Batman: The Animated Series, “House and Garden”

26Oct11

It’s been a little while since Poison Ivy last appeared as a major character in the series. She got to assault the new DA in “Trial,” but she last got the full focus of an episode when she teamed up with Harley Quinn and tried to turn her from an abused girlfriend into a fully independent woman and supervillain. Like Ra’s Al Ghul, Ivy is a villain that needs some space between episodes, because she can be hard to use without repeating the same tactics. After all, the Joker can put clown faces on anything he wants, Two-Face can scar up most items without making them unusable, and the Penguin can just keep weaponizing umbrellas…but Poison Ivy actually uses plants and plant based poisons. She can’t walk down to the local flower shop and pick up giant mutated Venus Fly Traps for killing Batman, she has to grow that hybrid herself! These things take time, and there aren’t any local gardeners she can use. Gotham is probably lousy with death trap contractors for everyone else, but Ivy has to do it all on her own. No wonder she gets so angry with people killing her plants, that’s months of work for each and every one! Of course, she could avoid using them in such dangerous ways, but Ivy isn’t the most stable person in Gotham. Not that she’s alone there.

This is all a roundabout way of getting to “House And Garden,” an episode that works well despite itself. The story really reveals a lot about Ivy, and it stays true to her established methods at the same time…but it’s also predicated on two big flaws that drop it from “great” to “pretty good.” The first one actually occurs near the beginning, after a shadowy creature has assaulted a rich bachelor in his own apartment and stolen his wall safe, so it’s just a Thursday in Gotham. What’s unusual is that after Batman comments that the exotic plant poison in the man’s bloodstream makes it look like Poison Ivy’s involved, Commissioner Gordon lets Batman in on the fact that Ivy got out of Arkham legally, and has married her psychiatrist. Now, this isn’t an implausible idea. In fact, it’s the inverse of what caused Harley Quinn to join up with the Joker. But it breaks the suspension of disbelief that Ivy would get out of Arkham and Batman wouldn’t have any idea. The series doesn’t present Batman as all knowing, of course-he’s had multiple episode where a new supervillain has appeared, and Batman had to research the new person to figure out who they were and what they were planning. Ivy, on the other hand, is a known danger to others. No matter how nice it is that for once Gordon knows something Batman doesn’t, it feels wrong that Batman would miss such a vital piece of information.

Fortunately, the scene that follows is one of the reasons the episode doesn’t fall apart there. Gordon takes Batman to see Harley as proof, and we get to meet both the husband and his two sons. Harley explains that she can’t have kids for the same reason she’s immune to poisons, a realistic side effect of an unrealistic condition…and she notes that it makes sense for them to suspect her, even as she claims she’s left her criminal past behind. It’s also nice that this is one of the few episodes where Batman appears in the daytime, and in the suburbs to boot. Not that I want to see Batman running around at noon a lot, but it fits well with how odd this whole situation is. After all, Poison Ivy is a radical ecoterrorist and militant feminist, but here she’s transitioned into being an overtly maternal and domestic figure, even if she can’t have her own biological children. Being maternal doesn’t inherently contradict being a feminist, or even an ecoterrorist, and Ivy has certainly shown maternal concern for her plants in the past. But it’s both evidence that she may have really changed, and disconcerting if it’s true.

Soon after this, of course, the monster subplot comes back when Dick Grayson gets kidnapped at college by the same monster from the opening. The second act of the episode is actually the strongest part, since it splits time between Batman trying to do surveillance on Ivy during the day, and the ransom demands for Dick. It also has a funny and unintentional wet blanket move on Batman’s part before Dick is actually kidnapped, so even if it did have a weakness, I’d be inclined to forgive it for that.

After rescuing Dick from the monster (who looks a lot like a cross between a 50s football player and a giant cactus), Batman gives him enough time to change before they start driving, with Batman half heartedly trying to say Ivy is innocent, even after they’ve fought a giant plant man. But this is where the second big flaw comes in. Earlier in the episode, Batman called Dick (pre-kidnapping) to ask if he knew about Ivy’s husband, since he taught at Dick’s college. Now that they finally get to talk, Batman mentions the man’s sons…and Robin says that not only does the father not have custody, the man’s two children were girls, not boys.

First, let’s get the issue of perspective out of the way. Just like the first flaw, this is something that’s only a problem to me now, as an adult. As a kid, this was a big twist, and it made me go “Wow!” So as a kid’s show, this is not a problem. It’s important to remember that part, because as an adult, this wrecks the plot. Why didn’t anyone in his life question his children’s sudden change of gender? Why didn’t Batman’s research bring this up? Neither of these questions have a satisfactory answer.

Tthe strength of the climax is why this doesn’t derail the whole episode for me. We get to see Batman going into a fight with preparation instead of having to rush…and the reveal of exactly what’s going on is still chilling. It’s not quite on the level of a horror movie, but it’s the kind of visual that’s genuinely unsettling, with everyone but Ivy selling their horror perfectly. Ivy, of course, doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with the situation, even though she plans to murder Batman, Robin, and the imprisoned father they find in the lab so she can keep her happy family life with her plant children. In the aftermath, Batman comments that he thinks Ivy really did find peace with her family, of a sort.

On a few levels, it feels wrong to find fault with “House and Garden.” It’s easily Ivy’s best episode all around: the animation is well done, most of the plotting is strong, and the music is, as usual, appropriate and great. But it still bothers me that vital parts of the plot depend on Batman acting out of character. This is still an episode that’s well worth watching, but it’s not as strong as I remembered, and it’s entirely because of the difference in my age between now and when I first saw it.

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