“You got a demon in you.”
Harvey Bullock accused Jim Gordon of this after a long day of Jim losing his temper, fighting with his colleagues, and all around acting self-righteous and arrogant. Others have spoken similar words to Jim. Fish Mooney observed that he had a little danger in his eye after he recklessly barged into her club. His then girlfriend Lee Thompkins observed, "You see an abyss, and you run toward it." His ex-girlfriend Barbara Kean called him her “little monster”, saying that Jim “is incapable of being honest with himself, let alone anyone else." All recognized something in Jim that he wouldn’t acknowledge to himself, not until he could no longer avoid seeing the dark part of himself creeping in, twisting the good parts beyond recognition. He didn’t want to admit to himself that this darkness was there, that it was controlling him versus he controlling it, that it was a poison instead of an aid. Jim has a deep well of anger in him. He uses it as a weapon against a world that will not let him do the good that he so needs to do to believe himself a good man, and as a shield to blind himself to the corrupt being that he’s become.
Jim began his career as a detective in the GCPD as an idealistic young man looking to do his job properly, by serving his city and catching criminals. He genuinely wanted to do good and defend the innocent. He still does. That comes from a place of truth. Of self-worth. Before becoming a cop, he enlisted in the army, earning the appellation of war hero. He later attended the police academy, graduating at the top of his class. He was driven and determined. He based the core aspect of his identity around being a cop. So much so that when he was fired from the GCPD by Commissioner Loeb at the beginning of season 2, he broke the law to get his job back. “I’m a cop,” he told Lee, unable to envision any other direction in life. “I’m a cop.”
Yet he did not arrive at this mission in life fully on his own. He inherited his zeal for law enforcement from his father, who had been the revered District Attorney of Gotham when Jim was a child. He also inherited his father’s stubbornness, and possibly self-righteousness and arrogance, too. And, as it would turn out, his willingness to bend the law in service of the greater good. But Jim didn’t know about that last bit before he started as a detective. Up to that night when Falcone revealed his father’s alliance with him, Jim envisioned him as a moral, upright citizen, a man of principle, like Jim saw himself as. This was no mere accident of genetics. Jim “modeled himself in his father’s image”, according to Ben McKenzie, the actor who portrays him.
However, there was more to Jim’s motivation than a mourning son idealizing a dead parent. Jim loved his mother more than his father. He “resented my father’s strength.” We often resent others when we compare them to us and find ourselves wanting. Did Jim think that he wasn’t as strong as his father? Could his father have made him think that purposely, or did Jim just read it that way? We know nothing about Jim’s father’s parenting style, but only a formidable man could have held his own as the DA of Gotham. Quite a figure for a young boy to live up to. Yet as these angry feelings turned to guilt after his father died, live up him is precisely what Jim endeavored to do. For he did feel guilty for his father’s death, as irrational as that thought is. Jim’s father died in a car crash, struck by a drunk driver. Jim was sitting right next to him. The loss of a parent, especially in your childhood, when you most need them, leaves a huge hollow in your life that never fully goes away. This pain was made even worse by the idea that he had wished this would happen. “I imagined he was gone. And then he was.” Our thoughts don’t affect the outside world, yet we seek to connect a causality to them when something bad happens. The exact thing that Jim wished for came true in the worst way possible. Even when the reasonable mind knows better, that shocked, grief-stricken part of Jim couldn’t help but feel that he was somehow responsible. That he made it happen. Beware what you wish for. Even if he didn’t truly believe it deep down, he couldn’t quit feeling it to be true. Even if only unconsciously, the loss, and his mixed emotions about it, still affect him. Jim turned his father’s image into a goal to strive for, the only possible positive outcome of his emotional pain. By focusing on the virtues of his father’s memory, he may have been seeking redemption from his guilt. But that may have been the only manner that this volatile cocktail of emotions expressed itself in. Guilt produces anger. Anger at yourself. Anger that often will not be contained.
Some people are born bad tempered, inheriting their cranky character from one of their parents or grandparents. If the implication from Falcone’s comment about Jim’s father stubbornness is correct and he was self-righteous and arrogant like Jim, it’s possible that Jim also inherited his tendency towards hostility from him, since anger is often related to those two traits, especially in Jim’s case. The way that he expresses his anger, constant and as a first recourse, indicate that he has been living with it for a long time. It’s familiar. Comfortable. Safe. It’s very possible that he was born with a tendency toward it, which was then reinforced by his circumstances, molding it into a habit and dissuading him from learning to manage it in a healthy way.
