Gotham: The Batman Series We Wanted, or the One We Deserved?

The stars of Gotham

Fox’s Gotham has come to an end after an abrupt cancellation in 2018 that was overturned. The popularity of Gotham granted it one final, albeit curtailed, season that turned out to be a fitting end to a show that didn’t always hit its mark, though not for lack of trying.

Based on the Batman arc No Man’s Land, and taking several pages out of the Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy, particularly The Dark Knight Rises, which was also based on the same story, Gotham season five saw the titular city cut off from the mainland, with villains running the show, and a beleaguered Gotham City Police Department, led by Captain Jim Gordon, trying to keep the peace. This season even included a sub-plot with the daughter of Ra’s al Ghul—Nyssa instead of The Dark Knight Rises’ Talia—teaming up with Bane (once again played by a white man), and ended with a dejected Bruce Wayne leaving his beloved city and family to learn how to become the city’s silent protector, Batman. I love the Nolan trilogy but I didn’t want a repeat of that same aesthetic in Gotham.

Gotham’s final season failed to stray from a safe formula, which is unfortunate, because the show worked hard on its ‘murder mystery with supervillains’ premise. It’s what kept me coming back to the show because I had never seen the like before. Though not every single episode was mind-blowing, there were several that were compelling enough to keep me excited for more—Fish Mooney’s bid for mob boss, Mister Freeze’s introduction, Firefly, Scarecrow, the war between Penguin and Riddler, Professor Pyg. Despite knowing about the Bat-verse, I was never sure what would happen next on Gotham, and that is what I will miss most about the show.

Gotham’s final season failed to stray from a safe formula, which is unfortunate, because the show worked hard on its ‘murder mystery with supervillains’ premise.

But at least the final season wrapped up a number of plot points and laid the foundations for a recognisable Bat-verse. My favourite part of this season was the startling resolution between Barbara and Lee Thompkins, who have been enemies for seasons, especially since Barbara tried to kill Lee so she could marry Jim. It was a relief that, despite Jim and Barbara’s established relationship in the DC Comics, Gotham realised that they had strayed too far away from that pairing to make it work. Also, female friendship is magic!

I like that the show still tried to bring in canon characters like Barbara Lee Gordon, who we all know will go on to become the superhero Batgirl/ Oracle, and that it is Barbara Jr’s imminent arrival that cements the bond between Barbara and Lee (note the child’s name). Barbara Jr’s birth also led to probably my favourite fight scene in Gotham—Barbara in labour shooting at Nyssa’s goons as Lee wheels her away to safety. Gotham hasn’t always done right by its female characters, particularly Barbara, but this was a rare satisfactory moment for me.

Gotham was essentially Jim Gordon’s origin story, and Ben McKenzie did his all to keep the audience invested in the character. In the Batman media I have consumed, Jim Gordon is, like Captain America, and Superman, always on the cusp of being boring due to their extreme morals, but on Gotham, Gordon was always battling a corrupt system, often by joining it. He felt like both the audience stand-in and the sacrificial lamb, and made me wonder what I would have done in similar circumstances.

I didn’t always agree with Gordon’s choices, but I always understood them. Gotham City is a dangerous place—you need to hang out with dangerous people to know what is going on and how you can fix things. That despite all his shady dealings, Gordon not only managed to keep his job, but was eventually promoted to Captain, and finally Commissioner, stood as evidence of how terrible the state of Gotham City truly was.

Though Gordon was the protagonist, I was more compelled by the only decent character in Gotham, Bruce Wayne. Batman’s origin story has been done to death, but most of the films, and even the comics, manage to gloss over the intervening years of Bruce’s life till he actually becomes Batman. Gotham’s David Mazouz managed to capture the horror Bruce felt after losing his parents in such a violent manner, and the burden of his responsibilities to Gotham City, Wayne Enterprises, and his parents’ legacy.

Bruce’s relationship with Alfred was a highlight for me, and I was glad that Gotham never seemed to be afraid of showing how close the two were. There are so many father-son relationships in pop culture but it is usually conveyed more through words than deeds. With five seasons to eke out the bond between Bruce and Alfred, I felt I was seeing a well-written, and well-executed, relationship.

Another child actor on Gotham who was excellent was Camren Bicondova as Selina Kyle. Selina’s story isn’t rooted in her friendship and romance with Bruce—a distinct departure from the comics—but more in her bid for survival. The relationship between Selina and Bruce lent itself well to examining the class divisions of the city—something we don’t often see in Bat-properties—and gave Bruce an ally who effectively taught him much of what he learned about fighting and surviving. In the world of Gotham, there would be no Batman without Catwoman, and that is something I can get behind.

