Gotham's Joker twist: The pros and cons

In just the third chapter of its sophomore season, last week’s episode of Gotham proved that its title, “The Last Laugh,” was poetically eponymous. Ever since a key episode last season, we have been getting to know the grinning, cackling killer named Jerome Valeska (Cameron Monaghan). He was a figure we (with no subtlety) were led to believe had a destiny locked in to become Batman’s definitive nemesis, the Joker. However, in a twist that could have made M. Night Shyamalan soil his unsold novelty The Last Airbender drawers, the unkillable, buzzworthy character who the cast has been calling a “Proto Joker” got himself killed!

With all of Gotham City watching his fundraiser-hijacking homicidal spectacle on live television, the setup of our would-be nascent Clown Prince of Crime’s grandiose joke was met with a definitively disruptive heckle by way of what Shakespeare famously called “the most unkindest cut of all.” Unbeknownst to the spastic, sadistic spiller of crimson, a key component of the sinister grand plan made with his demented new father figure Theo Galavan (James Frain) involved betrayal as Jerome got abruptly stuck like a smiling snitch in the penitentiary chow line, allowing the maniacal mastermind to disingenuously sell himself as Gotham’s new savior.

However, the real story came with the final revelation that the footage of Jerome’s actions transmitted on the news virulently incited random chaotic hooting, howling homicides perpetrated by the mentally malleable. Thus, the seeds for whoever will become the real Joker have been first planted as an insane ideology. Say what you will about the way Jerome’s arc panned out, it was certainly a daring step and a headline-making shocker.

Arguably, from the showrunner’s perspective in wanting the prequel show to maintain its sense of immediacy, the idea of having the frenetically high-impact, bull-in-a-china-shop run of Jerome meet an early end was a smart move. However, as with most daring moves, there are pros and cons that will ultimately result. On that note, we are going over the dual aspects of what the recent “Joker” twist will mean for the future of Gotham.



The show got to have its cake and eat it.

The idea of Gotham introducing the Joker was narratively problematic from the start, since his creation was traditionally depicted as being the direct result of Batman’s presence. While that dynamic failed to stop the show when it came to the chronologically premature introduction of other high-profile Batman characters like Harvey Dent, who is seen already struggling internally with his Two-Face persona, the idea of having the genuine Joker show up, mirthfully murdering folks, at this point in the timeline still made little sense, and there would be very little growth left for the character to experience.

While still early in its run, the lifespan of Gotham may never actually allow it to get far enough down the timeline to get to young Bruce Wayne donning the cape and cowl as Batman, much less tackle the origin of the real Joker. Thus, by having the Jerome storyline play out the way it did, the show gets to at least explore and acknowledge the Joker character in an abstract manner. From the showrunners’ perspective, that might be better than nothing.

Cameron Monaghan won’t have to top himself.

When we first met the Jerome Valeska character during the tail end of Season 1 in Episode 16, “The Blind Fortune Teller,” the confession of the seemingly pitiable young carny of murdering his abuse-enabling snake dancer mother yielded one of the more profound moments of the series when the seemingly grief-stricken young man suddenly raised his head, brandishing an all-too-familiar Cheshire grin and went “full Joker,” cackling away so hard you could almost see the unmistakable comic-book “HAHAHAHA” banners in the background. In that moment, with a surprisingly brilliant performance, Cameron Monaghan seemed to have answered one of the most gaping questions that wondered when the Joker would show his sinister smiling face.

However, as intense and unforgettable as that moment became, it also seemed that Gotham was making the all-too-easy prequel mistake of getting WAY ahead of itself. Indeed, as we saw the further post “coming out” exploits of Jerome with fellow members of the Maniax after their liberation from Arkham Asylum, the show seemingly placed itself in the rather bittersweet quandary of having a fully realized Joker, minus any origin tied to Batman. What could the prequel series, or, for that matter, Cameron Monaghan do after unveiling the proverbial main event so early in its run? Thus, as Theo Galavan’s post-kill meta-aimed quote implicated, “He was never going to last long.” 

The Joker’s ambiguity has been restored.

Part of what gives the Joker more of an exceptional mystique than most members of the Batman rogues gallery is the ambiguity of his motivations. While Alan Moore exercised the power of retroactive continuity to give Joker a tragic everyman background in 1988’s seminal comic-book work, The Killing Joke, the essence of that origin story was rooted in the effect of his transformation and the rather abrupt 180-degree turn in his personality. In an instant, he went from a struggling spouse to a deranged leaf riding the winds of chaos.

