The 51st episode of Batman: The Animated Series to air was the one which won a Primetime Emmy Award for Best Animated Program. In the 50 episodes that had aired to this point, there had been some truly excellent, exciting, touching, and innovative half-hours of television. Episodes like “Heart of Ice,” “Beware the Gray Ghost,” and “Almost Got ‘Im” are some of the more indelible entries. However, for episodes with a true amount of sadness, despair, and darkness dealing with the theme of revenge, the finest example of is the two-part “Robin’s Reckoning” which aired on February 7th and 14th 1993.
While Bruce Wayne’s origins would wait to be tackled in the feature film Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (which I’ll get to in a few weeks, promise), Dick Grayson as Robin got his heartbreaking beginning shown on the series proper. As the series went on, there was pressure from Fox to make Robin more of a character, and a regular one. The series established Robin as being in college and returning to Gotham to help Batman only on occasion, however with the series becoming popular, the desire for Robin (the closest thing the young audience had to a surrogate) to be front and center became a driving force from the network. Luckily, in something like “Robin’s Reckoning,” writer Randy Rogel and director Dick Sebast found a way to include the character and write one of the most compelling stories in the whole series.
The episode begins with Batman and Robin staking out a construction site waiting for what Batman assumes to be inevitable: contract saboteurs to arrive to do their dirty work. Luckily for the easily bored Robin, they arrive quickly and the dynamic duo are able to make quick work of them. Leaving one goon dangling for his life from a girder, they demand to know who hired them. After a bit of “persuasion,” the thug says the name “Billy Marin.” While Robin attempts to press the topic, Batman tells him to back off, then drops the Boy Wonder back at the Batcave so that he can go out alone. The name “Marin” really got to Batman; but why? Robin does some investigating on the Batcomputer and discovers Billy Marin is an alias of Tony Zucco.
We then go to a flashback to the circus and young Dick Grayson and his family of trapeze artists, The Flying Graysons. They are literally the centerpiece of the whole act. After rehearsal, Dick happens to overhear an argument between Mr. Haley, the circus owner, and a man who says his name is Tony Zucco and who is trying to extort protection money from the circus. Haley naturally throws him out on his hinder, but he promises he’ll be back and they’ll be sorry. That night at the performance, Dick sees Zucco running out of the tent before the Flying Graysons go on. He thinks about telling his parents but doesn’t. Zucco, it seems, has cut the trapeze rope and while his parents are attempting a catch, the rope snaps and they both fall to their death. Dick is the material witness in the case and Bruce Wayne, who was in the audience, decides to take the boy in for protection.
Batman attempts to track down Zucco and does quite a good job, but ultimately the murderer gets away. He returns to the Batcave where Alfred tells him that the little boy upstairs needs a friend right now more than he needs someone to track down his parents’ killer. So, Bruce Wayne becomes Dick’s guardian and the two have a scene where they each talk about how helpless they felt/feel by the death of their respective parents. The two share an embrace while in the present, Robin pleads with Batman over the radio to allow him to help catch Zucco, but Batman refuses. Robin drives off on the motorcycle, swearing he might never obey Batman again.
The second part continues the flashback with Bruce teaching Dick how to fence. (With swords, not like how to sell stolen property.) Commissioner Gordon comes by to tell Bruce that he might not have to look after Dick much longer. Zucco’s spooked and might be skipping town. Dick, who’d been eavesdropping, decides to go looking for Zucco himself. After saving a woman from getting smacked by her pimp (come on, he’s a pimp!), Dick gets a lead on Zucco’s whereabouts. Unfortunately, Zucco hears him and almost kills the boy when Batman shows up. Dick falls in the river on accident and Batman quickly has to let go of the criminal to get Dick, but it leads Batman to telling the boy his identity and asking if he truly wants to get Zucco.
It took 9 years, it seems, but Robin the Boy Wonder has the opportunity to do so, with or without Batman’s help. He manages to get Zucco’s address by tracking the last number dialed from the pinched thug’s phone. Zucco, meanwhile, is super paranoid that Batman’s coming for him. He hears something on the roof an unloads a Tommy gun (Sidebar: why is it so easy for people to obtain Tommy guns in Gotham City? Stiffer laws I think are in order, given the crime rate) into it. It collapses, but wouldn’t you know it, Batman IS up there, and having fallen, has twisted his knee. He makes a run for it and Zucco and the thugs follow him out to the pier-side carnival. Zucco is about to kill Batman when Robin shows up and begins to beat the ever-loving tar out of the thug, only stopping because Batman appears. Robin knows he was about to go too far. Zucco is brought to justice, and the dynamic duo are reunited.
This is arguably the most realistic episode the series ever did. There’s no super villains, not science fiction elements, no inhuman monsters; just a man seeking revenge for a wrong committed when he was a boy. It’s right out of a Western (several, in fact). Batman is old enough to where we only see glimpses of his despair at his parents’ loss, but through Robin, we get to see every feeling of anger, betrayal, hatred, and sadness. It’s quite moving. Up to this point and in many more episodes to follow, Robin is the wise-cracker who, while capable, is the comic relief to Batman’s stoic hero. However, we see that he’s just as affected by his parents’ murder as Batman is his. He’s not just some boy swinging around cracking wise.
This is one of the few two-parters in TAS to actually have the same writer and director for both parts. I think this helps give a really nice cohesion to everything. The story’s tone is serious, the action is heavy, and the animation is robust and full of texture and shadow. They’re some of the loveliest episodes to look at.
“Robin’s Reckoning” represents some of the finest storytelling the series ever produced. The writing and direction are top notch, and the performances from Kevin Conroy, Loren Lester as Robin, and Tom Wilson as Zucco are absolute aces. You feel like you aren’t even watching a cartoon at a certain point. These episodes could easily have been made as a live action piece of television and not one word would have needed changing. It’s powerful, touching, and sad stuff; very deserving of that Emmy Award.
Next week, a plot by the Penguin puts Batman’s namesake to the test. It’s “Blind as a Bat.” And, as always, you can read back installments of this column here. Let me know if there are any eps I’ve missed so far that you want me to cover.