There were missteps, unfortunately, even with Selina, who, in the same vein as The Killing Joke, was shot and paralysed by the Joker in season four of Gotham. I would have loved to see Selina adapt herself into an Oracle-lite character, but the show decided to stick with Selina being Catwoman and gave her a cure-all remedy from Poison Ivy, one hitherto unheard-of on the show, and never seen again since.

Which brings me to one characterisation that has irked me for a while—Gotham’s portrayal of Poison Ivy. I haven’t read nearly enough of Poison Ivy as I’d have liked to, but I do love the character (thank Uma Thurman). I wasn’t sure what Gotham planned to do with adolescent Ivy, played by Clare Foley, who was introduced as a young friend of Selina’s with an interest in plants. Ivy’s appearance in the show had no pattern until she was aged up to become the seductress Poison Ivy, with the role being taken over by Maggie Geha.

I remember reading about it before I saw the transformation on the show and it was exactly as super-icky as I thought it would be—because although Ivy looked older, she still appeared to inhabit the mind of a pre-teen girl. Ivy was aged up yet again in season four, with Peyton List stepping into the vines, and eschewing any pretense of a child in a woman’s body. This Ivy was older in mind and body and made for much better, and less icky, viewing. Also, Peyton List is cool and you should check her out in Frequency.

More than the heroes though, what Gotham generally got right was its villains. Undoubtedly my favourite was Robin Lord Taylor’s Oswald ‘Penguin’ Cobblepot. I love the character so much, I stood in line for three hours so I could get a good seat for Taylor’s session at Fan Expo Canada 2018. I have never been very interested in Penguin, but Taylor’s portrayal was captivating, I found myself returning to the show more to see what Penguin would get up to than anything else. And I’m not the only one—Taylor was such a breakout star in the first season that he practically took over as secondary lead, over David Mazouz’s Bruce Wayne. And it remained that way for all five seasons.

Another villain that Gotham fleshed out far more than we have seen in the comics, was the Riddler, albeit in more problematic ways than I would have liked. I love the Riddler and Batman: Rebirth honestly hasn’t given us as much Riddler as it should have, which is likely why I loved tuning in to Gotham so much for my Riddler fix.

Cory Michael Smith’s Edward Nygma was charming, creepy, and very weird. Exactly why I loved him. He began life on Gotham as a lab assistant with a crush on his colleague Kristen Kringle, a Manic Pixie Dreamgirl if ever there was one. Though Kristen was sweet and alluring, I hate Manic Pixie Dreamgirls so I had little hope for anything good from the character. I was right. Kristen was shown to be in a relationship with an abusive boyfriend (because of course), who Edward decided to confront, eventually killing the man and beginning his journey towards becoming the Riddler. That part I liked. What came next, not so much.

Ed and Kristen ended up in a relationship following the ‘disappearance’ of her boyfriend, only for Ed’s Riddler tendencies to get the better of him. He throttled Kristen, albeit unintentionally, and cemented his fate as a Gotham villain. There are ways to kill female characters that don’t equate to fridging, but this was not it. Was murdering Kristen necessary to progress Riddler’s story? I didn’t think so. Worse, even if I had wanted to overlook it (I didn’t), Gotham decided to bask in Kristen’s death by introducing the exact same storyline for Isabella, a woman who looked remarkably like Kristen. Sigh.

Isabella’s entry, and exit, in Gotham added another problematic layer to the show, one that it has managed to brush aside within its storytelling but not from the memories of viewers—aka me. In season three, Gotham made the unexpected decision to have Penguin, then Mayor of Gotham City (don’t ask), fall in love with his best friend/ right-hand man the Riddler. In the comics, Penguin, and almost every other denizen of Gotham City remotely linked with Batman, is straight, aggressively so, but the chemistry between Gotham’s Penguin and Riddler had always been undeniable.

In my opinion, this was the best Gotham storyline and I hate that nothing happened with it. Especially because I was hoping against hope for it. Way back in season two, a barely-alive Penguin was nursed to health by not-yet Riddler—the chemistry between them was electric, more so than anything I had seen between Jim and Barbara, or Barbara and her on-again-off-again flame, Renee Montoya (more on that later). Penguin and Riddler had few scenes together before the Mayoral campaign, at which point it became obvious that there should be more between these two than a simple friendship. I didn’t think Gotham would be brave enough to go in that direction, but they totally did. Ships do come true!

