It is a truth universally acknowledged that fictional mob wars are fun to watch, and this particular prequel series spent its entire first season building to a big one: a four-way face-off between wise old Don Falcone, young hothead Don Maroni, ambitious underboss Fish Mooney, and backstabbing underling the Penguin. Thus, the show's first season finale — "All Happy Families Are Alike" — is where everything goes down, and the excrement hits the air conditioning. Really, how bad could it be?
Forget it, Bruce. It's Gotham.
The misfires begin, appropriately enough, in a shootout between Jim Gordon and hitmen sent by Maroni to kill the hospitalized Falcone (and Penguin and his sidekick Butch, who'd arrived in an attempt to off the old man first). In a clumsy homage a similar scene in The Godfather, the staff abandon the mob boss and his cop guardian to their fate — but here they empty out the entire hospital, from the maternity ward to the cafeteria. The gunfight itself is just as laughable: None of these machine-gun-armed professional killers can hit the broad side of a barn, and Gordon jumps and dives like he's auditioning for the Joffrey Ballet. This is not suspense; this is plain old silliness.
The final standoff, staged in one of those abandoned warehouses they rent out to criminals for final standoffs, suffers from herky-jerky pacing and half measures. Maroni taunts Mooney over and over for no reason — certainly not for entertainment value, given how lame an insult "babes" is — and gets shot in the head for it. Gordon and Falcone get captured, stage a dramatic escape amid an enormous brawl/firefight…and get captured two scenes later, with maybe five minutes of screentime in between. The Don decides, after tearing the city apart for weeks, to just retire and go away; the detective's disappointed because all of a sudden he's Falcone's biggest supporter. Penguin and Fish have their big one-on-one brawl, and she winds up in the river, no doubt to surface another day. It's one fake-out and cop-out after another. Why bother with any of it?
It failed just as catastrophically on a character level. In this episode alone, Jim Gordon told half a dozen people he'd be perfectly happy letting them die, shot a dozen dudes himself, and freed a mob boss in an attempt to preserve his control of the city. Gotham City's one good cop, ladies and gents! Selina Kyle took it on the chin, too. The future Catwoman is already a murderer, as of a couple episodes ago; now she calls standing around smirking while people stage executions "the coolest gig ever," like it's a weekend job at the Red Mango franchise in the mall. (Her groanworthy line "Cat got your tongue?" did her no favors either.) These are people we should be able to root for, even admire. Instead, it's hard not to find yourself fantasizing about how they'd look in a courtroom sketch as they learn they've been handed consecutive sentences.
At least the big mob showdown involves semi-interesting characters doing quasi-exciting things with substantial stakes. But we wouldn't want to get too involved in this show, would we? So thank goodness Gotham repeatedly cut away from the climax it built to for an entire season to show a couple of people chatting quietly in an apartment. Every time Barbara Keane and Leslie Thompkins popped up on screen, the result was a transition as lopsided as an overloaded washing machine. They'd have to be real heavyweights to hold their own, but neither of these characters has ever done anything but worry about Gordon and cause him to worry about them — they're the worst of the show's many female ciphers. Setting up their therapy session and the gigantic Falcone/Maroni/Fish/Penguin/Gordon rumble as equal events, with a transparently sexualized catfight as its corny payoff? There's a cell in Arkham waiting for whoever made that decision.
Not to mention how ludicrous that heart-to-heart was in the first place. Why is a GCPD medical examiner conducting checkups at the precinct house? How is she qualified to treat PTSD? Even if she was, why would she agree to treat her current boyfriend's ex? And what kind of insurance plan do you need to get a therapist who makes house calls? You're telling me psychopaths in a fictional urban hellhole can get that kind of coverage but we've got to pay out of pocket if we go out-of-network? Thanks, Obamacare!
Elsewhere, Eddie Nygma gets one last scene, in which we learn he's a gibbering lunatic with a fixation on riddles and an obsession his co-worker Ms. Kringle, whose boyfriend he murd...oh, wait, right, we already knew all that. Uh, now we really know it? And Bruce Wayne tears apart his late father's office looking for his big secret, which turns out to be an underground passage full of bats. Why, whatever could be down there? Clearly this is intended to be some big epic moment, but that's hard to convey if what you're revealing is a foregone conclusion. The image of the young Dark Knight (Dark Squire?) and his loyal servant Alfred staring down into darkness is an echo of Lost's first season finale, which was considered a letdown even though the contents of the hatch they'd just opened were a total mystery. No such uncertainty here: It's the Batcave, duh. How is this a season-finale cliffhanger?
Try to imagine the endgame for this series. Seven, eight seasons, at 22 episodes apiece, of half-assed references to various Bat-villains before Bruce finally puts on the cape and cowl? Gotham needed to do a lot more than it did this year to justify that kind of investment. Some shows just want to watch the world burn.
Previously: Stupor Heroes