Ben McKenzie Gotham
Det. Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) looks over the squad room in "Gotham." (Jessica Miglio/Fox)

Ben McKenzie: Gotham has changed Jim Gordon

Throughout the first season of “Gotham,” Jim Gordon has gone from an idealistic rookie detective to a lawman who will skirt the rules to get the job done. It’s a change star Ben McKenzie has enjoyed playing.

“You’re seeing a real evolution in Jim’s character [in] that he is not afraid to do something that’s morally or ethically borderline, if not over the line, in order to get … what he needs for the greater good,” McKenzie said during a press call last week in support of Fox’s Batman prequel, which returns at 7 p.m. April 13 with the first of the final four Season 1 episodes.

McKenzie’s Jim Gordon is becoming the incorruptible commissioner fans of the Batman comic books know and love, but he’s taking some dark roads to get there.

Gordon’s no longer squeamish about stepping over the thin blue line for the cause. Take, for example, his blackmailing of Commissioner Loeb to pull his partner, Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue), out from under Loeb’s thumb. He’s now leveraging his relationships with Gotham’s criminals—Oswald Cobblepot, a.k.a. The Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor), comes to mind—in order to mete out whatever kind of justice he can.

The upcoming episode introduces The Ogre (Milo Ventimiglia), a serial killer who may throw off Gordon’s moral compass more than any other other criminal.

“The [Ogre] arc takes us down an incredibly dark path, probably the darkest of the season,” McKenzie said.

No matter how hopeless the circumstances, Gordon isn’t likely to become jaded and cold to the citizens he was sworn to protect like McKenzie’s “Southland” character, Officer Ben Sherman, did for a period on that series.

When I asked McKenzie last fall to compare playing a cop on “Southland” and on “Gotham,” he said both characters wanted “to really uphold a sense of morality and make sure that the laws are enforced to the letter, whenever possible.”

Gordon might not follow the letter of the law any longer, but he’s compromising his morals in the right ways.

“It’s something that he will be struggling with for the entire series, keeping his morals roughly intact while working his way up the food chain in Gotham,” McKenzie said. “So, an interesting journey.”

McKenzie talked more about Gordon’s relationships with Harvey and Bruce Wayne, the Ogre storyline and the cast a villains. Read an edited transcript below.

Related story: Milo Ventimiglia’s sexy ‘Gotham’ serial killer

Where has Gordon’s relationship with his partner, Harvey Bullock, gone this year and how has Bullock influenced Jim?
Ben McKenzie
Gordon (Ben McKenzie) and Bullock (Donal Logue) follow a lead they believe will help them find the Ogre. (Jessica Miglio/Fox)

Perhaps the best word I can use to describe the evolution of their relationship is maturation. It’s been kind of a maturation process Initially, Jim and Harvey were polar opposites. Jim is the wet behind the ears, almost naive rookie cop, and Harvey is the jaded, cynical veteran.

As the season progresses, they learn from each other. Harvey is inspired a bit by Jim’s do-gooderism, but Jim is also educated in the ways of Gotham and becomes more sophisticated in the ways that he approaches cases and the way that he uses the power that he gains through relationships with, say, Oswald Cobblepot, in order to get what he wants. So, there’s give and take.

The last episode that we saw, Harvey betrayed Jim by testifying against him in the case of Arnold Flass in getting the case dismissed. He did that because Commissioner Loeb had evidence on Harvey, had dirt on him, and so Harvey and Jim team up to find that stash of evidence, only to find out that [Loeb has stashed his mentally ill] daughter. … Jim then ends up using the existence of that daughter against Loeb to get what he wants. … He’s doing it in part for Harvey, and he gives Harvey back the dirt, so Harvey is in the clear, but they’re at a détente as we leave the last episode.

Is Jim aware of how close he is to that line? Is that a decision he makes, or is he being sucked in?

I think he’s being sucked in. I think he is aware on some level. But I think the overwhelming nature of Gotham tends to sort of beat you down, and even if you are aware on some level of what’s going on, you really are just focused on what’s right ahead of you, and you can’t really see the full picture; you’re just in it. So, I think he’s a little unaware.

