Robert Tiemstra ’16 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
“Your legacy will be death and madness.”
To longtime followers of Emertainment Monthly’s Gotham coverage — and the related struggle with the television equivalent of Stockholm syndrome that our reviewer went through – it is easy to imagine just how unlikely the following sentence is – “The Last Laugh” takes dramatic risks that Gotham season one couldn’t even dream of, much less execute. For the first time since the creators pitched the series, it looks like the writers are starting to realize that the only way their series will improve is if they take risks that wouldn’t be possible with Batman in the picture. Season one of Gotham felt like it was struggling to tell Batman’s story without the caped crusader ever appearing, but this season cuts a thrilling new path away from the Bat. For the first time the show is unpredictable. How novel.
In the season two premiere, Theo Galavan (James Frain) was something of a non-entity – A billionaire who wanted to pull the criminals of Gotham into a well-financed goon squad named The Maniax. However, this episode reveals that his plan for Gotham City is more nuanced and well thought out than any the previous villains have yet to offer. As a billionaire, he restores a sociological imbalance that the Batman universe has held for years. In previous Batman works, the rich are either corrupt and lazy or heroic victims of the parade of lowlifes who really ran Gotham City. With the introduction of Theo Galavan, fans get to see a more sinister possibility: the rich as players who use the villains and heroes of Gotham as pawns to win over the city’s soul. The ideological battle is no longer about a rich man beating up mentally disturbed paupers, but is rather a moral cop fighting a social system where psychopaths thrive. This is the sort of change that removing Batman from the Batman universe should be able to achieve. Well played, John Stephens, well played.
The Maniax reign of terror last episode culminated in a shooting at GCPD headquarters, leaving the police commissioner and several officers dead. It picks up here for the third episode; James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) and Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) pick up the pieces and pursue mad dog Jerome Valeska (Cameron Monaghan), a character the series has been teasing as the future Joker with a constant barrage of visual and audible cues. It is tempting to call “The Last Laugh” Jerome’s episode because he is the central figure in its plot, but this is an episode so alive with nuances that he never really becomes a true scene-stealer. He borrows scenes with ample menace and flourish, but characters like Barbara Kean (Erin Richards) and Tabitha Galavan (Jessica Lucas) always hover in the sidelines to jump in and demonstrate — through banter and surprisingly well-thought out interplay — why the Maniax are more compelling than the average rogue’s gallery.
But let’s stop beating around the bush: the big moment of the episode is when Jerome is killed on stage by Theo Galavan, who is pretending to be a hero to endear himself to the people of Gotham City. For a writing staff so averse to taking risks that they actively saved every established character from demise in season one, killing off the potential Joker is undeniably shocking. Even more shocking is the fiendish glee that the series displays while he’s being thanked by every one of the main characters who remain oblivious to his sinister motivations. Jerome dies with a fiendish smile on his face, never looking more like the Joker than when he’s lying on a slab in the morgue. This is dramatic irony at its best, folks, enjoy it while it lasts. For once, Gotham isn’t treating the villains it establishes as sacred cows that they must save for Batman later, and it is exhilarating to imagine the possibilities if every character with a trademark on their name is equally as disposable as this red herring. Jerome’s legacy as depicted at the end of this episode might ring a little false because he was only marginally more quirky than any other psychopath we’ve seen so far, but his appeal is nicely captured as The Penguin/Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor) while watching him muses, “I should try a new laugh.”
Make no mistake here, this is still Gotham; a more confident plot, less jarring tone, and genuinely shocking plot twists do not excuse a few of the traditional problems this show has. Characters still seem stilted at times, the dialogue is corny to the limit, unsure about how gritty it can be before it stops being kid friendly, and some character moments still don’t feel quite earned. Everything in this series remains as broad as ever, for better and worse. The excessive campiness that pervaded earlier episodes has fallen out of focus, but it is still just beneath the surface, ready to jump back up if it is needed again. At this point, if we weren’t optimists about this series’ prospects, we should put an asterisk after every praise given to this show, adding something like *by Gotham Standards. That said, it seems this series is distancing itself more and more from “Gotham Standards” as it moves along, as indicated by the startlingly concise opening scene.
Much like the season thus far, this episode starts with a surprising amount of purpose and builds to a quite unexpected, but deliciously satisfying, payoff. A great plot point in a TV series will make a viewer want to immediately watch the next episode, and “The Last Laugh” accomplishes that task in spades. This is the best we’ve seen of Gotham in a long time because it seems after twenty-four episodes, they’re finally learning to play to their strengths. Just how big a game changer this plot twist will prove remains up in the air — perhaps the fact that it happened in a show like Gotham is more noteworthy than the twist itself — but for the moment at least, audiences are gripped tight by this fist made of money, power, and deception.
“To me, you’ll always be that little umbrella boy.”
Episode Grade: A-