Gotham Review: “The Anvil and the Hammer”

(Episode 1.21)

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<i>Gotham</i> Review: &#8220;The Anvil and the Hammer&#8221;

For the last few episodes, Gotham has circled around a promising storyline starring Milo Ventimiglia as the vicious serial killer known as the Ogre. The plot has given the show a focus it has sorely lacked for most of the season, and the added time has allowed Ventimiglia’s antagonist a proper (if mediocre) backstory. But what the first two episodes amounted to was little more than glorified set-up, which Gotham has been able to manage fairly well in its first year, it’s been in the pay off that the show has often fallen flat. That fact led me to write this, in regard to the show’s Ogre storyline and final episodes, last week:

Save for the bizarre island storyline, which was absent last night, there isn’t much to be excited for in the final weeks, and so there is much riding on the conclusion of the Ogre storyline. Surprises have been promised by Bruno Heller and the producers, but Gotham is no stranger to the let down.

It would be incorrect to give myself any sort of Babe Ruth-ian credit for calling my shot, because the shot was too obvious not to call. Gotham’s inability to gleam any sort of suspense or worthwhile conclusion in both single and multi-episode arcs in the majority of its 21 episodes to date might be its largest shortcoming. Instead of playing the Ogre into the season finale, the line was cut last night. Being able to view the entire three episode arc as a whole now makes it readily apparent that this plot was no different than a standard episode of Gotham, merely elongated. Once again, the primary failing reared its head in the form of consequence. Despite the fact that the Ogre kidnapped Barbara, a decidedly minor character, but one with important emotional ties to Detective Gordon, little seemed at stake throughout the hour. That had to do with the fact that I didn’t believe the show was willing to kill her off, and I also didn’t think Barbara was the person at risk.

Without drifting into improper territory, it’s no secret that Barbara has been a less-than-beloved character. The writers have often had no idea what to do with her, going so far as to replace her with Morena Baccarin’s Lee Thompkins, but not as far as removing her entirely. Having her kidnapped gave Barbara something meanwhile to be a part of, while also giving Gordon something to worry about, but most of all, it seemed like a natural way to remove a character that wasn’t working. Had that been the way the story unfolded, it would have brought on interesting questions for Gordon concerning his dangerous career, and the way he is approaching that career as a daredevil. Gotham is usually not a city to be kind to men who strut around as though they are untouchable. It is certainly expected for Gordon to clean up the GCPD, but the way he has been doing so should have brought on more enemies and pain than it has thus far. Had Barbara become a victim of the Ogre, it would have fallen almost entirely on Gordon’s shoulders, and the mental ramifications of that would have been fascinating territory for the show to venture into. What we got with “The Anvil and the Hammer” was an hour-long version of something Gotham has made routine: a poor final act. Often in this first season the show has done a commendable job of setting up its villain and story, only to squander it in the moment that means the most. Last night was no different, only slightly more disappointing after three weeks of investment.

It feels cruel to be upset that Barbara didn’t die last night but, as a viewer of a television program, there need to be stakes. One of the reasons The Americans is the best show on television is because it is able to heighten nearly every scene with ample amounts of stress. One of the most impressive sequences of television in 2015, thus far, came early on in the FX drama’s third season. It involved Elizabeth, a KGB spy posing as an American travel agent and mother of two played expertly by Keri Russell, calmly maneuvering a car, knowing she’s being tailed and forced into a trap by the FBI. Phillip, her husband and fellow spy, has already rolled out of the car and called for backup, but the rescue takes time, leaving Elizabeth stranded. Unlike most shows, The Americans did not push the issue. It did not have Elizabeth peel off and start a high-speed chase (though the show is no stranger to that, either). Instead, she drove slowly, stopping at red lights and rolling on when it turned green. Among the many reasons the sequence worked so well, and was so fraught with nervousness despite essentially being several minutes of average D.C. traffic, was that the stakes were immense. It was unlikely that the FBI would actually catch Elizabeth, but not impossible. That uncertainty is key in delivering quality, suspenseful television and it’s something Gotham lacks. Right now, Gordon is running wild in Gotham and its police department, essentially unchecked. Eventually, some of the heat will have to blow back on him, because, in this age of modern television, what’s the point of watching if we know how it ends?

There was one surprise in last night’s episode, courtesy of Penguin. At the beginning of the season, Oswald Cobblepot was positioned to potentially be the breakout star of the show but, as the weeks ran on, his influence faded. Until last night, it looked as though Penguin’s scheming wasn’t all that clever after all. He was planning to kill Sal Maroni, obviously, but in “The Anvil of the Hammer” we learned that his plot to kill was in truth a plot to pit Maroni and Falcone against one another, bringing about the mob war that I expected to consume much of the second half of the season. I don’t mind this story, and I think putting Penguin in a greater position of power is a smart move for the show, but what I do mind is the timing. Why wait until the season finale to erupt a mob war? Why waste three episodes with a glorified single-episode villain, when you could have used this time for a bombastic battle between Gotham’s criminal heavyweights? What awaits us now is, surely, an over-packed episode that will have to deal with the aftermath of Penguin’s scheme and bring Fish back on board (noticeably absent again last night), plus whatever dozen-plus storylines the writers will want to squeeze in.

?I have long-awaited Gotham’s season finale, because it has long been touted as one that will both surprise the viewer and change the landscape of the show for next season. Though every reason exists to doubt those claims, I’m still holding out hope that they will ring true. Gotham is not as far off as it may seem from being a solid drama. Aiding its cause first and foremost would be a level of unpredictability and, at this point, there is literally no better time to start being unpredictable than next week.

Eric Walters is a Detroit-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. For more of his TV musings, follow him on Twitter.