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In Gotham Season 4, Batman Finally Begins

A Dark Knight rises

Alexander Zalben

There's an episode in the eighth season of The Simpsons where the animated show within a show (within a show), "The Itchy & Scratchy Show," airs a landmark episode introducing a new character named Poochie. The Simpsons clan and friends all gather around the television to watch the episode; and it starts true to form, with the cartoon cat and mouse -- who are a more exaggerated form of Tom and Jerry -- driving to a fireworks factory. They pass signs that say "Fireworks Factory, 2 Miles," then one mile, then half a mile... And then they're interrupted by Poochie, who proceeds to start rapping about his name ("The name's Poochie D, and I rock the telly. I'm half-Joe Camel, and a third Fonzarelli"). Cutting back to the "real" world, Bart's best friend Milhouse pounds the floor with his fist, and whines, "when are they going to get to the fireworks factory?" before bursting into tears.

In Season 4 of Gotham, they finally get to the fireworks factory.

Not Itchy & Scratchy, mind you. They never get to the fireworks factory. But watching FOX's Batman origin series the past three seasons, for some fans, has felt akin to that Simpsons scene: knowing that this show is about Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) before he dons the cape and cowl, the feeling was that the show would end before we'd see Batman; or worse, get canceled first.

Personally, I haven't always felt that push. Bruce's story has often been a sideshow (sometimes literally) to the main action of Gotham, which very quickly became all about the villains. And even more rapidly, it became clear that Gotham wasn't playing by the rules of established Batman continuity when they killed off Sarah Essen (Zabryna Guevara), a character who decidedly had more to do... At least according to the comics.

The show moved on and continued to find its footing, and it became a delightful mix of arch performances and over the top action, with some deliciously soapy character plots mixed in. But as the villains embraced their destinies, from Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith) becoming The Riddler to the intros of Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy and more, Bruce Wayne's slow journey became all the more glaring.

Bruce and Selina's Relationship Will Be "More Like the Comic Books" in Gotham Season 4

While Mazouz's performance has grown in leaps and bounds worthy of a superhero, Bruce's trip to becoming Gotham City's caped crusader has been agonizingly slow. Season 1: I'm sad about my parents dying! Season 2: Maybe I should be a detective, sort of? Season 3: I don't know, should I learn how to punch and leap rooftops? Thankfully, the second half of Season 3 sped things up considerably, jettisoning the canon Batman timeline -- Bruce, just past his teens, spends years traveling the world and training before returning to Gotham, ready for some dark vengeance -- in favor of a sped up training arc that introduced his mentor/antagonist Ra's al Ghul (Alexander Siddig) significantly earlier.

That means that as Season 4 kicks off (the first two episodes were provided early for review), Bruce is Batman in everything but name. Think about how Clark (Tom Welling) was The Blur in the final seasons of Smallville, and you've got the gist. And as much as I've loved following the villains' storylines the past few seasons, watching Batman finally begin is thrilling.

Mind you, he still has a ways to go. Mazouz doesn't have the hulked out physical presence Ben Affleck does in the movies, or the guttural growl of Christian Bale (thankfully, some might say). But seeing Bruce leap into an alley and handily take down a gang of thugs terrorizing innocent Gothamites is so eminently satisfying, it's hard to begrudge the 16-year-old Mazouz that he still might have a few inches of growing left to go. And without getting into spoilers, there's an iconic Batman moment that happens for the first time halfway through the season premiere that made me clap with delight.

New Gotham Teaser Introduces Bruce Wayne's Batsuit

That's not to say the villains (or other heroes) are forgotten. Robin Lord Taylor's Penguin is also embracing his destiny in a big way, and the Purge-esque twist he brings with him allows the versatile actor abundant room to play. A more traditional twist on classic villain Scarecrow appears, and works as a neat physical metaphor for the fears Gotham City continues to face. Ben McKenzie's still, sadly, mustache-less James Gordon is back to being good cop to the rest of the Gotham City Police Department's bad cop -- which ditches the fun, dark Gordon who came out in Season 3; but also grants a moral clarity to the character that's been a long time coming. And Donal Logue's earnestly corrupt Harvey Bullock, as well as Sean Pertwee's wry, trusty butler Alfred are consistently even presences in the first two episodes.

But the bad women of Gotham are where the show really shines. The series figured out early that keeping characters like Barbara Kean (Erin Richards) pining after their man in an apartment was extremely less interesting than what happens when all the ladies are together. This frequent mix of characters that's populated the past few seasons has delivered some of the best character work on the show, as Camren Bicondova's Selina Kyle has shifted alliances, slowly learning her way towards becoming Catwoman; or Kean and Tabitha Galavan (Jessica Lucas) have struck up a complex romance that stacks as one the most fascinating on the show. This season is no different, and suffice to say that once a key character returns from the "dead" with a new lease on life, those complex and rewarding dynamics continue to grow in dramatically satisfying and surprising ways.

Ultimately, though, villains are only as good as the hero who tries to stop them. And finally -- finally! -- Gotham has the hero it deserves, and the one it needs right now. This season may be all about how the Dark Knight rises, but once Bruce starts clashing with his now established rogues gallery it has the potential to make Gotham one of the most exhilarating shows on TV.

Bring on the fireworks.

Gotham returns Thursday, Sept. 21 at 8/7c on Fox.