Gotham – Season 4 – A Dark Knight – part 2
A Dark Knight arc – second half
There is a turning point in Gotham season 4 that is heralded with the second half’s opening but that slaps you right awake in episode 14 when Sofia’s plan is revealed. Here her power to manipulate people returns – no plot needing to happen off camera or in exposition – as she easily manoeuvres Lee into position and closes the trap. And this is just one example of this second half season being everything the first half was not. Where before a woman was only as strong as her cleavage now an intelligent Ivy threatens with real power. Where before soap-opera plotting made characters predictable and silly now we have a subtle battle for control between Lee and Nygma. Where before only “The Demon’s Head” stood out as an excellent episode now the majority of the episodes have something to offer.
In one way it’s a shame that Gotham will only be getting a 10-episode final season. The flip side of that coin though, is that when the Gotham writers get going they can write some clever plot. I was really bothered in the early half of season 4 by what seemed like the blatant copying of ideas from not only other film and TV but previous seasons of Gotham itself. Though I’m not sure we complete escape it here given the number of times the mad and monstrous are freed to walk the streets, nonetheless the second half of season 4 instead makes good use of its history: from the meaningful moment where Bullock’s colleagues forgive him being outwitted by Pyg down to the simple acknowledgement of how things must be with a reference to the Strike Force, who would have to be called in during a situation as dire as Jeremiah’s plan.
But that’s really just gravy. Lee and Nygma’s relationship was always a mystery as to who really had the upper hand and Lee defeats Nygma so beautifully. In the previous season half her intelligence was to be assumed because of things she did off camera but here she outwits The Riddler using plot we have seen, knowledge of the man that we the audience also have: Her intelligence is clear as we know full well why her seemingly easy riddle stops the great brain in its tracks by holding a mirror to its heart.
Such plot holds a power, a power also that blinds you to what’s coming in the best of ways. Many viewers probably saw what was coming when they knew that the Killing Joke was going to influence an episode but I didn’t. I might have to believe you if you said you saw Bruce and Selina building their white picket fence but I didn’t. Bruce had been off the rails for a surprisingly long time for a show that dislikes speeds below anything in fifth gear and his connection to Selina was earned back again over many episodes. It builds from cheeky smiles up to the realisation that they’ll always be there for one another; and then there’s that final moment…
Overall then, not only is the second half of season 4 a stunning recovery from its precursor half but the characters have meaningful connections and the plot is truly well thought out. Whereas season 5 might be short then, if it focuses the power of the writers as they must have been focused leading up to it I have hope that we’ll get a splendid finale.
Was it all gold and glory then?
OK, well, no… and with the purpose of ending on the high that this half season deserves let’s get this stuff out of the way first: I did not like that ending. I struggle sometimes with Gotham’s endings and I’m not sure that it’s always good at them. That said I stand by my above hope for season 5 as I think trouble I have stems from Gotham spending half its finale episodes setting up the next season, a concern that season 5 will not have.
Here in season 4 the plot pointed at the greatest possible showdown you can imagine. By combining Ra’s al Ghul and Jeremiah into one origin story for Bruce the show seems to promise the biggest of all payoffs when arguably Batman’s two greatest foes come together against Gotham City. And yet it ends in quite a small scale fight in an abandoned building with Ra’s defeated by a clumsy dagger attack.
Now, when I say small scale I must add that I had no desire to see more minions fighting more characters. Far from it in fact: I wanted it to be much more personal – to capture the meaning and power that the other plots did so successfully. Gotham has always had too many characters to easily handle and perhaps that problem rears its head here too. To be fair, Selina was removed from scene very well and Jeremiah’s victory was all but complete even when serving Ra’s’ plan and equally then didn’t need a place in the victory scene. What though, was the purpose of Barbara’s place?
Clearly there’s the need to get some women into the plot but the League of Shadows gets virtually nothing to do but be a small side of minion – hardly a threatening league in the end. Clearly they thin their own numbers in the battle against tradition that would prevent a woman receiving the Demon’s Head but again, what did that achieve? Pitting the men against the women seemed a cheap simplification of trouble women face in the workplace – especially the Hollywood workplace. There’s a real danger of it seeming like a schoolyard battle rather than commentary on a societal-level problem.
I think the real difficulty may lay in what to do with a character so popular as Barbara. She needs to be centre stage for this reason perhaps but is there really nothing left for such a great femme fatale to do that she has quickly drop that role to instead be just another ninja? And if we needed a female ninja to be the head of the League of Shadows isn’t Tabitha everything we could want? She even has the troubled past of following the lead of a man – her brother Theo – that could have led her to rethink and challenge the ideology and demands of Ra’s. And she also has the history of the Dumas family behind her that could have given her a much more believable background connection to Ra’s than Barbara simply looking like someone in an old painting could ever have.
