Batman: The Animated Series, “Mad as a Hatter”

03Apr11

I’m going to be honest, the Mad Hatter is one of the least flattering cases of villain sympathy I’ve ever had. Saying you feel like the guy who mind controls people, and tries to use them as pawns to win his dream girl, raises some disturbing questions about you as a person. I mean, this episode works hard to make you feel sorry for Jervis Tetch, so that part is perfectly fine. But saying you feel like him makes people think you’re going to do some terrible thing at some point. Still, I definitely didn’t fit in when I was a kid. And even if I never planned to kidnap people to change that, it made it hard not to feel a personal connection to the Mad Hatter. Who wouldn’t want to have some device that would magically make strangers smile when they see you, cater to your whims, and respect you as a person?

As I said, the episode does set up Jervis to be a sympathetic character, and that starts from the very beginning. We do get an immediate demonstration of what his technology can be used for, but we also get to see how dysfunctional his workplace is-it’s little surprise that he’d latch onto his coworker Alice as a source of hope in his life, considering his overall awkwardness and his boss’ overriding nature. At the same time, he’s not presented as a normal man pushed overboard; this is someone who’s already considering using his mind control technology on Alice. He’s not so abnormal a man that he can’t understand this is wrong, but it’s still a debate for him. Again, he’s sympathetic…but not entirely reasonable.

Thanks to a convenient fight between Alice and her boyfriend, Jervis works up the courage to take Alice out on the town. It’s a wonderful sequence, as we see what would normally be a wonderful night out on the town…if it weren’t for all the hatter’s cards controlling people. He even uses them to stop two muggers, which brings Batman into the picture when he has to save them from killing themselves off Jervis’ command. As a kid I wondered if this was just some misinterpretation of his orders, but considering the menacing smile he gives Alice when he apologizes to her for what she had to see, I’m no longer in any doubt.

Of course, the tragedy starts because where Jervis saw an opportunity to start a romance with Alice, she only saw the date as a friend trying to cheer her up. It’s compounded by the fact that once Jervis starts getting a taste for control, he wants more; he’s able to mumble some hollow congratulations to the news that Alice is getting back together with her boyfriend, but he no longer debates whether or not to use his technology, and deploys it on his boss to shut her up when she starts to berate him. He also uses it to make Alice’s boyfriend break up with her, before trying to take her away again. Only this time Alice doesn’t see it as a sweet gesture. Thanks to his investigation, Batman interrupts them in Alice’s apartment, but Jervis deploys two mind controlled minions to stop Batman, before placing a card on Alice and taking her away to a storybook theme park.

The fight between Batman and the Mad Hatter is an interesting visual, thanks to the Alice in Wonderland themes. But what’s more interesting is how the fight is never positioned as a real physical contest, despite the Mad Hatter making a comment about how his mind control makes someone stronger. It’s about how far Jervis will take his obsession with Alice, to the point where he destroys his own life, and tries to take Batman with him when he threatens to stop it. Much like Harvey Dent, he’s a villain who’s created both by internal forces and outer circumstance, and the end is heartbreaking, with Jervis’ dejected cry of “Would not, could not, would not, could not…could not join the dance.”

The animation here is just okay. It works, certainly, but it’s not as crisp as it could be, especially in the fight scenes. And there’s an annoying tendency to make people move unnecessarily when they’re supposedly standing still. Alice’s gentle swaying in the climax is a good example. But the design on the costumes for the Hatter’s minions, and on his own odd ensemble, help mask some of the problems. And there’s more of a basic competence in even the less animated episodes now.

While I’d like to say “Mad as a Hatter” is a great episode-and it is-it’s something I have to recommend with a caveat: it’s pretty depressing. There is a “happy” ending of Alice getting back together with her fiance, but considering the last shot is a statue of the Mock Turtle crying over his loneliness, it’s hard to see it as anything but a pyrrhic victory for Batman; a once productive Wayne employee has become a crazed obsessive, and nearly ruined a woman’s life from his desperate ache for love and control over his own life. It’s not hard to see why the Hatter doesn’t get many episodes in the series after such a bleak introduction.

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