Even when Gordon seems to cross a line, he still has hope and optimism. What is it that keeps him still holding on to that light?

I think it is a core value that perhaps springs simply from his makeup, his almost genetic makeup. He is, particularly in this conception, a true believer and a soldier. He’s a veteran coming back from the front to take on the enemy at home, and he believes very sincerely in that cause.

How does The Ogre put Gordon to the test during this arc?

The Ogre is a serial killer who seduces, kidnaps, tortures and kills women. In the never-ending pursuit for a partner, he finds these women, and they, let’s just say, don’t meet to his exacting standards. He’s a true psychopath, and he’s remained at large for years because he protects himself. Any cop who takes on his case, the Ogre targets the loved ones of that cop. The cop will end up with his wife’s throat cut, his girlfriend dead, things like that. So, no cop touches it, and it’s basically just become the dirty little secret of the GCPD.

Jim ends up in contact with the case in an interesting way. He’s a hero; he can’t put it down. For him not to pursue the case would be to have the blood of future victims on his hands, so he’s put in a perilous position where he knows that the women in his life could be targets. It creates a strain on his relationship with Dr. Thompkins, and it will have dire consequences moving forward.

How will the finale propel Gordon into Season 2?

The arc takes us down an incredibly dark path, probably the darkest of the season, and then after a sort of three-episode arc involving the Ogre, there is kind of an epic season finale that really pushes us strongly into a Season 2 that is extremely chaotic. The best way I can describe it without giving too much away is you’re really starting to see the downward spiral of Gotham as a city toward the ultimate anarchy that will manifest and result in all these masked vigilantes roaming the streets. You’re at the tipping point here on the season finale, and I think it’s going to kick us into Season 2 with a literal bang, almost.

Jim’s relationship with Bruce is kind of like this young surrogate father-and-son dynamic. Where does that relationship go in these four final episodes?

I think the core relationship of the show in many ways is the relationship between Jim and Bruce. The central conceit is to put a rookie detective in contact with Bruce Wayne at 13 at the scene of his parents’ murder and to task our hero in the story, Jim Gordon, with solving the case.

That’s the emotional undercurrent of the entire series, and I think right now their relationship is a bit on rocky ground. Jim has been unable to solve the case, obviously. Bruce is frustrated by that. He’s been investigating the case, and Alfred has been injured. Jim goes to sort of console Bruce and basically realizes that they’re both lying to him. They refuse to reveal really what’s going on and what’s happening.

At this point, it’s very complicated. While Bruce and Jim have a bond of sorts, Bruce is a little distrustful of the detective. He’s hiding secrets from him already, a trend which, of course, will only continue, and ultimately it results in him trying to hide the biggest secret.

It’s an interesting relationship. It’s a mentor/mentee. It’s a surrogate father/son, and there’s also peer-to-peer because Bruce is so otherworldly intelligent. It’s quite interesting, and it’s a joy to work with David [Mazouz]. I think as we go forward in the series, the bond will grow stronger, and at the same time they’ll be keeping more and more secrets from each other.

Are there any villains that you have enjoyed the most or really enjoyed the portrayal of them the most so far?

I think all of our primary villains this year have done an excellent job, all the actors. Robin Taylor playing Oswald, obviously, has knocked it out of the park. Cory Michael Smith, who plays Nygma, we’re just at the tip of the iceberg in terms of where that character is going, but he’s a really terrifically talented actor, and he’s done a wonderful job.

I liked the seed we planted this year for Scarecrow, Scarecrow’s father, and what affect that will have on a young Scarecrow. I also enjoyed the tease of a possible Joker in this orphan child of the circus, named Jerome.

So, at this point, most of our primary villains, I think, have done a really, really nice job. We have a lot more to go, but it’s hard to pick a favorite.

With the first season almost complete, have things gone as you anticipated they would in terms of the reaction to the show and its success?

