When Gotham was first announced, its central premise was reportedly following the rise of young Jim Gordon. While Ben McKenzie’s Gordon continues to serve as the series’ ostensible leading man, the show has developed into much more than a meditation on the early years of Batman’s longtime ally. With season 2, the show embraced the popularity of regular characters like Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor) and Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith), bearing the subtitles “Rise of the Villains” and “Wrath of the Villains” in commemoration of its renewed focus on the origins of Batman’s most fearsome foes.
With Gotham now back for season 3, the time is right to look back on the show’s first two seasons and re-evaluate the best baddies to come out of the show to date. For the record, we’re only considering individual villains for this list. So don’t expect to see organizations like the still-unnamed Court of Owls. Also, anti-heroes and more sympathetic villains like Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova) and Carmine Falcone (John Doman), respectively, don’t qualify. Lastly, characters who are destined to turn to the dark side but haven’t just yet -- such as Harvey Dent (Nicholas D’Agosto) -- won’t appear, as they aren’t truly villains. Yet.
Here are The 15 Best Gotham Villains (So Far).
16 Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith)
Despite the fact that Fish Mooney has long been among the most divisive figures on Gotham, the character’s integral role in the ongoing saga of the city’s criminal underworld cannot be underestimated. While Fish is one of the few major characters created exclusively for the show, she has also proven to be one of the most important, especially in her rivalry with former employee Oswald Cobblepot (more on him later).
In season 1, Fish made a calculated bid for power in tipping the scale in the Falcone/Maroni mob war, only to meet an untimely end (or so we thought). Towards the end of season 2, she was resurrected by Hugo Strange but with a newfound power of persuasion now serving as her greatest asset. It’s unclear what the future will bring for her in season 3, but chances are that she’ll continue to frustrate both the show’s characters and a significant portion of its fans in equal measure.
15 Jason Skolimski/The Ogre (Milo Ventimiglia)
Many of the villains on our list have a long-standing presence throughout Gotham’s run. However, The Ogre’s presence has been limited to three consecutive episodes that took Barbara Kean’s storyline into incredibly dark territory. A significant departure from the DC Comics supervillain of the same name, Ogre was a serial killer with a pattern of luring attractive young women into bizarre and twisted “relationships” that ultimately end with their death once he deemed them unworthy of his love.
Though his storyline veered into some Fifty Shades of Grey territory, The Ogre did bring a more grounded threat to the show than most of the more supernatural villains that would subsequently appear, and he also gave Gotham’s showrunners the chance to revamp Barbara from Gordon’s dutiful, dejected fiancee into an unhinged maniac. Even now, the citizens of Gotham are feeling the consequences of the psychotic break The Ogre inspired in Barbara. Though the character himself was short-lived, his legacy has stood the test of time.
14 Salvatore Maroni (David Zayas)
We mentioned in the introduction that Carmine Falcone was disqualified from our list because the character was depicted as an honorable gangster with whom viewers are asked to sympathize. This is not the case with his up-and-coming rival, Sal Maroni. When we first meet Maroni, he is eager to unseat Falcone at the top, and he demonstrates more than enough ingenuity and ruthlessness to do so. Yet, Penguin ultimately manipulates the city’s multiple crime families to his own ends throughout season 1, and Fish -- fed up with Maroni’s arrogance -- kills him in the season finale after a botched partnership between the two.
All’s been quiet on the Maroni front since then, with no apparent replacement set to pick up the pieces and challenge Penguin and his forces. However, longtime DC Comics fans know that Maroni’s family is a mainstay in the Gotham underworld during Batman’s heyday as well, most notably for causing the disfigurement that transforms Harvey Dent into Two-Face. So don’t be surprised if an heir to the Maroni empire (perhaps an as-of-yet-unrevealed Sal Maroni Jr.?) swoops in to claim his fair share of the city at some point.
13 Barbara Kean (Erin Richards)
After Fish Mooney, Barbara Kean is probably the other villain on our list to earn just as much wrath from the show’s fans as the heroes onscreen. That’s understandable enough, considering that she spent nearly the entire first season as little more than Gordon’s long-suffering, lonely fiancee. That all changed once the aforementioned Ogre got his hands on her, coercing her into murdering her own parents. Since then, she’s been a key thorn in Gordon and the GCPD’s side, teaming up with Theo Galavan and his Maniax early in season 2 and causing all sorts of mayhem, including multiple attempts on Gordon and Lee’s lives.
These days, she is running a club called The Sirens with on-again/off-again girlfriend Tabitha (we’ll get to her), adding fuel to the fire that Barbara will develop into Gotham’s version of Harley Quinn. Though this would be a drastic departure from her comic book counterpart, it’s certainly a tremendous leap forward from the more prosaic version of Barbara that was initially introduced.
12 Victor Zsasz (Anthony Carrigan)
Victor Zsasz has never really been the type of character to launch a full-scale attack on the streets of Gotham. Rather, on a series loaded with burgeoning supervillains, this notorious hitman has remained the city's go-to gun for hire, working for both Carmine Falcone and Penguin throughout the show’s first two seasons.
