When Dr. Harleen Quinzel first started psychoanalyzing the murderous lunatic calling himself the Joker, she thought she could understand him. Instead, the Joker’s madness was so great that merely by trying to comprehend him, she went mad as well. And I am 99% sure Gotham is doing the exact same thing to me.
Seriously, this show is bonkers, and I don’t even mean that as a positive or negative value judgment. I mean this show doesn’t make any sense on any level, least of all how the show somehow seems to be getting better. This is the third eminently watchable episode of Gotham in a row, and honestly it may be the best of the show’s run so far.
This is not to say Gotham doesn’t still have aspects that seem like the showrunners want to punish Batman fans and TV viewers alike. This is a show where the last honorable cop in Gotham throws multiple people out of windows; where Alfred completely ignores his orphaned charge in order to flirt with Gordon’s girlfriend; where the bad guys’ devious plan is to send Jerome into a children’s hospital event in a magician disguise even Batman ’66 would roll its eyes at, followed by big, bad Theo Galavan giving a big, televised speech about Gotham standing up to “these villains” where James Frain is intentionally acting like he’s badly acting, and yet every character in Gotham is fooled.
This should be unwatchable, and I’m sure for a lot of people it is. But for me, I’m as mesmerized as Dr. Quinzel, trying to understand a show that makes no sense at all.
“The Last Laugh” begins with Gordon and Bullock determined to find Jerome and avenge Essen’s death, again by tossing criminals who don’t give them answers out windows. Our hero, everyone! Meanwhile, Galavan puts the final stage of act one of his grand plan into action, beginning with pinning Jerome and the Maniax’s jailbreak on his dad, the Blind Old Fortuneteller of last season. Gordon and Bullock, after some uncustomary police work, manage to track down the dad just as Jerome puts a dagger in his eye, and then uses a bit of gas to knock the two detectives out. Tigress, who had accompanied Jerome, prevents the lad from killing Gordon, as he seems to be part of Theo’s plan. This may just be a gift to Barbara, but we’ll see.
The episode’s main event is at the Children’s Hospital, where of course Leslie Thompkins is hosting, Bruce and Alfred are attending, and even Cat makes her first real appearance, looking for stuff to steal from all the rich attendees. Bruce chases Selina, who blows him off; Bruce pouts and wants to leave, and Alfred completely ignores his employer’s wishes all so he can flirt with Leslie, which adds more credence to my theory that in the world of Gotham, Bruce Wayne’s greatest enemy is his asshole butler.
This is when Jerome arrives as the obviously fake back-up magician Rodolfo, with Barbara in disguise as his assistant. No one is at all concerned about the arrival of an uncredited replacement magician showing up at a major fundraiser; no one notices that Jerome’s goatee is absurdly fake, or that his threats move immediately from the veiled to the unbelievably obvious. In fact, Gotham doesn’t even let its characters pretend to notice his magical tricks are all old and clichéd, as the attendees clap uproariously after he produced a flower out of a handkerchief.
After a lengthy, painful series of “tricks” and “jokes” (including Alfred forcing Bruce Wayne to the stage as a “volunteer” so Jerome can cut him in half—good watching out, Al!) Babs’ mask falls off, Lee recognizes her, Jerome tosses a knife into the deputy mayor, and a hostage situation begins—as well as Theo’s big plan. With TV cameras rolling—because why wouldn’t local Gotham TV be airing a children’s hospital fundraiser on live TV—Theo stands up to Jerome, saying the good citizens of Gotham won’t be bullied any more. I can’t describe to you what it’s like to watch James Frain, who is a very good actor and who can play villains in his sleep, act like a person who is trying to act but is bad at it, but it’s actually genuinely impressive to watch. Eventually, Barbara knocks him out as Jerome demands Bruce return to the stage as his first victim.
