Even after taking a few days to process the surprising conclusion of this week’s episode of Gotham, the shock still hasn’t worn off. The death of one of the show’s most compelling characters is unexpected and baffling, yet at the same time cultivates a great sense of anticipation and excitement for the future of the denizens of Gotham City. Especially given that we’re losing the menacing and thrillingly twisted Jerome (Cameron Monaghan) so early in the season, my hope is that it means the writers have something even more spectacular planned for the weeks ahead.
While everyone saw Jerome as the most likely candidate to become the Joker, it’s true that part of the appeal of The Joker is his distinct lack of an established backstory. The mystery surrounding the Joker’s history and motivations is one that perhaps should remain shrouded. Even if, as Bullock notes, “Every evil bastard in the world was just a kid once” — and today’s audiences do sometimes empathize with villains as complex, misunderstood, relatable characters with tragic pasts — there’s still something to be said for a villain who is purely villainous. What’s so terrifying about the Joker is the fact that he has no need for an understandable motivation or a bad childhood to justify his heinous acts.
Yet with Jerome, we do get some backstory, as he explains the abuse he suffered as a child while confronting his father, a blind fortune teller who predicts that his son’s legacy for Gotham will be “death and madness”. A brief moment of vulnerability complicates Jerome’s character still further, and while human empathy leads viewers to want to learn more about his past and why he is the way he is, the idea of Jerome as the Joker — a villain who worships chaos for no other reason than finding it funny — becomes less and less compelling. Instead, watching the media frenzy surrounding the hostage situation at the charity gala, including some of Jerome’s last recorded messages, it’s the ordinary citizens of Gotham who start to catch his contagious laugh, opening up a world of possibilities for who might ultimately step forward as the Joker.
In the end, Theo Galavan (James Frain) may have misjudged Jerome, whom he admits was a compelling character, but whom he’d written off as “limited”. Barbara (Erin Richards), on the other hand, emerges as both perceptive and capable, pointing out that “the kid had a way about him”, and holding her own on the stage as more than just an assistant to either Jerome or Galavan. It’s clear that Barbara is the new star pupil, but will Galavan use her and then throw her aside just as he did with Jerome? Will he even be able to, or is Barbara too clever and manipulative?
Barbara also predicts that she and Jim (Ben McKenzie) will be together again soon because they are “the same”: they both have “a dark side”. Given that Jim has been consistently pushing away Lee (Morena Baccarin) despite her wit, beauty, and strength, it would certainly be interesting to see what it would take to push him back to Barbara, even after all she’s done. Let’s hope that the writers of Gotham are bold enough to take him that far, so we can see what it would look like to have a Jim Gordon who has let himself fully succumb to the darkness and madness of Gotham City.
The rest of this week’s episode pales in comparison to the surprising and devastating blow of Jerome’s death, filled with Alfred’s (Sean Pertwee) uncomfortable attempts to flirt with Lee, and Jim’s brooding, moping, and righteous anger after the death of Commissioner Sarah Essen (Zabryna Guevara). The episode offers foreshadowing of some developments for Jim, who gives into darker and more violent investigative techniques, including torturing and throwing a man out a second-story window, in his obsessive quest to avenge Essen’s death. At the same time, his natural leadership abilities start to come to the forefront in the vacuum left by the former commissioner, but even these steps toward his future are rather formulaic and mechanical.
Adding to the procedural structure of “The Last Laugh”, the repeated, even incessant references to a magician’s performance at the fancy charity event are so overdone that it’s impossible to miss the hint that we should expect some kind of twist. So when Barbara and Jerome take the stage in “disguises”, the obliviousness of the charity gala’s attendees is simply frustrating for viewers. Overall, this episode’s pacing is extremely slow, crawling at a snail’s pace instead of steadily building to the climactic finale.
We do at least learn a bit more about Theo Galavan’s plans and motivations. He claims that his family built Gotham City but their legacy was lost, and his desire is to “reclaim what’s theirs.” It still seems a rather flimsy incentive for his theatrical schemes, setting up the criminally insane as villains just so he can emerge as the hero Gotham wants. Moreover, for someone so concerned with stagecraft, Galavan’s performance as the bold, righteous hero who stands up to the twisted magician holding Gotham’s elite hostage is rather contrived. His puffed-up speechifying is complete with the classic assertion that “there is some human decency left” in the villain, resulting in a monologue is clichéd and frankly, as Barbara says, “boring”.
Now that such a compelling character as Jerome is gone, it’s hopeful that the show will turn its attention back to Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor), who carried the show through its first season but has been somewhat neglected in season two. We do at least glimpse his reactions to the events that played out this episode, as he discerningly comments that Jerome is more interested in “chaos for chaos’ sake”, tearing things down than building an empire, which is the self-proclaimed King of Gotham’s goal. While the “tradition” the Penguin speaks of is rooted in organized crime, we’re still waiting to see how he’s building his version of structured chaos for Gotham, as this ruthless ruler also inevitably slips into insanity.
Despite the fact that prior to the episode’s pivotal climax, the narrative is bland and slow, with little by way of significant plot or character development, “The Last Laugh” is a must-see episode for Gotham viewers, at least for its last 10 minutes.