“Mad Love” (season three, episode 21; originally aired 1/16/1999)
Beginning with “Legends Of The Dark Knight,” The New Batman Adventures aired three episodes consecutive episodes that each represents a key aspect of the DCAU. “Legends” showed how the animated universe boils down various interpretations of a hero into one quintessential version, “Girls’ Night Out”revealed the ways the universe expanded from Batman: The Animated Series, and “Mad Love” puts the spotlight on what the DCAU added to Batman mythology by presenting the origin of Harley Quinn. Adapted from the Eisner Award-winning 1994 comic book by TNBA executive producers Bruce Timm and Paul Dini, “Mad Love” brings Harley’s journey full circle, taking her from the screen to the page and then putting that comic on TV. It’s an incredible episode that gives the best look at Harley and Mr. J’s relationship yet, expanding on their destructive dynamic by showing the events that led to their doomed partnership.
Before arriving at Arkham Asylum, Harleen Quinzel was a talented gymnast who had aspirations of becoming a pop psychologist. She was also a lousy student, getting intimate with at least one of her professors to change her “D-” grade to an “A+.” Those are the racier details of Harley’s backstory that can only be found in the Mad Love comic book, but the rest of the episode is basically scripted and storyboarded directly from the comic. Director Butch Lukic follows the road map that Timm laid out in his smooth, evocative comic art, readjusting slightly to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by animation, but keeping the major story beats in place. The addition of voices and music further elevates Dini and Timm’s story; the talent of the voice cast helps ground the proceedings in reality, and the music helps the script transition from slapstick comedy to intense psychological drama.
After Harley Quinn bungles Joker’s latest plot to kill Commissioner Gordon by posing as his dentist, she begins to look back at the road that brought her to this point in her life and determines that Batman, rather than the Joker, is to blame for all of her problems. “Harley And Ivy” did fantastic work showing the abusive relationship between Harley and her main man, but “Mad Love” is where we see the full extent of their dysfunction, going back to Joker’s first encounter with a young Harleen Quinzel in Arkham Asylum. As we’ve previously seen on this series, Joker loves to prey on weak-willed people, and when the overeager Harleen arrives for her new psychologist job, he begins to sink his hooks in so that he can manipulate her however he sees fit.
Harleen is immediately enamored when the Joker leaves a rose in her office and begs to take him on as a patient, initially because of his high profile. But when Joker shares the traumatic story of how his father used to beat him, Harleen becomes more obsessed with the actual human underneath the evil clown exterior, hanging on each new word he feeds her. In a fantastic monologue, Joker tells his psychologist that his only happy memory is of when his father took him to the circus and they watched a clown try to kick a puppy. The clown’s pants kept dropping and he would fall on his ass, inciting a huge laugh from the Joker’s father, a laugh that he would try to earn later by recreating the clown’s trick in his father’s dress slacks. A ripped pair of pants and a broken nose later, the Joker’s happy memory of the circus clown was forever tarnished by his father’s abuse. It’s a tragic story that wins Harleen’s favor completely, and it sparks a criminal desire in the young woman when combined with Joker’s praise of her harlequin-sounding name.
When Joker escapes from Arkham one night, Harleen throws a fit and showers the clown with affection when he’s brought back to the asylum. That’s when Harleen finally snaps, abandoning her job to rob a local costume shop so that she can free her puddin’ and run away with him to a new life of comedy and crime. As we’ve constantly seen on this series, though, things don’t work out too well for Harley Quinn, who is treated with minimal respect by her boss. Harley views Joker as her boyfriend, but as Batman tells her later in the episode, Harley is just hired help to the Joker. Hired help that is constantly slapped around and thrown in dog shit when all she wants to do is help her man feel better. Like many abused parties, Harley has been convinced that everything that happens to her is her fault, so she decides to win Joker’s love by using one of his plans to finally kill the Batman. Surprising no one, Joker hates that idea.
After luring Batman into a trap by pretending to be a Harleen that has come to her senses, Harley drugs him and puts him in Joker’s “Death Of A Thousand Smiles” piranha trap, hanging Batman upside-down so that the piranhas’ perpetual frowns appear to be smiles. (“Brilliant,” Batman hilariously deadpans after she outlines her plan.) Put in a trap that he can’t escape, Batman decides to use his head, manipulating Harley by appealing to her need to satisfy Mr. J. When he persuades her to call her boss, the entire plan falls apart, bringing Joker into play to tell his accomplice that she’s doing it all wrong. To begin with, he has to be the one to kill Batman or who the hell cares? And the fact that Harley has to explain the joke of her death trap means that it’s not funny, and that’s just unacceptable. That’s when the Clown Prince has had enough and just throws Harley out a window, sending her plummeting to her near death while he takes care of the Batman.
“Mad Love” was the final episode aired of The New Batman Adventures, and it’s a fitting conclusion for the series even if it wasn’t the last episode to be produced. The Joker has always been Batman’s archnemesis, and this episode puts a nice cap on the Clown Prince’s story in BTAS/TNBA before he reappears in Justice League and the Batman Beyond: Return Of The Joker film. At first it seems like the audience is getting a Joker origin story as they learn Harleen’s, but when Batman is tied up, he tells Harley that Joker has a whole arsenal of origins that he uses to win people over. There’s the abusive father, the runaway mother, and of course, that one happy memory at the ice show or the circus or whatever.
I like to think all of these stories are true in some way, and that Joker’s fall into the acid jumbled his memory and emotionally detached him from these real events. In Harley’s case, the history works to inspire her to levels of greatness that not even Joker could reach, and Batman tells the rogue that Harley would have killed him if it weren’t for his interference. That sends Joker into a rage that ends with him falling into a factory chimney— seemingly to his death if it weren’t for the “Get Well Soon” card and rose he leaves by Harley’s hospital bedside. Joker might be evil, but he knows how to make a girl feel wanted. That is, until he beats her up and throws her out a window again.
- Batman Beatdown: When Joker decides to follow Harley’s advice and just shoot Batman in the head, the Dark Knight uses his greatest weapon and headbutts the clown, sending the bullet into the piranha tank and covering the Joker in murderous fish.
- I wasn’t reading comic books when Harley Quinn debuted in the main DC universe, but I can only imagine how excited BTAS fans were when she finally showed up in “No Man’s Land.” That must have been a very cool reveal.
- While Harleen and Poison Ivy don’t share any dialogue in this episode, I’m happy the writers acknowledge their future relationship by having them exchange a brief glance in Arkham.
- Much of Harley’s popularity can be attributed to Arleen Sorkin’s astounding voice work, and she shows remarkable range as she moves from Harleen to Harley in this episode. The last line exemplifies this perfectly as she switches into Harley voice for the last word: “I finally see that slime for what he is: a murderous, manipulative, irredeemable… angel.”
- “Naughty, naughty. Jump around like that and the doctor won’t give you a lollipop.”
- “May the floss be with you!”
- “Don’t you wanna rev up your Harley? Vroom, vroom!”
- “I’ve never seen you laugh before! I don’t think I like it!”
- “Except you had to explain to me! If you have to explain a joke, there is no joke!”