Batman: The Animated Series, “The Joker’s Favor”

13Mar11

I’m going to be up front about this: “The Joker’s Favor” is both my favorite Joker episode, and probably my favorite episode of the whole series. I am not at all objective here. Having said that, I hope I can manage to be coherent on why it’s so good…but I figured that I should just admit my bias now. Of course, having admitted that, it’s a bit surprising that the episode makes Batman himself almost seem incidental to how things play out

The episode starts out focusing on a schlubby guy in a regular car. He’s designed to look pitiful-protruding lips, a big gut, one thick lock of hair to emphasize how bald the rest of his head is…and he comes with a round of petty complaints, like being stuck in traffic and his kid needing braces. He also has a theme that features a lot of tuba. He almost functions as a an outside view of the Batman universe’s insanity. Well, until he chases after the Joker and starts to road rage at him. He’s smart enough to stop as soon as he recognizes the man who cut him off, but it’s too late-now he has the Joker’s attention. There’s a delightful point-counterpoint to the following scene, as our hapless protagonist gets more and more panicked in his efforts to escape…and the Joker, now conspicuously following the rules of the road, follows in what could almost seem like a gentle reminder of how to behave, if it wasn’t for his ominous circus theme music and that unnerving grin.

Eventually the Joker catches up with him, and he’s about to administer a presumably lethal reminder not to cut people off, when Charles (our schlub in peril) begins to plead for his lfe, saying he’ll do anything. And for once, instead of reveling in his victim’s fear, the Joker accepts! After taking the man’s ID to keep tack, he walks away laughing. Two years later, we cut to Commissioner Gordon, complaining about getting a dinner in his honor. While Batman pops into Gordon’s office to say he deserves the recognition, the Joker is less than pleased, taking it as an affront to his own efforts to “entertain” Gotham’s police. And he decides to call in Charley’s favor for his plan.

As an aside, this is the first appearance of Harley Quinn-and much like the Joker, she’s just dropped into things, with no attempt to explain her presence. Later on, of course, she’ll get an origin story, but for now she’s just there, adding some visual spice to the Joker’s gang. But at the same time, many of her traits are already in place, such as her pet names for the Joker, and her greater enthusiasm for the man’s work than his regular muscle can muster.

Once the Joker contacts Charles, we find out that he didn’t forget about that favor. In fact, he moved to another town, in another state, and changed his name, in an attempt to get away. It’s all for naught, but at least the man was smart enough to realize being in debt to the Joker is never a good thing. The Joker, in turn, makes it clear that Charles isn’t in a position to refuse. Charles makes an attempt to get away, but Harley intercepts him at the airport. The Joker acts like he’s meeting a fondly remembered friend, and reveals Charles’ part of the plan-open the door for Harley to bring in a giant cake. That’s it. The Joker has ruined this man’s life, put him in mortal terror, and brought him across the country…to open a door. It’s a wonderful example of the Joker’s utter insanity.

After using a fairly ridiculous contraption to try signaling for Batman (which only works for the purpose of narrative convenience), Charles gets the signal and opens the door. While Harley puts on a show with the cake, Charles discovers he’s now stuck to the handle when Harley triggers a gas spray that paralyzes everyone but Harley and Charles. How they managed to sneak in and put these sprayers in every candle holder is a good question, but hey, it’s the Gotham Police Force. The Joker pops out (90s alert-one of Harley’s cheers for the Joker is the Arsenio Hall woof) and puts a bomb on Gordon’s lapel. When Charles protests that the Joker would send him home, the Joker notes he never said he’d send him back alive. Fortunately for everyone, Batman pops in after the Joker and Harley leave, and Charles tells him about the bomb with enough time for Batman to dispose of it outside.

What follows is a decent but unremarkable fight between Batman and the Joker’s minion, with the inexplicable inclusion of a dimly lit South American temple as the battleground. What stands out far better is the real climax, when Charles confronts the Joker as he tries to escape down an alley. The Joker threatens Charles’ family-until Charles produces one of the Joker’s own bombs, promising to kill them both. As Charles himself puts it:

“This how it ends, Joker. No big schemes, no grand fight to the finish with the Dark Knight! Tomorrow, all the papers will say, is that the great Joker was found blown to bits in an alley, alongside a miserable little nobody! Kind of funny! Ironic, really…See, I can destroy a man’s dreams too! And that’s really the only dream you’ve got, isn’t it?!”

Great stuff. Does it make sense for Charles to know all this? Not really. And neither does his explanation for how he got the bomb. But I can overlook all that, because this is the one time the Joker is really threatened. He’s built up his myth and power through showmanship, and now one man-the smallest of bit players-is threatening to end the show all wrong. No wonder he starts to scream for Batman to arrive and save him from Charles. In one more bit of ridiculous but effective work, Charles tosses the bomb at both the Joker and Batman-and it turns out to be one of the Joker’s fakes, which Charles somehow knew and the Joker didn’t. As Batman leads the Joker off, Charles starts to walk back home, talking to himself about how good that sounds.

Objectively, this is another solid Batman episode. There’s some shakiness in the third act, and the fighting seems more like padding than anything else. But the underlying story is strong enough to paper over these issues. And if the animation is unremarkable, it’s still competently done. So why do I like it so much? Probably because of that climax. As unbelievable as it is in the details, the idea that the Joker is being threatened less by the thought of dying, and more by the idea of dying in the wrong way, rings so true to the character for me that it lifts it up above any concerns about realism. Plus, it’s one of the funnier Joker episode. That’s a bit strange to say, considering he terrorizes an innocent man for two years and tries to kill the entire police force in one night, but it’s still true. I know this is just my personal opinion, but this remains my favorite episode.

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One Response to “Batman: The Animated Series, “The Joker’s Favor””

  1. This episode is also my favorite, and I think you got it right: The Joker is a comedian, and maybe he doesn’t fear death, but he sure fears a heckler who menaces to ruin his greatest act.


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