When Gotham was first announced, many longtime Batman fans leapt at the idea that the FOX series would be a sort of Gotham City Smallville, following a young Bruce Wayne as he acquired the skills necessary to take on the criminal underworld of his beloved city. So many were thrown for a loop when the show wound up focusing on James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) and his efforts to clean up the city's streets, with 13-year-old David Mazouz cast as Bruce.
Still, there was comic book precedent for a police procedural take on the Batman mythos in the Gotham Central title, but as Gotham went on, its focus began to shift from the GCPD to the extensive rogues gallery. With characters like Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor), Riddler (Cory Michael Smith) and even the still-unconfirmed proto-Joker (Cameron Monaghan) running amok, it seemed only a matter of time until a Dark Knight would emerge. Now, after three seasons of build-up, Bruce Wayne has settled the investigation into his parents' murders and is ready to embrace his destiny.
To be fair, viewers of the season 4 premiere 'Pax Penguina' aren't exactly treated to the full Batman treatment, but the stage is set for the Caped Crusader's evolution to truly begin. Picking up a few months after chaos erupted in Gotham thanks to the Tetch virus and the League of Shadows, the episode finds Penguin once again living large as the de facto criminal kingpin. He's even brokered a deal with the mayor that allows criminals to whom Penguin himself has issued a "license of misconduct" to roam free without fear of arrest or police pursuit. Naturally, this doesn't sit too well with Gordon, but to viewers' surprise, the GCPD's resident hothead ultimately isn't the one who takes the most drastic actions. Instead, it is Bruce -- who has been cutting his crimefighting teeth on street thugs -- who is the most determined to put a stop to Penguin's plan.
Up to this point, Bruce's vigilante hustle has been motivated mostly out of his guilt from his actions in the season 3 finale and his desire to be prepared for Ra's al Ghul's inevitable return to Gotham (unbeknownst to Bruce, the Demon's Head has never truly left). But the virtuous future hero can't sit idly by and watch Penguin conquer Gotham. Armed with little more than a ski mask and some rough fighting skills, Bruce is already sharpening his sleuth and deception skills. We've seen him show off the latter as early as late season 2, but his decision -- at Alfred's behest, to be fair -- to use his influence as Bruce Wayne to further his vigilante agenda nicely sows the seeds of what his double life will become.
This premiere even works in some nods to trademark Batman moves. Bruce's sudden disappearance during his chat with Gordon stands as a highlight of the episode, and his accidental crash through the skylight toward the end is really emblematic of how Gotham hopes to demonstrate his upward journey from rich kid on a rooftop to the fearsome legend that Batman will become. Given how fear plays into the Dark Knight's modus operandi, it stands to reason then that Scarecrow would be the villain to usher viewers into this batch of episodes, which will presumably see Bruce move ever closer to the Batsuit we know and love.
Sure, there's a long way for Gotham to go to build up to Batman's final form, but that's the journey that the show is on. Viewers can likely expect season 4 and any subsequent seasons to take their time developing Bruce Wayne's alter ego, his tools and his mission. After all, if 'Pax Penguina' taught us anything, it's that the team behind Gotham has little problem with drawing inspiration from previous incarnations of the character. With its proto-Batman and a heavy dose of Scarecrow, the season 4 premiere feels more than a little like the show's version of Batman Begins.
As fans finally begin to witness a teenage superhero come into his own (and on a parallel journey with Selina, no less), it's safe to say that Gotham has entered a new era. In an age of gritty, grounded comic book adaptations, the show has thus far been at its best when it’s embracing just how cartoonish and over-the-top its world really is. But its fun-to-watch villains have lacked a powerful enough counterpoint to keep the heroes as engaging as their nemeses. Despite the show's best efforts, Gordon still feels like one of the show's weakest links, and with Bruce's path at last laying before him, the show has the chance to gain a firm focus, something that it honestly has lacked since the first season chronicled Penguin's rise to power.
Seasons 2 and 3 may have introduced some thrilling villain origins, but aside from that, its narrative has felt jumbled and erratic. The show has long been fans' guiltiest pleasure, but Bruce's storyline this season could legitimize Gotham once and for all. For as much fun as Penguin and company are, the real reason fans tune in to a Batman prequel is to see the character's evolution. Now he has arrived: a dark knight.
Gotham season 4 continues next Thursday with 'The Fear Reaper' @8pm on Fox.