Assuming the possibility that Jim was already predisposed to resorting to anger, losing his father at such an early age, as well as the negative feelings that Jim held toward him, could have fueled it. To make matters worse, Jim was a teenager at the time, one of the most angst-ridden times of everyone’s life, even when it’s mourning free. Grief runs wild, demanding to be felt and experienced, and this is necessary to process it properly. We have no more knowledge about this period in Jim’s life, so we are in the realm of pure speculation, but something that he told Bruce might be a clue. After Bruce’s parents were shot, Jim counseled him to “be strong”. It is a common enough phrase spoken to those in grief, so someone may have said it to Jim himself when he was mourning his father. Or he may have arrived at that conclusion himself, thinking that clinging to his composure and presenting a brave face to the world was his only defense against his own pain. That if he refused to let it control him, then it might hurt less. But of course, that’s not how it works at all. Even if one manages to control the pain on the outside, that only turns it inward, which is far more pernicious, as it stews and blisters inside you, a giant bruise that can’t heal, sensitive to the slightest poke. The pain doesn’t go away just because we urge it to. If we push it away, ignoring the effect it has on us, it becomes toxic, a leaden ball poisoning our insides. Grief and guilt are emotional wounds. It needs to be allowed to heal and scarify. We have no evidence about which approach Jim took with his own grief, but what he said to Bruce might indicate that he took the “put on a brave face and pretend that it can’t hurt you” path. It might be a contributing factor for his inability to express his anger in a less than explosive manner.
One way or another, his father’s actions in life influenced Jim to choose a career of helping others in a form that meshed perfectly with his protective instincts and personality traits, one that he could derive healthy satisfaction from. Unfortunately, he chose to pursue this career in the highly corrupt environment of Gotham, so things didn’t turn out anywhere like as planned. His intentions had been good and honorable, as evidenced by his enthusiasm and respect for the law at the beginning of the show.
The only other thing that we know about Jim before he became a detective is that he served in the army. From what we know of his ideals and sense of duty, it’s reasonable to surmise that this is what inspired him to enlist. But being a soldier is a violent occupation. As is being a police detective in Gotham. And he has shown that, not only is he okay with physical violence, but actively seeks it out. He may have disdained Gotham’s de facto policy of police brutality at the beginning of his career, but now he fully embraces it, often in a way that is symptomatic of personal anger. Joining the army may have had nothing to do with expressing anger that was coiled up inside him, but it just as easily could have, though that desire might have been completely unconscious. An important thing to note is that, even if an angry temper had anything to do with him joining the army, and subsequently, the police force, he was channeling that anger via positive means in the service of others in a way that engaged the good sides of his character, not only the bad. Both aspects are fused together, a snake chasing its own tail, one feeding the other.
The first thing we saw Jim do as a detective was diffuse a potentially violent situation (talking down an escaped prisoner when the rest of the police precinct wanted to shoot the perp) and apologize for ordering around his colleagues. At this point in his life, Jim wasn’t automatically seeking the combative solution. He respected prisoners’ civil rights and frowned upon the rampant use of excessive force among the police, gaining the enmity of those he worked with. Although he did have flares of bad temper at the beginning of season 1. He got cross with a fellow officer when the man abandoned a crime scene to safeguard protection money he was being paid, with the mayor for sending homeless kids to prison, and with Detectives Montoya and Allen for wrongfully accusing him of killing a man for the mob, the ordering of which placed him in an impossible and immensely frustrating position. The stress from these occurrences would have taxed anyone’s patience. His anger wasn’t yet out of control. Yet there were already indicators in the escalating series of events which accumulated within the next episodes, a plethora of frustrations and fears that lead Jim to snap violently.
On his first day on the job, he promised Bruce Wayne that he would find who killed his parents, a promise that he worried that he couldn’t fulfill. Then he caught a lucky break, or so he thought. The case solved and promise delivered on, he felt a huge wave of relief. But it turned out that the supposed murderer had been framed by the mob in conjunction with the cops. Jim hadn’t kept his word to Bruce after all, and a killer was still out there. To make matters worse, Montoya and Allen not only suspected Jim of being in on the frame job, but of killing Oswald Cobblepot, the Penguin, the man who he had only just managed to find a way not to kill. And who had returned to town despite Jim ordering him to stay away. As far as Jim knew, if Falcone discovered that the Penguin was alive, he would be a dead man. He had to maintain the secret even while being investigated for the murder. He couldn’t take Montoya and Allen under his confidence, having no reason to trust them, especially since they were sure that Jim was a dirty cop. But while Jim may not have been corrupt, his father had been, a massive shock to Jim’s system.
They found a witness to the supposed murder of the Penguin and arrested Jim, which prompted the Penguin to reveal to the public that he was very much alive. Jim no longer had to worry about going to prison, but that hardly mattered when he was now being handed a death sentence. Surely, Falcone wanted him dead for disobedience. He found one of Mooney’s lieutenants holding his girlfriend Barbara at gunpoint in her apartment. He got her on a bus out of town, but he didn’t want to run. One thing Jim will not do is run from a fight. His trademark stubbornness is too entrenched for that. He returned to the precinct, where Victor Zsasz, one of Falcone’s assassins went to fetch him. He wanted to take in Jim alive, but the likely assumption was that Falcone would kill Jim later. When Jim resisted, stating that there were 50 cops in the building, clearly expecting them to have his back, Zsasz ordered them to leave. And they did. The only one who hesitated was Captain Essen, until Jim himself asked her to go. Seeing his fellow cops abandon him to certain death when he would have risked his life for them was a huge blow. It had been clear that he wasn’t making friends and only his partner Harvey and his captain liked him, but it probably hadn’t occurred to him that they would ignore their duty so completely as to leave him to die. Jim fought against Zsasz and his henchwomen, only managing to escape because Montoya and Allen arrived and rescued him.
