When Warner Home Video sent me the third season of Gotham, I was certain there was some mistake; there’s simply no way Gotham has only had three seasons, considering how much has happened. Many characters have changed sides dramatically, others are almost unrecognizable, and there’s about a decade’s worth of continuity already established. Considering this narrative is set before Bruce Wayne becomes Batman, that’s quite a lot.
Of course it’s true; Gotham really has only finished its third season. Those who’ve managed to keep up with the decade of continuity shoved into three seasons will likely find a lot to enjoy in this third season. That said, there are few new jumping-in points for new viewers, and some episodes are so esoteric they might require a half hour “previously on” segment.
One thing Gotham does very well is establish and stick to its amazing and bizarre world. The series’ Gotham City doesn’t exist in our own real world any more than it operates as a subset of any DC Comics film continuity. The denizens of Gotham’s Gotham wear ’40s style attire, drive ’80s cars, speak on early 2000s cellular phones, listen to classic songs re-imagined with techno beats, and terrorize each other with a bizarre combination of B-Movie sci-fi gadgets and futuristic technology.
A similar mixture goes into the themes and mood of the show. Often Gotham is a hard-edged drama bordering on horror. Other times, it’s as playfully surreal and campy as anything in Tim Burton’s Batman movies (although unlike the earlier Batman films, Gotham is never a toy commercial). While this sort of oddity might kill most television shows, it’s actually the only way Gotham can truly work. Insanity is, after all, a part of this mixture.
Batman is a dark and menacing character often surrounded by strange and colorful villains that, even in the darkest world, can often come off as silly. In the comics, this element is embraced, and somehow manages to work, because a silly villain who has a gun to your head is no less terrifying (and arguably more so) than a serious villain with a gun to your head. At the end of the day, you’ve still got a gun to your head.
Where other shows and movies have focused only on the already dark villains, Gotham strives to embrace the dichotomy of the comics and present something that ordinarily might seem a bit silly as terrifying. We have a villain modeled after the Mad Hatter (Benedict Samuel); an over-the-top and foppish crime boss who goes by the moniker of Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor); a strange criminal scientist who slowly starts to wrap himself in green and call himself The Riddler (Cory Michael Smith); a costumed arsonist called Firefly (Camila Perez); and a mad scientist with white hair and blue skin called Mister Freeze (Nathan Darrow). How can one make such craziness terrifying? Because the craziness itself is the terror.
Nor does Gotham attempt to apologize or cover up the insanity. Gotham knows that the insanity of this world is the only way the city of Gotham could possibly produce the Batman. The lunatic medical doctor Hugo Strange (BD Wong) is always cartoonish even when performing garish experiments on his patients. The Riddler is constantly spinning riddles — obviously — in high stakes games of death. The Mad Hatter is not only unhinged, but holds the key to turning every citizen of Gotham into a villain as crazy as himself. Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith) is a non-powered powerhouse of craziness who’s unafraid to rip her own eyeball out just to spite those who think they can control her.
Of course just as The Joker is the Clown Prince of Batman’s crime city, so is Jerome Valeska (Cameron Monaghan) the insane, cackling circus madman in young Bruce Wayne’s world. Is Jerome actually the Joker to be? We don’t know yet, but we do get a couple of terrifying episodes that make the case for a solid “maybe”. At the end of these episodes, the idea that young Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) becomes Batman is all the more realistic.
That same rapid-fire change and growth that made the first two seasons seem like so much more than two is also on display in season three. Events move at a breakneck pace in Gotham. One teenaged character literally grows up to full adulthood overnight. Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) is destined to age into the familiar Commissioner Gordon we all know, but he starts this season not as a police officer but as a drunken private detective. One of the most menacing villains of the entire season starts out as the city’s most trusted cop. Perhaps most bizarre of all, the crime lord Penguin himself begins the season as the mayor of Gotham City.
For the most part this works, and the frantic pace is explained (just as the occasional cartoonish overacting is) by the surreality of Gotham. Occasionally, however, the silliness fails to feel truly frightening, and manages to be only silly. The fast pace occasionally attempts to (unsuccessfully) gloss over a fizzled plot point. When a moment of goofiness detracts from the dark, noir tone of the story a fedora-wearing cop drives up in a car borrowed from Hill Street Blues while talking on a flip phone, it reminds the viewer once again that this isn’t our own world.
When one truly becomes engrossed in Gotham however, these failing moments are lost in a sea of strange thrills. Even when over-the-top delivery is required, the actors who do deliver are top notch. No one could accuse Wong of less than a top-notch performance. Bullock (Donal Logue) and Gordon have cemented themselves as a truly effective and credible crime fighting buddy duo, largely due to the chemistry between actors Logue and McKenzie. Taylor is remarkably compelling and complex as Penguin, both in his laughing confidence and his petrified demeanor.
Sean Pertwee’s portrayal of butler Alfred Pennyworth virtually steals the show every time he appears, and the character’s arc has been truly satisfying. Over the series’ three seasons, he’s come into his own as Bruce’s strong, yet loving, foster father. Gone are the drawling, subservient performances of an ancillary Alfred; in Gotham, Alfred’s less a servant and more of a bodyguard. He fights, he quips, he teaches, and he protects. This is, of course, a partial credit to Pertwee’s pedigree: his father, Jon, famously portrayed the well-received third incarnation of Doctor on Doctor Who.
The season does keep the viewer guessing, with the biggest surprises reserved for the final few episodes. While viewers are focused on the insane and powerful escapees of the Indian Hill research facility, the Machiavellian, Illuminati-like group The Court of Owls begins to rear its head. Just as we’re focusing on The Court of Owls, something even more sinister — and, from a viewer standpoint, incredibly satisfying — rears its demon’s head. All the while, allegiances change, hands are chopped off, faces are ripped off, people are killed and brought back from the grave, and fortunes reverse at the flip of a scarred coin.
Gotham third season Blu-ray release also offers documentaries on actor-turned-director McKenzie, features on The Court of Owls and the new super-villains introduced in season three, deleted scenes, and the Gotham 2016 Comic-Con panel. While all of these are welcome, and the collection offers superior sound and video, the main attraction is still the main attraction: finally witnessing the birth of the Batman.