A bad guy can’t stay bad forever, can they? The optimists among us like to believe that criminals can be rehabilitated to lead normal, law-abiding lives after their incarcerations, but in a place like Gotham City, this seems almost impossible. As Batman: The Animated Series reached its final 20 episodes, following 65 episodes and a feature film, the writers began to focus more and more on whether or not these insane felons could really and truly become upstanding citizens. We’ll talk about others in coming weeks, but the first one involves “plant lady” herself, Poison Ivy, in the episode “House & Garden.”
As we’ve seen all the way back in her first appearance, “Pretty Poison,” the ninth episode to air and the fifth produced, Poison Ivy has been one of the series’ strongest and most complex villains. She’s proved time and again to be smarter than Batman, but also too insane to actually succeed for very long. In “House & Garden,” Ivy does what Batman thinks is the craziest thing of all – going straight. Written by Paul Dini (of course) and directed by Boyd Kirkland (also of course), this episode seems like a straightforward tale of copycat crimes but instead becomes arguably the most twisted and creepy story in the whole of the series.
We begin with the shadow of a giant beast with green arms and sharp claws climbing up a high-rise. It attacks the man who lives there, a wealthy bachelor, and scratches him to inject a powerful plant toxin. It seems pretty cut and dry who the culprit is and Batman is convinced Poison Ivy is behind it. But maybe not. Commissioner Gordon tells the dark knight that Pamely Isley’s was released from Arkham six months ago and is happily married to her psychiatrist, Dr. Steven Carlyle. Batman is highly doubtful of this given that, well, he’s Batman and he’s the least trusting human being alive. So, what the hey, he and Gordon go visiting and find that she is indeed married and apparently HAS given up her nefarious ways. She’s even adopted Carlyle’s two young sons, Chris and Kelly. She says she’s the happiest she’s ever been, for the first time ever. Could she really be rehabilitated?
That night, Dick Grayson is attempting to chat up a coed in school (voiced by Megan Mullally, interestingly enough) when Batman calls to ask him about Dr. Carlyle, who had taught classes at Gotham University. Dick says the man was brilliant and a good teacher. Just then, the beast breaks into Dick’s room and kidnaps him as well, leaving Batman to dress as Bruce Wayne and head to the scene of the crime.
That night, after speaking to Gordon, Bruce is attacked by the monster who somehow got into the back of his car. The monster demands Bruce pay $5 million if he wants to see his ward again. “The money means nothing,” Bruce later tells Alfred, but finding Dick and stopping this threat is. He decides to stake out Mrs. Pamela Carlyle, thinking at some point she has to slip up, but all day she behaves like a normal wife and mother, one from the homemaker school. He’s eventually discovered and finally tells his former rival “good luck.”
Later, Bruce goes to drop off the money, but the monster chucks him off a pier anyway, then does the same to Dick. But Bruce (who hid a Batsuit and jetski under the pier because he’s the best plan-aheader in the world) knocks the monster over and slices off one one hand’s worth of claws. It then gets away into the night. Batman and Robin then try to get to the bottom of the plot and figure that the family must be involved. When Batman mentions meeting the Carlyle’s boys, Dick gets very grave – he also met Chris and Kelly Carlyle when the doctor’s ex-wife dropped them off one afternoon… and they’re both girls.
This is where the episode gets really nuts. Knowing Ivy has indeed done something wicked, the Dynamic Duo go to investigate, finding the husband and children asleep in their beds, but Ivy nowhere to be seen. They go into her greenhouse and find a row of plants that are fake. Moving them away they find a secret stairwell…
…and they discover in a pool the ACTUAL Dr. Carlyle, who has been held prisoner in near-catatonia since Ivy was still in Arkham. They also hear something that sounds like a child saying the word “mommy” and are horrified to find…
…plant pods with babies growing in them! Holy crap! Ivy appears and reveals that she drugged Carlyle with her lipstick to get him to release her, then created a plant-based humanoid version of him from his DNA, along with replicas of his offspring, males only because he was a male. She then reveals that these don’t last long and that all her creations start out as children, turn into fully-grown Carlyles, and then after a bit, fully metamorphose into the hulking plant monsters she uses as hired guns. “Taking care of a family is expensive,” she says with her typical sneer. She also says that she wasn’t lying when she said this really was the happiest she’d ever been. How sick is that?
Poison Ivy again solidified herself as the out-and-out scariest member of Batman’s rogues. Sure, the Joker will kill you with a cackle, but Ivy will calmly tell you it’s for the betterment of plant-kind and then make a humanoid family out of them. It’s sick, it’s twisted, it’s something only Batman: The Animated Series could pull off effectively. It’s one of the best left-turns the show ever took and watching it again for this article, it’s still as shocking and actually more disturbing than when I was a kid. And the scariest bit of all is, at the end, like Hannibal Lecter, we know Poison Ivy got away and is out there somewhere.
So, I guess the answer is: No; criminals in Gotham CAN’T rehabilitate. Not yet, anyway.
Next time, we’ll see what it’s like to be a physically different villain and whether that makes them more sympathetic. Killer Croc is the focus next time, and an homage to Tod Browning’s Freaks, with the episode “Sideshow.”