Why Gotham's Joker is the best

He's terrifying, maniacal, absolutely insane—and that laugh. Oof! That'll haunt your dreams. But just don't call him the Joker.

Fox's Gotham started out as a relatively straight-laced Batman prequel, focusing on young detective Jim Gordon and a preteen Bruce Wayne dealing with the tragic murder of his parents. But three years in, this show is nigh unrecognizable from what viewers found when the show began. The ensemble has opened up to feature a bevy of comic and comic-inspired villains, which breathed fresh life and a dose of wackiness into the world of Gotham.

One of the best additions? Cameron Monaghan's Jerome Valeska, who has been established as a sort of proto-Joker for this pre-Batman world. He might not technically be the Joker, but he's the best version we've seen in a long, long time.

Cameron Monaghan is terrifying

First up, the 24-year-old actor tasked with bringing Gotham's Joker-esque character to life is positively terrifying in the role. Cameron Monaghan came pretty much out of nowhere when he showed up as a seemingly innocent kid who turned on a dime and became completely terrifying with a jaw-dropping twist. The young actor has a boatload of credits to his name, but mostly in bit parts, except for a six-episode stint on Malcolm in the Middle and a supporting role on Shameless. But he's never shown the type of menace he pulled out for Jerome. 

Digital Spy notes Monaghan is arguably the best thing about the series, pointing out his performance "embodies the idea that just under the veneer of civilized society, dark forces are straining to break free." After spending so much time in his clown shoes, Monaghan said he's taken ownership of Jerome to truly make this version of the pre-Joker his own, saying he's started to "claim more ownership over it" and he has "become more defensive of it" along the way. Monaghan certainly looks to have a long career of playing bad guys ahead of him.

The pressure is off

With Gotham, the creative team crafted a story that's set in its own little corner of the DC canon. They're not really out to serve any other master, and there's no shared universe to worry about. Pretty much anything in the Batman canon is open to explore, even creating new and weird origin stories for existing characters. Or, in the case of Jerome, apparently the origin of the character who will eventually inspire the future Joker? We don't really know because Gotham doesn't wade into those minutiae, in a good way. Gotham has a freaky guy playing a very Joker-esque character causing havoc all over the city. It doesn't matter if he's really the Joker or not; all that matters is what he's doing in that moment. Gotham might be a prequel, but it's grown beyond trying to serve up an untold Batman origin story. It's telling its own story, which means it has the refreshing freedom to do pretty much anything.

It went full-on 'Death of the Family' mask face

The "Death of the Family" storyline is one of the creepiest and most compelling Batman stories in recent years, making the Joker even more terrifying by having his face taken off and reattached with a hasty staple job (then knocked off and reattached a few more times). Gotham put its own spin on that story, with Jerome sporting the look that must be terrifyingly familiar to Batman comic readers. Jerome has his face cut off and his face is literally stapled back on like a mask—just like the "real" Joker in the comics.

Gotham goes pretty far with the freaky body horror inherent with a faceless baddie, even showing off a bandaged, faceless Jerome for a while, but it isn't quite as visceral as the panels on the page. Which makes sense, because that look would likely push things beyond what network censors allow, anyway. Still, it's the first time this iconic Batman story has been adapted into live action, and it's pretty great.

It's every Joker, all in one

The show itself is a mishmash of several different genre styles and falls somewhere between the grit of The Dark Knight, the silliness of Batman '66, and the semi-serious camp of Tim Burton's Batman films. To that end, Monaghan's Jerome pulls elements from all of them, along with pretty much every big screen (and comic) Joker we've met along the way. He has the careless menace of Heath Ledger's Joker, and the maniacal wackiness seen in Jack Nicholson's version of the character. But that laugh is straight-up Mark Hamill, dating back to Hamill's extensive voice work with the Joker character on Batman: The Animated Series, putting a live-action spin on a version of the character that many fans still feel is the seminal take on the Clown Prince of Crime.

