There’s almost no way to talk about tonight’s episode of Gotham without largely talking about the death of Jerome, the enigmatic, Joker-like villain played brilliantly by Cameron Monaghan. Obviously the lengthily-titled “Rise Of The Villains: The Last Laugh,” and Gotham more generally, is more than just a showcase for Monaghan, the episode having a lot more to do with the increasing pressure put on Jim Gordon than on the downfall of Jerome. But the death of Jerome is important for a number of reasons. In terms of plot, his death inspires a number of criminals to take up his cause of chaos for the sake of chaos. That’s all fine and well, but what’s troubling about his death is that one of the biggest reasons Gotham has felt more assured and engaging this season is because of Monaghan’s presence. There’s still a promising narrative focus to the show, but the loss of its most compelling character is troubling.

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Now, I wasn’t under any illusions that Monaghan was here to stay. After all he’s got a solid gig over on Shameless and surely has many other projects to choose from. Still, to see him dispatched so early in the season’s run, and just as the show was finding some sort of footing, is cause for concern. As the title of the episode suggests, and as the plot so far does as well, there’s an increased focus this season on establishing meaningful threats to Gotham, Jim Gordon, and the GCPD. The show has ditched the goofy villains and scattered mob stories of last year and begun instituting a longer, more concise narrative arc. At the heart of that arc is the idea that a new band of villains will promote a darker tone and force Jim Gordon’s characterization to become more morally complex. The question is, will it work now that Jerome, the beating heart of that push towards the dark side, is lying lifeless in a morgue?

At the very least, Jerome’s death is in service of a larger plan, one that sees Theo Galavan work his way into the hearts and minds of the citizens of Gotham. When Jerome holds everyone at the charity fundraiser hostage after conducting a rather scattered magic show with his sidekick Barbara, it allows Theo to step up and defend the city. He gives a rousing speech about how Gotham needs to be rid of low-life criminals like Jerome, making sure to take his time and pause over his name while staring right into the live TV camera. It’s all part of Theo’s plan to craft himself as a hero in the eye of the public. What’s not part of the plan, or at least the plan according to everyone except Theo, is killing Jerome. When Jerome takes Bruce Wayne and holds a knife to his throat, with Alfred and Gordon slowly closing in, Theo stabs Jerome in the neck and kills him.

It’s a legitimately shocking turn, one that I didn’t see coming–again, I knew Monaghan couldn’t be around forever, but had no idea he’d be killed so early in the season–and it works well to establish Theo as a man who can play both sides of the law, but it’s also somewhat deflating. There’s a predictability to Theo’s arc, as he’ll be cozying up to Gordon and Bruce while also letting his criminals loose in the streets. Gotham may yet have a few tricks up its sleeve in order to avoid the obvious narrative beats necessitated by a character with two identities, but for now the rise of Theo Galavan feels insubstantial compared to the unhinged, unpredictable chaos embodied by Jerome.

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Part of that underwhelming feeling also has to do with the episode’s reversion back to a more procedural type of show. “Rise Of The Villains: The Last Laugh” certainly has the season’s longer arc in mind, but it also falls back on the same beats that made last season such a slog. Bullock and Gordon spend much of the episode trying to track down Jerome, and their search should take on added meaning after the death of Essen last week. That potential emotional weight isn’t really present though, no matter how much Ben McKenzie scowls and gives Coach Taylor Lite speeches about the GCPD being “our house.” Rather, the search for Jerome feels stale, especially considering that we know where Jerome is and that Theo is pulling the strings. There can, of course, be tension in a story where we, the viewer, know the true intentions and schemes of the main antagonist, but such a lack of mystery ultimately spoils tonight’s episode. Gotham certainly threw a cog into the machine by having Theo kill Jerome, but the rest of the storyline falls flat, relying on the same trite, predictable procedural beats that defined the show’s pitiful first season.

If there’s hope here though, it’s in the episode’s implication that Gordon will eventually have to compromise his ethics to truly clean up Gotham and take down Galavan, even if Gordon doesn’t know Theo is the bad guy yet. Some of last season’s best material involved muddying Gordon’s worldview, and a tenuous partnership with Cobblepot is a surefire way to make that happen again. Jerome is gone, and that means Gotham has a huge void to fill, but there’s still plenty of potential. With Jerome dead and the power structures in Gotham going through serious changes, there’s room for shifting allegiances and strange relationships, be it Bullock and Gordon seeking out help from Penguin or Theo at odds with not only the GCPD, but perhaps his own sister, who isn’t too pleased to see him infringing on her new relationship with Barbara. Still, “Rise Of The Villains: The Last Laugh” is a troubling crack in this season’s otherwise sturdy structure, and it may not be long before everything comes crashing down.

Stray observations

  • Never Mind The Bullocks: “Every evil bastard in the world was just a kid once.” Bullock is a hardened cop, just in case you didn’t know.
  • I love that the popularity of Jerome in Gotham has Penguin questioning his own villainy: “Perhaps I could use a new laugh.”
  • I’m glad the whole Alfred flirting with Lee thing didn’t go any further than this episode. Good for a laugh, but it would not have been good beyond that.
  • Gotham really couldn’t find a more subtle way to show that Gordon is becoming cynical in his police duties than by having him throw bad guys out of windows?
  • That closing montage does not inspire hope that Gotham can handle a post-Jerome world very well.

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