At this point, Gordon, who had still been recovering from the gas, arrives at the event to discover a hostage situation. When he sees Cat fleeing the scene, he finds a secret entrance that allows him inside just as Bruce gets ready to give himself over to Jerome, before he can kill Alfred in his stead. Gordon slips Bruce a gun, Bruce slips it to Alfred, Alfred and Gordon start firing, and it all ends with Jerome holding a knife to Bruce’s throat to the point of drawing blood.
And that’s when Theo Galavan grabs Jerome and stabs him in the neck with a knife.
Yes, Theo betrays Jerome, the proto-Joker, and kills the star of Gotham’s season 2. Obviously, this is a major status quo change in a lot of ways for Gotham, and has major ramifications for how it will portray the proto-version of Batman’s greatest foe. But we’ll delve into that in a second; for now, Theo Galavan is a hero not just to the people of Gotham, but to Gordon, Bruce, Alfred, and Leslie.
Now, reading all this, it may sound insane to you, but I can assure you it absolutely was not boring, which was Gotham’s most frequent crime during season one. But what sets “Last Laugh” above the first two episodes of the season are the scenes in between the Batman ’66 silliness and the ridiculous violence—good scenes where the characters start having three dimensions.
Seriously! I mentioned last week how Ben McKenzie’s Gordon had improved, and now that he’s haunted by Essen’s death, he seems to finally have proper justification for his dark side. But then, there’s also the scene between Gordon and Leslie when she tells him about the children’s hospital event (and the magician!), and she cracks through his anger and guilt and the two seems to have actual chemistry for the first time ever. The scene between Gordon and Bucllok, recovering from the gas in the police HQ together, where they talk with genuine concern for the other, like actual partners instead of mere co-workers. And, in my favorite scene of the entire episode, when Gordon tries to stop Bruce from potentially sacrificing himself to save Alfred, and Bruce goes out anyways—and Gordon has such a look on his face that I realized that maybe it’s going to be Bruce Wayne who inspires Jim Gordon to overcome his dark side and be the hero Gotham needs.
That’s not the story I expected from Gotham, ever, but it is kind of awesome, and it turns Gotham’s biggest problem—Gordon wants to clean up the city, but he’s willing to compromise all his morals in order to do so—and set him on what may be an actual journey. That’s amazing!
And then, because Gotham is Gotham, it decides to end what may be its best episode with one of its stupidest scenes ever: As the TVs replay Jerome’s various reigns of terror, various red-headed people across Gotham begin laughing maniacally and occasionally murdering hoboes.
Yes, Jerome’s legacy is the Joker legacy; he helps inspire the Joker. But apparently the first step to that is magically turning the gingers of Gotham City into psychopaths for no apparent reason whatsoever. It’s a dumber ending for Jerome than I could have possibly imagined.
And again, this happens in what I think may be Gotham’s best episode. I don’t understand this show. I’m not sure I ever will. But god help me, I think I’m really starting to enjoy it.
• And there are so many little shining moments, too! Babs tells Tigress to “Bring back bagels” before she leaves to go murder someone. Galavan tells Babs “Nice cape!” The silly-to-the-point-of-actually-being-funny mentions of the magician, as if his arrival was the most important cultural event of the year. Line of the night goes to the Penguin, watching Jerome on TV and getting irked at all the attention he’s receiving: “Maybe I should get a new laugh.”
• Theo promises Barbara that they’ll destroy Gordon, but Babs tells Leslie that she and Jim are going to get back together because they both share a dark side, which is an actually true thing. Anyways, as long as Barbara doesn’t suddenly have a change of heart and try to be good again, I’ll simply accept she’s bonkers.
• Gordon uncharacteristically asks Lee to kiss him after the crisis, all so Alfred can see she’s spoken for. Alfred’s response: “Aw, bugger,” and then to berate Bruce, as if it was somehow his fault. I am suspicious Frank Miller is secretly writing Alfred on this show.
• When Barbara escaped from the stage through the disappearing woman trick, I literally laughed out loud.
• Look, I may well be grading Gotham on a curve, having been forced to watch season two of The Strain each night before Gotham airs. Anything would look good next to The Strain. That show is mercifully over, so we’ll see how Gotham stacks up next week.
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