All you need to know about Harley Quinn, the decidedly adult cartoon about the DC Comics antihero, can be embodied in one moment from its third season. Harley and her BFF-turned-girlfriend Poison Ivy are having a tender emotional conversation about their relationship … in the middle of an Eyes Wide Shut–style orgy. Just as Ivy is getting to the root of her deep-seated intimacy issues, Harley drop-kicks a masked naked guy masturbating behind them, who croaks, “Annihilate my taint” as his body hits the wall. Ivy returns to her heartfelt confession without missing a beat.
It’s this wild combination of emotional honesty, filthy humor, and graphic violence that makes Harley Quinn one of the most underrated series on TV today—and dare we say the best Batman-related property of the modern age. And in the wake of a second season that broke ground for LGBTQ+ representation in the overcrowded superhero genre, season three continues to fire on all cylinders.
Created by Justin Halpern, Patrick Schumacker, and Dean Lorey, the series debuted in 2019, a few months before Birds Of Prey And The Fantabulous Emancipation Of One Harley Quinn brought the titular therapist-turned-Joker moll into the spotlight. Margot Robbie gave us the definitive take on the character in the DC films, but the animated version, voiced by Emmy nominee Kaley Cuoco, is every bit as iconic.
Like the movie, Harley Quinn begins when Harley finally splits with the Joker (Alan Tudyk), the shitty boyfriend to end all shitty boyfriends. The first season saw Harley joining forces with Ivy (a wonderfully dry Lake Bell), Clayface (also Tudyk), King Shark (Ron Funches), and Dr. Psycho (Tony Hale) to prove to her ex that she can out-supervillain him in a Gotham City crawling with costumed baddies. The series also devotes plenty of time to the hero side of the equation, including a deeply broody Batman (Diedrich Bader), a sad-sack Commissioner Gordon (Christopher Meloni), and a plucky Batgirl (Briana Cuoco).
In season two, Harley briefly dabbled in full villainy, bringing an army of Parademons to Gotham in the midst of her budding but fraught romance with Ivy, who was engaged to sweet dummy Kite Man (Matt Oberg). Meanwhile, Bane (a truly hilarious James Adomian) opens his own prison, Psycho turns on the team, and a memory-wiped Joker settles down with a wife and stepkids in the ’burbs. The episodes culminated in a moment that had longtime “Harlivy” shippers swooning, as Ivy ditched Kite Man at the altar to run away with Harley. (The two have been an item in the comics since 2017.)
Cut to the show’s third season (its first on HBO Max), which begins with the pair on what Harley has dubbed their “Eat. Bang! Kill. Tour”—a.k.a. trotting the globe and sowing chaos, while also taking time to canoodle in the Fortress Of Solitude. But circumstances soon bring them back to Gotham, which is embroiled in various dramas: Gordon is running for mayor, poorly; Nightwing (Harvey Guillén) has come back to town to out-brood his mentor; and real-life The Suicide Squad director James Gunn (Gunn himself) is making a movie about the death of Batman’s parents called, yes, A Hard Wayne’s Gonna Fall. The show may be called Harley Quinn, but this latest installment widens the scope considerably. There’s a full episode to devoted to the Joker, back in his green-hair look, treading the fine line between agent of mayhem and family man; and in another, the newly re-formed “Bat family” works through its complex dynamics.
But season three’s biggest swing is that it essentially makes Ivy the series’ co-protagonist. With the encouragement of Harley, the newly self-actualized eco-warrior returns to her diabolical roots—literally—as she hatches a plan to take back Gotham from humankind and transform it into a verdant jungle. Harley Quinn devotes a considerable amount of its runtime to tracking Harley and Ivy’s messy growth as a couple. They may be in love, but they’re also two deeply traumatized people. And despite the show’s gleefully flip approach to most things, including violent murder, the creators pack more thoughtful character growth into a handful of episodes than Christopher Nolan’s entire Dark Knight trilogy. (In a gift to wary fans, the creators have confirmed that Harley and Ivy won’t break up in the series.)
Speaking of the Caped Crusader, this season more than gives him his due. In a standout episode, Harley goes inside Bruce Wayne’s psyche to help him work through the childhood PTSD that led him to becoming Batman. It’s funny and fucked up, but it also tackles the seeds of mental illness in a way that rings true to reality—and to Harley’s origins as a psychologist.
If this all sounds heavy for a 23-minute cartoon about an ass-kicking clown with pink and blue pigtails, rest assured that season three is also a pure delight, complete with gross-out jokes, shark regicide, kinky swamp sex, and plenty of Easter eggs for Batman devotees. Not to mention that voice cast: The series features everyone from comedy greats (Amy Sedaris, J.B. Smoove, Rachel Dratch) to acting heavyweights (Giancarlo Esposito, Tom Hollander, Meloni).
Harley Quinn is both a tender kiss on the cheek and a baseball bat to the face, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.