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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Batman: The Animated Series: "Pretty Poison"

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After last week’s lackluster Joker detour, Batman: The Animated Series returns to introducing Gotham’s rogues gallery with “Pretty Poison,” the first appearance of botanist turned eco-terrorist Poison Ivy. More significantly, the episode marks the series writing debut of producer Paul Dini, joined on story by Michael Reaves. As a producer, Dini helped set the tone of the series by pushing for stories that challenged conventional ideas of children’s programming, delving into the psychological and emotional aspects of characters in a way that hadn’t been done before. While “Pretty Poison” doesn’t reach the same level of gravitas as Dini’s later episodes, it succeeds by expanding on the series’ supporting cast and placing more emphasis on Bruce Wayne outside the mask. By developing a personal relationship between Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent, Dini and Reaves craft a mystery that Bruce and Batman can both investigate when Harvey is poisoned, and the intersection of Bruce’s two worlds is the episode’s major strength.

When it comes to Batman’s main female rogues, Poison Ivy stands alone as a strong, unattached woman. Catwoman is romantically involved with Batman, Talia al Ghul is devoted to her father, and Harley Quinn will forever belong to the Joker. Poison Ivy is the only female without a male counterpart to tie her down, and while her history with Dent could have changed this, the writers thankfully opt for a Thelma and Louise relationship with Harley Quinn later in the series. If each of Batman’s villains represent a larger idea–fear for Scarecrow, justice for Two-Face, etc.–then Poison Ivy represents female sexuality. Sex is her weapon, whether it is the poison on her lips or the giant Venus Fly Trap in her greenhouse, because let’s face it, that’s just a giant vagina with teeth.

“Pretty Poison” opens with a flashback to the groundbreaking of Stonegate Penitentiary, a project spearheaded by District Attorney Harvey Dent to create a “better, safer Gotham,” despite the construction’s effect on the neighboring plant life. Five years later, the prison is completed and, in the Gotham fashion, being broken out of. While Batman foils the helicopter escape, Harvey Dent waits at the Rose Café with his fiancee, Dr. Pamela Isley, for the chronically late Bruce to show up for dinner. In one of the episode’s many comedic moments, Batman’s rooftop action is intercut with Dent’s explanation of Bruce’s absence, assuming he’s been held up on business. Dent emphasizes his and Bruce’s trust-based relationship while Bruce is directly above him, dressed up like a giant bat and knocking helicopters out of the sky. The irony is brilliant.

Bruce makes it to dinner just in time to pick up the check and catch the so-long-he’s-got-to-check-his-watch goodbye kiss Isley gives Dent. After she leaves, Harvey breaks the news of their engagement to a shocked Bruce, who has some concerns over the fact that they’ve only known each other a week. His “marriage is a big commitment” speech is cut short, though, by Harvey’s faceplant into a bowl of chocolate mousse. When Bruce finds out his friend has been poisoned with an extinct plant toxin, his investigation leads straight to Dr. Pamela Isley, putting an abrupt end to Harvey’s engagement.

The repeated sequence in the police department of Gordon answering the phone to call his squad to move out and Bullock stopping for a donut has its intended comedic effect, but it also emphasizes the changing role of the Gotham P.D. Batman is the real first response in Gotham City now, but Gordon is still going to head out with full force, even in a back-up or pick-up-the-pieces capacity. But Bullock is a cop from a different time, before people dressed up in costumes and used plants and laughter to kill each other. By the time they get back from the prison break, the District Attorney’s already been poisoned. The city is going to shit, and while Bullock may not have time to sit down and enjoy his cup of coffee, nothing is going to stop him from having his donut, because the donut is his resistance to the new world order.

When they learn Dent’s been poisoned at the Rose Café, Bullock assumes it was the food and goes after the chef, rather than an insane botanist in a green bathing suit with toxic lips. Bullock has trouble adjusting to the changing Gotham landscape, and he ends up looking like a paranoid fool most of the time, but his old school methods do occasionally come in handy. One cop who is prepared for the wave of insanity infecting the city is Officer Renee Montoya, who makes her debut as Dent’s hospital guard in “Pretty Poison.” Montoya becomes a bigger presence on the series, and fan response to the character ultimately led to her being integrated into comic book continuity, currently protecting the streets of Gotham as the Question.


Dini has acknowledged the influence of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby on Batman: The Animated Series, and by showing more of Bruce Wayne’s personality Dini brings Lee’s pathos to the character, matching the Kirby influence of producer Bruce Timm’s governing animation style. Lee’s work humanizing superheroes opened the door for the kind of storytelling Dini used on B:TAS, emphasizing that the emotional and mental workings underneath the mask can be just as compelling as the fantasy outside it. Lee showed that the best villains are the ones with connections to the hero’s personal life, and there’s a wonderful cycle that happens in the relationship between Bruce Wayne, Pamela Isley, and Harvey Dent. Bruce funds Harvey’s Stonegate project, which in turn creates Poison Ivy. She poisons the already unstable Dent, and he becomes Two-Face in his next appearance, beginning a career of terrorizing Gotham. And it all starts with Bruce. Uncle Ben should have given some tips on power and responsibility in investments, because Bruce Wayne blew it big time with that one.

By showing Bruce investigating both in and out of the costume, the series brings up some interesting questions about just how far above the law Bruce sees himself. In one telling moment, Bruce finds himself alone with Harvey’s poisoned blood sample, takes out his handkerchief, and swipes it from the forensics lab. That’s totally illegal, right? Especially when Batman could probably just ask for the sample and have them give it to him. Batman has zero tolerance for any criminal, but Bruce Wayne is probably the biggest one of all, funding a massive illegal vigilante operation with corporate money that could be going into employee paychecks.


Stray observations:

  • This episode had a lot of great action moments, but Batman stopping a helicopter with his grappling hook and a building antenna is the only one that comes close to matching the awesome of last week’s periscope smackdown.
  • “Does she have a sister?” Oh, Bruce.
  • “Well you know I’d been talking to my broker and his recommendation was –ooh…”
  • The tagline for Isley’s fragrance Nightshade: “It’s deadly.”
  • “Yeah, yeah, big wings.”
  • “No, no. No strychnine. But I added just a pinch of vanilla.”
  • I bet Harvey had a passing thought about marrying Pamela, flipped a coin and it came up heads.
  • The stark change in lighting after Batman growls “I’m your worst nightmare” is a fantastic way to amplify the terror of that moment
  • After last episode’s rare misstep, Shirley Walker redeems herself with this week’s fantastic score and its excellent use of contrast. The aggressive trumpets as bulldozers break ground on Stonegate is the complete opposite of the lilting strings of Poison Ivy’s greenhouse. This same brass/string dynamic helps land the comedy of the Rose Café/rooftop scene, as the romantic acoustic music of the café gives way to Batman’s thunderous backing orchestra.
  • Paul Dini is currently working on Marvel’s upcoming Ultimate Spider-Man animated series. In an interview last week, Dini said, “Coming up with a look for the Spider-Man show, I think it’s really going to take people by surprise. It’s going to take people by surprise as much as the Batman show in the early ‘90s took comic fans by surprise.” I’m stoked.