Why Gotham Doesn’t Understand Joker
[Deep, pained, sigh]
Okay. So. The Valeskas.
In one episode of season one, in a story that seemed to be about introducing the future Flying Graysons* (acrobat parents of Batman’s first partner), something more lucrative/sinister happens… Cameron Monaghan makes his first appearance as unbalanced, laughing murderer Jerome Valeska. He was very, very clearly meant to be the answer to the question nerd media sites kept inadvisably asking, “When are we going to see Young Joker?” If everyone had instead said “I hope they don’t try to introduce Young Joker, that wouldn’t even make sense,” maybe… maybe some stupid could have been avoided.
(*If there’s one thing season one loved to do, it was introducing key parts of Bat-lore, like the Flying Graysons, the Red Hood, the Black Mask, venom (the super-steroid Bane used)… and then immediately forgetting about them. If only Jerome had been on that list. )
Except he also isn’t the Joker. He died in early season two, and it’s implied that he would instead serve as an inspiration to a whole wave of cackling madmen, one of which would become the Joker. Of course, his death didn’t take. No villain of note on this show stays dead the first time they’re killed**. He comes back, with his face cut off and stapled back on, in an attempt to mimic Scott Snyder’s instant classic Joker story “Death of the Family.” Soon he’s literally smashing more interesting plotlines to pieces and committing carnival-based mass murders with his legion of followers, and specifically targeting Baby Bruce for some reason. Basically being the Joker in all but name and complexion.
(**Jerome, Fish Mooney, Penguin, Butch, Ra’s Al Ghul, Theo Galavan, Mr. Freeze, Riddler, Lee Thompkins, Barbara damned Kean, and Penguin’s fucking accountant all defy death at some point in the show. Sofia Falcone gets shot right in the brain and doesn’t die, but that’s the last we see of her, so… doesn’t count.)
But he still isn’t the Joker. Because the following season, he dies a second time (the second time usually takes), but not before revealing that he has a twin brother named Jeremiah, who ends up sprayed with a chemical of Jerome’s invention that bleaches his skin and drives him a similar blend of crazy.
(Jeremiah’s insistence that he’s perfectly sane, and is only doing the same threaten-the-city-and-also-Bruce schtick as Jerome in order to do it better as an act of final revenge against his brother is… a little interesting.)
(Also, the revelation that Jerome turned out the way he did because the circus where they were raised abused him as payback for trying to kill his brother as a child, which he never did, Jeremiah made it up to turn people against Jerome to get himself a better life… that’s, like, legit interesting.)
(Also also, Cameron Monaghan absolutely could play a great Joker. Whenever I complain about a character on this show, it is almost never the actor’s fault, it is almost always the writing.)
In season five, Jeremiah does what Valeskas do… derail the other storylines to drag Jim and Baby Bruce into some Joker-esque city-threatening nonsense for a few episodes. Season five sees central Gotham cut off from the mainland US, in homage to the classic 90s storyline “No Man’s Land,” with Jim Gordon and the GCPD fighting to take their city back from the various crime lords who have seized territory and convince the military to let them back into America. This gradually shifts from “No Man’s Land” to the exact Bane story from The Dark Knight Rises, right down to Bane’s secret benefactor saying “Surprise, Bruce, I’m Ra’s Al Ghul’s daughter***,” but before that can happen, Jeremiah manufactures a bunch of Joker-toxin (it isn’t called that but there are only so many gasses that make you laugh until you die), and makes sure we all remember that little-mentioned part of Batman history… Bruce Wayne’s parents were murdered. Because he feels that he and Bruce Wayne have a deep connection, and wants Bruce to admit that.
( ***Why the hell was Nyssa Al Ghul the one plotting Gotham’s destruction? Nyssa’s been the nice Al Ghul daughter ever since Arrow brought her out of obscurity! Was it because Talia has a weird romantic Thing with Bruce, and they didn’t want the age gap? When did they start caring about age gaps between Batman and his nemeses on this show? Sure it was nice having a villain that was actually done better on Arrow, after watching Gotham show Arrow up with Firefly, Solomon Grundy, and Ra’s Al Ghul… Dollmaker was a draw… but it was such a weird choice. )
So before the final season of Gotham can get around to ripping off The Dark Knight Rises, it pauses to do a less fun, more dead-parent laced take on… The LEGO Batman Movie. That… was a choice.
At the end of this, Baby Bruce knocks him into a vat of acid at Ace Chemicals, causing him to become blah blah ble blah.
Where to start.
The problem with that thing I said
The thing that makes contemporary Joker really work as a character is that there’s no explanation for who or why he is. Look at Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, one of the all-time-great Jokers… “No matches on prints, DNA, dental. Clothing is custom, no labels. Nothing in his pockets but knives and lint.” Or “Death of the Family,” in which Batman has memorized every single ingredient of that vat of acid, in a desperate and failed attempt to figure out how they turned whoever fell into them into that. And he never has.
We’re not supposed to know his real name. We’re definitely not supposed to know every detail of his childhood. Those were always the key problems with the Valeskas, who were doing Joker-level carnival-themed atrocities under their real names, meaning either everyone in Gotham knows exactly who the Joker is, or the Joker is borrowing someone else’s shtick, and neither of those are good scenarios.
But then season five pushed things even further, into stupider territory. Jeremiah’s tumble into the acid is supposed to be an origin moment, the thing that created the Joker… but he’s already a psychopath. He already has bleached skin. He already has a cult following and a prototype Harley Quinn, in the form of Francesca Root-Dodson’s Ecco (not perfect, but a better take than Punisher’s Hardly Quinn). He’s already menacing the city with Joker gas. He’s already as obsessed with Bruce Wayne as comics-Joker is with Batman. At that point… how is falling into acid an origin and not just one more thing that happened to him? Are we really to believe that the entire city agrees to pretend they don’t know that “the Joker” is really Jeremiah Valeska? Seems weak sauce to me.
Okay, yes, in the final episode, after ten years of some combination of being catatonic and simply faking it while he waits for Bruce Wayne to come home (Bruce leaves Gotham in the penultimate episode to knuckle down on his training), Jeremiah has scattered followers around town to punish anyone who says his old name, while he thinks on a new one (again, the name “Joker” is never spoken aloud), but could he really keep everyone from saying it?
Bruno Heller and his team did almost manage a couple of good Joker stories over the years… Jerome even almost started to work for me in season four… but they never really understood the character. Which was a theme in so much of what they did.
Anyway… some shows, knowing the end is near, try to take things full circle. Gotham… went another way.
Next page: The beginning and the end