Those out there well-versed in the rules of chess (not me) or who have simply taken hallucinogens and watched the 2005 Ted Danson-starring chess-drama Knights of the South Bronx (me, twice) know that the tile of Gotham’s Fall Finale—”Queen Takes Knight”—is perfect for several reasons. For one thing, newly-crowned Queen of Gotham, Sofia Falcone, takes the city’s resident knight, Jim Gordon, something fierce; by episode’s end, the crime daughter turned crime boss certainly has the GCPD captain’s brass, justice-loving testicles in a vice. For another, there isn’t a more perfect chess piece to describe Jim Gordon. A knight will knock your ass off the board but he has to ride his horse willy-nilly all over the place first, two steps forward and one to the side instead of just, you know, straight. That’s Jim, always, always making his own life harder despite his best intentions. But—and this is important—that title gives this bummer of an episode a subtle, hopeful undertone. “Queen takes knight” is not, by itself, a winning move. As long as Jim Gordon is alive, breathing, and remembering to take his blood pressure medication…by Grodd, there’s a chance for this city yet.
Of course, this episode did its best to highlight the fact that Gotham City is where hope goes to get shot at a fundraising gala, starting with the war this season has been building toward. As it turns out, this “war” ends up more somewhere between a “petty squabble” and “violent hootananny” that is resolved roughly 15 minutes into the finale, but nevertheless featured some classic Gotham absurdity that I must spotlight. Things kick off with the death of Carmine Falcone; actor slash man-giant John Doman returns as Gotham’s original gangster, only to be gunned down a few minutes later by mysterious thugs in a van. Despite the fact that the number one cause of death for career criminals is being gunned down by mysterious thugs in a van, a number of people—Harvey Bullock included—point the finger of blame at Jim. This is both hilarious and accurate. Most of the awful things that happen on Gotham and also in real life are at least partially Jim Gordon’s fault. When the G train is late there’s people on the platform like, “fucking Jim Gordon.”
Still, all that pressure demands a response, so Jim responds the only way he knows how: Shooting low-level criminals in the face. This, too, is hilarious, because Jim refuses to go after the most likely suspect in Falcone’s murder—Oswald Cobblepot—because of a lack of evidence. You can’t just arrest people, Jim reasons, moments before kicking down a warehouse door and firing his gun at whatever moves first. Eventually, Sofia Falcone tips Jim off to the explosion-death of the mute orphan Martine. Jim listens to the word of the highly-biased daughter of a notorious crime lord and is like, “now that is evidence I can use, baby.” Victor Zsasz, feeling salty from the lack of respect shown to his former boss, backs Sofia’s claim, and Penguin is hauled into the GCPD.
With all that out of the way, a large chunk of the finale is devoted to isolated incidents of character work, none more emotionally taxing than the continued exploits of Alfred Pennyworth and the alcoholic implied-orgy-host Bruce Wayne. We’ve talked about how well David Mazouz and Sean Pertwee work together by this point, but Pertwee is on another level here; he just can’t reach this kid, man, but he can punch him straight in the face, and Pertwee is so great at switching between a flash of desperate anger and immediate what-have-I-done regret. Gotham is a lot like the city of Gotham itself, in that it’s so saturated with bazooka explosions and toxic gassings and monster dismemberment that you almost forget that someone can kill you in a small, normal way. Bruce getting emancipation papers and kicking Alfred out of Wayne Manor was one of those surprising, small knives to the gut.
But enough with that emotional hullabaloo, back to Jim Gordon. Gotham’s final twist before winter hibernation is that everything—the Hog Day Afternoons, the cannibal parties, the back-stabbings, murders, decapitations, everything—has been about Jim. Sofia Falcone was never interested in controlling Gotham City’s underworld; Sofia Falcone was interested in getting revenge for her brother, Mario, who you may remember as the only character in Gotham history who gritted his jaw harder and more often than Jim. (That’s the real reason Jim shot him, I stand by that.) So much so that Sofia Falcone invited surgically altered psychopath Lazlo Valentin to the city to throw Jim off his game, orchestrated a literal war, then had her own father killed as part of a grand scheme to place Jim—and, by extension, the GCPD—firmly in her pocket. That is…a lot, especially considering she probably could have just shown everyone Jim’s Netflix queue. No one is going to trust a guy who rewatches Blue Bloods that often.
There’s a lot to dislike here; for one, Sofia’s plan involves killing Professor Pyg, which means Gotham loses the absolute unfettered delight of Michael Cerveris’ performance. For another, it kind of takes the tracks out from underneath the crazy train that was this season’s first eleven episodes. So much great insanity took place—remember that dude Headhunter?—that the fact it was all orchestrated to perfection by a single person just to fuck with Jim feels a bit cheap. It’s like the disappointment of the most implausible Saw franchise twists mixed with the laziness of a late-era Lost reveal.
But “Queen Takes Knight” was still a great episode of Gotham, because believe it or not this show doesn’t live or die by how cleverly it pulls of twists. That’s like getting mad at a snake for being bad at arm wrestling. No, a great Gotham chapter—like most great examples of comic book storytelling—is about how seamlessly it blends its sky-high campiness with these earned emotional beats that work because beneath the batshit we care about these characters. For this episode, all I can say is this: I felt equally devastated when a lost young man fired the one guiding light in his life as I was when a woman shot a flamboyant pig-obsessed serial killer with a southern accent in the back. Gotham is great because Gotham is…a lot.