Batman: The Animated Series, “Harlequinade”

10Nov11

Let’s start this off with the most important fact of the episode: The Joker gets a nuclear bomb.

Let me repeat that: The Joker gets a nuclear bomb.

That’s not a spoiler of some kind. The very first scene of the episode is the auction where he gets the bomb. This is a kid’s cartoon where the Joker, already established as a homicidal maniac who’s only failed to kill someone on screen due to Standards and Practices, gets the capability to destroy all of Gotham City and render it, and the impossible geography around it, uninhabitable for centuries. The episode never actually calls it a nuclear bomb, just “a bomb,” but we’re still talking about a nuke. The iconography of it is unmistakeable, and everyone involved talks about it in terms of wiping out the entire city.

How do you get to that point? How do things get so lawless that criminals are smuggling in a nuclear weapon without being noticed, and then try to auction it off so that crime bosses can basically create their own tiny rogue state? The Joker isn’t even invited to this thing, he crashes it and disperses a giant crowd. He’s considered too dangerous to bring to this thing! Gotham is such a screwed up town, that Commissioner Gordon probably wishes it had “just” been a chemical agent. Then he’d only have to worry about thousands of people dying. The bomb itself is just a Macguffin for the main plot, but still.

Said main plot is the first time we get a Harley centered episode. Obviously she’s involved because of the Joker, much like she was in “Harley and Ivy,” and that makes sense. It’s not a complaint at all that he instigates her involvement, even when he’s out free and she’s still in Arkham. After all, she was introduced as his lieutenant, she’s not yet ready to take center stage without her would-be beau unintentionally pushing her into the spotlight. She’s brought in because Batman and Gordon want her help to find the Joker. Which seems like a very stupid idea, but they are desperate to find him before he can kill millions, so it makes sense under the circumstances.

What doesn’t make sense, at least on the surface, is how funny the whole thing turns out to be. Thermonuclear annihilation is at hand, and Harley is basically treating this like a romp. While Batman is hoping to just survive having to work with this lunatic, she’s trying to make it a grand team up from the beginning, including holding Batman’s arm up like she’s the referee of a boxing match he just won. Right after that, she almost kills both of them by trying to turn on the radio in the Batmobile.

So why does the episode work (and work very well) if logic has gone out the window? Because this isn’t a mystery or an action story. It’s a screwball comedy with capes and tights. We’re not just playing by the Joker’s rules, we’re playing by the rules of an entirely foreign genre for Batman, where the jokes are actually funny instead of just being grim or lethal, and instead of a female lead that’s swooning over Batman/Bruce Wayne’s abnormally square jaw, she’s slinging jokes and being crazy to his straight man. Batman never gives into this, as he remains grounded in the problem of saving the city, such as when he finds out that the Joker has surveillance set up on a number of vital locations, including the inside of Commissioner Gordon’s office. But twice Harley saves Batman’s life without taking any violent actions, and she ends up dictating how everything goes. She’s the weight on either side of the scale in this story, and all Batman can do is try to keep up.

The best example is when he and Harley come across an elaborate nightclub hidden at an old Joker hideout. There’s the very real threat of both Batman and Harley being shot, when she “captures” Batman in an attempt to save their lives. Really, there’s no good reason they don’t shoot Batman in the head once they have him trussed up. But that would be a terrible mistake in a screwball comedy, since it’s much funnier for Harley to distract all the crooks with a sexy song and dance number while Robin (who had already arranged to meet them there before the capture) frees his partner and helps him take out the mobsters so they can get back on the Joker’s trail.

And once they have found the Joker, it all comes back to Harley again. She’s the one that gives them the clue to search for him at the mayor’s mansion, where he’s been keeping the Mayor hostage (with a rather obvious clue to this early on, if you watch carefully), and the one who stops them, albeit temporarily, from taking the Joker in and saving the day. And she’s also the one who ends up saving the day in the end, as she both lets Batman and the Joker go, and takes down the Joker’s plane before he can escape, with an excellent callback to a previous gag. To be fair, Batman and Robin precipitate this by pointing out that the Joker was going to leave Harley, their pet hyenas, and everyone else in Arkham behind to burn in the atomic fire. But it still makes her the X-factor that changes the course of the story back and forth.

Even that climactic battle keeps the screwball elements. The actual bomb is defused without any difficulty, but the Joker himself is only taken down when Harley knocks him out with a clown head. The Joker’s theme changes to a goofier version full of tubas while he spins around, shooting up his own plane. Hell, after Harley tries to kill him with a machine gun (failing only because the barrel shoots out a “Rat-tat-tat” flag instead of bullets), he gives her a big hug for being his kind of woman. It’s not even a classic screwball comedy beat, but a pure Looney Tunes moment, and it’s possibly the most wonderful and fitting ending the episode could have had.

Visually, this one knocks it out of the park. It’s not the best technical animation of the series, but everyone is clear and full of life, and even the inconsistencies, such as the odd amount of life the Joker and Harley’s facial expressions get compared to everyone else, works to the episodes benefit. In a story filled with so many visual gags, it could have fallen flat without this level of craftsmanship, and it’s damn lucky to have it.

Should you watch Harlequinade? Yes, yes, and yes. It’s a damn funny episode, it’s a well crafted story (logic might go out the window, but the plot is tight and well done), and it’s the best exploration of Harley and the Joker’s relationship, at least as far as its appeal to both parties. It’s still an abusive relationship that’s no good for her in the end, but here you get to see at least some part of why she sticks with him, even though it doesn’t actually portray him as a sympathetic character. It also happens to be the best showcase for Harley’s character in the series so far, even if it’s not the best overall. But that’s for later.

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