Some television shows require the urgency of a final season in order to realize their potential. As it begins its fifth and final season, then, Gotham proves it deserves a spot on that list. Never quite the Batman show fans seemed to think they wanted, and never quite the G.C.P.D. series that, with a Batman-and-Bruce-Wayne-less angle, would have made it far more interesting, Gotham spent the last four seasons trying to strike a three-way balance between its alternate universe lineup of the Dark Knight’s rogue’s gallery, the cops of the Gotham City Police Department, and a young Bruce Wayne finding his place in the world.
That narrative triangle wasn’t one the show was really ever built to handle, let alone sustain, as its tendency toward over exaggeration — especially with regard to its cast of not-yet Bat villains — often felt too disconnected from the gritty cop show or grieving superhero-in-the-making series it was whenever Penguin, Scarecrow, the Riddler, or the proto-Joker weren’t wreaking havoc on screen. Part of the problem was David Mazouz’s Bruce Wayne. Through no fault of the actor, the presence of Gotham’s favorite son turned the series into little more than a waiting game, one where the promise of Batman would continue to go unfulfilled until, as the marketing for the final season has made clear time and time again, the series was ready to call it a day.
But while young Bruce is finally ready to step into his role as the hero the city needs (or deserves… or whatever), what makes the final season much more compelling is how, in the premiere anyway, Gotham has finally become what it should have been in the first place: Jim Gordon’s show. And all it took was turning Gotham into a literal no-man’s land.
The notion that Gotham would be completely cut off from the rest of the world is a little tough to swallow, what with there being innocent civilians still left to fend for themselves in what is now a dying metropolis divvied up into territories controlled by various outfits — the cops, Penguin, Barbara Kean, and more. But those watching the series are likely well beyond the point of trying to connect Gotham storylines to anything remotely resembling a realistic scenario. The upside, then, is surprisingly freeing, as the series can pretty much do whatever it wants, with the added benefit of its outlandish scenario generating stakes that are much higher than usual.
But simply having high stakes isn’t enough to make the series’ final season interesting; it also needs to have a more distinct point of view. ‘Year Zero’ sets out to achieve this by beginning season 5 with a flash forward in which the various factions — Gordon, the Riddler, and Penguin — all appear united in a last ditch effort to save the ruined city from some other force. That effectively sets the stage for a heroic, no-nonsense Gordon who is front and center through most of the first hour. Here, Ben McKenzie’s usual stoic performance affords Gordon the sense of authority the series has been slowly angling him toward since the premiere, and, as usual, it plays well against the over-the-top antics of both Robin Lord Taylor’s Oswald Cobblepot and Erin Richards’ Barbara Kean. At the same time, though, Gordon also proves capable of lightening the mood whenever Bruce is in the room, as the vigilante in training tends to darken things considerably.
Still, thanks to the city’s new circumstances, all the various pieces of the Gotham puzzle tend to fit together a little better. That much is made apparent when Bruce sneakily orders a helicopter to fly supplies into the city, in direct defiance of a governmental order preventing anyone from entering the ruins of Gotham. When the helicopter is inevitably downed (and then somehow moved into a warehouse), the cops, Cobblepot, and Kean all convene on the wreckage, claiming it for themselves. The survival of the fittest ethos is in keeping with stories of seasons past, but now that the show is free to run off a cliff if it sees fit to do so, everything that happens finally feels as though it’s carrying actual narrative weight. And to convince viewers that it means business, Gotham sets the stage for a Barbara/Oswald war to end all wars when the latter successfully kills Tabitha Galavan (Jessica Lucas).
Tabitha’s death not only galvanizes Barbara, but it also demonstrates the degree to which Gotham intends to throw caution to the wind, on account of this being its final season and all. That devil-may-care attitude gives the series an energy it larked in previous seasons, one that even elevates the campiness baked into show’s DNA. Nowhere is that more apparent than when the show cuts to Cory Michael Smith’s Edward Nigma waking up in strange locations all over the city, only to return to his humble abode to scream at himself in the mirror. There’s a similar sensibility as the show slowly readies Selina (Camren Bicondova) for her final transformation into Catwoman by having a nurse name-drop “the Witch,” or seeing papers on Jim’s desk with a Joker-like “hahahaha!” scrawled across them like silly tattoos on Jared Leto’s body.
So far, the start of Gotham’s end run is a successful one that sets the stage for a climactic showdown to save the city, one that will almost certainly involve an appearance from the Dark Knight. It’s one that will likely please fans, but may prove unnecessary given how the show is finally ready to treat Gordon like the hero this Gotham needs.
Gotham continues next Thursday with ‘Trespassers’ @8pm on FOX.