Batman: The Animated Series, “Second Chance”

09May12

The recurring villain worst served by the Animated Series is by far the Penguin, but Two-face is the next in line. That’s a sad thing to say, since his origin two-parter was one of the finest hours for the show, and he’s always been well presented as a credible threat. But that amazing origin was, to be blunt, more than the show could handle. It was a dark and harrowing look into a man going insane and losing himself, even as it sped up the process in an attempt to get past the worst moments of Harvey Dent’s disassociation. Doing something like that every time he appeared simply wasn’t feasible, and probably would have gone into bad melodrama very quickly. It’s a wise move to downplay that aspect while focusing on how far he could go in his two/twin theme, but it means it was always something of a vague disappointment by comparison.

“Second Chance” is Two-face’s send off in the Fox series, and thankfully it’s the closest he’s had to his origin, both in theme and quality. For the first time since that two-parter, Harvey Dent’s mental state is front and center, and for more than needing to flip a coin to make decisions. It’s more hopeful than the last time, but the foreboding atmosphere is right there in the beginning, as Batman and Robin watch Dent get brought in for plastic surgery….and he’s kidnapped right under their noses. Thankfully, they’re foiled in a way that doesn’t make them look foolish, even if it does provide another visual where you’d assume one of them would have been killed.

Strictly speaking, the story isn’t that complicated. Dent’s kidnapping appears to have been orchestrated by either the Penguin or Rupert Thorne, both of whom have reason to want revenge on Two-face. Batman goes to confront the Penguin about it, who comes off better than normal, as he’s portrayed to be intelligent and dangerous…to a degree, at least. Robin, meanwhile, tries to investigate Thorne and manages to be caught red handed, so the initial impression of his competence disappears pretty quickly, even when he survives their attempt to kill him for spying. In the end, Batman realizes who the real culprit is, and goes to confront…Two-face, who decided he was not willing to sit back and let Harvey Dent become whole and erase the Two-face personality in the process.

The main reason this simple plot works so well is that it’s presented as a real mystery for most of the episode, and the fighting at the end is not the real climax. It’s the discovery that Harvey Dent, or at least a part of him, is sabotaging himself. Batman’s challenge at the end isn’t to punch Two-face, it’s to try and reach Harvey inside Two-face and regain some hope of his friend recovering. Really, Two-face is constantly sabotaging himself, but done well it makes for some compelling stories. It’s not so interesting when Batman just shows up and hits Two-face to beat him. On the other hand, when Two-face seems to hold all the cards until he can’t help but screw himself over….that’s a different kind of tension than you get from most of Batman’s villains.

It also works because the relationship between Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent is contrasted with the relationship between Batman and Robin. Robin has no friendly history with Harvey like Batman does, but he can at least understand why Batman wants so much for Harvey to heal, where he’s more concerned with catching the Joker than giving him therapy. Batman isn’t alone, but Harvey was his best friend as Bruce Wayne, and he was a friend in ways Robin just can’t match. And while I mentioned how incompetent Robin appears at times in this episode, you also see some signs of him being a real partner to Batman instead of just a liability (and he’s not the reason they fail to stop Two-face from being kidnapped; for once, he and Batman are taken out by the same cause at the same time). While I’m not a fan of shoehorning Robin into Batman stories, at least here he feels like a natural fit, and someone who can provide another perspective on the Two-face and Batman struggle, especially since he wasn’t involved in the Animated Series origin of it. We also get to see him saving henchmen from a towering explosion, so for once the muscle doesn’t randomly survive what should kill them to fit S&P regulations.

The final word is that “Second Chance” is just a strong episode all around. It doesn’t stand out as a classic, but it’s firing on all cylinders, never talks down to its intended audience, and does a fine job balancing the grim material so that it’s weighty without smothering you. It’s also helped by some of the finer animation of the series-not the best of the best, but smoothly done, with the gathering storm of the climax so obvious a sign and yet so well deployed due to the visuals. Definitely give some time to this one.

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