The next day, he arrested the mayor, using him as cover to get into Falcone’s house, who he also sought to arrest. He had nothing to lose, and the high likelihood of dying while ridding Gotham of its most powerful mobster didn’t bother him. But he did have something to lose. Barbara had gone to Falcone to plead for Jim’s life. If Jim tried to arrest Falcone, she would die. Jim had no option but to stand down, all his efforts for naught, and listen to Falcone tell him that one day he would understand that the corrupt system that went against the principles that Jim held so dear wasn’t the enemy.
The next time that we saw Jim, he was resentful, unwilling to cooperate with his colleagues, and lashing out physically. All the frustrations, the setbacks, the humiliations from weeks before had been building, each new one weighing down his spirits further and further, as bothersome and increasingly hard to ignore as an itch that wouldn’t go away. Anyone would have been worn down with the stress by this point, but those who experience chronic anger issues tend to accumulate rancor, every new stressful event grafting onto the last one. They don’t simply deal with it and let each go as they come. The mechanisms aren’t there, haven’t been learned. Individual experiences meld together until an angry response about one thing, sometimes insignificant on its own, is really about something else. These stressors built like parasites chipping away at Jim’s fortitude and self-control, which wasn’t buttressed properly to begin with, an ever weakening dam trying to hold back the rising flood.
In episode 8, he arrested a doctor who illegally provided his services to the criminals of Gotham because the doctor pretended not to know the information that Jim and Harvey needed for a case. The doctor regularly gave the police information on cases, a necessary cog in the corrupt system, yet he always lied first about knowing anything for some reason. Jim wasn’t willing to play along with the usual cop-criminal “you shake my hand and I’ll shake yours” alliances that had been a thorn in his side for weeks. Not this time. He had had it. And if it annoyed the cops who abandoned him, so much the better. He had trusted them and they had betrayed him. It was personal on two fronts. When Detective Alvarez protested that Jim was screwing the rest of them, Jim got in his face, snarling, “How’s that feel? You like it?” They had injured him, so he was injuring them right back. He had been rubbing them the wrong way for weeks by side-eyeing their comfort with criminality, yet he hadn’t taken action, bowing grudgingly to the status quo. Now he would, their resentment and disrespect for his principles preventing him from considering Harvey’s plea that he cooperate, even if only for his sake. Harvey said, “You’ve got to go along to get along”. Jim replied with a quick, defensive, “No, I don’t.” He wasn’t listening anymore. He wouldn’t allow himself to listen. He had been holding on to his indignation for too long and it was tearing his self-control at the seams.
Which led to him grabbing Richard Sionis by the tie and yanking him forward. Sionis’s company was linked with a murder. Within a few moments of questioning in Sionis in his office, which was obsessively decorated with warrior paraphernalia, Jim was certain that he was the murderer. He objected to Sionis’s comparison of businessmen to warriors, a role that he would hold in high esteem, being a soldier himself. His distaste for Sionis equating himself to be one showed on his face. He stated that “warriors fight wars” and that finance was different, then immediately asked Sionis if he fancied himself a killer. The term switch was deliberate, showing his belief that Sionis was using the former word in the spirit of the latter, that he saw no nobility or honor in this warrior fixation, but only the lust for killing, and it disgusted him. Sionis dissembled, saying that he had only killed men metaphorically, and Jim made light of his “juvenile playacting”. Sionis then turned the subject onto Jim himself, citing Jim’s combat experience and how he’s killed people for real. “True killers are easy to spot.” This set off something in Jim, for he growled, “Yes, they are”, his words and the sudden fury in his eyes making it clear who he thought the killer was: Sionis himself. Yet the original comment was about Jim. It called Jim a killer, and Jim didn’t like that. He immediately asked about the masks and continued the interrogation, putting the focus back on Sionis, calling him a liar. Sionis deflected by switching to Jim again, saying that Jim must miss the battlefield and that he imagined that “killing gets quite addictive”. The instant the last word was out of Sionis’s mouth, Jim grabbed his tie and yanked him forward, getting in his face as he accused Sionis of murdering their victim.
