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Gotham: Joker twist and its modern relevance

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Nicole Rivelli/Fox

Riddle me this, Gotham fans: When is the Joker not the Joker? When he’s Jerome Valeska (Cameron Monaghan), the cackling, ginger-haired mass murderer that Fox’s baby Bat-verse drama had been grooming as the future the clown prince of crime. Or so it seemed.

In the final act of Gotham’s third episode of season 2, “The Last Laugh,” Jerome was betrayed by Theo Galavan (James Frain), the sinister moneybags who just two weeks ago liberated him and several other lethal loonies from Arkham Asylum. But turning Jerome into Public Enemy No. 1 and then putting down the rabid rogue in spectacular fashion was a means to an end: setting Galavan up as a hero. Jerome died with a jack-o-lantern grin on his blood-smeared lips. Even a fake Joker can appreciate the bitter twist of a killing joke, even when he’s the butt of it.

I detected a wink in Theo’s clipped benediction for his is fallen pawn. “Such a compelling character, but limited,” Galavan told one of his other “Maniax,” Barbara Kean. “He was never going to last long.” I took Theo’s meaning to be that Jerome, a sociopath and agent of chaos, was too radical to be trusted. I took the perceived wink to mean that there was only so much Gotham could do with Joker as intellectual property before running into a problem of brand dilution or confusion: Next year, Warner Bros. will be giving us a bona fide (presumably) new Joker, played by Oscar-winning actor Jared Leto, in the big budget anti-hero wallow Suicide Squad. (I bristle at the thought of shows and movies beholden to “brand” concerns; I bristle even more at the possibility that movies are still considered the main stage for “official” representation.)

But Gotham was smart to toss this (Not) Joker card from its deck. Jerome’s wantonly one-note psycho shtick was getting tedious. And that’s saying something for a show that entertains with one gonzo nihilist after another. I also think Jerome was a poor Joker. The character is a powerful storytelling device and a loaded symbol in the culture, thanks in large part to Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning performance in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. He’s a self-styled chaos agent who lives for the pumped-up kicks of violence and scoring philosophical points about hypocrisy, corruptibility, and society. Indulging him too much for thrills and chills risks glorifying the Joker and cheapening his impact. Jerome’s Joker was trending toward both. (Even the Ledger/Nolan/”Why so serious?” gloss has become a queasy icon, emblazoned on T-shirts and bumper stickers. He’s become a geek pop Che.)

But Jerome’s spirit and everything Jokerish that he represented — the fascination with abomination; the romance of darkness; a chaotic evil response to corrupt society — will linger in Gotham, whether anyone on either side of the screen wants it or not. This was the point of a disturbing coda — the most interesting and provocative Gotham has ever been.

The sequence showed us a number of different young men reacting to breaking news coverage of Jerome’s death. We started with a bald, bearded guy in a hoodie drinking shots and watching TV in a bar. He began to giggle wildly, aping Jerome’s signature laugh. We then cut to a laughing boy sitting in front of the family TV, showing footage of Jerome’s violence at a magic show benefit. We saw shadows of a man and woman on the living room wall — the boy’s parents, presumably — arguing with each other.

We then cut to a pair of 20-something men standing in front of an electronics store, watching televisions showing footage of Jerome’s most outrageous act: killing a bunch of cops during a mass shooting inside Gotham PD HQ. The two men — one of them a dead ringer for Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates — followed a homeless man into an alley. We watched the one who wasn’t the Bates look-alike stab the man to death — a fast, sickening succession of jabs — and then jab-jab-jab the Bates clone to death, too, both chuckleheads laughing like hyenas the whole time.

We closed on a shot of grinning Jerome lying on a slab in the morgue. We heard, in voiceover, his fortune-telling father’s words: “You will be a curse upon Gotham. Children will awake screaming at the thought of you. Your legacy will be death and madness.” The vignettes preceding this moments suggest how this prophecy will be filled, via a subculture of Jerome acolytes triggered by his cultural narrative. (Has Galavan saturated Gotham with Manchurian Candidates? Does Jerome’s death activate them?) But those vignettes also refute the prophecy, too. He’s not a curse, bogeyman, and terror for all Gothamites. To some — including some children — Jerome is a blessing of inspiration, catharsis, or at the very least, escapist entertainment.

So no, Jerome isn’t Gotham’s Joker — he’s the show’s ur-Joker. Perhaps many years from now, one of his spirit children will bloom into the Joker who will become Batman’s arch-nemesis. Until then, Jerome’s terrible Tribbles promise to make trouble for Detective Jim Gordon and partner Harvey Bullock. Will they be spending the next few episodes cleaning the streets of Jerome wannabes? (That prospect does not thrill me, actually. Jerome was one thing. A legion of watery Jeromes? Glug.) And what does Theo intend to do with the rest of the whole sick “Maniax” crew? Are they all doomed to be canon fodder for Theo’s Watchmen-ish redemption-through-tragedy Gotham-saving scheme? (Talk about a suicide squad.)

