Beyond ‘Gotham’: Ben McKenzie Goes Off Script To Focus On New Direction As Fox Series Ends

Time is running out for Jim Gordon and Gothamand nobody is more acutely aware of that fact than Ben McKenzie, the actor who has portrayed the flinty Gordon for five seasons on the Fox series that shares its name with Batman’s hometown. “It’s a lot to take in,” McKenzie said about the Gotham series finale that airs tonight. “It really is one of those bittersweet moments. But the show was never an open-ended proposition.”

Tonight’s finale is titled “The Beginning…” but the name isn’t quite as ironic as it sounds. That’s because the drama was built to be a sort of “prequel procedural” that leads up to the familiar Batman mythology that DC Comics has been publishing since 1939. The narrative window would begin in Bruce Wayne’s youth with the murder of his parents, and effectively end with his first forays as a costumed crimefighter: Gotham would end when Batman begins. That graduation moment arrives tonight with the show’s 100th episode, the first to feature an appearance by the Caped Crusader in action.

Gotham fans are more than ready to see the Dark Knight in all his cowled glory, but the show’s creative team hasn’t shared that eagerness. Just the opposite. Executive producer Bruno Heller, the British producer best known for The Mentalist and Rome, has said he would never have developed the show if it was a traditional costumed-hero franchise. “I don’t think Batman works very well on TV,” Heller said back in 2014. “To have people behind masks? Frankly, all those superhero stories I’ve seen, I always love them — until they get into the costume.”

Hero Nation LogoThat has made Gotham an eccentric entry in the superhero sector, but not an entirely unprecedented one. Smallville (217 episodes, 2001-2010) still reigns as the longest-running television series ever based on DC Comics heroes, and creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar shared a similar aversion to costumed exploits. Their early mission statement was “no flights, no tights,” and the series held out until its final episode to put Clark Kent (Tom Welling) in Superman’s iconic suit.

For Heller and his team, the key to making a compelling Gotham without a Batman was to spotlight the hero’s trusted friend, James Gordon, the dedicated lawman destined to become the police commissioner of a city defined by its lawlessness and celebrity criminals. Gordon was introduced in the first panel of the first page of the first Batman comic book ever published, Detective Comics No. 27, the landmark issue that reached its 80th anniversary last month. Gotham added a key element to its version of Gordon — when Thomas and Martha Wayne are murdered, Gordon is the detective who handles the investigation.

Gordon is the good cop who holds on to his morals in a bad city that loses its marbles. The show found the man for the job in McKenzie, who had memorably portrayed LAPD officer Ben Sherman on the highly regarded (but lowly rated) Southland, which aired 2009 to 2013 on NBC and TNT. Before that, the Texan portrayed Ryan Atwood, a scruffy outsider adopted by a wealthy Newport Beach couple and the central character on The OC, the frothy Fox teen drama that aired for 92 episodes from 2003 to 2007.

“I had some things in common with the character,” McKenzie says with a shrug. It’s true, the 23-year-old actor trekked west from dusty Austin (instead of rural Chino) to Southern California, and bought himself a eye-catching Cadlliac DeVille that already had logged 17 hard years and 228,000 long miles. “That’s lot of miles.”

McKenzie has covered a lot of distance in his personal life while channeling the role of Gordon. In 2017, for instance, McKenzie married his Gotham co-star, Morena Baccarin, who has portrayed Dr. Leslie Thompkins on the series (and is well-known for her role in the Deadpool films as the mutant anti-hero’s love interest). The couple now have their first child.

For McKenzie, the end of Gotham closes a pivotal chapter in his screen life. But he’s also hoping that the final seasons will also someday represent a prelude to a different career story — one writing and directing. The actor directed the sixth episode of Season 5, and also directed one in each of the previous two seasons. McKenzie has also written the screenplay for two Gotham episodes: “One of My Three Soups” in Season 4 and “The Trial of Jim Gordon” in this final season.