Sionis played Jim throughout the whole scene, knowing precisely where to push to get a rise from him, and the effects are quite telling. Jim had been cranky for days, his anger slipping lose when he arrested the doctor and got hostile with Alvarez the day before, and the tension inside him mounted even higher as he spoke to Sionis. The way that Sionis showcased his warrior gear as if they were toys and war a game offended Jim’s identity as a soldier. To make matters worse, the man doing so was a murderer. He could tell that Sionis was lying and that it wasn’t only a misguided view of business that drew him towards warrior imagery. Sionis was also a rich, powerful man, one of the city’s elite, another cog in the corrupt system that had humiliated again and again. Sionis showed no worry over Jim’s and Harvey’s questions because he surely thought that he would get away with it, just like Falcone and Mayor James had. Sionis didn’t respect their authority as cops, because he was above it. It was one more show of disrespect that Jim couldn’t bring himself to tolerate. And he couldn’t stomach the idea of a murderer going free to murder more people through his influence and power, which had thwarted Jim so greatly in the past. Jim’s self-control snapped several times during the scene, most spectacularly when he grabbed Sionis. From one second to the next, he went from barely held, yet still held, restraint to physically attacking the threat in front of him. He operated on pure impulse to assert his authority over Sionis, to demand the respect that had been ripped away from him so often by men like him.
Another act of impulse marked Jim’s next action after leaving the frustrating interrogation. He discovered a trail of blood leading to the staff bathroom and followed it, gun drawn, without waiting for Harvey to back him up. Like he probably suspected, he did find the murderer inside, but was physically overwhelmed by him, only saved by Harvey’s opportune arrival. Like Harvey told Jim as Jim sat on the floor nursing a bruised nose, Jim should have waited for him. He could have waited a few more moments for Harvey to follow him out of Sionis’s office. But he didn’t have the patience for it. He sniffed a clue and he leapt, despite the potential danger of an altercation in a confined space with no one to back him up.
Several aspects relating to Jim’s anger issues appeared within these first eight episodes, all of which escalated later on in the show. Recklessness, tendency to pick fights when he’s feeling low, general anger, denial about the nature of his own hostility, dogged singlemindedness, and easily injured pride.
Since the beginning of the show, Jim has had one, primary focus: protect the innocent from criminals. His initial strategy was very simple and straightforward. He would be a good cop. Obey the law. Follow due process. Fight corruption. Be an honorable man like the father he felt he had wronged. But the game board changed on him. He father had allied himself with the mob. Corruption was the status quo in the GCPD. Due process didn’t pan out a lot of the time. Police brutality was the norm. And strictly following the law not only impeded him in the course of his duties, but it was frowned upon by his superiors. To say that this was a large source of frustration for Jim would be a massive understatement. It flipped his expectations upside down. How could he live up to his father’s image when the ugly truth ran counter to the memory and principles he had believed to be true? How could he fulfill his duty in the just, law-abiding way that a cop should when illegality ruled the day, even among those meant to enforce the law? Barbara noticed that the couple of weeks after the unpleasantness with Falcone in the first episode, Jim had been “different” and “troubled”. This distressed demeanor continued throughout the early episodes as every new case drove home how hostile Gotham, Jim’s own childhood home, was to his sense of justice and fair play. The type of man who Jim was, who he strived to be, wasn’t welcome in Gotham.
So he changed. He loosened his dislike of bending the rules, giving in inch by inch, all the way up to committing murder. Yet even in that moment, Jim didn’t give up on his main goal. He still upheld the heart of his mission. Murdering Galavan, as criminal and wrong as it was, adhered to this ruling principle. The justice system wouldn’t prevent Galavan from hurting people, so Jim did the preventing himself. Jim’s primary virtue and goal in life often feeds the darkness inside him. He committed murder to keep a criminal off the streets. So many more of his shady acts have a similar justification. He has a job to do, and he will do that job. Nothing else matters as much as that, not his personal relationships, his conscience, his own peace of mind, even his life. If he has to dirty himself to accomplish his mission, then he will.
But no matter how much he has convinced himself that this is how he must act, guilt follows closely behind. He rationalized it to himself that killing Ogden Barker for Penguin was self-defense and that he had to get his job back for the good of the city, but in his heart, he knew that it was wrong. “I did a bad thing,” he said to Lee after the incident, while looking downtrodden and conscience-stricken. More guilt followed soon after when the Maniax attacked the police precinct. They shot up the place and killed many of Jim’s colleagues, including his friend Sarah Essen. And Jim wasn’t there to fight alongside them. He had allowed himself to be lured out by Barbara just before. He had been pursuing a dangerous fugitive, and letting her go without even trying to apprehend her would have been wrong. He had no clue that the precinct was in danger. But hindsight overpowers any previous thought of motivation, making Jim feel culpable in his own eyes. It probably became obvious to him afterward that she had tricked him into following her so he wouldn’t be around for the attack. She used their personal connection against him. He wasn’t there to protect Essen, to protect anyone, to do his part. He failed in his duty. He said as much to Lee when she noticed how furious he was at himself. “I should have been here,” he said. “I wasn't.”
