In a world saturated with superhero entertainment, Fox’s Gotham, which returned on March 1 for the second half of its fourth season, offers something unique. On air since 2014, Gotham has eschewed any part in the small (and big) screen DC universes populated by Arrow, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, Supergirl, and Zack Snyder’s blockbusters. Reinforced by a set design mixing 1970s and ‘80s technology and fashions with more modern innovations like cell phones from the ‘90s, Gotham at once feels truer to the comic book mythology than other adaptations and freer to examine its characters. It is precisely this concern with its characters that makes Gotham such a fascinating show.

When a character tips into darkness in Gotham, the impact is always felt by many people, and in this regard, the show never treats sin as a small thing, even if it doesn’t use that theologically laden language.A sort of dark cousin to the long-running Smallville, which detailed Clark Kent’s angst-ridden formative years that led him to become Superman, Gotham likewise begins when Bruce Wayne is an awkward pre-teen, crestfallen over the murder of his parents, seeking justice, answers, and direction. Like Smallville, Gotham, as far as we know, will not progress into the years of Batman’s reign as the Dark Knight, but rather will stay in those early years, introducing characters known and loved to fans of the DC Universe. But where Smallville stayed focused on its young hero-in-training, Gotham does not. Bruce Wayne is not the star of the show; he doesn’t even appear in every episode.

Instead, the headlining character is Detective James (Jim) Gordon. Played with almost heartbreaking, clear-eyed earnestness by Ben McKenzie, Gordon—as people familiar with the DC Universe know—goes on in later years to be Commissioner Gordon, Batman’s most significant (non-superhuman) ally in Gotham City. In this respect, we know from the outset how Jim Gordon will turn out. He’s always portrayed as a good man—a little war-weary and grim, disillusioned by years dealing with a perpetually corrupt police force and an even more corrupt city, but someone who holds with an iron fist to the moral high ground.  

When we first meet Gordon, he is a rare beacon of light in the perennially dark, sepia-toned, rain-washed world of Gotham. This is intentional, as the show sets up the origin story of a hero known for being summoned by a beacon in the sky, and it’s most often Jim’s job to wield that beacon, summoning the Batman when things are especially grim in Gotham City. The thing about beacons of light, though, is they shine brightest against darkness.

And in Gotham, there is plenty of darkness to go around, both inside and out. In some respects, the real stars of Gotham are its myriad villains. Morally good characters are rare in this show—as rare as the use of light itself in the shooting of the scenes—and often when a seemingly good character is introduced, a savvy viewer knows they are just a villain-to-be, waiting for their inner darkness to consume them.

Watching Gotham, there are no superheroes to empathize with—not yet anyway—only regular people like Jim Gordon trying to navigate minefields of moral dilemmas. These moral dilemmas might be fantastical in nature because of the mythos of the comic book universe; nonetheless they challenge us to see the sins of our inner selves, which we all have. By focusing on villains and the tipping point into darkness, Gotham deftly shows the destructive nature of sin, leaving no one immune to its temptations or effects.

Most importantly, Gotham allows us, the viewers, to imagine ourselves within each moral dilemma presented in the show because, like Jim Gordon, we are ordinary people too. None of us are billionaires who spend our nights dressing in spandex and body armor, battling villains with mad parkour skills.  

Even still, Jim Gordon is on a hero’s journey of sorts, but not on one that ends in spandex and a cape. Rather, he’s on the sort of journey we all walk between light and dark and the sort of choices that tip us one way or the other on a daily basis. C. S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, “Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance.” Packed with decisions both little and big, Gotham presents moral dilemmas to its good characters on an episodic basis to tease out what it is that makes a person choose right and what it is that tips him or her into darkness.

When a character tips into darkness in Gotham, the impact is always felt by many people, and in this regard, the show never treats sin as a small thing, even if it doesn’t use that theologically laden language. Gotham clearly demonstrates the corporate nature of individual sin. Our sins, even those committed in secret, can harm other individuals, other groups of people, and sometimes even cities or (if one is powerful enough), nations.

Nobody’s choices in Gotham have more ripple effects than Jim Gordon’s. Jim might be a good man, but he is not a perfect man. If he always took the high ground, the show would quickly smack of unbelievability. When presented with a moral dilemma in the fall finale episode of season 2, for example, he crosses a line he swore he never would, even though he does it for good reasons. Although he tries to hide what he did, he ends up losing everything, and the slow decay of Jim Gordon is mirrored in Gotham City. Jim was Gotham’s beacon of light, and when that beacon of light is dimmed, it allows all sorts of evil to grow in the darkness. Jim’s transgression doesn’t affect only himself; it will also (literally) not stay buried. Sin is like that: it always comes to the surface eventually.

