“Harlequinade” (season 2, episode 7; originally aired May 23, 1994)
Leave it to Paul Dini to get Batman: The Animated Series back on track after last week’s terrible episode, putting the spotlight on everyone’s favorite psychologist-turned-psychopath Harley Quinn in her first solo story. Taking its title from the English, more slapstick interpretation of the Italians’ commedia dell’arte, “Harlequinade” is the first time we see what Harley can do on her own, untethered to Mistah J. or Poison Ivy. The traditional harlequinade places the clown and harlequin characters at the forefront of a goofy romance plot, and while the story might be considerably different, Dini’s script keeps the slapstick elements, using his experience on Tiny Toons to turn in a hilarious episode filled with visual gags.
When Joker crashes an atomic bomb auction, Batman needs to team with someone who thinks like the clown to track him down. Batman springs Harley with the promise that she’ll be released from Arkham if she cooperates, revealing his naivete when it comes to Harleen Quinzel’s potential rehabiliation. After giving hints of Harley’s origin in “Trial,” Dini starts to present more of the facts regarding Harleen’s transformation into the Joker’s right-hand gal this episode.
Dr. Quinzel spent her entire life listening to other people’s problems, but the Joker listened to her and made everything fun.When Batman asks Harley if she thinks it’s funny when Joker hurts people, she responds, “It’s just a joke.” The appeal of the harlequin and the clown characters lies in their exaggeration, not just physically, but mentally and spiritually. These characters are too big for the restrictions placed by society, and Harleen is attracted to the freedom that comes with giving herself over to Joker’s unique strain of madness. When she finally gets into costume, Harley exclaims, “I feel like a human being again!”
The timing of this recap couldn’t be better, because two weeks ago Suicide Squad #7 revealed the New 52 origin of Harley Quinn in another totally extreme issue. It’s more-or-less the same as “Mad Love” except less funny and now Joker dumped Harley into a vat of chemicals that gave her two-toned hair. There’s nothing really wrong with the origin, it’s the present day material that’s bothersome, with Harley Quinn taking the Joker’s cut-off face-flesh (from Detective Comics #1) and putting it on a bound Deadshot’s head, then making out with it. Why does DC think this is a smart direction for this character? Would more people prefer the Arkham City Harley over the B:TAS Harley?
Compare the woman in Suicide Squad #7 to the character in “Harlequinade.” From the very first image, Eric Radomski’s playfully sexy title card, it’s a very different interpretation, and a much more interesting one. The appeal of Harley Quinn is that despite her connection to the most malevolent force in Gotham, she’s maintains a cheerful, carefree personality. She can bring the hammer down when she has to, but Harley’s berserker rages are so memorable because she’s so goofy the rest of the time. When Batman is captured by a nightclub full of mob goons, Harley puts on a show to distract the crowd while Robin breaks the Dark Knight loose, and her performance of “Say That We're Sweethearts Again” is the perfect example of Harley Quinn’s sexiness.
She doesn’t need the skanky costume and borderline necrophilia to be a captivating character, she just needs a minute and a half of music. That number is a highlight of the episode, and shows off Kevin Altieri’s versatility as a director and Dong Yang’s skill as an animation studio. Last week’s team of Frank Paur and Jade Animation wouldn’t be able to bring this moment to life, and Harley’s full movement, evocative face and gestures bring a sense of realism to the cartoon. Combined with the song’s juxtaposition of depressing imagery with a light, airy melody, it’s a sequence that not only entertains, but informs, revealing new facets of Harley’s character. (Justice League Unlimited will do the same with Batman’s “Am I Blue?”)
Dini turns up the madcap comedy this episode to capitalize on the odd couple pairing of Batman and Harley. When Harley uses her Joker grappling hook, it launches with a boing, then fall straight down to bonk her on the head. When Joker crashes the airplane he uses to try and escape Mayor Hill’s mansion, his parachute opens after he’s walking away from the wreckage a la Wile E. Coyote. Even the episode’s big climactic moment, Harley pointing a machine gun at Joker’s head and pulling the trigger, ends with a joke as the gun fires the phrase “Rat-Tat-Tat” instead of bullets.
Kevin Altieri’s direction incorporates the comedy of the script with humorous transitions, like the image of Harley holding Batman’s hand high shifting to a shot of her hands cuffed in the Batmobile. The final fight sequence at Mayor Hill’s mansion is beautifully shot, with a stunningly animated airplane as the centerpiece. The action is quick and smooth, and the chaos of the fight mirrors the chaos in Harley’s brain. After finally finding the Joker, Harley does her inevitable double cross, turning on Batman and Robin until Robin points out that Joker was going to leave her to die. Even though it was a gag gun, Harley does pull the trigger when it’s pointed at the Joker, and I like to think that Harley thought it was loaded. She finally has the courage to stand up to a man that uses and abuses her, and when she takes action it ends up being a joke. Is there any greater sign that the two are made for each other?
- Batman Beatdown: Batman hurls a Batarang at the Joker after finally tracking him down, and the close-up camera following the weapon as it flies through the air and into Joker’s face accentuates the impact of the collision. A beatdown made possible by great direction.
- I love the “Ha-hacienda” joke and am glad that it was brought back in the Arkham video games.
- Harley’s “sneak sneak sneak” as they infiltrate the mob hideout reminds me of Cronk’s self-sung theme music in Emperor’s New Groove. Cronk is a bit like a male Harley Quinn.
- “Well the joke’s on you, I’m not even a real blonde!”
- “But what about all our friends? Ivy and Two-Face, and Hat Guy, and Lizard Man, and Puppet-Head.”