SPOILER ALERT: This story contains details of tonight’s episode of Gotham

EXCLUSIVE: In a move that many shows would have saved for a season finale, the Batman backstory series tonight laid some new tracks for the origins of the Caped Crusader’s archenemy. Having teased and toyed out the emergence of the Joker since the last half of Gotham’s first season, Monday’s third episode of the self-titled Rise Of The Villains second season of the Fox drama added a whole new twist into how the sadistic criminal mastermind came to be and who he really is.

In a way, it was all revealed less than halfway through the episode when Jerome’s father last words were to tell him, “Your legacy will be death and madness.”

As tonight’s mayhem-filled episode “The Last Laugh” revealed, the Joker isn’t the Cameron Monaghan-portrayed Jerome Valeska — at least not directly. Jerome now is dead, stabbed in front of the citizens and criminals of Gotham on live TV. But with a cult already growing around the chaos and casualties that Jerome and the rest of the Maniax escapees from Arkham Asylum brought to Gotham over the first two episodes and the deep-pocketed gala charity ball on tonight’s show, the Joker is coming.

bruno heller gotham panel 2015Now working on the final episodes of the season, executive producer Bruno Heller spoke with me about this new take on The Joker’s origin and how it all weaves together. The Rome co-creator also discusses who may or may not be playing Batman’s deadliest foe, what other villains are coming in Season 2 and paying homage to the legacy of the Dark Knight.

DEADLINE: With the introduction of Jerome last season, even with his Joker-like tendencies, to put it gently, and the big attack on Ben McKenzie’s Jim Gordon from the audience at Comic-Con this summer, it seemed like you were teasing out tonight’s death and the cult that emerges from the very beginning. Why did you decide to throw in this twist, take the Joker in this new direction?
HELLER: Because it’s a twist that leads to more twists. The creation of the Joker is a larger and more epic story than people realize, and this show is very much about kind of the deep, secret history. So, as the show rolls on, people will see how a mythology is born, how a kind of cultural mien is created that will lead us to the Joker himself.

When the Joker appears, he is an inevitable part of the history of Gotham. He’s not someone who created himself out of nothing. He’s part of a whole cultural history, a whole tradition. I know that sounds kind of highfalutin, but that’s what the twist is about.

DEADLINE: But the Joker is a character who has a pretty well established origin story from the early 1950s in Detective Comics. There’s been variations of that story, but essentially he was a criminal, sometimes called the Red Hood, who fell in a vat of near deadly chemicals and became the killer comedian. From what we saw in “The Last Laugh,” even after Jerome is killed and the duplicitous Theo Galavan emerges as a hero to Gotham, that backstory is out the window. Why?
HELLER: Well, because sometimes backstories are more complicated and interesting than, you know, falling into vat of toxic chemicals or being bitten by a spider. Like they say, nobody creates themselves out of whole cloth, whether it’s Elvis Presley, or you name it — Jesus. There’s a tradition in forebears and ancestors of those characters that went into creating them. So, to me, Jerome is genuinely the mother and father of the Joker. He is the seed of the Joker.

DEADLINE: So, with Season 2 heading into its last episodes of production, have you cast an actual Joker yet, or is that still in the cards?
HELLER: We have not cast an actual Joker yet.

gotham s2 ep3 jeromeDEADLINE: You know that a lot of shows would have used this big a twist on this big a character for a season ender. Why did you get this out there so early in this Rise Of The Villains season?
HELLER: If we’d left it for a season ender, I think people would have felt that we had sold them a dummy, if you like. That it was a red herring, that we were just simply using the brilliance of Cameron Monaghan to goose the show. When in fact, it’s actually a much deeper and longer game we’re playing. We want them to ask that question and be engaged in, you know, how the hell does this longer story play out? You make it a season ender, you’re kind of putting more weight on it, and you’re kind of tricking the audience. We don’t want to trick the audience.

Look, it was very much a considered decision, and we recognized that we’re putting a twist in the story that will take some people aback and be shocking. Fine. We weren’t trying to lie before about who Jerome is, and where he’s going, but it’s the first chapter in a longer story.

DEADLINE: A longer origin story?
HELLER: Absolutely. Origin stories are to me, and I think to a large part of the audience, one of the most fascinating aspects of this whole world. You know, to a degree, those origin stories are the meat and drink of this world. So now all of that will become clearer to the audience as this season unfolds. You’ll see how Gotham itself coalesces around the legend of Jerome. I don’t want to give away too much, but the audience will see an organic progression towards the real history of the Joker, rather than a kind of legendary supervillain who creates himself out of nothing.

To me, the difference between mythology and real history is that the real history has to tell a kind of believable story of how these things happened. The physics has to work.

The Joker Killing JokeDEADLINE: So you are planning out for a five-season Gotham, a six-season…
HELLER: Well, if the business was different, and we were blessed with a firm number of years that we had a story to tell, then I would work it out to that degree. One of the tricks that you have to learn, with episodic TV, is you don’t know how many years you’re going to be blessed with, so, we have an arc worked out that is multi-year, and we kind of have to keep on our toes to tell it completely.

DEADLINE: It’s not like with the even more maturing young Bruce Wayne, Jim Gordon, now crime lord Oswald Cobblepot and Selina Kyle, to name a few, you don’t have backstories galore to draw from. And there’s the new characters or enriched characters from the comics you’ve introduced. It is a plethora of riches?
HELLER: The beauty of this world is there are so many stories to tell, and there’s so many wonderful characters. Wonderful characters we haven’t even begun to introduce — it’s a world that is infinitely expandable. So we’re going to see Mr. Freeze this season. We’re going to meet Dr. Hugo Strange. We’re going to meet Firefly. And there’s several other surprises that I want to keep as surprises.

DEADLINE: When Gotham was first announced, I know there were concerns among the fanboys and fangirls that you were treating icons in a new way, and that always raises the possibility of a Batman backlash. Now in your second season of the show, what has the response been like for you?
gotham rise of villains logoHELLER: On the whole, the response, overwhelmingly, has been good, from the fans. It’s an odd position to be in because people don’t come up to you on the street, and say, you know, that was rubbish or you’ve betrayed my sense of who Bruce Wayne is. You tend to get the compliments more readily than you get the people who might have objections. And I’ll give myself some praise, on this level, we cast really correctly and well with the key characters.

I think, if people did not believe that David Mazouz is Bruce Wayne, then the whole thing falls apart. But that young man is genius of an actor, and full of soul and depth and kind of conflict. And once you believe that character, and you believe Sean Pertwee as Alfred — which everybody, I feel, does — Ben McKenzie’s Jim Gordon, and Robin Lord Taylor as Penguin; he makes that character sing. Once those sort of key elements are in place, and you’ve given the audience permission to suspend disbelief, then everything else follows.

Everyone involved in Gotham recognizes the privilege and the honor of working with such iconic characters, and I think, as long as we treat those characters and this story with respect, then people will feel that and be willing to go along for the ride.