Jim’s redemption is slow and painful, and not without lasting scars, one of which is that he questions himself. When we met Jim in season 1, he was so self-assured of his moral compass that he made everyone around him better. His partner, Harvey Bullock, changed so much from proximity to Jim that by season 3, he’s virtually a new man. But after the morass Jim put himself through in season 2, when the villain the Mad Hatter arrives in Gotham in season 3 with the ability to tease out the innermost desires and fears of people’s minds, what he finds inside Jim’s head and heart is a death wish and the fear that he is really a villain himself.

The Mad Hatter’s sister, Alice, has a converse power. Her blood awakens the innermost carnal desires of every person it contaminates. The insinuation being, of course, that everyone has a carnal sinful nature inside them, and if allowed to break free of the mind and the spirit, it will become a destructive force. Jim has to figure out what rules his inner self—villainy and rage, or love—if he’s to combat the Mad Hatter and prevent the use of Alice’s blood in the devastation of Gotham.

The emphasis placed on the inner self driving the actions of the outer self is so great in this show, because it reveals an awareness of what makes people whole and of the true nature of sin. That’s the lesson of Cain and Abel: Cain was not a murderer because he killed his brother—he killed his brother because he was a murderer. The Lord came to Cain before he killed Abel and warned him, Sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.” Cain refused to master his murderous impulses and thus became a murderer in both thought and deed. Jesus in his ministry also emphasized the sins of the heart as being just as weighty as what we do. In the Sermon on the Mount, he said, I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” We are sinners already because of what is inside us, but we have a choice to master those impulses, to “be killing sin, or it will be killing [us],” to quote the great theologian John Owen.

As Jim struggles in a personal battle with the Mad Hatter and his own inner demons who whisper to him he is a villain, he has to save the city from Alice’s blood-borne virus that is turning the city inside-out. It takes Harvey Bullock—the partner Jim himself has arguably redeemed—to remind Jim, at the end, in his moment of absolute surrender to his carnal self, that his sinful nature does not define him. “Who you are is a choice! It’s always been,” Harvey tells Jim, reawakening his mind and his spirit—his conscience and his moral compass.

“Choose life,” a character in Blackgate Prison had urged Jim much earlier in the show, back in season 2 when Jim was in prison for murder (albeit not the murder he had actually committed). The character was a young man who had been given a wildly disproportionate sentence for a small crime—stealing a car to impress a girl—and he clung to hope inside the dark prison, a microcosm of the city outside. He could see Jim’s despair, and he knew how Jim contemplated the darkness. On the brink of death after taking a beating meant for Jim, the young man told him, “Choose life.” He was determined not to die in prison, and he wanted to make sure Jim didn’t die there, either.

Maybe this is the greatest moral dilemma of them all, and the decision we’re all faced with. Who we are is a choice. To choose life, or choose death, and to recognize that the little decisions we make every day are of infinite importance. We don’t have to be ruled or mastered by our carnal nature, and if we are in Christ, we are free, but every day we should hold a morning funeral and put sin to death. This is not a dilemma for superheroes, it’s a choice for ordinary people like Jim Gordon, like you, and like me.


2 Comments

  1. This is a fantastic article – thanks for writing it. I love what you said about how the “Gotham” designers are intentional about set creation. I’ve always been struck by the scenery and color, especially the use of light. But the emphasis is indeed on the characters and how they contend with their own proclivity towards or resisting the inner darkness.

  2. This is a wonderfully written, insightful lens into the reason I watch Gotham: Jim Gordon and Ben McKenzie. You describe what he captures, conveys and depicts in detail. With Ben McKenzie, it’s not about the lines being recited, but all of the nuances and the various non-verbal communication expressions from eyes to body language. Whether he’s barely moving and surveying the scene, reflective and introspective, appealing to an audience of one, or engaged in an intricate high action sequence, there’s always so much going on. When the writers fall short or fail to grasp and spell out the message, he gets the undercurrent and takes it to the next level.

    For all of Gotham’s over-the-top aspects and often too colorful characters with the extreme costumes, props and trappings, it’s Jim’s characters and Ben McKenzie who anchor and drive the action. I’m glad that you hone in on his compass and the compass and how he’s the eyes and ears for us and for the city he struggles to keep from disintegrating or destroying itself. He is incredibly compelling and it is heartbreaking to watch how desperately he tries with all of those landmines and more at every turn and so very few options, each under duress.

    Connecting the dots to the truly eerie and often depressing kind of hopeless backdrops with the lighting is another metaphor. I do wish there were less of that as the overwhelming atmosphere if only for occasional contrast.

    You’ve reminded me of why it’s so important to pay attention and take a closer look. I have always been attuned for the extras that aren’t scripted, but that Jim and Jim and Harvey incorporate masterfully. You mentioned that the B. Wayne character is more of a supporting one, and I’m completely on board with that. My favorite episodes have been ones that haven’t included him, except maybe the pilot, and he wasn’t a prominent part. I only hope the series continues and that the focus is on Jim as well as Jim and Harvey’s relationship in the broader context.

    With Ben McKenzie again directing the episode airing next week, it’s something to anticipate, especially if he also has plenty of time in front of the camera.

    Thanks again for your insights.

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