This week’s episode of Batman: The Animated Series deals with, of all things, an abusive relationship, female empowerment, self-destructive behavior, and a form of Stockholm Syndrome. (I’d like to remind everyone that the show is a cartoon for kids that aired after school and on Saturday mornings.)
Harley Quinn was a character created specifically for Batman: The Animated Series who quickly became a favorite not only with the audience, but with the makers of the show–especially her creator Paul Dini. With this episode, “Harley and Ivy,” we learn more about Harley as a person and her particular weaknesses and strengths. Who’s surprised the Joker is a crappy boyfriend?
“Harley and Ivy” (the title a reference to the famous Olde English carol “Holly and Ivy”) was written and directed by “The A-Team” of Dini and Boyd Kirkland. Like many of the best Batman: The Animated Series episodes, “Harley and Ivy” deals primarily with the scarred psyches of villains. Batman, like in “Almost Got ‘Im,” is here mainly as a driving force for the plot but doesn’t feature too much in the main thrust of things. There’s nothing wrong with this type of storytelling; as interesting as Batman is, his Rogues Gallery is endlessly fascinating and deserving of whole episodes themselves. That the directors gave Harley Quinn such an episode in only her fourth appearance is pretty impressive. It also gave rise to easily the best female team-up of all time.
We begin on the road with the Batmobile chasing the Joker’s car after a botched heist. Harley’s driving as fast as she can whilst Joker lounges in the back seat. She’s not having the easiest job of it as the Caped Crusader doggedly pursues them at every turn. Joker asks for his gun and Harley hands him one, which unfortunately for them is just a joke flag gun. Though the bad guys are able to get away, Joker is none too pleased with his acolyte’s performance. Though she beseeches him to forgive her, the Joker kicks Harley out on the curb where she’s forced to wander around aimlessly.
That is until she stumbles across Poison Ivy who’s in the middle of her own scheme. Though Harley bungles things up for Ivy a bit, the green-clad criminal takes pity on Harley and they go back to Ivy’s house, lovingly dubbed “Toxic Acres.” After an injection of anti-toxin (because otherwise she’d die), Harley and Ivy talk about Mr. J and why on Earth Harley would ever stay with him. Her responses are pretty heartbreaking. But, after being slightly maudlin, the two women decide to go out and start a crime spree, beginning with robbing Gotham’s oldest Men’s Club.
Their exploits hit the papers, with them being called “The New Queens of Crime.” The Joker is pretty upset that a) Harley actually left when he told her to and b) that she’s off committing successful robberies with Poison Ivy. Eventually, both Batman, the Joker, and Joker’s goons descend on Toxic Acres and an explosive ending ensues, after which everybody goes to Arkham.
“Harley and Ivy” is fantastic. It’s rare that we get to see two leading women onscreen by themselves, and in a Batman episode the pairing of Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy couldn’t be better. Ivy had already been set up as the feminist villain, blaming men specifically for the demise of her precious plants. To have her take in the abused and semi-brainwashed Harley and teach her a little bit of self-reliance (and the fun of sticking it to men everywhere) is really forward thinking for 1990s animation. Ivy talks to Harley about being in that abusive relationship (it’s clearly emotionally abusive, though the show never depicts it not being physically so) and somewhat makes her see she’s worth more than the constant berating she gets from the Joker.
The pair of them on heists is also a joy to watch. One of the best scenes in the whole episode is when, after a heist, the women are driving in their convertible when a convertible full of young douchebags drives up and begins cat-calling them and making insinuations. This, obviously, will not stand and Harley responds by blowing up their car with a bazooka. Ivy responds, “There may be hope for you yet!”
Even though Harley ultimately does return to the Joker, her friendship with Ivy remains throughout the series and the future incarnations of animated Batman. They’re a remarkably good team and prove that the ladies don’t need any help from the men. They were essentially ruling the criminal underworld for awhile and not even the Joker could do that on his best day. Comic books and adaptations need more partnerships like this, written by people who know that these characters aren’t just male fantasies; they are fully-formed, intelligent, and deep characters who are just as capable, if not more so, as the fellas. I think it’s very fitting for an episode of this nature that it’s Officer Renee Montoya who finally captures them, not Gordon, not Bullock, and certainly not Batman.
Next week, we’re going to focus on a character who rarely gets shown, but who is clearly an important part of Batman’s crime fighting life: The guy who built and fixes the Batmobile. Next time, it’s “The Mechanic.”