Batman: The Animated Series, “A Bullet for Bullock”


Gotham’s a hell of a noir setting.

There’s nothing new in that statement, of course. The original comics came out of the pulp magazines of the late 20s and early 30s, and many of the first superheroes were heightened versions of those same pulp protagonists. So saying that Batman lives in a noir setting is tantamount to claiming he’s not out in the sun much. Sure, it’s true, but no one will claim it’s a great insight.

But what makes Gotham work so well is that it gets to be its own character. Batman fits here, but no one in the city lives outside of the noir genre. Even the old money people who look down on the working poor (or the new money, for that matter) are simply trying to stay above the grime. The forces that should be keeping the darkness back are either focused on the wrong things, themselves corrupt, or helpless against the organized groups working against them. Harvey Bullock is a prime example of this. Whether he’s a once corrupt cop trying to go on the straight and narrow, or the abrasive but honest detective he is in the animated series, he’d fit in any noir story you can name. And if it wasn’t for Batman’s presence, this would be a purely noir story about Bullock’s life in danger.

What makes it work so well is that this isn’t a case that Batman happens to hear about, or Gordon asking Batman to look after one of his detectives. No, Bullock actually turns on the Bat Signal and calls in his least favorite vigilante himself, asking for help figuring out who’s trying to kill him right after insulting the man he needs. And then he has the gall to admit it’s because he doesn’t want Internal Affairs looking too closely at him, despite angrily denying that he’s corrupt.

Really, throughout the episode we see that Bullock is a cop who doesn’t play by the rules…and he’s suffering the consequences for it. He lives alone in a roach-infested apartment, only has his partner as a friend, and frequently alienates the people around him. Only in a city like Gotham would he be a police officer, because the situation is too desperate for Gordon to cut him loose. Though Alfred also nails part of Bullock’s problem when he calls him the detective “who looks like an unmade bed.” And when Batman tries to get Bullock involved in finding out who’s trying to kill him, Bullock tries to get in Batman’s face about it. It wouldn’t surprise me if Bullock had turned down bribes not because of any sense of integrity, but just to piss off whoever had offered it.

Even the climax and the ending fit in with the noir theme of the episode. Bullock and Batman go to confront a criminal Bullock once busted, ruining an empire in the making…and there’s a moment where, fairly or not, Bullock seems like he’s going to shoot Starkey instead of taking him in. Then there’s the actual person who’s been trying to kill Bullock, who fits Batman’s concerns about it seeming less than professional, and trying right into how abrasive Bullock is to everyone. Though it wouldn’t have surprised me if the reveal had been “everyone was trying to kill you!” Even Batman joins in, ending the episode with a line about how Bullock doesn’t owe him, because the poor schmuck has enough problems already.

This isn’t the first time an episode has mostly focused on another character. But I think it’s the first time we’ve seen it done with someone who isn’t a comrade or enemy of Batman. For all of his unusual behavior, Bullock is a cop, and he doesn’t become Batman’s friend after this or start putting on tights (thankfully). He might respect Batman a little more, but that’s not the same as being his buddy. I think that change in formula really pays off here, as it’s a fantastic episode all around; dark enough to work great as an adult story, but with a light enough touch that it still fits in the kid’s cartoon aesthetic of the show.

There’s also the amazing musical score that, in the same way it did for “Read My Lips,” grounds this episode in a particular aesthetic. But the animation and setting does that as well. A less competently animated episode might have lost some of the impact of the story, while using the same Gotham setting could have sapped its power as well. Instead we get Gotham in winter, a setting we haven’t seen since “Christmas with the Joker,” making Bullock’s isolation quite literal as he walks through empty streets and into a deserted subway station. It’s fairly subtle, of course-there’s no angst to Bullock about being alone most of the episode, and he doesn’t use the reveal of who wanted him dead as an opportunity to change, they’re just a perp to be arrested. Still, it makes the hits land harder, and there’s not a second of wasted time here. It’s a standout episode through and through, well worth watching regularly.


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