There were many groundbreaking things to come out of Batman: The Animated Series, which ran initially from 1992-1994, including the gorgeous, Noir-inspired art direction, the indelible character designs, and the iconic voices of Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as the Joker. But one important result was the creation of a brand new character who has since become so popular that she’s been integrated into the comic book continuity and will soon appear in a feature film.
I’m speaking, of course, of Harley Quinn, the brainchild of writer Paul Dini as a character specifically for the voice talents of his friend Arleen Sorkin, who legitimately made that character something special. Harley was the spunky, upbeat, utterly insane girlfriend of the Joker who quickly became more than a giggling moll and made a troubled, emotionally abused, highly complex character. Her relationship with Mr. J. was wrought with strife and co-dependence, but with an undeniable layer of actual love and affection, even if it was the most twisted thing possible.
Between TAS and its 1997 update, The New Batman Adventures, which in total had 109 episodes, Harley only appeared in 15, but that was enough to make her as intrinsic a part of Batman lore as any created in the ’40s. Below are my top 7 Harley appearances between the two shows. You can also read all of my essays on TAS in my BATMAN: REanimated columns.
This is a fine episode, but Harley is just one of a group of villains and, though memorable, she doesn’t have the most to do, which is why it’s last on this list. The inmates of Arkham put Batman on trial for his basically being the reason they all exist. Two-Face acts as prosecutor while Gotham’s actual prosecutor, Janet Van Dorn, a staunch critic of Batman, is meant to be his defense. Harley in this is a member of the jury and also a character witness, so, it’s a bit of a mockery, that court. Plus, Joker’s the judge, so you can imagine her testimony is filled with a lot of kissy-faces. But, Van Dorn makes their little union worse when she tells Harley that it was the Joker who dropped the dime on her that got her locked back up in Arkham.
6) “Joker’s Favor”
This is the first appearance of Harley Quinn and already Dini nailed the alluring insanity of the character. Much less deep than she’d become in the future, she’s pretty much just Joker’s loud, Janice-from-Friends-like acolyte who’s there to say “A-okay, Mistuh J.” She stands out, though, among Joker’s dumb, no-name henchguys. Here, she dresses up as a policewoman and recites a poem to Commissioner Gordon before gassing everybody, then she tries to appeal to Batman in a fake “he made me do it” plea. She’s devious, homicidal, but undeniably endearing.
5) “Almost Got ‘Im”
This is easily one of Batman: The Animated Series‘ best episodes, ever, probably top 2, but it ranks fairly low on this list just because Harley plays more of a supporting role… but what a role it is! Several villains (Joker, Two-Face, Penguin, Poison Ivy, and Killer Croc) all play cards together and tell each other how they almost killed Batman. Joker goes last and his story involves him taking over a late-night talk show, with Harley torturing the audience by telling bad jokes. Batman almost dies but gets away (that’s the theme) when Catwoman comes in to save him. We then fade to the present where Harley has Catwoman tied up at the cat food factory and Batman has to foil this plot as well. Harley basically gets to be the ultimate villain of the piece, and the last to have her own “Almost Got ‘Im” story.
4) “Harley’s Holiday”
Nearing the end of the original series, Harley became much more of a sympathetic figure, and one who Batman and Robin tried to help. Here, she’s reached the end of her stay at Arkham after making an excellent turnaround in her mental health. Batman even shakes her hand and wishes her well. But, quickly, she starts feeling like she’s being persecuted by society since she’s not used to being on the right side of it. She legitimately pays for things in a department store, but unfortunate happenings make people think she’s stolen stuff. She snaps, throwing on her clown get-up on again and heading out for a huge chase, with Batman coming in only to try to quell the situation. Perhaps more than anyone else, she should be in Arkham and it makes sense that she’s the one most likely to get released. She’s not a bad person at heart, she just got warped by the most evil mind alive. And even though I know otherwise, at the end of this episode, I like feeling like she’ll be rehabilitated for real.
3) “Mad Love”
The only one on this list from New Batman Adventures, which largely aren’t as deep or interesting as TAS. Here, though, we see the incredibly twisted beginning of Joker and Harley’s relationship, back when she was Dr. Harleen Quinzell, Joker’s psychiatrist at Arkham. He drove her insane, bringing out her own insecurities and self-doubts and fear of loneliness that ultimately made her fall desperately in love with the Clown Prince of Crime and become his sidekick, girlfriend, and object of ridicule. They have a severely demented relationship, and one that I’ve always been surprised and impressed got put through for daytime network children’s television. Batman’s even particularly cruel to her and calls her a fool for thinking the Joker would actually love her. It’s a means to try to snap her out of her state, but love is nothing if not completely illogical.
This episode completely illustrates the truly twisted, but not ALWAYS one-sided, abusive relationship between Joker and Harley. Batman pulls Harley out of Arkham to help him find out what Joker’s up to, and she is willing to help for time off her sentence, and because Mr. J. has basically forgotten about her since she’s been on the inside, culminating in a massive plane-crash firefight thing. At one point Batman asks her what she could possibly see in the Joker and she replies that he was the only one who’d listen to her when she was a psychiatrist and was made to listen to everyone else. A fairly valid reason, I suppose. We also get the very complex ending in which she nearly shoots him with a machine gun, him telling her she doesn’t have the guts, then her pulling the trigger only to have a sign pop out saying “Rat Tat Tat”. They look at each other sheepishly for a moment before the Joker just exclaims “Baby, you’re the greatest!” I guess they really are meant to be.
1) “Harley and Ivy”
Perhaps the most genius thing the makers of Batman: The Animated Series ever did was to pair up Harley with Poison Ivy, another deep, complex, and compelling female villain. The two of them work together in a way I don’t think anyone could have predicted, and Ivy, who has always been mistreated by men, becomes the voice of reason (I mean, as reasonable as a psychotic plant-obsessed murderer can be) and tells Harley not to be a victim of the Joker’s whims anymore. After Mr. J disrespects her one too many times, Harley is distraught and leaves, running across Ivy who takes pity on the poor lovesick girl and the two become the most effective criminal team in Gotham’s history. Joker assumed Harley would come crawling back in a couple of days, but she didn’t, and he has to go look for her. You almost wish she’d decided to stay living with Ivy in the condemned swamp, but we all know Harley would go back to the Joker if she could. But this episode proved that she doesn’t NEED the Joker, narratively or emotionally, but she will always want him.
It’s episodes likes these that made us all fall in love with Harley Quinn and her supremely misguided, mallet-happy lifestyle. Though Margot Robbie certainly looks the part, we can only hope she’ll have the same level of depth, depravity, and oddly-good-hearted-feminism of her first, and still best, incarnation.
What’re your favorite Harley episodes of these or any animated show? Let us know below!
[ALL IMAGES: Copyright Warner Bros/DC]