Tabitha vs. Ra’s would I believe have given us a much more personal plot that could have matched Bruce’s connection as Ra’s heir. Both suffering under Ra’s’ designs for their future coming together in a single battle in the skylines of Gotham as the city threatens to burn below might have been powerful as they have to choose to come together to defeat the greater evil that Ra’s presents.
This would have added to Ra’s mystery and strength as a character too. I’ve really enjoyed Alexander Siddig’s Ra’s but I really don’t think he was given enough to do with it. In his second appearance Ra’s detail seems to have vanished. Is he still cursed? Does he still feel eternal pain every second he’s alive? Why is a romantic partnership now important to him whereas previously he was focused on his heir? Was he a misogynist ruler that treated the League’s women so badly that they had the equivalent problems of modern society or was that just a convenient development after his death to match a real world news story?
And yet I did like this half season very much
There was a lot to like at all levels. Down at the level of good references to the show’s history I valued seeing a few old concerns tidied up. It’s always good to get explanation of previous cryptic message, as we get in “The Sinking Ship The Grand Applause” of Falcone’s warnings. Unimportant as it may be to others I also appreciated seeing Tetch’s powers being fully clarified as hypnosis. Where previously they’d come across as almost real magic, here they were always grounded in the reality of his voice or a ticking clock. All this shows the effort that people behind the scenes are putting into the show, caring about the details.
At the higher level you can also see this same care in the episode plotting. I very much enjoyed Nygma vs. Ed for example. Beyond all the encounters with Lee there was the genius plot of Oswald’s letter written to Ed but meant for Nygma: a clever idea that fits perfectly with what we already know about the character, that is completely believable under the premise that Ed may control the heart but Nygma rules the mind. I’ve said before and will continue to say that this level of thought in the plot gains the trust of the audience when it comes to mysteries: show us that there’s something there to work out in one case and we’ll dive right in looking in all cases – remove the disappointment when we do look at you’ll have us gripped all the time.
Greater perhaps even than that is then the trust we’ll have in a show trying to make a comment on issues of the day. Whereas I can’t see much value in Barbara’s girl-power army, by total contrast comes Lee’s final choice to define herself irrespective of the bounds set up by both Jim and Nygma’s designs. She never needs to beat either in a pointless physical fight to prove her power; she outwits everyone with her intelligence and shows herself to be the real Queen of the Narrows. Better still it proves that the female characters’ plot doesn’t have to revolve around Batman to have meaning and purpose.
But for Barbara being sucked into Ra’s plot to build some connection to the finale, generally speaking the same improvement to the female plot received by Lee can I think be seen in the other women’s treatment. Notably, Ivy is no longer driven by a need for revenge on men – she now simply has no time for any humans perhaps beyond Selina. Gotham continues to handle sexuality with great skill but with this season end I’m now much more confident the ability extends to all gender concerns.
Final mention on my list of things I liked goes to Jeremiah’s origin story as Batman’s Joker nemesis. Jerome was very much a Nicholson-esque Joker. I was OK with that; good an influence as any you might pick. Jeremiah though, was original. He’s a much darker Joker than perhaps I’d have expected from Gotham but with that a perfect choice for a defining battle and as a personal villain for Bruce.
With Bruce as a teenager and not yet fully Batman it was difficult to see how a personal connection could ever be drawn between him and Jerome. However, Gotham brings together a well-meaning billionaire and a lost genius in a way that undeniably links them, especially when magnified under the lens of Ra’s grand vision. I had feared having the Joker and Ra’s onscreen at the same time would be impossible but giving both a stake in Bruce’s future worked for me.
After all this time you wouldn’t necessarily believe an original good Joker was possible but I believe we have it. Born of the tragedy that Jeremiah could have saved Gotham City with his free energy but now will end up being its greatest enemy, Jeremiah is also threatening in attitude and believably cruel. It’s possibly the role Cameron Monaghan should always have been playing but I’m just happy I got to see it at all.
Season 4 began as a challenge to watch but ended up thrilling. Whilst I didn’t like Ra’s ending I loved much of the build up to it. Moreover, the second half of the season avoided and more than made up for the problems of the first half: women were more than just their cleavage; ridiculous, soap-opera plots were replaced with intelligent mystery and twists; and good structure this time was not just hung with tropes and copies but showed off an original Joker and care for the audience’s love of the series.
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