The coda, taken by itself, could actually be seen as a sly critique of the Joker as a cultural icon and his meaning to some select fans. It also played to some old criticisms of comic book horror as morally corrupting evil (that laughing kid = “Seduction of the Innocent” moral panic of mid-century America) and even older worries about pulp pop in general. (Truth is, Western culture has been sweating the toxic properties of the genre since the dawn of Gothic lit in early 19th century lit.) The coda also captured some tragic resonance. Last week’s mass shooting on a community college campus in Oregon was perpetrated by a disturbed soul who — according to blog posts attributed to him — wasn’t just seeking fame, but was inspired by the media attention given to other mass murderers, including the man who shot and killed two Virginia TV reporters during a live broadcast last month. The coda essentially implicates media coverage in the creation of mass murderers — a rather audacious, risky idea for Gotham to ask its audience to entertain. We remember the mass shooting in Aurora in 2012, when a heavily armed man attacked an audience watching The Dark Knight Rises. He was reportedly a fan of superhero fiction, including Batman. Another well-traveled report, subsequently discredited, was that he identified himself as the Joker to police. The claim was easy to believe, given the optics of the killer’s wild eyes and dyed orange hair.

I’m wary of bringing this up, as I run the risk of blaming pop culture for the evil in the world. At the same time, I don’t think we take seriously enough the very real truth that pop culture does influence us. Media, in all forms, from movies to TV to advertising, affects the way we think and feel, how we see the world and relate to each other, what we esteem, and certainly what we buy. I think this is even more true in an era of social media, in which we actively use media to impact other people, whether it’s tweeting your thoughts to followers or posting a link on a friend’s Facebook page. It’s important for each of us to investigate and recognize how media influences us, and how use it to influence others, for better and worse.

This is not the first time Gotham’s showrunner, Bruno Heller, has told us a story that depicts evil as ideology and as a kind of cultural and media virus. He did it in The Mentalist with Red John, a Joker analog, an infamous serial killer whose trademark was a happy face scrawled in blood. He was served and protected by a legion of devoted thralls, some brainwashed, some emotionally damaged or downright insane, some all too willing to volunteer for the job. (This celebrity serial killer with a bad fan following has become a popular trope. See: The Following.) The storyline culminated with the hero, Patrick Jane, whose family had been slain by Red John, unable to resist the satisfaction of bloody vengeance, and killing the villain with his bare hands instead of turning him over to the police.

You wonder if Gotham might be an ironic attempt at moving pop culture — or at least Batman pop — away from such moral pessimism. Yes, the franchise finds its fun in wallowing in neo-Gothic sensationalism and the outrageousness of broadly played villainy. But the series story is about young Bruce Wayne’s evolution into Batman. Key to this saga is depicting the societal influences and mentors that are shaping his identity. The more I see of Gotham, the more I wonder if it’s trying to do is build a better kind of Caped Crusader, one purged of the cynicism that has held sway since the late ’80s.

The double-whammy of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986) and Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland (1988) minted a portrayal of Batman as a profoundly flawed response to tragedy. They hung psychology on Batman, turning him from superhero to anti-hero, lacking innate or assiduously cultivated virtue. The Joker played a key role in both seminal tales. In The Killing Joke, the villain argues that he and Batman are mirror twins, both driven to insanity by “one bad day.” In the climax of the story [SPOILER ALERT!], Batman — convinced their endless conflict will lead to the death of one of them or both of them — exhorts the Joker to give up his nihilism. The Joker replies by telling him a joke with a punchline that boils down to this: You first. In The Dark Knight Returns, Batman is an addiction that Bruce just can’t say no to. Moreover, Batman is toxic. Miller’s tale entertains the notion that Batman’s extreme, lawless response to a lawless culture begets the extreme lawlessness that he fights. Batman doesn’t exist because Joker exists. Joker exists because Batman exists. You want to get rid of the Jokers of the world? Get rid of the Batmans.

The Miller and Moore deconstructions of Batman and superheroes in general had huge influence on the medium, for better and worse. If you believe Alex Pappademas of Grantland, their cynicism seeped into the water table and now taints everything, from TV anti-heroes to the Muppets. Their comics have definitely informed Hollywood’s treatment of Batman and his villains, from Tim Burton’s pop psych, mope-junkie Batman to Christopher Nolan’s catastrophe-era, politically resonant morality tale Batman.

Gotham could be trying to move us away from cynical formulations of Batty heroism. Here, Batman doesn’t beget his villains. Instead, evil begets more evil in a broken society that allows villainy to flourish, thereby begetting the need for Batman. Yes, it gives us a Bruce Wayne rocked by “one bad day.” But it’s also showing us all the other days between his childhood-cratering ground zero and the adult launch of Operation: Bat-Catharsis. He’s a pulp fiction Harry Potter, his adolescence a process of heroic character formation, aided by positive role models, such as father figure Alfred, who seems keenly interested  in raising an adult of sound mind, good heart, and full of humanity. He’s got some negative role models providing positive influence, too. Gotham’s Jim Gordon is now infected with the trendy anti-hero virus after making a devil’s deal with The Penguin and killing a baddie in the season 2 premiere. Theo Galavan’s arc also hits this mark: Here, we have a cultural narrative of disingenuous heroism, of heroism as performance. Gordon gives Bruce a cautionary tale about integrity. Theo gives Bruce gives Bruce a cautionary tale about authenticity. Both provide him motivation to redeem the notion of heroism in his world. In its peculiar and clumsy way, Gotham could actually be trying to make superheroes genuinely super again.

This article has been updated.