'Gotham' Recap: The Letter 'Z'

Never mind the Penguin; there's a new villain in town, though even fresh blood can't save the show's slow descent

Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith, R) and Nikolai Azarov (guest star Jeremy Davidson, L) discuss the future of the Falcone family in the "Penguin's Umbrella" episode. Credit: Jessica Miglio/Fox

For six straight episodes, Fox's series devoted to Batman: The Muppet Baby Years has been formulaic but deliriously entertaining. This week, it takes a bit of a nose dive as some of the show's dullest half-baked characters bogarted the spotlight for one very undercooked hour — an installment that, ironically, stepped outside the Murder of the Week format for the first time yet fell flat on its face. We knew that Gotham is a mess; now it's becoming apparent that Gotham, in fact, may also be a mess. 

Before we attempt to break down the many, many snoozy crimelord back-and-forths that ate up much of this week's entry — "Penguin's Umbrella" — let's talk about Victor Zsasz. He's the bald guy with the scary eyes, the dude who slashes an X-Acto knife tally onto his body for each person he murders.

Zsasz is part of the reason this particular chunk of Gotham is structured differently than the show's previous episodes. The action kicks off early this time, since we have to deal with the multifaceted fallout of Oswald "The Penguin" Cobblepot walking into Gotham PD and announcing that James Gordon never killed him. The consequences: Fish Mooney is outraged; Gordon's fiance, Barbara, is in danger; and mafia don Carmine Falcone is seemingly pissed enough to send one of his most terrifying goons, slick Vic Zsasz, after James Gordon. (More on that "seemingly" in a sec.)

Zsasz's entrance comes early, right around the time the Murder of the Week and whatever quirky villain (the Goat, the Balloonman) usually tend to show up. This time, we just get plain old Zsasz, a Batman comic-book villain since 1992. (He made a little cameo in Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins, but that's essentially his only television/film appearance.) Instead of Gordon and Harvey Bullock having a case to crack, the former gets an end-of-level boss to defeat.

And Gordon loses! Game almost over! Gotham hasn't been brash enough to kill off any main characters yet, but our heroic detective getting blasted twice by Zsasz temporarily feels like a big deal. Of course Gordon makes it out alright, and then heals at TV-hero-speed despite having just been gutshot. But damn, it seemed like he might die for a minute, like Gotham might go straight into the hands of the bad guys. Regardless, Zsasz's brief appearance here lets him leapfrog over the Penguin, the Riddler, and the still-MIA Joker as Gotham's current No. 1 Villain to Watch.

The thing about this scarred-up serial killer being a character on the show is that he might not just be a disturbed bad-ass with a cool consonant-heavy name and a crazy habit. He might actually be a damaged person who has a problem with cutting and who's been exploited by a powerful crime family. Gotham is building a foundation that would allow it to take a sadistic supervillain and turn him into a sadistic human villain with a real story and a real life. We'll see. One thing that seems to tip the scale in this direction already: Zsasz's cell phone rings to the tune of Lipps Inc.'s 1979 über-jam "Funkytown.” That's some real Reservoir Dogs, Mr. Blonde-eating-a-burger-and-fries shit. That song's something only a "regular" guy would like.

Unfortunately Zsasz's boss, Falcone, and all the other crooks — Maroni, Mooney, etc. — are nowhere near as compelling or humanlike, despite having several prior episodes to develop their characters. These old-timers are scheming about Arkham and exchanging gentlemanly pleasantries. They're meeting in restaurants for the trillionth time in the history of cinema and television. Still, it's lovely how the show injects oddball humor into these familiar moments. Penguin honks like a goose; no one gets it. Fish calls Penguin a "scaly-faced bitch," wins the Insult Olympics.

Yet these scenes aren't really amounting to anything meaningful, or at least not nearly as meaningful as Gotham wants us to believe. This episode thinks it's a chess tournament when it's really just an afternoon checkers match, one where you make 19 moves and nothing changes. We're spending so much time with these bad guys without getting to know them better, except for the predictable fact that Falcone isn't as "old and soft" as Fish initially imagined. He's totally on top of the game, in fact, and the show has taken a long time letting us know that.

How in control is Falcone? Enough so that he's been in bed, secretly, with the Penguin since the get-go. It's neat, in theory, to see a flashback that tells us we've been missing a key piece of the puzzle for a long time. But it also feels anticlimactic — and more than a little lame. Hopefully, the reveal about the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne is a little more artful and/or surprising.

After the token weekly chat with Bruce Wayne and Alfred Pennyworth, Gordon makes a play to arrest Falcone and Mayor Aubrey James. Again: seems meaningful, yet really isn't. This subplot is the kind of no-stakes garbage that has lead hit network series like Under the Dome into early graves, creatively and in terms of audience reception. If you want people to honestly love your big, dark, mysterious drama, you need to take that endeavor seriously. It's inadvisable to screw with your viewers by making power plays and then saying "just kidding!"

Other developments: Detectives Montoya and Allen are now on Gordon's side, at least for the moment. Team Good Guys has grown by two members, which (assuming we can still include Bullock) brings the roster to five members. Does young master Wayne count? Will he get involved, or just keep armchair quarterbacking? We're guessing the rights for a Batman appearance will always be too expensive/too against this show's before-the-cape m.o., but maybe Bruce can do a proto-Batman superhero thing? Is it too much to ask for the kid to try being Kick-Ass for a minute?

Previously: Animal Magnetism