The best and worst thing about Gotham is its sheer muchness. Fox’s Batkid prequel is the pulpiest soap opera on television now, constantly kersmashing its city-sized cast together in new love affairs, new enmities, friends becoming enemies, dying and then resurrecting and then there’s an identical twin brother, turns out. Any summary of Thursday’s season finale would require paragraphs of crossreferencing: This immortal death-ninja cult, that matriarchal gang-of-gangs, ex-lovers who kill each other with the same knife.
It doesn’t always work. It’s hard to stay crazy across 22-episode seasons. I’ve recently become a check-in-check-out viewer, paying the most attention whenever Cameron Monaghan appears as one non-Joker or another. The hyperkinetics can feel like wheel-spinning. But when Gotham is good, it taps a deep reservoir of comic book grandiosity.
Last night’s finale was grandiosity gone nuclear. Imprisoned Jeremiah (Monaghan) claimed he had bombs scattered around the city — different bombs from the bombs he had scattered around the city last week. By way of proof, he blew up City Hall. The opening credits weren’t even rolling yet; Gotham is that kind of show.
Cue the arrival of the military, declaring martial law while the majority of Gotham citizens flee across bridges. If you’re any kind of Batman fan, you can recognize the reference points. The finale was titled “No Man’s Land” — just like a ’90s comic book arc, where the city descends to feudal anarchy, cut off from the rest of America after a devastating disaster. The concept became the back half of 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises and the core idea of 2015’s Arkham Knight, and Gotham quoted that film’s trailer-moment visual of bridges exploding.
Like everyone else, Gotham hasn’t quite gotten over its Nolan fixation. The finale put Bruce (David Mazouz) in a police interrogation room with Jeremiah — standing up, but still arranged like Christian Bale’s Batman and Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight. The finale also depended on the presence of Ra’s al-Ghul (Alexander Siddig) as a Gotham-eradicating spiritual father to rookie Batman — the core hero-villain arc of Batman Begins.
Am I boring you? It can be snoozy to wikify contemporary superhero stories, how this relates back to that. The joy of Gotham is how it remixes its reference points. Take Monaghan used to play a different sorta-Joker on the show — Jeremiah’s dead (?) twin Jerome — a grinning scenery-chewing maniac. This new incarnation is different: Controlled, patient, madness repressed into slithering dark humor.
It’s a far-flung riff on a familiar villain, for a reason. Monaghan tweeted that there’s a reason for Gotham‘s endless don’t-call-him-Joker tease: the show’s apparently been forbidden from doing so, a “decision from high-up as they wanted to reserve these for films.” Yes yes, must protect the creative sanctity of Jared Leto, but Monaghan made a salient point in the same tweet: “It allowed for creativity on our end.”
Superheroes are popular enough now that, on the big screen, they seem to have no financial limitation. Stories are trending cosmic, and oddly samey: Steppenwolf hunts for his Mother Boxes, Thanos collects a new Infinity Stone every twenty minutes, saving the world nay the universe. Gotham‘s restraints are financial and cross-corporate, but those obstructions feed into a hell-for-leather creativity. Emotions run supernova hot. In the finale, Lee (Morena Baccarin) and Ed the Riddler (Cory Michael Smith) met in a dark room. They used to love each other, which on Gotham inevitably means they will try to kill each other. Ed had a knife behind his back, but Lee stabbed him first, but then he grabbed the knife out of his stomach and stabbed her — and what can you do after all that except kiss, in brazen murder-suicide parody of Romeo and Juliet?
In the end the finale was a long stall towards a grand finale: The bridges around Gotham exploding, the power shutting down. Some characters arranged themselves into familiar places. Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) stayed behind to bring order to Gotham; he was joined on the rooftop by Bruce.
The heroes’ journeys aren’t always compelling (Jim spent half the episode being crushed by a very large weight). But the villains! All around Gotham, we saw baddies new and old arranging themselves for a new lawless reality. Some have gangs that are suddenly private armies. Firefly (Camilla Perez) told her minions to create “a ring of fire ten blocks wide.” Gotham appears to be following the rough trajectory of the original “No Man’s Land,” where the city is split into geographic factions controlled by various villains. We saw Mr. Freeze and Scarecrow. There were new arrivals, like the Man-Bat.
My favorite scene of the episode: Barbara (Erin Richards) and her crew of Sirens began preparing for their vaguely apocalyptic new reality. Some of Ra’s al-Ghul henchmen offer her their service; Ra’s had recently dissolved into millenia-old dust after being teamstabbed by Barbara and Bruce, did I not mention? “Everything that is wrong with Gotham,” said Barbara, “All the greed, the pain, the corruption, the destruction. It can all be traced back to one problem. MEN.” She declared her sector a man-free zone and hung the henchmen out front as a warning.
Richards is a frequent, imperial delight on Gotham, and this scene felt like a greater scene-setting for the show’s future. What you’ve been watching, these four seasons of kooky crime-epic backstabbing? This was everyone acting restrained. The show was renewed for a fifth season just barely, presumably with a shorter episode order (it won’t return until 2019.) But of course it was renewed, I thought during the finale. How could Fox resist? I’ll wait patiently, hopeful that the show’s final act follows through on this prologue. Gotham, it seems, is about to finally go full Gotham.