GOTHAM: THE PRIMAL RIDDLE
We go into the final Gotham Season Four episodes rushing towards epic confrontations: between Penguin and the Unholy Alliance of Barbara/Tabitha/Butch and Ed Nygma, between Jim Gordon and the Court of Owls, and between Bruce and whoever the Shaman is building him up for. The Primal Riddle gives us more wild turns, rather outlandish villains, and a bit of wry humor.
Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor) and his newest girl Friday, Ivy Pepper (Maggie Geha) are now about to form their own Union of Freaks so Pengy can strike back at all his enemies. He finds two completely different figures in Dr. Victor Fries aka Mr. Freeze (Nathan Darrow), who has a smoking hot body for a cold guy, and Brigit aka Firefly (Camila Perez), who has the power of fire.
Talk about a Song of Ice and Fire...
Penguin forms his group and begins to plot revenge, and when he sees Edward Nygma with the newly christened name of 'Riddler' (Cory Michael Smith) he is not amused by it, wisecracking how long did it take him to come up with that name.
Riddler, for his part, has become obsessed to find out who is controlling Gotham City itself. He becomes more and more outlandish, I daresay, camp, in order to find out this mystery. He crashes a Hamlet performance and abducts Mayor Aubrey James (Richard Kind) in a wildly elaborate manner to cajole the mysterious 'Court' to reveal themselves (he's not aware of the Owls bit).
Aiding Riddler is Barbara Kean, lovingly known here as Bonkers Babs (Erin Richards), who wants to know who is above her. Tabitha (Jessica Lucas) her partner/partner, is wary of all this and dislikes Nygma and his ridiculous braggadocio, but Babs seems to have a soft spot for him, or at least, trying to play a long game.
Meanwhile, Faux Bruce (David Mazouz) is dying, but at least he knows his work for the Court will be done and the Real Bruce will return by the time he's kaput. The Court has something wicked in mind, but Faux Bruce wants to save Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova). Selina, despite her anger at Bruce, knows that Faux Bruce could not be the real Bruce because the real Bruce, for all his flaws, would want to save everyone, not just one. Faux Bruce tells her he will stop her. When she asks how, he responds by pushing her out the window. It looks like Selina is dead, but soon, cats start converging on her.
Gordon manages to outwit The Riddler, much to Ed and later Babs' irritation. He takes Nygma to The Court, and The Court finally inducts James Gordon among their ranks.
The Primal Riddle has some surprising humor within its dark walls. When Penguin and his cohorts in crime arrive at his estate, we can see that Fire and Ice do not mix well, each making comments about the other. As Penguin looks on his defaced portrait, Mr. Freeze almost innocently says, "There's a question mark on your face," the double meaning amusing. Pengy's retort, "You can sleep in the freezer," makes it funnier.
Earlier, Pengy offers to kill Firefly's boss to sweeten the deal of her joining forces, and Taylor delivers this offer in such an almost endearing manner it makes this more amusing.
I think it's the acting that really elevates The Primal Riddle. We got Taylor's performance, mixing a touch of comedy with snide sarcasm (his views on his protege's name). The lion's share of the success comes from Smith, vamping and camping it up to the Nth degree. It's almost as if with his new persona of 'The Riddler', he has embraced such an outlandish, over-the-top characterization that he cannot help himself. From his lair which looks like a disco on meth to his Hamlet crashing, with wild hand gestures and exaggerated speechifying, The Riddler is almost deliberately obnoxious, and Smith pushes him to heights of camp that only a supervillain can get away with. From his awareness of his outlandishness to his pet names for his adversaries ('Foxy' and 'Jimbo'), Smith's so wild that it makes for fascinating viewing.
The Primal Riddle also helps in McKenzie's portrayal of Gordon. In his facing off against The Riddler, we can see that Gordon is remarkably shrewd and intelligent, aware of where the weakness of his adversaries are. At least they didn't blow up Mayor James' head, but how he disarms The Riddler's wild plan showcases Gordon's brightness, something all Gotham villains may not be prepared for. His scenes with the equally strong Smith were a highlight of the episode, Bicondova/Mazouz being the other.
It also throws in an homage to Batman Returns when we see poor Selina apparently dead, surrounded by cats. It does veer dangerously close to repeating that somewhat offbeat method of reviving the dead, but whether it was a deliberate misdirect or an homage I leave up to the viewer.
Bicondova and Mazouz continue to be among the best younger actors, their scene having the pathos of tortured love along with a really unexpected twist when Bruce pushes Selina out the window. This is the rare time when Selina is genuinely caught off-guard, so off-guard that her cat-like skills fail her. With Faux Bruce, Mazouz makes his concern for Selina along with his acceptance of his impending death real, almost heartbreaking.
While guest stars Darrow and Perez don't have as much as I would have liked them to have had, the fact that Freeze and Firefly have returned bodes well. I do confess at how well Darrow looks. This ain't the exaggerated Schwarzenegger body or the pudgy looks of Eli Wallach/George Sanders/Otto Preminger Mr. Freezes.
I do hope that future Gotham episodes make good use of Darrow. I also hope Perez's Firefly gets more than her few moments, for it's hard to give a solid basis on how well she's do based on what we saw. The fact that it's not the same actress doesn't make things easier, though the transition from Michelle Ventimiglia to Camila Perez is not a dealbreaker.
Gotham also will wrap up the Barbara/Tabitha/Butch story, one of if not the strangest menage a trois ever, and give a satisfying conclusion to the Unholy Alliance of Babs and Riddly.
With its strong performances, wry humor, and shocking moments (along with a surprising lack of graphic violence not counting the poor Hamlet actor's stabbing and uncharacteristically bad puns from Donal Logue's Harvey Bullock), The Primal Riddle is another standout for a strong Gotham season. Smith's camp take on Riddler did veer a bit close to the bad Jim Carrey take from Batman Forever (I still think Frank Gorshin's version is the best, with CMS in second), but those are minor points.
Next Episode: Light the Wick