A deadly sociopath who takes great pleasure in doling out punishment at the behest of his employer, Zsasz’s lack of emotion, pale complexion and intense stare make him one of the most distinctive characters on the series, and viewers can never be sure when he will be called in to take care of some deadly business. Because of his unpredictability, he is among the most feared killers in Gotham -- armed with a particularly sadistic nature and intense combat skills -- and he appears as hungry as ever to add a few more kills to his ongoing tally of the many lives he has claimed over the years.
11 Basil Karlo/Clayface (Brian McManamon)
One of the most recent additions to the show’s ever-expanding gallery of memorable baddies, the appearance of Clayface late in season 2 cemented Gotham’s willingness to embrace the sci-fi elements of the source material. Basil Karlo was brought on to the series as one of the many subjects of Hugo Strange’s experiments in Indian Hill. An actor whose cause of death remains unknown, he was revived with the ability to take the shape of anyone, though so far, Clayface needs the assistance of a machine in order for his face to be molded into that of others.
To this point, he’s only impersonated Gordon, infiltrating the GCPD in the season finale. Clayface has yet to reappear, presumably having been arrested for his crimes. Make no mistake, though: his return is bound to happen sooner rather than later. There’s simply too much potential in a villain with the unique ability to shape-shift into any of the show’s many characters to simply allow him to waste away behind bars off-screen.
10 Bridgit Pike/Firefly (Michelle Veintimilla)
Firefly started out being one of those sympathetic villains we said we’d avoid, but as her arc continues, she becomes more and more consumed by violence. Being adopted into the arsonist Pike family, Bridgit never really had much of a chance to avoid a life of crime. Early on in season 2, she is forced to help out her brothers with a job and winds up developing a taste for bloodshed, taking out some cops in an altercation with the GCPD. Sustaining serious burns and having her arsonist suit melded to her body, she is presumed dead and ultimately transferred to Indian Hill, where Hugo Strange turns her into the villainous Firefly, believing that she is a goddess of fire.
Thanks to Selina, Firefly finally begins to remember her previous life and faces off briefly against Mr. Freeze late last season. Her fate remains a mystery so far, though we’ll bet we haven’t seen the last of her.
9 Tabitha Galavan/Tigress (Jessica Lucas)
Introduced in season 2 alongside her equally devious brother, Theo, Tabitha serves as Gotham’s version of the supervillain Tigress. She entered the show with a vengeance, playing a key part of the Order of St. Dumas’ plan to dismantle Gotham and target young Bruce Wayne. Vicious and lethal, she is perhaps one of the deadliest characters on the show, though she has shown traces of a soft spot for those she cares about. Tabitha even betrayed her brother in defense of her niece Silver St. Cloud and joined forces with Butch Gilzean in the second half of season 2.
Nowadays, her loyalty lies with Barbara once again, as the duo of deadly vixens run The Sirens nightclub together. With the ties apparently cut between Tabitha and Butch (and Penguin still itching to avenge his mother’s death at her hands), we’re not sure yet what role Tabitha will play in the grand scheme of things in season 3.
8 Victor Fries/Mr. Freeze (Nathan Darrow)
Given that the best-known live-action interpretation of this longtime Batman villain is the pun-happy one played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Gotham had its work cut out for it when it came time to bring Mr. Freeze into the fold. Thankfully, by borrowing elements of the character’s tragic backstory from the Batman: The Animated Series episode “Heart of Ice,” the series pulled off a version of Dr. Victor Fries that focuses more on his passion for cryogenics and his love for his wife Nora than his proclivity for icy one-liners.
After his initial multi-episode arc ended, Freeze began working for Hugo Strange in his quest to reanimate fallen criminals, and he currently remains at large. Of the many villains introduced in season 3, Freeze’s story probably has the most narrative juice, and with Strange no longer in control, we can only imagine what Freeze will be after when he pops up in season 3.
7 Butch Gilzean (Drew Powell)
Much like Victor Zsasz, Butch has largely remained content with serving under a more ambitious and powerful villainous figure in his run on Gotham. The comparison is all the more fitting when you take into account the fact that Zsasz was the one who brainwashed Butch to forsake Fish Mooney and start working for Penguin instead.
Throughout seasons 1 and 2, Butch has been through a lot more than simply shifting alliances, however. At the behest of Penguin, he even sacrificed a hand to go undercover as a spy within Theo Galavan’s crew, and upon his deprogramming, he joins Galavan’s cause and begins a relationship with Tabitha. Despite briefly running his own crime family, Butch has once again become Penguin’s henchman by the time season 3 begins, though there is no apparent brainwashing involved this time around.
While Butch has become far more sympathetic than some other villains (due in part to his genuine love for Tabitha), he remains one of the most consistently entertaining and surprisingly complicated supporting players on Gotham.
6 Theo Galavan/Azrael (James Frain)
As if the “Rise of the Villains”/"Wrath of the Villains” structure wasn’t already a dead giveaway, season 2 of Gotham was clearly divided into two distinct arcs. The former centers on Theo Galavan’s arrival in Gotham and his pervasive ascension to the position of mayor. All the while, Galavan -- working on behalf of the Order of St. Dumas -- systemically sends criminal activity skyrocketing, organizing the Maniax and attempting to murder Bruce Wayne. Along the way, he incurs the wrath of nearly every other major character before ultimately meeting his end at the collective hands of both Gordon and Penguin.