Grief and guilt clouded his judgment, rendering him unable to focus on anything other than catching Essen’s killer while in a violent rage similar to the one during the Sionis case. Once again, he reverted to self-righteous indignation. Deciding that he was in charge now, he barked orders at his colleagues, razor focused on catching the Maniax, anger practically vibrating off of him as he exhorted the remaining cops never to forget that a killer had stood in their precinct and laughed at them. Above all else, he had to atone for his mistake, for not doing his part earlier. He had to arrest the killer, not only for justice, but for his own redemption. The wrong he had done gnawed at him, pushing him to be better, but not in a way that actually was better. He took it too far to the opposite extreme. He had to believe that he was right in what he was doing, not allowing for any doubts. Because if he couldn’t be that righteous man, if he permitted himself to consider that he might be wrong again, then it would all come tumbling down. If he was wrong about this, then what else was he wrong about? He would be forced to look at himself, at the darkness inside his soul, and he wouldn’t like what he saw. To cover up his past shame, he had to stand his moral ground and build himself up to that standard in his own eyes as well as everyone else’s. He had to pursue his righteous goal with dogged and blind determination, losing awareness of anything else and letting aggression and poor judgement take over.
Jim’s singlemindedness and recklessness often go hand in hand. Barging into Fish’s club without backup to demand that she confirm her involvement in framing Pepper. Confronting Falcone instead of skipping town. Following a duplicitous Barbara into an obvious ambush. When Jim zeros in on a goal, he tends to put blinders on. If the obvious danger of any of these situations occurred to him, he didn’t pay it any attention. And it’s not like these actions were necessary. A calmer mind would have seen that. But Jim doesn’t let himself be calm a lot of the time. He jumps into a state of heightened tension, traces the straightest, not the wisest, path to his goal, and pummels forward. It’s not a coincidence that these paths are often the ones with the most amount of risk. He enjoys the risk, the challenge. Barbara, being his ex-fiancé, knew this very well about him, and let him know how she had exploited this weakness after she kidnapped him in episode 8 of season 2. “You thought,” she told him, “Hey, let the bad guys take their best shot. I’m Jim Gordon. I’ll find a way to win.” The trap she lured him into had been clear. But she had dangled the promise of sufficient evidence to convict Galavan in front of him, what he wanted the most at that moment, so he took the chance, assuming that he would find a way to make things work in his favor. He didn’t, only escaping death because Harvey found him, but that didn’t deter him in the future.
In fact, just like his frustration in the beginning of the series caused his lapse in judgement in episode 8, his ex-fiancé using him, almost killing him and his then girlfriend Lee, and his fury at Galavan sparked an even more virulent current of recklessness in the very next episode. The result was the same as in episode 8: resentful anger. Jim, Barnes, and two others met at Galavan’s apartment looking for evidence, but Jim didn’t make it past the elevator without an assassin trying to kill him. Later on, more assassins arrived. The sensible thing would have been to leave, which Barnes did order Jim to do, but Jim refused. Barnes had also ordered Jim to turn back from the obvious ambush in the previous episode, and, just like that time, Jim didn’t listen. He even had a handy excuse, or, as he saw it, a reason for running straight into the ambush. “[We] ended the day putting Galavan behind bars,” Jim replied to Barnes when he pointed out that Jim had disobeyed him. Even though he had landed himself into an almost lethal situation, which Barbara had goaded him for, it had all been in one ear and out the other. Because it had worked out in the end. Jim got what he wanted. He arrested Galavan. In his increasingly narrowed perspective, him taking the chance had not been a bad thing. It had achieved its intended purpose, so here he was, doing it all over again. He wouldn’t leave Galavan’s apartment because they needed more evidence to convict Galavan and they couldn’t waste any time. However many assassins came at him, he would handle them.
That narrowed perspective is the crux of the matter. Jim wasn’t examining the situation from a clear, unhindered viewpoint. His judgment was heavily compromised, like it had often been before and since. Barbara, who he had a smorgasbord of complicated feelings about, was lying in a coma after their encounter. He had gone to the hospital to check on her status that very morning. His intense feelings over her and what had happened combined with his enmity towards Galavan, all channeling into uncontrolled anger. But his anger wasn’t only about these things, but about his own reactions to them, namely, those that he himself didn’t approve of.
To the chronically angry, anger can act as a tool. A hammer, for instance. The angry person might feel, consciously or unconsciously, that this hammer is fixing a boat to keep it from sinking. But this perspective is flawed, glitching in and out. There are instances when anger can be a genuine benefit, like keeping you from being scared when that would be a detriment or getting you out of a precarious situation, but that isn’t the type of anger we shall discuss here. The anger that Jim experienced in this episode is different. It’s an anger that sparks automatically, like a vicious self-defense mechanism, designed to obfuscate the truth of feeling and allow the individual to see only what they want to see. It’s a lie disguised as truth. A hammer meant to attack what is hurting you while actually sinking the boat you’re standing on.
This episode is one of the best examples to illustrate the nature and effects of Jim’s anger, as it covers almost all the bases. Jim’s anger is both a symptom of deeper, underlying issues and the cause of others, a dog chasing its own tail. The underlying issues are numerous, another mounting series of frustrations, griefs, and disappointments like the ones that incited his anger in episode 8.. Grief over his friend Sarah Essen and members of the Strike Force, all killed by criminals, sadness, betrayal, and anger at Barbara, who he still had some sort of feeling for (though it’s hard to tell if it’s love or not), guilt about putting Lee in danger, anger at Galavan, who put Gotham in peril, and shame at his own incompetence and weakness. All of these Jim expressed loudly and violently except for two. The guilt and the shame.