McKenzie, the writer, didn’t exactly go easy on his fictional screen persona. The cop took a slug in the chest and hovered near death for much of the episode, stuck somewhere between “the here” and “the hereafter” in an existential courtroom where he had to defend his life.

‘I actually feel no sympathy for him at all,” McKenzie said with a chuckle. “The less sympathy you feel, the better, I’d say. The more pain you inflict upon the protagonist, hopefully, the higher the stakes are and the more emotion gets elicited. So I had to be a bit of masochist. Putting him through the ringer and having this existential crisis, this dream, where he’s on trial for his crimes and faces the loss of everything: the love of his life and his child at the same time. I think we got there. That’s about as high stakes as you can get. I think, ultimately satisfying, with the kind of emotional payoff we were looking for.”

That seems to apply to the season as a whole. The final episode is an epic send-off, too, with a story that flashes forward a decade (long enough for Gordon to sport a new mustache) and finds the Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor) returning from prison and Bruce Wayne returning to his ancestral home after years in self-imposed exile. It also coincides with the rise of the show’s off-kilter version of the Joker (Cameron Monaghan). “It’s fitting that he comes into conflict with Gordon and Wayne right at the end,” McKenzie said. “Cameron has been amazing and there was room for one more big flourish with the role.”

Most of the reviews have veered from good to great, encouraging news for the cast and crew of a series that had been uneven or over-the-top at times. “Everybody’s been very enthusiastic and positive,” McKenzie said. “The final season has been wrapping things up in the way the audience hoped we would.”

Gotham City is arguably the most famous city created in American popular culture since the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz (although Metropolis, Springfield, Mayberry, Twin Peaks, and Riverdale are other prominent spots on the map of un-real estate). Even without Batman, the city zoned by greed, paved in corruption, and mapped by trauma seems to have no limits as far as its story range.

“It’s extraordinary when you think about it,” McKenzie said. “The city itself is a character. There’s a lot of stories to be found in Gotham City. There’s a lot of stories being told from Gotham, too.”

It’s true, Gotham City will be the site of Batwoman, the pilot on The CW this fall, and for a string of upcoming feature films including Joker, The Batman, and the Birds of Prey project.

Also this year: a Harley Quinn animated series and Pennyworth (a series about Batman’s loyal butler) on Epix. Pennyworth and Gotham are unconnected in their story continuity, but both are from the tandem of executive producer/writer Bruno Heller (The Mentalist) and executive producer/director Danny Cannon (CSI franchises).

A passing reference in the 2016 film Suicide Squad identified Gotham City as a major metropolitan hub in the Garden State. The city’s location had been a vague matter for decades, but now it is officially part of New Jersey’s map, and Springsteen isn’t the only local hero named Bruce.

On Gotham, the city feels more like Al Capone’s Chicago than Dracula’s Transylvania. “There’s a specific look and style that Gotham has that sets the show apart. It’s visual identity is distinctive and it was really interesting to work within that as a director.”

Has McKenzie inherited anything Gordon, anything he will take with him forward? “Maybe. We have some things in common, too. He’s living in the same city I live in, New York, but just the slightly more dramatic version.  He’s had to figure things out on the fly and his life has changed and met the love of his life and had a child. There’s a lot of similarities there. But I haven’t bought a gun and I don’t go around shooting one. And I’m more a jeans and t-shirts guy. Although Gordon’s given me an appreciation for a good suit, that’s for sure.”

McKenzie said he’s learned a lot from the creative team he’s worked with, and he believes his acting has made his directing better and vice versa, as well. There’s several new projects that looks promising for McKenzie, both as an on-screen presence and writer or director. Still, saying goodbye to Gotham has been a sentimental exercise for the man who plays the taciturn detective.

“It’s hard. I’ve been through it a couple of times before. I’ve been on two shows before, so it’s been less daunting then before. I’ve built really strong bonds with these folks. We spent more time together than we do with our families for nine months a year. It’s been a joy and a experience I will never forget. I can’t forget.  I wake up every morning to my wife and child who happened during it. So yes, it’s been a city without limits for me.”

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