Batman: The Animated Series wrote strong women characters better than the majority of animated programs at the time, especially for what is usually considered a “boy” show. As we explored last week, the writers were able to allow real human relationships and damsel-free storytelling with the introduction of Catwoman and the villainous Red Claw. This week, it’s another female villain who has perhaps more confidence than any baddie in the whole of the Rogues Gallery, the flora-obsessed eco-terrorist Poison Ivy, in her debut episode, “Pretty Poison.”
From a story by Paul Dini and Michael Reaves, the teleplay was written by Tom Ruegger and the episode was directed by Boyd Kirkland, all of whom are among The Animated Series‘ A-Team, and it pays off. A lot of the earliest episodes (“Pretty Poison” was the fifth episode produced and the ninth aired) feel a bit different from the bulk of the series because they hadn’t quite decided on a specific look, tone, or feel. This episode is a little more cartoony and the action is a little bit more exaggerated than usual, which doesn’t detract from the proceedings but does make it standout a bit. Also a factor in this is the program was using several different animation houses to get all of the 65 episodes in the initial order produced before daily airing began. As a result, episodes often bear the hallmarks of that studio, region, or style. Parts of “Pretty Poison” have a near-anime texture, which makes it unique.
The story begins with a sepia-toned flashback to newly-elected District Attorney Harvey Dent (Richard Moll) and billionaire Bruce Wayne breaking ground on a new maximum-security prison. In the present, Harvey is anxious for his good friend Bruce to meet his new flame, the alluring botanist Dr. Pamela Isley (Diane Pershing). While Harvey tells Pam about all the crazy things he and Bruce did, we cut to scenes of Batman chasing down a criminal on the rooftops of Gotham City. Finally, Bruce arrives at the restaurant and has a wonderful time, but Pamela has to leave, giving Harvey a whale of a goodbye kiss. As Harvey tells Bruce his plans to marry Pamela, he passes out into his chocolate mousse. This isn’t just lightheadedness; Harvey’s been poisoned by a rare and virulent toxin and if an antidote isn’t found soon, he’ll die.
As Batman, Bruce figures out the poison has come from a flower that has been long thought extinct and later, after walking a tearful Pamela back to her car after visiting Harvey, he twigs (pun intended) that it may have been her kiss that did it. Batman follows her to her lab, where he discovers she’s been doing genetic experiments on plants, creating deadly toxins and carnivorous giant cacti, and that she indeed has the final known specimen of the flower. In order for the prison to be built, the final place these flowers grew had to be leveled, causing their extinction. Pamela, or Poison Ivy as she prefers to be known, wants revenge on Dent and Wayne for their crimes against nature. As Batman attempts to get free of Ivy’s plants, and to fight off the toxin she’s kissed on him, a fire breaks out. Batman says if he dies, the flower goes with him, which is enough to get Ivy to let him go. Jail time for Dr. Isley.
Poison Ivy is a really interesting character for a number of reasons. First of all, she’s nuts. Her motives are similar to that of Catwoman, in that they both want to save helpless species from human interference, but whereas Catwoman is a thief who still has her wits about her, Poison Ivy has gone full mad scientist, actually creating her own monsters to help her get revenge on humankind. When Batman nearly smashes her precious flower, she completely breaks down and begins weeping uncontrollably, forgetting entirely that she’s about to burn to death herself. Her final scene in the prison cell, in which she rocks back and forth, saying she’ll “grow back,” is particularly chilling and full of crazy, something few female characters are allowed to be in animation.
The second thing about Poison Ivy is that she knows who and what she is and how to use that to her advantage. She’s hot, and every guy can see this as she struts out of the restaurant looking a lot like Jessica Rabbit. She’s keenly aware of her looks and her power over men, and she knows that she can exploit this power to get real power. She has no interest in Harvey Dent, but she makes him think she’s head-over-heels, precisely the trap she wants to spring. She also knows men are stupid, and as it’s men who she blames for the destruction of her beloved plants (a not-unfounded blame), she also knows that she is perfectly suited to taking them out. She’s cleverer than almost any man she encounters, and she knows it.
It’s refreshing to have a character who is so comfortable within her own skin and so supremely confident in who she is and what her strengths are. If she were just a little less crazy, she’d probably be able to achieve everything she wanted. In any of her appearances on the show, Poison Ivy is extremely formidable, highly methodical, and is easily one of Batman’s most intellectually-equal foes.
While Ivy is the main focus of the episode, and the main reason I like it, I also like Harvey Dent’s appearance in it. He’d appeared only briefly once before in “On Leather Wings,” but here we get a backstory for his friendship with Bruce Wayne and his status as one of the city’s most eligible bachelors. He spends most of the episode in a coma, yet in his dinner scene with Pamela and later with Bruce, he’s a fully-fleshed character. I love that the creators of the show had the forethought to include Dent into the world of the series BEFORE he becomes the iconic villain for which he’s known. It’s a level of respect to the source material and the fans that they give him given circumstances and some time to breathe before being thrust into bad-guyhood.
Another episode, another terrific villain introduction, and that doesn’t stop here. Next week, I’ll be taking a look at the premiere episode of a villain who really became a staple of The Animated Series and was changed a lot throughout perhaps more than any other. Dr. Jonathan Crane, a/k/a The Scarecrow, rears his ugly, straw-filled head in an episode entitled “Nothing to Fear.”
Let me know what you think of this series, and feel free to request specific episodes that are your favorites, in the comments below. I love feedback!