Guilt and shame are painful. Facing them is hard to bear, sometimes too hard, it seems. So some, Jim included, seek to hide from their shame, to shield their eyes and walk blind rather than have to acknowledge the ugly truth. But you can’t prevent yourself from feeling it. It sits in the back of your head, taunting you, and it’s all the more searing when it’s true. Jim was a decent, law-abiding cop when he began his detective career. He had clear goals and principles that didn’t involve beating people for information or cutting deals with the mob. He abhorred all those things, and was determined to do better and hold fast to his ideals despite everyone trying to force him to do otherwise. But he was swayed. He fell to the temptation of the easy win, of compromising on his former definition of right and wrong. He moved the line further and further away from where he had once stood. This couldn’t have come without some serious amount of guilt. Of course, he fully justified his actions to himself. “We need to push the boundaries,” he told Barnes to excuse his insubordination after he held his almost assassin out a window. Earlier in episode 6 of season 2, he said, “There are grey areas,” after Barnes sought to remind him that there’s a line that they shouldn’t cross. Barnes had just put a note in Jim’s file for beating a criminal on the street after Firefly had killed a member of Barnes’s Strike Force.
Yet not that long before, Jim had expressed a desire to return to his earlier, uncorrupted principles. When Barnes became the new captain at Jim’s precinct, he gave a speech reviling corruption and espousing some of the ideals that Jim had once held. Jim was taken in by his fervor, and briefly entertained the idea that he might not have to compromise, that maybe they could walk the straight line. Barnes reminded Jim of who he used to be. But it didn’t last. Jim was already too consumed by the system. His first instinct was no longer to look for the non-violent solution, but quite the opposite. His methods had changed, the new habits morphing for over a year, and once a new habit has been learned, the patterns established, it can’t be unlearned from one moment to the next. So in his grief for the Strike Force member, he automatically resorted to his default habits: anger and violence. By his thinking, this death, committed by yet another of the “weird” criminals taking over Gotham, might have been a reminder that he had been wrong, after all, about his previous black and white notions. That ideals were nothing more than that. Beautiful ideas too pristine to survive in the real world. Much less the broken world of Gotham.
But that didn’t mean that he had forgotten his sense of right or wrong. He knew that what he did was wrong from a moral standpoint and that it put him on the other side of the law, but he had agreed to sacrifice his own conscience in order to do his job. Time and time again, he had only been able to effect a successful outcome by bending the rules, so he had to grow comfortable with it to keep himself from having a crisis of conscience every time that he broke the law. By rationalizing his actions within the context of a work environment that wouldn’t allow for anything else, he was safe. Or was he?
“If people take the law into their own hands, then there is no law. And we're lost.” A very different Jim said this after arresting the Balloonman in the third episode. His views have changed completely, yet his initial enthusiasm at Barnes’ intention of cleaning up the GCPD and operating within the law prove that Jim hadn’t just dismissed the memory of his younger self as a naïve fool unwilling to see how things really are, as much as he may do so in his conscious mind. Part of him still yearned to be that man. For a while, he had flirted with the thought that he could be him again, or as close to him as he could get. He may have dismissed it as a pipe dream later, possibly shaking his head at himself as his constructed rationalization came back into play, but those ideals didn’t simply go away. He buried them back within himself, that shadow of his former self, but he couldn’t eliminate it. Everyone thinks back on who they used to be on occasion, even if they don’t wish to, and I can’t help but think that Jim may have felt himself judged by this decent cop, this son who strove so hard to do and be good.
Jim had said that without the law, they were lost. The law had been his guiding principle, encapsulating his sense of right and wrong. But had once been static was now malleable. The boundaries shifted according to the needs of the moment. There was no thought for the long-term consequences of his actions on himself, only the immediate effects of not taking them, even if they were criminal in nature. Without the law serving as the guiding role it once had, Jim was lost. His conscience was still alive and kicking. For a moment, he had reached for the chance to return to who he had once been, to who he had hoped to be. Likewise, at the beginning of season 2, he had said no to doing a favor for Penguin in exchange for his job. He had judged that as being one action too far, another step in the wrong road that he couldn’t take. He saw how much he had twisted himself, didn’t like it, and refused to corrupt himself any further. Yet when pushed, by grief in the earlier instance and by his primary driving principle in the second, he let himself shove the line even further away. And he felt ashamed for it. He is still, at heart, a man of conscience. Of principle. He has grown increasingly adept at ignoring his conscience, but he can’t eliminate it, nor does he wish to. And this ignoring has been eating at him. How can it not?
