Tonight's Gotham insults viewers' intelligence by asking us to admire the cleverness of a plot twist that essentially slaps viewers in the face for wanting more recognizable characters. That is, after all, one of the main pleasures of watching the show: see Bruce Wayne, Selina Kyle, Jim Gordon, and other characters become the people we know and recognize them as. "Rise of the Villains: The Last Laugh" tries to re-assure viewers that they don't necessarily know who will live and who will die by killing off a character we were led to believe would become a major villain. Which wouldn't be so bad if Jerome Valeska, the character we thought would become the Joker, weren’t a tic-riddled twerp whose unimaginative, and short-lived reign of terror brought out the worst in Gotham.
Valeska's ostensibly shocking death is indicative of the clueless direction that season two is going in. The show reeks of a lack of confidence, and that's led to sensational, unimaginative creative decisions, like turning formerly gruff Alfred Pennyworth into a comic figure, or Barbara Kean into a thrill-seeking villain, or Edward Nygma into a split-personality schizophrenic. Thankfully, Nygma's not in tonight's episode, and Alfred mostly sticks to the sidelines. His main gaffe is the way he aggressively hits on Leslie Thompkins, though he thankfully doesn't flirt using inauthentic-sounding British-isms like "tuck you up like a kipper.”
Instead, tonight's episode emphasized Barbara Kean's bisexuality in ways that suggested the show is in fact slowly becoming Melrose Bat-Place. We see Barbara lock lips with Tabitha Galavan, who warns her brother Theo to be nice to her. Then, after Theo tells Barbara that he'll help her destroy Gordon, Barbara locks lips with Theo, too. The message here is clear: Barbara is desperate for attention, and will do whatever it takes to get back at Gordon (and have a good time while doing it). The wild-child aspect of Barbara's character wouldn't be so hard to stomach if she weren't constantly trying to get under Gordon's skin. That aspect of her character has been there since the second half of season one, and was made that much worse/more unbearably sensational after that, when she resumed a relationship with Renee Montoya but was ultimately rejected. Then she got into BDSM-style kink, though not for long. None of these thwarted, er, ambitions are as bad as the fickle nature of Barbara's character in season two, a fact that's spelled out when Jerome chats her up in the season premiere, and she responds by shacking up with the closest inmate who she feels can give her protection.
So when Theo Galavan offers to make Barbara's "fondest dreams come true," we're supposed to identify with Barbara's skeptical reply: "You know my dreams, do you?" Galavan then proves that he does know whereof he speaks, and reduces Barbara's acting out to a single motive: revenge. But if this is true, then Barbara's story has effectively become warped by the showrunners general need to turn her into a force for Gordon to reckon with. Having Barbara make out with other women and instantly forgettable male villains only serves to transform Barbara into a lousy projection of her creators' fantasies.
That insensitivity is also what makes it impossible to take seriously several major plot developments in tonight's episode. Gordon's insistence on leaving the police tape over Sarah Essen's office felt tacked on, since we only learned that the tape was up within the same episode that Gordon eventually took it down. Gordon's speech to his fellow policemen similarly rang false since it made him out to be a preacher in his pulpit. Gordon has, until now, always seemed to be more of a no-nonsense, by-the-book motivator/leader. Why would he address a room of cops as "brothers" like that? Isn't this the same room that was, in season one, thought to be teeming with corruption? Or what about when Thompkins is momentarily tempted by Alfred when he says that he knows the chef at Chez Bernaise, and she does a double take: "Did you say Chez Bernaise? I've been trying to eat there for quite some time!" That kind of tinny dialogue suggests that the show's writers — in this case episode writer John Stephens — haven't talked to a real person in some time.
But really, the biggest whiff in "Rise of the Villains: The Last Laugh" has to be the concluding twist. It's bad enough that Cameron Monaghan's proto-Joker mannerisms were seemingly borrowed from virtually every other Joker, save perhaps Jack Nicholson (some of Monaghan's deranged hooting even sound vaguely Cesar Romero–esque). But what was worse is seeing fortune teller and estranged father Paul Cicero return just to deliver a prophetic warning of Jerome's impact on Gotham's citizens: "You will be a curse upon Gotham. Children will wake from their sleep screaming at the thought of you. Your legacy will be death and madness."
That juiceless bit of purple prose is reiterated at episode's end, as if to reassure viewers that Jerome has really been murdered by Theo Galavan, his fair-weather benefactor. Jerome's symbolic importance as a trendsetting baddy would be more intriguing if his little magic act at the Gotham Childrens' Hospital Gala were more memorable. Or better yet, it would probably be a lot better if he weren't transposed by Galavan, a banal mastermind type whose speechifying is as boring as it is unbelievable. Why would the public not be suspicious of someone who declaims dramatically, and even turns to the camera when he's theatrically prompted by Jerome to identify himself. The people of Gotham City may be dumb, but they can't be that dumb. Can they?
- Oswald Cobblepot on Jerome Valeska: "He doesn't hail from a tradition. It's just chaos for chaos's sake." That will be the epitaph for Gotham's second season.
- The grammatically unfortunate expression "boozing, boning, and beating up Jerome" leads one to all the wrong conclusions. I hope it does not recur.
- Seeing Gordon chuck witnesses out a window onto a mountain of garbage, just to scare them is some Cobra-level macho B.S.
- Oh no, directed by Eagle Egilsson? Egilsson directed some of season one’s best episodes. What a bummer.