Cunning and charismatic, Galavan’s quest for vengeance doesn’t entirely end in his death, however, as Hugo Strange revives him as Azrael (a name that should ring more than a few bells for longtime Batman fans). This mini-arc allowed Gotham to bring its own spin on the classic character and set up perhaps the most over-the-top death to date, with Butch straight-up annihilating Azrael with a rocket launcher. Well, Galavan’s reign of terror was fun while it lasted.
5 Hugo Strange (BD Wong)
Whenever you cast an actor of B.D. Wong’s caliber, you’d better have one hell of a role in store for him. Luckily, the Tony-winning veteran of stage and screen was brought on board to play the other season 2 “Big Bad” for the “Wrath of the Villains” half. With a genius-level intellect and a thoroughly bizarre scientific background, Hugo Strange lacks the supernatural abilities of his many creations in Indian Hill. But what he lacks as a physical threat, he more than compensates for with his psychological prowess.
In the latter half of season 2, Strange evades the suspicions of Gordon, Bruce, and the show’s other heroes as he works towards the secret of reanimation. This culminates in the return of several recurring villains by season’s end, but what makes Strange even more fascinating is the revelation that he isn’t even the one truly in charge of Indian Hill, as he is revealed to be operating under orders from the mysterious Court of Owls.
4 Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith)
Talk about a slow burn. The story of Edward Nygma -- who has yet to adopt his puzzling alias as The Riddler -- debuted in the very first episode of Gotham, establishing the character as a nerdy, socially awkward forensic scientist for the GCPD. Yet, by the end of season 1, he’d already committed and covered up his first murder, albeit one done in defense of his unrequited love, Kristen Kringle. Throughout season 2, this single act spiraled out of control, as Nygma became more erratic and demonstrated signs of multiple personalities. These ultimately come to a head when he (sort of) accidentally murders Kristen herself, an event that sees him fully embrace his dark side.
Though he has yet to don a green suit littered with question marks, Nygma is every bit the tricky nemesis fans know from the Riddler’s other incarnations. Long before Gotham became dedicated to villainous origin stories, the show already began tackling Nygma’s with such careful development that the character’s popularity likely was instrumental in steering the show’s current direction.
3 Jerome Valeska (Cameron Monaghan)
No villain to ever appear on Gotham has received the attention of this troubled young man. While the show’s marketing remains frustratingly indecisive regarding whether or not Jerome Valeska is indeed the character who will one day evolve into The Joker, he certainly bears many of his signature trademarks. From his gleefully sinister attitude to his penchant for theatricality, Jerome is at the very least a prototype for the Clown Prince of Crime, and his presence on the show has made him a fan favorite.
Even when Jerome was murdered by Theo Galvan in an orchestrated effort for the older man to be perceived as a hero, rumors that he would would return to Gotham have continued to run strong, especially once Hugo Strange’s reanimation experiments were revealed. As of now, producers have confirmed that Jerome will return at some point, though we still have to wonder if this wild card will indeed be the Joker we all suspect it might be.
2 Oswald Cobblepot/Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor)
Many, many villains have come and gone on Gotham, but amidst the chaos, Oswald Cobblepot -- better known nowadays as the Penguin -- is far and away the most intriguing of all. In season 1, he was the master puppeteer who twisted the city’s criminal underworld in a successful effort to become “the king of Gotham,” and season 2 saw him suffer great personal loss with the murders of his beloved mother Gertrude and his long-lost father Elijah, only to once again wind up the victor.
Some of the show’s baddies are delightfully over-the-top and others are sympathetic. However, Penguin effortlessly slips from one to the next at a moment’s notice. Even when the series doesn’t seem to have any idea what to do with the character (in much of the second half of season 2, for example), Robin Lord Taylor’s consistently strong performance makes him a villain viewers simply can’t take their eyes off of. Gordon and Bruce may be the show’s heroes, but Penguin is Gotham’s best all-around character thus far. With season 3 taking a page out of the comic books by putting Penguin into the political arena, it appears that his story is just getting started.
While many memorable villains have appeared on Gotham so far, we’re confident that our list does justice to the best ones to appear on the Fox series so far. The months ahead promise several new additions to the unforgettable baddies discussed above, with popular characters like Poison Ivy, Mad Hatter and even Killer Croc poised to take center stage. For now, however, fans of Gotham’s revisionist take on DC Comics mythology can revel in the fact that the show has ample room to grow and explore a deeper bench of Batman villains than what the films have been able to cover to date. In retrospect, the first two seasons of Gotham appear to have been set up to allow the show the opportunity to fully delve into the more outlandish side of Gotham’s criminal underworld. We look forward to seeing just what's lurking just around the corner.
Who has been your favorite Gotham villain so far, and who do you want to see show up next? Share your thoughts in the comments section.
Gotham season 3 continues next Monday with "Mad City: Lookin Into My Eyes" at 8pm on FOX.