I think that the thing that’s true of all first-year shows—at least every first year of a show that I’ve ever been on—is that it’s impossible to predict almost anything in terms of not only the reaction to the show, whether it’s the public at large, but also the evolution of the show itself.

This show, in particular, has had an interesting first year. I’m very proud of it. It’s grown a lot, I believe, in the first year, and I think we’ve learned from some mistakes that we’ve made in the first year. I think after we made what I believe is a very strong pilot, we ended up on a detour where we became a little too procedural. We became a little too focused on the crime of the week. We were using villains that weren’t really from mythology, and that did a disservice to the mythology that we were trying to serve and to the fans.

We’ve adjusted. We’ve introduced villains with multi-episode arcs. They are from the mythology, by and large. The grandeur of Gotham is sort of more fully exposed. I think we’re learning, as you learn on the first year of a show. You can only really learn by making mistakes and correcting them.

As far as the reaction to the show, it’s been incredible. I honestly expected a little more flack. I think anytime you enter into a universe this beloved, people have strong opinions. By and large, it’s been incredibly positive. Obviously, the show is a hit and watched all over the world. I know that we can do better, and we’ll continue to do better in Season 2 in terms of the stories we’re telling and how we tell them, but I’m very proud of the show and so far.

I’m particularly relieved that the primary criticism of the show, the Batman show without Batman, at this point, I believe has been shown to be a bit of a misunderstood complaint. If one is really a fan of Batman and the world of Batman, I would think discovering how Batman came to be is a fascinating journey, discovering how all these villains came to be. So, I think at this point we’ve dodged that bullet for the most part, but we need to live up to the expectations of the fans, and we’ll try to do that.

You guys are building up to a lot of things that will happen in the comics over time. How much and what sort of comics did you research, and how much did you look into the character of Gordon?

I read a fair amount. … Geoff Johns at DC actually sent me a bunch when I asked him for material on Gordon.

The truth is that we really haven’t seen Jim Gordon for the most part at this stage of his life, and what we have seen in the mythology in terms of the comics, we haven’t seen much, but what we have seen we were contradicting on the show. We are starting him off in Gotham investigating the case of the Waynes.

So, there were several takeaways for me reading a lot about it. The first, the most important, is that this tale has been interpreted and reinterpreted for 75 years, and each and every interpretation is different. Many are contradictory in many important ways.

So, there’s a real, I think, freedom to interpret anew these characters in this world, and that’s what Geoff Johns said to me when I asked him how do I do this. What am I playing? What am I supposed to do here? He said we cast you for a reason. You’re perfect for the part. Do your work. Treat it like the best job in the world, which it is in some senses for me anyway. But it’s an acting job. You have to interpret this character for yourself, and that’s what I’ve done.

We’ll always be true, or try to be true, to the themes and the tone of a the world that is represented in the Batman story, but we will interpret these characters as we see fit and have them interact in all kinds of unexpected ways. We have to surprise the audience at every turn. The only way you do that is by giving them new things that they didn’t know, new relationships and new windows into each character.


How does being a law officer in the city of Gotham compare to the L.A. ‘hood of Southland?

Well, that’s a good question. The overall similarity is probably in the mentality of law enforcement officers. There’s a sense of wanting to really uphold a sense of morality and make sure that the laws are enforced to the letter, whenever possible. I just got an email from the guy that did some of our tactical training on “Southland,” who was a cop in the LAPD, just congratulating me on “Gotham.” They captured a serial killer recently who was on the run in L.A., blowing people away with shotguns. There’s bad stuff that happens in real life. In “Gotham,” it’s more that we want to keep a sense of realism, but at the same time, it is fantastical and it is meant to be a little bit more approachable, in the sense that it’s not so starkly drawn. In “Southland” it was so real that, at times, it could be quite frightening. … In “Gotham,” we want to have a little bit more fun with it. We want to feel free to take a certain amount of liberty with tactical stuff and just give it more of a throwback to an old-school gumshoe, noir conceit, with a little bit of cop tactics in it, if that makes any sense.