hero’s journey away from the city he loves. We’ll see how that plays out in next week’s finale. It feels, in this episode, like a return to a familiar version of a story. And Gotham at its best was blissfully unfamiliar, Frankensteining exploded detritus of Dark Knight lore into new forms of pulp adventure.

Gordon and Batman are capital-H Heroes, but “They Did What?” playfully undercuts their heroism. The best thing Bruce Wayne can do for his city is blow up his family’s skyscraper, eradicating a decades-long legacy for the greater good. And when Gordon and his compatriots have a final staredown with Bane and his soldier squad, he’s surprised by the appearance of his wife Lee (Morena Baccarin). “I told you to go,” Gordon tells her. “And I didn’t listen,” she snaps right back. Then she stands at the execution line, alongside a baby-toting Barbara. Fortunately for Jim Gordon, the women never listen to him. EPISODE GRADE: A-

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Ben McKenzie and David Mazouz star in a dramatic look at what Gotham City looked like before Bruce Wayne became Batman.
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