He was so great they couldn't write him off

Jerome was first introduced as a villain of the week in Season 1, but the creative team quickly realized he could be a true asset, and mapped out his story to roll into the next few seasons. That extended story was actually supposed to end in Season 3 during a confrontation with Bruce Wayne, but the writers decided Jerome is just too good to get rid of—so they changed his final scene and opted to keep Jerome around in jail. Monaghan told Nerdist Jerome "was going to be beheaded and that was going to be it for him." At the last minute they decided to keep him around, though, and "go the opposite way and really embrace the idea of the character being involved in the Joker mythos."

Not even death could stop him

The Joker has survived his share of near-death experiences in the comics, and Jerome has also faced his own mortality on Gotham. More than that, he managed to literally come back to life after being murdered and having his face cut off (nobody's dead in comics, and apparently not in comic book shows, either). He died with blood gushing from his neck from a massive wound and a smile on his lips. His corpse was eventually shipped to the Indian Hill research facility. There it was obtained by Dwight Pollard, a fanatic follower of Jerome's brand of insanity who just so happens to be able to resurrect the dead—putting Jerome back on his killing spree and just as crazy as ever.

He has a vendetta with Bruce

Over the past few seasons of Gotham the rivalry and obsession between Jerome and Bruce has arguably rivaled the comic dynamic between Batman and the real-life Joker. 

A virtue of having him stick around is that it's presented enough time for them to organically start bringing Jerome into young Bruce's orbit. Jerome has veered from being obsessed with Bruce to trying to kill him a few times, and their rivalry came to a brutal beatdown when Jerome kidnapped Bruce—who managed to escape and get the drop on Jerome, beating the porto-clown Prince of Crime to a pulp. After grabbing a broken shard of glass as a weapon Bruce almost killed him, but stopped himself at the last moment. 

The rivalry mirrors the way it was portrayed in the comics, particularly in The Killing Joke graphic novel that saw the Joker shoot Barbara Gordon and torture Jim Gordon to try and push Batman to kill. Jerome's goal is also to goad Bruce into murdering him to prove to there's no such thing as heroes, but Bruce doesn't take the bait.

He's inspired his own cult

The writers have made no secret of the fact that Jerome will inspire the eventual "real" Joker in the Gotham universe, and that evil inspiration manifests in Jerome's very own cult. After Jerome terrorizes Gotham City and dies (pending his eventual resurrection), a group of devoted copycats and followers try to continue his reign of insanity. The movement has grown throughout the series' run, and when Gotham City was overrun by villains during a blackout, it was Jerome's followers that took over several locations across the city. The cult lost a good bit of momentum once Jerome was eventually caught and sentenced to Arkham Asylum, but there's no doubt Jerome has the charisma to inspire a whole new generation of demented rogues.

He's a staple of Arkham Asylum

The latest twist for Jerome has him locked up in Arkham Asylum, where he's connected with the Penguin (a.k.a. Oswald Cobblepot) while chatting through the cells of Gotham City's most famous locale. Putting Jerome in Arkham and actually following that story is something fans have rarely gotten to see in the various big screen and animated incarnations of the Joker. As most Batman fans know, the story typically picks up after the Joker has escaped from Arkham. In Gotham, we get a look at the would-be-Joker's tenure behind bars. It also brings him into contact with the Penguin, another staple of Batman's rogues' gallery, which should make for some epically evil team-ups.

It embraces the terror and silliness of the Joker

We've seen a lot of live-action versions of the Joker over the years, and as good as Monaghan is, it'll still be tough to rival what Heath Ledger did with the role in The Dark Knight. Despite the lofty expectations, Gotham's version of the character has managed to carve out its own niche by embracing the terrifying silliness of an unstable clown criminal and everything that could entail. For example, one major arc finds Jerome kidnapping Bruce and taking him to a deranged circus that has been turned into a murderous fun house. It's creepy, sure, but Jerome plays it for all the wackiness you can milk out of the setup. He sets up a hostage over a dunk tank full of piranhas, and ties up Bruce in front of a cannon filled with knives. There's even crazy clown face painting at one point. Instead of going completely silly, or completely terrifying, Gotham plays in the middle ground—and that makes Jerome all the more unsettling.