“The Lion And The Unicorn” (season 2, episode 12; originally aired September 15, 1995)
I don’t remember seeing “The Lion And The Unicorn” as a kid, and I didn’t care for it when I first went back to Batman: The Animated Series. Then, during the most recent viewing, it clicked that this episode is supposed to be pastiche of British spy films—which doesn’t fully redeem it, but makes the story more acceptable. When Alfred gets a mysterious phone call from his “cousin,” he leaves Wayne Manor to attend to business in London, falling into a trap set by Red Claw to gain the passwords she needs to activate a nuclear missile silo and hold England hostage for £5 billion. The best thing about this episode is that it spotlights Alfred’s badass past, which is an aspect of the Batman mythos that I always appreciate learning more about. Dick treats Alfred like a butler, but is completely unaware of Alfred’s past as a government agent highly skilled at resolving diplomatic and military crises.
Alfred beats up some thugs with an umbrella and hits another guy with an antique chair, but he spends too much of the episode tied up when he should be out acting like James Bond. How cool would it have been if there was an Alfred flashback episode where we saw him as a globetrotting secret agent? Efrem Zimbalist Jr. is the definitive Alfred for me, and I wish this episode gave him more to do. We’re only told about Alfred’s intense past, never shown, and rather than having Alfred at his most threatening, the story incapacitates him. Zimbalist gets to mumble some poetry and has a few snide one-liners, but most of the action is focused on Batman and Robin fighting one of the series’ worst villains.
Red Claw is completely useless, a villain with no clear motivation for her maniacal actions and no defining characteristics beyond her hilarious voice. Kate Mulgrew gives the character an absurd accent that sounds like Yzma from Emperor’s New Groove combined with Rocky And Bullwinkle’s Natasha, and it’s impossible to take her seriously. She kidnaps Alfred and one of his intelligence colleagues, then drugs them with truth serum in order to get the passwords for the missile silo. Meanwhile, Batman and Robin have to deal with the heads of British intelligence to gain information about Alfred’s whereabouts, and it’s intriguing to see how foreigners react to his presence. Batman is a bit more diplomatic then usual, but that doesn’t stop him from leaving without saying goodbye, disappearing into the night as is his wont.
When The Dynamic Duo tracks down Red Claw, they get trapped in the obligatory deathtrap: a room that gets pumped full of hot lava. They escape and save Alfred, but not before Red Claw activates the silo and launches a missile, forcing Batman to go into full-on superhero mode and save the world from a potential nuclear disaster. He hops into the Batwing to shoot down the missile, but Red Claw is somehow hiding in the backseat and ambushes him. She rips off his mask during the fight as a way for the writers to add some last minute drama, but we never find out what Red Claw sees. Thankfully, she never appears on this series again.
Alfred and Bruce are a lot like Lord Grantham and Carson on Downton Abbey, and their relationship is built on a tradition of servitude but grounded in mutual respect. When Alfred’s friend asks him why he doesn’t leave his job as a butler behind, Alfred says, “I’ve become accustomed to my style of living.” It’s not like Alfred has many responsibilities around Wayne Manor, and he generally gets to conduct himself how he sees fit. Why would he want to give that up? Sure, his boss has deeply ingrained mental issues, but it's a privileged, stress-free life. Except for when he gets abducted by supervillains.
- Batman Beatdown: As Red Claw’s goons walk down a hallway, Batman and Robin silently take them down one-by-one in a perfectly coordinated stealth attack. Go teamwork!
- I don’t remember this episode from my childhood, but if I did, I’m pretty sure that scene of Dick doing gymnastics with no shirt on made me gay.
- Adam Ant is the voice of Bert, one of Red Claw’s thugs. Awesome.
- Dick: “What would we do without you, Alfred?” Alfred: “I shudder to think.”
- “Was a butler strike called?” Dick sure can be a jerk.
- Robin: “And here I thought all you dusted was furniture.” Alfred: “A Louis Quinze. What a pity.”