Yeah, not so much. Just as Penguin was about to confess his love for Riddler, in walked Isabella, an even more Manic Pixie Dream Girl than Kristen, would you believe it. I didn’t like this intrusion on my unexpectedly-realised ship, but it was made worse by Penguin then killing Isabella in a misguided attempt to woo Riddler. Obviously, that didn’t work out. The two become enemies until they resolved to become friends in season five. Not much thought was given to either Kristen or Isabella, who existed solely to give Ed more personality. And no mention of Penguin’s love for Ed was made ever again. He described himself and Riddler as brothers in the final season. That makes no sense to me and I will forever hold it against the Gotham team.

Gotham’s inability to grasp queer relationships was evident from season one when the only bisexual character on the show at the time, Barbara Keane, was characterised as a stereotype, unable to decide whether she wanted to be with Jim or with Renee, because that’s what bisexuals are like, right?

This should not have come as a surprise, though. Gotham’s inability to grasp queer relationships was evident from season one when the only bisexual character on the show at the time, Barbara Keane, was characterised as a stereotype, unable to decide whether she wanted to be with Jim or with Renee, because that’s what bisexuals are like, right? Wrong, obviously. The love triangle went on for a bit too long and, once Barbara had decided on Jim, Renee’s storyline fizzled out, despite the existence of DC Comics’ Gotham Central–arguably the inspiration for Gotham—where Renee Montoya is a fleshed-out character who just happens to be lesbian.

I always felt like Gotham seemed at a loss about what to do with its female characters. Barbara was the two-timing damsel in distress; Selina Kyle the wayward bad influence on Bruce. Lee was the one that got away. The only female character who held her own was Jada Pinkett-Smith’s Fish Mooney, a character created for the show. I loved Fish Mooney with every fibre of my being—she was vicious, ambitious, fearless, and she looked fantastic. Thanks to Penguin and Fish, I felt more drawn to Gotham, and more comfortable giving it second chances.

Fish’s death, resurrection, and second death were nothing short of fridging—it was played for Penguin’s growth, not Fish’s. Of course, Gotham and fridging went hand in hand, not only with Kristen, Isabella, and season one’s Liza, but also with Tabitha Galavan, another bisexual character, who’s story strangely revolved more around her love for Butch than for Barbara, who she undoubtedly had more chemistry with. Despite being a series regular from season two, Tabitha was killed off in the very first episode of season five, and barely even mourned by her only living partner, Barbara. Tabitha was one of the few people of colour in a largely white cast, and to see her struck down so early on in the final season was frustrating.

Gotham’s attempts at diversity were often mere lip-service—looking through their cast list, the majority of the actors were white, with Jada Pinkett-Smith, Morena Baccarin, Chris Chalk, and Jessica Lucas the only actors of colour with a fair amount of screen time. However, this is more than a number of shows still have, so I guess I shouldn’t complain too much. But I still wanted more.

So, what is Gotham’s legacy, at least to me? It was an entertaining, often gripping show, that veered away from its roots but never far enough to break free of its DC bonds. It wasn’t always the show people wanted, and it certainly made mistakes, but it gave viewers characters that were engaging, strange, unpredictable, and often amusing.

I appreciate that Gotham worked hard to be more than a police procedural with supervillains, choosing to embrace its comic origins by spreading its wings and introducing elements that would build the world it existed in. I enjoyed tuning in every week to watch Gotham and I’d like to think that, for a certain generation, Gotham could definitively be their introduction to Batman and DC Comics. In fact, considering that it had more characters of colour and queer characters than the actual DC properties it’s based on might actually make viewers love it more than the comics.

Gotham threw everything it could at its storylines, and with time, it could very well have fleshed out the characters and world further. Even though I would loved to have seen the characters for a few more years, and maybe see how the show could rectify some of its past mistakes, I’m glad it ended when it did. Looking at Arrow, a show that veritably birthed a universe, and how poor its quality has become—so much so, that I groan at the thought of watching it—I’m glad that this was not Gotham’s fate. Instead, what started off as a small show about a couple of cops and a traumatised child, turned into a show about friendship, love, strength, and courage. And that is the show we deserved, if not the one we needed.

Louis Skye

Louis Skye

A writer at heart with a fondness for well-told stories, Louis Skye is always looking for a way to escape the planet, whether through comic books, films, television, books, or video games. E always has an eye out for the subversive and champions diversity in media. Louis' podcast, Stereo Geeks, is available on all major platforms. Pronouns: E/ Er/ Eir