From the very beginning, Gotham didn’t have any sense of what it was. That first season was a complete mess, with the show just throwing villains and storylines at the wall and hoping that along the way, something would stick. There was no narrative in sight, no sense that storytelling was important. Rather, the show banked on the Intellectual Property of the DC universe being enough. The early stages of Gotham assumed, wrongly, that simply seeing a bunch of Batman villains on the TV screens, before they became the villains we know, would be enough to keep people tuned in. A.V. Club writer Oliver Sava only made it a few episodes in before handing the weekly review assignment off to me, and since then I’ve been sitting through episode after episode of this show trying to figure out what the hell it wants to be.
The fourth season finally, to an extent, figured it out. After three seasons of stories going nowhere, failed Jim Gordon romances, and a shocking amount of Bruce Wayne being whiny and useless, the series kicked into gear by focusing on Gotham as a city, and Bruce Wayne as its eventual savior. What the first three seasons of Gotham failed to understand is that origin stories are largely boring because we know the destination, so unless you’re working to make the journey surprising, compelling, and unique, there’s little reason to tune in each week. Gotham quickly became predictable and dull, until last season show some maturity. Finally, the show was starting to understand that this isn’t the story of cool villains and a pretty boy rich kid, but rather a twisted coming-of-age tale about a broken boy trying to fix a broken city, and discovering his sense of duty while doing so.
At the end of last season, Gotham was burned to the ground, Fight Club style. At the beginning of “Year Zero”—let’s all take a moment to rejoice at the elimination of Gotham’s horrendous, never-ending episode titles—Gotham is a mess of divisions. It’s Day 391 in No Man’s Land, and the Riddler, Penguin, Bullock, and Jim Gordon are all getting their weapons ready for a fight. Shockingly enough, they’re not about to do battle with one another, but with a horde of unknowns. It’s a strange sight indeed, and one that promises a change in storytelling. If the villains and the good guys are teaming up, surely something destructive is truly coming for Gotham.
How we get to that point of camaraderie based on a love of Gotham, flaws and all, is a whole other question, and while “Year Zero” is certainly a solid enough start to the season—it’s propulsive and exciting at times—there’s something all too familiar about where this final season premiere ends up. As intense and exciting as that first scene is, the immediate flashback to Day 87 is a buzzkill. We learn that after the blast that ended last season, the government left Gotham to rot, refusing any travel in or out of the city. Now, Gotham is separated into territories controlled by various criminal factions, including Barbara and Tabitha’s area around their club, where no men are allowed, and Penguin’s hold on City Hall, where he’s stocked up on guns and ammo.
This is all presented as new information that’s meant to convey the devastation of Gotham, but is it really all that different from the Gotham that existed before the blast? The fact that the very first episode of this season hinges on the plot of criminal factions warring against each other and the GCPD is not promising. Gotham has been telling that story for four straight seasons, tweaking it ever so slightly along the way. Last season’s events were meant to shake things up and offer new ways forward for these characters. As “Year Zero” rolls on though, it feels increasingly like an episode we’ve seen before.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for the show to go out with a bang. The final episode order, reduced to just 12, is a good development. Gotham’s never had enough story to stretch across its bloated 22-episode seasons, so perhaps a more efficient story will emerge this season. After all, there are threads here that are interesting. Tabitha and Barbara’s friendship and romance grew into something surprisingly affecting these last few seasons, and the promise of Barbara getting revenge for Tabitha’s death by killing Penguin is certainly an intriguing one. Then there’s Bruce, who’s growing into his role as Batman, telling Jim that he doesn’t regret staying in Gotham in order to help out those most vulnerable.
At its heart, the story of Batman is one of a rich, privileged kid turning the murder of his parents into a mission to rectify the injustices of all the corrupt systems that operate within a city. That’s a compelling, poignant story to tell, if Gotham can commit. There’s smatterings of political and social critiques in “Year Zero,” as Gordon, Bruce, and Bullock lament the way the powerful and wealthy can ignore the suffering of those below them. “Year Zero” occasionally brushes up against critiques of capitalism and the system that allows the 1% to horde everything, even in times of disaster, but it never quite goes full bore. That’s fine, I guess, for a superhero show that’s aiming for more lighthearted fare, but it’s also a detriment to the overall story Gotham seems to want to tell.
Gotham’s never really known whether to embrace its goofiness or put it to the side and focus on more serious drama. It’s why Jim Gordon has always felt out of place, a straight-faced cop in a world packed with cartoonish lunatics. That struggle to balance tone still persists in “Year Zero.” The ridiculousness of Scarecrow, the Riddler looking like he’s part of a My Chemical Romance cover band, and whoever “The Witch” is that Bruce is supposed to find to save Selina, is all fun, and it all works within this world. But when Gotham shoots for something more procedural, or tries to tack on ideas about power and corruption, it loses itself.
That identity crisis has defined Gotham since the beginning, and there’s a good chance it will pervade the final season. As the GCPD struggles to survive, and the criminals run wild, Gotham wants us to see a life or death battle for survival. The trouble is, the show’s asked us to see that time and time again. Hitting the reset button is a viable option for a struggling show, but it’s a button that Gotham has used too many times. At least this will be the last.