Jim was ashamed at who he had become. Later, after he had been convicted, wrongly, for the murder of Officer Pinkney, he said, “I’m far from innocent.” The obvious crime he was referring to was Galavan’s murder, but he could have meant much more than that. When Barnes accused him of killing Pinkney, he demanded that Jim confess to show that he still knew right for wrong, that he was “a good cop once”. Jim looked devastated at the words, not only because the evidence was all stacked against him, but because Barnes spoke a truth that Jim had been fleeing for months. He hadn’t killed Pinkney, but he had killed Galavan, as well as committed many other crimes, great and small. Barnes reminded him of the good, law-respecting cop who he had used to be, who would never have contemplated murder, no matter what the outcome. Did Jim know right from wrong anymore?
At Galavan’s apartment in episode 9, neither the murder of Galavan nor Jim’s imprisonment have occurred yet, but Jim already had doubts about the direction he was headed in. At the beginning of the day, Lee, yet again, brought up the fact that Jim regularly gives into his dark side. But, unlike the day before, when he had replied to a similar claim from her with, “I’m just doing my job”, this time he admitted, “I know. I hear you.” What happened with Barbara had driven the point home, at least enough of it that Jim was open to considering that he might have been lying to himself.
This episode is titled “A Bitter Pill to Swallow”. The Cambridge Dictionarydefines the phrase thus: “something that is very unpleasant but must be accepted”. The title refers to Jim’s unpleasant truth which he must accept. A violent, angry, reckless urge seethed inside him, and he constantly rushed to let it loose. He gave in to his dark impulses at the expense of his own morals and image of what makes a decent cop. The fact that he had contemplated letting go of control and killing Barbara, even for just a second, frightened him. He admitted this later emotion to Lee at the end of the day, after he had nearly lost control again. Gun in Flamingo’s mouth, he had nearly killed one of his would-be assassins in cold blood.
This loss of control, the violence, the anger, are all symptoms designed to mask Jim’s shame while simultaneously causing more of it. To be effective as a cop in Gotham, he succumbed to the status quo violence and rule breaking, which triggered his propensity for anger, which, in turn, triggered his guilt, which triggered even more anger and violence in an ever tightening cycle. As his guilt grew greater, so did his anger, like a scream seeking to drown out what he didn’t wish to hear. He resorts to anger as an avoidance strategy, a self-defense mechanism that is harmful in the long-term, yet seemingly effective in the short term.
The cycle runs like this: an underlying cause sets the stage, then a triggering event sparks an explosion of anger, which is followed by a cooling off period. Jim feels ashamed of himself, which makes him feel bad and angry at himself. But Jim doesn’t want to feel bad or angry at himself. It hurts. He instinctively shies away from the pain, and strives to ignore it and make it go away, even if only for a little while. It will come back. He knows it will. Unresolved emotional anguish always does, but if he can just forget it for now, right now, that will be enough. Until the next time, when the cycle repeats itself all over again. And the anger isn’t so easy to put away, either. Self-directed anger born from guilt is one of the most painful ones of all. And it doesn’t simply go away on its own. You have to let it go. There are ways of doing so without involving others if you know how to manage your anger, but there has been no evidence that Jim does. His frequent crankiness and tendency to lose his temper indicate the opposite. So the healthy option, controlling his temper, doesn’t really work. Especially since the anger is also being used as an avoidance strategy and as a tool to effect a wished for outcome.
There are three levels involved here: anger at himself that is projected at others, legitimate anger at others, which is used to mask the self-anger as well as fuel determination, and anger used as an avoidance strategy. To the furious, non-analyzing mind, only the second type of anger is acknowledged at its peak. The negative energy eats you up inside, like a flood straining against a dam. It builds up to such a height that it obscures rational thought, overwhelming what voice, if any, is telling you to stop, that this is bad, that you shouldn’t succumb to this, that you will regret this later. When in the grip of explosive anger, you’re not only ignoring that rational voice, but finding it increasingly difficult to hear. It shrinks into the void, as slippery as a wet fish, and only an iron grip can bring it back into the fore, which is supremely hard to do, even when you want to. But you often don’t want to. What you want is to give in. It’s easier. It’s thrilling, a rush, a temporary reprieve and release from the toxic emotions inside you. The instant gratification, feeling good right this second, is more seductive than what evil might result from it. Jim repeatedly chooses instant gratification. He doesn’t want to hold back, so he doesn’t try to. In those moments, he isn’t thinking as much as simply feeling.
In the case of this episode, the trigger for Jim’s anger was the murder attempt in the elevator. The underlying causes were already brewing. Barbara. Galavan. His guilt. Then the violence and act of someone trying to kill him sparked the flame. This same assassin became the convenient external target for Jim’s anger, all the more satisfying because the man had tried to kill him. Jim’s anger at himself was channeled through his anger at the assassin. From that moment, Jim was in full on anger mode. He was riled up, restless, and hungry for further violence. His interrogation of the assassin consisted of punching him and holding him out a window. He actually appeared gleeful when the assassin mocked him. Grinning, Jim said, “that’s what I was hoping you would say”, immediately grabbing him and taking him to the window. More assassins showed up, providing more outlets for Jim’s anger. After that fight, Barnes ordered him out of the penthouse, but Jim refused to leave, stating that they had to find evidence against Galavan before it was destroyed. This was justified anger and determination. His primary conscious motivation for the last couple of episodes had been to ensure that Galavan would be convicted and no longer a danger to the people of Gotham. Yet with the knowledge that more killers were coming for them, it was foolhardy and reckless to stay there. But safety wasn’t a concern for Jim in that moment. He was too amped up, his vision tunneling, focusing only on his goal, which trumped everything else, and what he was feeling in that moment, which was the need to release his anger. Barnes accused Jim of “looking for a fight”. That was exactly what Jim was doing. It’s possible that part of him recognized this, but that wasn’t the side that was in charge right then. The need and the goal were the only things that he could see.
