Synopsis 2×03: Jerome and Barbara take a fundraiser hostage and attack Bruce Wayne and Alfred. Gordon tries to track down Jerome after Essen’s murder. Theo kills Jerome, turning the child into a symbol of insanity.
Gotham is driving me insane.
I’m an analytical person who has a tendency to need to interact with media in order to get a fuller understanding of it. It means my apartment is positively stacked with books, comics, and legal pads filled with notes of barely legible or understandable notes. It also means when I’m an inevitably portrayed in a film about a writer obsessed with G.I. Joe and Batman comics, there’ll be at least one scene of someone connecting pictures and names on a wall with red string in the cinematic shorthand for conspiratorial paranoiacs.
This is all my way to say that “The Last Laugh” is making me wonder if I’m thinking more about Gotham than the writers are.
In this episode, Galavan is moving his plan forward and revealing his grand scheme. He tells Barbara Kean his family’s contribution to building Gotham City has been forgotten by those in power and he wants to get his revenge. His plan? An overly complex scheme involving using his maniacs as a sort of kabuki theater, ultimately portraying himself as a hero. For that to happen, Barbara and Jerome take a fundraiser hostage, ultimately putting Lee, Bruce, and Alfred in the crosshairs.
There are actually some fun twists in this episode, with Gordon becoming more aggressive after Essen’s death last episode and his relentless pursuit of Jerome is action-packed and actually feels lived-in, character-driven, and real. The show is best when it’s focusing on the GCPD and here, Gordon whips his coworkers into a frenzy in his pursuit of justice. There’s also some interesting characterization of Theo, Tigress, and Barbara, who are now in a twisted love triangle with the ever-manipulative Barbara wielding her seductive charms.
The most interesting thing here is the part that’s driving me a little crazy though and that’s all in the subtext. For those who know comic book history, Theo’s plan for Gotham City is going to sound achingly similar to a certain event DC has always had difficulty acknowledging. See, Batman was created by two men, artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger. One of those names might be a little unfamiliar and that’s because Bob Kane is an actual real life super villain, a man so devoted to profit, power, and recognition that he destroyed the man who gave birth to the Batman we know and love.
By all accounts, Bob Kane was a smart, charismatic, forward up and comer, an artist clearly influenced by the pulps but one of the first artists to really recognize how comics were moving towards the superhero genre. Bill Finger, however, was a comics lifer, a smart guy, yeah, but quiet, not particularly assertive, but with a real feel for what readers wanted. When the pair created Batman, Kane envisioned him as an acrobat, dressed in day-glo yellow and red and riding a hang-glider to fight crime. Finger recognized instead a need to blend what had worked so well for pulp characters like The Shadow and Doc Savage with some of the child-like wish-fulfillment of the burgeoning superhero genre. He crafted the tragic origin story for Bruce Wayne and worked with Jerry Robinson to create the future arch-villain, the Joker, Robin, and a host of the most recognizable elements of the Batman mythos.
So, why is Bill Finger not remembered? Well, in the late ‘40s, Superman creator Jerry Siegel’s contract was about to be up at DC and he wanted to renegotiate for ownership of he and Joe Schuster’s creation. To strengthen his position, he enlisted Bob Kane to argue that creators should own their characters. Instead of joining Siegel, Kane went behind his back, ratting out Siegel to DC executives.
For his betrayal, Kane was awarded sole creator credit for Batman, effectively removing Finger’s name from the character he poured his soul into. Kane cut Finger out of history. For more than 60 years, DC has not even been allowed to put Finger’s name on Batman comics or any of the movies that have earned the company millions of dollars. Finger would argue for years that his contributions were forgotten only to have Kane call him a liar in an obedient press. Kane spent the rest of his life telling a lie that guaranteed him millions and fame he never fully deserved.
Is Galavan’s plan a reference to Kane’s betrayal and Finger’s removal from Batman’s credits? Maybe, maybe not. It’d be awfully strange for DC to allow a plot on one of it’s most prominent shows to very actively draw attention to one of the company’s greatest sins, one it has just begun to try to correct. On the other hand, this is also an episode where a character named Deputy Mayor Kane is brutally murdered with a throwing knife.
It’s an episode where a would-be version of the Joker is stabbed in the neck by his mentor, all so he can gain a little bit of recognition for what he and his family have done. “The Last Laugh” has a strong thematic undertone of people wanting to have the recognition they feel they’ve earned, regardless of whether they have or not. Theo kills Jerome solely for recognition. The Penguin is desperate to hold onto the empire he’s illegitimately seized as Bullock threatens to bring him down. Gordon wants to make sure the seemingly-indifferent GCPD remembers what Essen should mean to police.
The more I think about “The Last Laugh,” the more it feels like I’m falling down a rabbit hole. Gotham has always been a show mixing pulp and procedural with an almost fetishistic devotion to Batman lore and imagery and there’s tons of that here but there’s a level of metafiction at play here that the show has walked up to the line to before and never quite managed to cross. I’m torn and intrigued and, if anything, this is the first time I’ve felt that way for Gotham.