Fox’s Gotham closed out the opening salvo of its second season tonight with “The Last Laugh” – a somewhat surprising, mostly satisfying and passably entertaining hour of gonzo super crime TV. Unlike its first season of dead end procedural screw ups, the new Gotham has proven itself willing to go for broke on serialized storytelling and upend the expectations, particularly with its take on pre-Joker nutjob Jerome. But even with those smart revisions, the show still leaves audiences wondering whether it has fully rehabilitated or whether the old version will get some final giggles in.
That struggle to succeed began as always with Jim Gordon and the G.C.P.D. While Jim and his newly reinstated partner Harvey Bullock are still reeling from the bloody attack Jerome perpetrated on police headquarters last week, and they deal with their loss by throwing a bunch of random thugs out a window. That said thugs tend to land in piles of garbage rather than in bloody heaps may blunt the brutality of the act in favor of our “heroes,” but one thing the opening moments can’t get away from is the predictability of the act. Shaking down nameless informants until a lead fell in their lap was Gordon/Bullock 101 last season, and the move constantly disappointed in terms of dramatic tension. Luckily, the show swerved at the last minute with an honest break for the cops that involved no one getting broken: Jerome’s father still lives in town.
One step ahead of our dynamic detectives is the young clown prince himself. With bull whipping assassin Tabitha Galavan riding shotgun, Jerome appears at the apartment of his blind carny father with a knife and a plan. Egged on by his mysteriously villainous benefactor Theo Galavan, the cackling killer sees his name in lights so long as he can turn Gordon off his scent with some well place phony evidence. Meanwhile, his father sees him as an eternal curse on the city. This is the most subtle foreshadowing for a future for Jerome as Batman’s arch nemesis as the show can pull off, but when has Gotham ever been subtle about anything? At least actor Cameron Monaghan is able to keep the laughing schtick entertaining as he stabs his old man in the eye just as Gordon and Bullock arrive. The ensuing fight where the cops are left alive is only the first of many times the viewer gets thrown out of the narrative as they ask, “Why didn’t they just kill him?” this episode. But this early in the game largely driven by Theo’s shadowy scheme, we’ll let it pass.
And anyway, the season’s big bad at least got his moment to shine this week. To date, Theo Galavan’s main motivation has seemed to be “screw things up via expert application of crazy people.” But in his first real mad scientist monologue of the series, actor James Frain pulls off equal parts charming and cunning as he tells Barbara Keane why he has to destroy Gotham from the inside out. As it turns out, the Galavan family built the city in its earliest days but were robbed of credit by the ancestors of the modern metropolis’ wicked elite. The move is a page taken straight out of Batman mastermind Scott Snyder’s playbook, but it’s an effective tease undoubtedly meant to be built on in a Theo origin episode later this year.
With Gordon’s trail running cold, the episode ties its various cops, killers and lukewarm child Bruce Wayne together in that eternal superhero trope: the charity ball overrun by psychopaths. But that setup has remained largely untapped by Gotham so far, and so the series delivers a number of winning moments in what could have otherwise been a dull, oddly Brian Setzer-scored affair. Alfred Pennyworth hitting on Gordon’s girlfriend Leslie Thompkins provided a fun twist to the dynamics of the core cast. And Jerome and Barbara’s takeover of the event’s magic act even made sense with the killer’s circus background – the kind of detail the show usually flubs on its way to an overblown gore fest.
That momentum can’t last out the episode, however, as Jerome’s stage show gives way to some more than awkward and absolutely forced storytelling beats. The madman performs an entire “saw Brucie in half” trick on stage before letting the young celeb go seemingly so that when he starts his real murdering, Master Wayne can have an uncomfortable “hero’s choice” moment with Selina Kyle. And once the slashing starts, Barbara (who’s actually much improved as a pouty nutjob) gets in another round of lifeless “Jim Gordon will be mine, I tell you!” gloating over Leslie. Then when Jerome finally decides that he does want to kill Bruce after all, his nonsensical timing has allowed the boy and the cop to plan a dashing rescue in the wings.
Considering that circuitous path to the final showdown where Jerome holds knife to Bruce’s throat, it’s to the show’s credit that they were able to pull off the episodes big twist: Theo riding in to save the day by stabbing Jerome in the throat. While the death of the would-be Joker was always high on the potential outcome list, that Gotham committed so solidly to ending the life of its most accomplished supporting villain so early is another sign of strength for the season’s long term prospects. Like the killing of Sarah Essen last week, the writers aren’t afraid to tear up the script in order to make the pieces left on the board more interesting. And a big bad who convincingly Xanatos Gambits his way into the hero’s place is far more exciting a prospect than giving the Joker a set in stone origin this early.
The episode wraps with a handful of teasers meant to draw us further into the season. Babs escapes just in time to make a twisted love triable with the siblings Galavant. Gordon remains tight lipped about the emotional toll of his complicity in a Penguin-backed murder. Harvey swears revenge on that same Penguin for his murder of Fish Mooney. And last but certainly not least, Jerome’s cadaverous rictus inspires waves of cackling killers across Gotham – each one a potential Joker in a more convincing manner than the show’s earlier attempts at the same idea.
Most of these storylines bode well for where the rest of Gotham Season 2 will go, but for every improvement the show makes, the specter of its lifeless turd of an opening year hangs. The show has at least gone far enough to prove it can set up a more interesting story than before, but will its payoff end up being the biggest joke of all?
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