In the last installment of this, I talked about how we finally had an episode getting to the heart of Bruce Wayne’s deepest fears, thanks to a run-in with the Scarecrow; This week, we get to see a little bit of his past, who helped him in his time of need, and how important tradition is. We also get a snapshot of how irritating it must be to be a crime fighter in a city as full of crime as Gotham. Just the pits, really. But the episode isn’t! It’s “Appointment in Crime Alley.”
Once a year, Batman goes into Park Row, at one time a well-to-do stretch of neighborhood, now a slum known as “Crime Alley,” to meet a friend for a very special anniversary. A sad anniversary, it has to be said, but one that Bruce Wayne hasn’t allowed himself to forget in 30 years. He’s off to meet Dr. Leslie Thompkins, one of the very few people who knows Batman’s secret identity and the person who helped him right after his parents were murdered. It’s an appointment he always keeps, 8:00 pm on the dot, but, unfortunately, a lot of bad stuff is going on in Crime Alley tonight.
Park Row has turned into slums, with lots of condemned buildings and unemployed families forced to huddle in once-lush apartments and hotels. The greedy and psychopathic business magnate Roland Daggett wants to develop new buildings in this area, but he can’t just force people to leave, right? But if something should, say, HAPPEN to the buildings, he could swoop in and build and look like a hero. This is why he’s hired a professional arsonist called Nitro to blow up have the neighborhood at 9:00 pm, including the former SRO hotel in which many families live.
There’s a lot going on in the story, but what I love most about it is the timed aspect of it. The bulk of it takes place between 7:40 pm and 9:20 pm on a single evening. The episode, written by Gerry Conway and directed by Boyd Kirkland, was based on a comic story by the great Dennis O’Neil, who introduced the character of Leslie Thompkins as Bruce Wayne’s only maternal figure, a confidant, and a conscience. We get a surprising amount of their history in this episode, even though the two barely spend any time together on screen, instead being conveyed by newspaper clippings and offhanded comments.
On his way to meet Dr. Thompkins, Batman is delayed by a crime in progress. This leads to him being late for his meeting, which hasn’t ever happened. Thompkins decides to go look for him. Her friend tells her to be careful, but she says she’s been living in Park Row for a long time and isn’t afraid. She probably should have been. She comes across Nitro and another of Daggett’s goons fixing a time bomb to a condemned building. They tie her up, gag her, and leave her there to go up with the rest of the rubble at 9. Batman only has 55 minutes to save her! But more stuff gets in the way.
Batman finds tiny clues about what’s going on, including a discarded blasting cap (didn’t anyone in Gotham heed the advice of Willie Mays?!?!), but every time he gets close, another thing goes wrong with which he has to deal, like an angry resident taking a Daggett employee hostage on a billboard, and a trolley car speeding out of control down Gotham’s most San Franciscan street. Great time, everything going wrong at once. To use a phrase old timey people used to say, Batman can’t win for losing. Can he possibly find his friend before she explodes? Can he stop the explosions at all? Can he finally implicate Roland Daggett and have it stick?
This episode works so beautifully because it’s playing with the already well-established format of the program. Batman: The Animated Series has never been about occurring in anything approaching real time. By introducing the convention of the appointment AND the explosives, the narrative sets up a literal ticking-clock element, and a definite time frame for the events. We see the time quite a lot while the action is taking place, whether it be a clock on the wall, a pocket watch in Daggett’s hand, or the actual timer on the bomb itself. In true Hitchcockian fashion, it immediately creates tension and brings in a goal for Batman to accomplish. We even see a miniature version of what will happen if he fails at the beginning of the episode when Nitro shows Daggett the explosion using models. (A waste of models, it has to be said.)
We also get a sense of Batman being incapable of seeing people in need and doing nothing, the way everybody in crime alley, save Leslie Thompkins, had done when he was a child. He knows his friend is missing, and even later that Daggett’s up to something, but he still has to get involved in the hostage-taking and the trolley-stopping. He is compelled to do the right thing in every instance, trusting himself to be able to get it all done. It’s this weird OCD thing with him, like a light switch he has to turn on and off a hundred times or a messy room he has to pick up no matter what time of day. He even at one point says to himself “Oh, just great!” when yet another thing is standing in his way. He gets annoyed, but he never once contemplates not helping.
And, finally, we get the really great final scene in which Batman and Leslie place flowers on the site of the Waynes’ murder all those years ago. It’s a little later than usual this year, but it’s still something they have to do. I like this version of things because Batman is always depicted as visiting the spot on his own, in pretty much every version of the story, but here he has someone to go with. It’s a thing they do together. I like to think, without Dr. Leslie Thompkins, he really WOULD go completely off the rails and become a murderer or something.
Next week, we stay on the theme of playing with the format with the episode “P.O.V.,” in which Detective Bullock, Officer Montoya, and rookie Officer Wilkes each give their own version of what Batman did when a gang raid goes south. Let’s keep that appointment next week, shall we?