Editor’s Note: This year, the iconic Batman: The Animated Series turns 30 years old. “Return to Gotham” is a monthly column looking back at the cartoon that remains a touchstone of the superhero genre and one of the most iconic portrayals of The Dark Knight.
Batman: The Animated Series is famous for its Batman and its Joker, for its total reimagining of villains like Mr. Freeze, and for kicking off the longest continuity of DC characters outside of the comics themselves. And yet, one of its most important contributions might only have happened because head writer Paul Dini happened to have seen an episode of Days of Our Lives in which his friend Arleen Sorkin starred as a jester. Suddenly, he had inspiration for one of the Joker’s goons.
It’s hard to know what characters are going to stick with people—if cartoon or comic writers knew that kind of thing for sure, the world would have quite a bit fewer Scrappy Doos in it. I’m not saying I know exactly what it is that made Harley Quinn an instant hit, but whatever it is sure isn’t generational. One of my daughters watched “Harley and Ivy” on repeat for about a week before dressing as Harley for Halloween. The legions of cosplayers out there dressing as her are certainly not all geriatric millennials like me. Surely there must be something about her character that has struck a chord with fans. Some itch the accented, acrobatic, less-ditzy-than-she-pretends licensed criminal psychologist and former squeeze of the Joker is happy to scratch. Or maybe some fans see something of themselves in her that they barely ever see in other superhero-themed fare.
Whatever that could possibly be, it was there all along. Harley’s 30 now—that’s three years older than the character of Batman (b. 1939) was when Adam West portrayed him for the very first time in 1966. She couldn’t ask for a glitzier Big 3-0, with Season 3 of Harley Quinn releasing on HBO Max today. What’s so exciting about the show (besides the fact it features some of the most interesting Batman storytelling in years in a tight 10 episodes) is that it feels like somebody is finally using the character to her full potential, bringing to fruition subtext and character traits that were there from the get-go.
Harley Quinn’s third season begins where the last left off, after Harley (Kaley Cuoco, who shares executive producer duties on the show) and Poison Ivy (Lake Bell, armed with bone-dry line deliveries deadlier than her plant magic) declared their love for each other and rode off into the sunset. We rejoin them on what they have dubbed their “Eat Bang Kill Tour.” The very first gag is a bait-and-switch meant as a middle finger to those hoping for maximum exploitation. The Fortress of Solitude is trashed and Queen Elizabeth II is dumped out the side of an airplane in the first three minutes. The season goes on to portray the ups and downs of Harley and Ivy’s relationship amid the same kind of barriers we all occasionally face in trying to be with our significant others: Work, big career and life moves that call into question their compatibility as partners, hordes of man-eating plant zombies.
It feels like a new spin on the character. But the thing is, every inspired character turn in the show follows naturally from what we already knew about her. Harley Quinn—a show with a late-season episode that hinges entirely on the crucial detail that Harley is a clinical psychologist—is just picking up what the creators of Batman: The Animated Series put down back in 1992.
Yes, even her preference for redheaded eco-sorceresses.
After a disastrous run-in with his archenemy, the Joker is less than thrilled with Harley. Their spat sees her decide to go independent, but her heist gets tangled up with another one already in progress, courtesy of Poison Ivy (Diane Pershing). The two become fast friends when the fuzz show up, and soon discover in one another something they’ve never had before: A gal pal to go do crime with.
And crime they do. Harley and Ivy rob the “Peregrinators Club,” a stand-in for every wealthy country club, and run afoul with a carload of catcalling douchebags who, when their attentions are unrequited, want to know if the ladies are going to spank them. Harley blows their car up with a bazooka. (She gives them time to get clear, because this is a kid’s show.)
This feminist anarchy makes the papers, and Joker (who cares about Harley a great deal less than he cares about having her around to wash his socks) not happy. We learn that the two women are hanging out where nobody is going to find them, in a suburban ranch home in a subdivision rendered uninhabitable by toxic fumes. Those familiar with Ivy’s whole deal will recall that she’s immune to all poison, but poor Harley needs to take regular shots. The entire setup is more social commentary than any of us could have asked for or deserved from a ’90s afterschool cartoon: A skewed version of domesticity in a suburban wasteland that literally wants to kill our two villainesses, their association with one another a crime that neither the Joker nor Batman can tolerate. There is no way they are letting these two women hang out together in shirts that are longer than the underwear they’re totally wearing underneath. (They’re… they’re wearing underwear right?? This is a kid’s show???)
Harley and Ivy often crossed paths in later episodes, though rarely teamed up as the main event again. All the same, their relationship never lost its clear undertones, though it also never got explicit (what would Standards and Practices say??). There was a lot of plausible deniability going on. Just because two ladyfriends hang out together in a seedy motel room in their undies while they plot holiday-themed crime doesn’t automatically mean they are in a lesbian relationship. But it also doesn’t not mean that.
Harley was so popular that B:TAS kept bringing her back, and almost always as the episode’s explicit protagonist. We saw her backstory, which filled in a throwaway line Batman had said earlier in the show: Harleen Quinzel is actually a psychologist, a former member of Arkham Asylum’s staff. In “Mad Love,” the show revealed how Harley became ensnared by the Joker’s charisma. Implicitly, that episode is about how the Joker actually holds Harley back. She succeeds in capturing Batman. She has him dead to rights, but won’t actually drop him into the tank of piranhas over which she has suspended him. After all, Batman says, if she lets the fish devour him, Joker will never believe she did it.
In addition to being the most compelling look at Harley’s Joker pathology and the most emphatic message from the show’s writers that no, Harley and Joker’s relationship IS NOT “GOALS,” GUYS, it is also one of Batman voice actor Kevin Conroy’s most sinister moments on the mic.
“Harley and Ivy,” like “Mad Love” and every other time in B:TAS when the Joker and Harley have a falling out, ends with Harley unable to slip away from their abusive relationship. It makes her another of the show’s tragic villains, in a way that’s much more sympathetic and human than, say, Mad Hatter’s damage. But it also meant keeping any possibility of a Harley and Ivy romance as titillating subtext, and it made for storylines in which Harley becomes the victim of really shocking abuse for a kid’s show.
Batman’s right, of course. The Joker is a narcissist, and Batman knew that, if he just got Harley to surrender to her need to please her abusive boyfriend, that abusive boyfriend would show up and throw her out a window. After he does that—we see Harley bleeding in a pile of garbage, but alive—Batman escapes and he and the Joker tangle. Coldly, clinically, mockingly, he ribs the Joker, explaining how he used their shitty relationship dynamics to save his own ass and lure the Joker into a fair fight. Batman stooped to using domestic violence to gain an edge. The episode was part of the show’s final season, which was titled The New Adventures of Batman and Robin and featured episodes in which Batgirl hallucinates the fallout of her own death and Robin angrily quits the Dynamic Duo to go become Nightwing. Even next to stuff like that, “Mad Love” was dark.
So it is with no small amount of joy that I note Harley Quinn’s third season focuses entirely on its title character negotiating not abuse but a healthy relationship, not trapped in a cycle of pathology but actually, I’m not kidding, using her knowledge to tackle the pathology that is at the very root of the Batman mythos. It’s not just true to the character’s roots, but moves them forward, and moves Batman forward for good measure.
You really never know which character is going to hit it big.
Tune in to Return to Gotham next month as we look at some of the Batman-centric highlights of the shows that spun off of Batman: The Animated Series!
Kenneth Lowe can’t deny there’s an element of glamor to these super-criminals. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.