Then came an unpleasant consequence. One of the assassins shot Barnes, nearly killing him. Afraid to move him, Jim convinced him to wait for backup. This break from the action provided a cooling off period. Jim’s fury didn’t dissipate completely, but it ceased to overwhelm him, allowing him to finally quit dodging Barnes’ questions about why he was so worked up. An anger explosion is often followed by an unpleasant moment of self-reflection when one sees the consequences that their anger brought. Barnes almost died because Jim wanted to stay in a highly dangerous situation to let off some steam. As they were waiting for backup after a second murder attempt, Barnes demanded to know why Jim had been so volatile all day. Jim caved, recounting how both Barbara and Lee thought that there was a monster inside him, and how he had nearly crossed the line when Barbara had taunted him to shoot her. He said, “There was a moment… If Galavan's people hadn't busted in... I don't know.” The disturbing thought that he might have actually killed Barbara had been aching inside him since the night before. And it must have been apparent that he had just given into his darkness once again.
And if it he didn’t understand this then, he certainly did after he fought Flamingo, the last assassin. This violent encounter ended in Jim putting his gun in Flamingo’s mouth and considering pulling the trigger. There was no other possible reason for the action. In that moment, he realized at what levels of darkness he had sunk. What he yearned to do. It terrified him. He yelled, a scream born of all his grief and frustration and that terrifying realization. He pulled back from his anger, from the full expression that he secretly wanted, and calmed himself. This almost murder was another consequence, one that jerked him into the reality in front of him and not the one crafted by the irrational voice in his mind. Afterward, he told Lee that he had almost crossed the line and that it had scared him. The phrasing was a terribly mild way of characterizing what had happened. He downplayed the scared part with a small smile and the qualification of “a little”, but the smile was nervous. Admitting the full extent of what had transpired to her was too much, possibly too nerve-wracking. The shield of his anger gone for the moment, he was faced with the results of his actions and that ugly side of himself that he sought to hide from. To face his guilt. Some of it, at least.
We have only seen these moments of self-reflection come very sporadically. They require willingness to see the truth, or, mostly likely for Jim, inability to deny it anymore. People repeatedly call out Jim on his self-righteousness and love of violence, but, before that moment, we had never seen him agree to it out loud. After Harvey confronted him about it after they interrogated Sionis in episode 8, Jim dismissed it, claiming that, “it’s not that I love fighting. But I'm not afraid to, either. And if we don't fight for this city, who will?” We don’t know what thoughts Jim may have had after Harvey accused him of having a demon in him, but his dismissal shows a complete lack of self-awareness. It was obvious to everyone but himself that he does love fighting, that there is a selfish component to his actions. Yet, if he ever considered that there might be a kernel of truth in Harvey’s statement, he pushed it away, reframing his motivations as completely justified and his actions as necessary to adhere to his core principles. Plenty of others have told Jim that he was acted out of selfish and violent impulses, yet he kept denying it. Fish said that he had “a little danger in [his] eye.” The Electrocutioner told him that it was “all primitive ego” and that Jim just hated to lose. Lee said, “you see an abyss, and you run towards it.” Barbara said, among other things discussed earlier, that Jim “is incapable of being honest with himself.” After enough people tell you that there’s something wrong with you, you start to wonder if it’s true. Especially if they all agree on what that something is. By this point, Jim had finally admitted to himself that there was a darkness inside him and that he wasn’t only “doing his job”.
However, this realization didn’t alter his path. He wasn’t shocked into a crisis of conscience so great that it changed his ways. He simply moved forward with the knowledge that, yes, he was dirty and indulged his dark side, but the circumstances in Gotham hadn’t changed. His task hadn’t changed. Leaning on his dark tendencies was still necessary to do what he needed to do. He would continue to tarnish himself, but that may just be what needs to happen. The next thing that happened after his encounter with Flamingo suggested this point to him. Flamingo killed a cop while he was being taken into custody. If Jim had killed Flamingo, the cop would have lived. The shame-anger cycle would continue in play with little alteration, except that now Jim recognized that he wasn’t all good. That the darkness people called him out on was real. But it didn’t matter. He still thought of himself overwhelmingly as a good person and a good cop. The city needed him to be who he was.
Until getting on the wrong person’s bad side landed him in Blackgate, and he was forced to take a hard look at his life.