Batman: The Animated Series, “Lock-Up”

10Jun12

When I first saw this episode, it was a little odd to me. I chalked that up to the fact that they’d introduced some minor villain from the comic, someone who didn’t really fit into the top tier of Batman’s rogues gallery, and made him the feature of the half hour. It wasn’t until recently that I learned that Lock-up wasn’t an import from the comics, but actually an original character to the series, who was later put into the comics because of his success here. It’s nice to know that Harley Quinn wasn’t the only character to make the move. But in rewatching the episode, it’s also clear that the oddness is both much more pronounced than I remembered, and far deeper.

The weirdest part is in the first act, starting when Batman and Robin get to see how Lyle Bolton, the new security chief of Arkham, handles the return of the Scarecrow, the first escapee from Arkham under his new watch. There’s a clear implication that Bolton has been doing something horrible, if unnamed, to the people he’s guarding to make sure they don’t escape. There is a real need for stronger security in Arkham, since it basically operated on the honor system before, but Batman is disturbed by the idea of an asylum becoming a prison by another name, and calls a hearing as Bruce Wayne to have Bolton’s behavior looked into. Eventually the inmates reveal they’re being abused by Bolton to keep them in line, and the tonal dissonance comes to a head, as the cartoonish look of the animation in the episode clashes with the subject matter. There’s nothing wrong with the themes on their own-indeed, the rest of the episode uses them very well. But it’s still at odds with images like Bolton looking like he’s about to comically explode in rage, then sweetly asking to hear about any critiques the prisoners may have of his conduct.

Once the hearing goes off the rails, the typical spiral towards madness begins…well, mostly typical. There is his targeting of the political and medical establishment for causing the problems in Gotham as he’s being dragged out. But rather than Bolton ranting and raving to himself in some secret lair afterwards, we see him watching media coverage about the hearing, before identifying the “permissive liberal media” as the first source of the problem. Bolton is clearly a conservative “Law and Order” in his politics, and I’m almost surprised they didn’t cut to a copy of Rush Limbaugh on his mantel.

6 months later, he begins to make his moves, dubbing himself “Lockup” and kidnapping the people he holds responsible for Gotham being in such a sorry state. For a very brief moment, he imagines he and Batman will be on the same side, but that’s quickly disproved when Batman tries to stop him from kidnapping a reporter. Not that he succeeds, but this is their first encounter, so Batman is contractually obligated to lose. What’s nice about the episode is that there’s no attempt to pretend the audience doesn’t know who Lockup is, and neither do the characters; no one is stupid enough to wonder if Lyle Bolton, he of the screaming ejection from an informal hearing, would be crazy enough to wear giant metal shoulder pads and start kidnapping people. They just accept he’s responsible, and try to stop him from grabbing anyone else. Not that they succeed, but again, contractual obligations.

What does make Lockup stand out from the other rogues is that he represents Batman’s drive for order taken to a right-wing extreme. Others have pointed out that when we cheer for Batman, we’re technically supporting an extremely wealthy man beating up the mentally ill. And yes, that is a truthful way to frame his actions. However, in his best incarnations, Batman is someone we expect to exercise some restraint and judgement in his actions. He may have a code against killing, but it’s for more than just keeping him from being a mass murderer. It’s also about trying to seek some form of justice against those he brings in, and exercising a personal rule of capital punishment takes that away. The same applies to the fact that he does not imprison people himself. Even though he could afford to hold all of his rogues in some private facility indefinitely, doing so means they escape responsibility for their actions, and it removes society from making any decisions on how they should respond to crimes committed against both individuals in society, and the whole of society. There may be no perfect way to handle someone like the Joker, but having Batman spirit him away and walled up to never be seen again…well, even if the Joker was well cared for and died of natural causes decades later, it’s still one man moving from protecting Gotham to dictating how it will act. It may make for a gentler form of tyranny than if Batman ran around killing off people who went “too far” according to his personal code, but it would still be a form of tyranny.

Obviously, Lockup is far to the right of that. To him, prison is a holding cell writ large, with no interest in reform or rehabilitation. He would be happy to keep the Joker forever locked away, with frequent abuse and punishment to keep him “in line.” That does mean that unlike other villains Batman faces, Lockup has no material interest; he’s not charging some kind of fee to imprison these people, or ransoming them back. All he wants is to punish the people he blames for society’s ills, and he’ll take steps no one else would condone to keep us all “safe.” It’s both the lack of empathy for his specific prisoners, and removing choice from society in general, that means Batman can never truly agree with Lockup’s aims. While the episode doesn’t go into the same amount of detail about the differences between Lockup and Batman, it’s pretty explicitly drawn. Lines like “I was made to fight your brand of order!” and “It’s almost like you care about these freaks!” make it easy to understand their respective positions. The episode ends on Bolton going fully insane, as he’s wheeled into Arkham as an inmate. But rather than bemoaning his loss or promising revenge, he believes he’s back in charge of security, ending the episode on the line “they’ll never slip past me again.”

Overall, “Lockup” remains an odd episode, both for that very weird first act, and for making Batman’s fight against Lockup so explicitly political-not that we actually hear that Batman is a liberal and Lockup is a conservative, but it’s hard to avoid those conclusions. However, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad one. This is the first new villain in a while (and the last new villain of the Fox series, period) to really work, as he draws on a vital part of Batman for his inspiration, as the best rogues do. And after that first act visual weirdness, the animation settles into a more serious role for the rest of the episode, better suiting the material. There are still the occasional odd touches, but we don’t get anything silly enough to undercut the tension and menace. The only real problem with the episode after the first act is Robin, who should theoretically work here, but gets too many “witty” quips that fall short of that mark (even if observing that Wayne Enterprises made Lockup possible hits Batman right where it hurts). I would definitely recommend it.

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One Response to “Batman: The Animated Series, “Lock-Up””

  1. 1 Anonymous

    Lock-Up seemed like a natural character to create, considering the revolving door that is Arkham. I really would have liked to have seen more of him because he really was a great concept. A worthy addition to the comics, indeed!


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