By radical contrast, in Gotham, for all of Jerome’s demented sadistic morality, his apparent transformation from being a victim of abuse is completely contradictory to the quintessence of the Joker. If Jerome had been the real Joker, it would mean that the show sacrilegiously made him (slightly) relatable and sacrificed the villainous icon’s traditional ties to Batman. Even Heath Ledger’s mysterious origin-less version of the Joker in The Dark Knight was explained (at the end of Batman Begins) as being the direct product of “escalation” from Batman’s ominous fear-based heroics. Thus, Gotham dodged quite the thematic bullet with Jerome’s demise.  



No more Cameron Monaghan.

The most obvious reason against the Jerome death is that Gotham will move forward without any more killer performances by Cameron Monaghan. Criticism about how the show handled its “Proto Joker” aside, Monaghan was absolutely compelling in his role of Jerome, coming across as an intriguing hybrid of Heath Ledger’s homicidal, erratically muddled Joker and the playful, almost boyish resonance of Mark Hamill’s equally legendary vocal portrayal of the Joker in Batman: The Animated Series. Despite the anachronisms of his backstory, Monaghan was a worthy Joker ... until he turned out not to be the Joker.

In fact, while the Maniax storyline had an irreverent air of Batman ’66 kitsch to the group villainy, there did seem to be a slight shift in acceptance among some of the more recalcitrant comic-book purists who never missed an opportunity to rip on the show, and it seemed to be attributed to Monaghan’s powerful performances. Unfortunately, any goodwill achieved on that front ceased the moment Theo Galavan made his own proverbial pencil “disappear” into Jerome’s neck.

It diminishes the most iconic villain of all time.

Understandably, an influx of postmortem interviews from the show’s creative forces arrived the morning after the airing of “The Last Laugh,” attempting to explain the meaning behind its rather vexing turn of events. After referring to Jerome’s quasi-Joker legacy as a “cultural mien,” series creator, Bruno Heller told Deadline:

“The creation of the Joker is a larger and more epic story than people realize, and this show is very much about kind of the deep, secret history. So, as the show rolls on, people will see how a mythology is born, how a kind of cultural mien is created that will lead us to the Joker himself.”

From a storytelling standpoint, Heller actually make a good point. In fact, it’s not the first instance throughout the various Batman continuities of the Joker becoming a legacy, with the future-set 1999-2001 animated series Batman Beyond portraying a criminal gang inspired by the long-retired Clown Prince of Crime called “The Jokerz.” Plus a 2011 meme-centric storyline in the alternate universe Batman and Robin comic series saw the brief emergence of a similarly cackling Joker-like figure who cut off his own lips to leave a gummy “smile” called “The Man Who Laughs,” which was a direct nod to the 1928 German silent film of the same name that originally inspired the Joker’s look and persona.

However, with Jerome having started this lethal legacy of laughter in the Gotham continuity, it still leaves the genuine Joker (who we may never see) as a glorified copycat and a potential glazed-eyed imitator straight out of an episode of The Following. While the idea behind this twist was made with the intent to be daring and original, it nevertheless leaves our still-nameless and -faceless would-be Clown Prince of Crime as an artist who traced his masterwork from someone else’s sketchbook.

The show has already been down this route.

Executive producer Danny Cannon (emphasis on the extra “n”) told EW that the Joker “isn’t so much a single person as he is an ideology.” To a rabid fan community, those could be fighting words. Yet, as with Heller’s comments, there is a narrative artfulness to that idea, and Cannon’s comment may even reflect the aspect I discussed when it comes to Gotham “being able to have its cake and eat it” when it comes to tackling a character in the Joker who might be unfeasible for the prequel show on paper.

Unfortunately, besides the negative impact the Jerome twist could have on the genuine Joker, there is also the aspect of repetition, since Gotham already has depicted storylines in the same “not a person, but an ideology” wheelhouse. In Season 1, Episode 6, “Spirit of the Goat,” Gordon and Bullock chased an apparent copycat of a masked serial killer who Bullock shot dead earlier in his career. As the mystery unfolded, it turned out that the killer, the Spirit of the Goat continued to exist as an imbued persona emulating the original by attempting to murder the firstborn children of Gotham’s rich elite. This was revealed to be the work of a bitter, twisted therapist who was hypnotizing her patients into believing they were the Spirit of the Goat.

Additionally, there is the head-scratching turn last season of having Jim Gordon’s sweetheart and presumed would-be Batgirl baby-mama, Barbara Kean (Erin Richards), experience the worst case of Stockholm syndrome ever to quickly become a raving, parricidal murderess. Besides implying that her captor/tormentor lives on through her, it also plays to the same bleak, hypochondriacally charged theme that a raving, nihilistic killer lurks inside all of us. While Gotham needs to carry somewhat of a dark aura in its Batman universe setting, this issue, which is once again timely, thanks to the recent news headlines, is not something that needed to be revisited.

That’s my humble analysis on Gotham’s rather shocking script flip. What did you think of the twist? Dance with the devil in the pale moonlight down in the comment section and let us know!

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