After the beginning, the end.
Nothing profound about that, of course. It is the one and only absolute certainty in life, that for every beginning, there is a corresponding end. For a new Batman to rise, the old must step aside.
It is fitting that it does so with more beginnings.
It’s still January 16, 1999. On TV, we have the end of an era that began seven years and four volumes ago: Batman: The Animated Series is ending with the final episode of The New Batman Adventures, “Mad Love,” an adaptation of the Batman Adventures comic of the same name. We’ve already discussed the main difference between the two versions, a sequence in which Batman gives an account of the pre-Arkham life of Harleen Quinzel that makes no sense whatsoever, and tied it to both the indelible contribution of Arleen Sorkin to the character and her erasure from almost all discussion thereof.
We won’t rehash that discussion here. Instead, we will focus on the choice for the one DCAU series* that does not start with an origin story to instead end with one–because of course that’s what “Mad Love” is, an unusually robust framing device around a core of Harley Quinn’s origin story.
It’s a familiar structure–a present-day adventure in which someone known to the audience as a joke character is depicted instead as a tragic figure who turns to crime for love and loses painfully, in the process letting the audience see how they came to this state in the first place. That’s exactly how “Heart of Ice” functioned, and while not the first episode of Batman: The Animated Series to be made or to air, it was the first episode that was recognizably part of a groundbreaking, award-winning, genre-transforming work of art. It was, in short, where BTAS earned that “The” in its title. Of course we end in the same kind of story. Of course we take the subgenre that BTAS so uniquely excels at, the sympathetic villain story, and apply it to the one villain who most deserves and needs it, who happens also to be the single best original character to come out of BTAS.
Who could it be but Harley?** And what a gut-punch it is. “Harley and Ivy” already gave us a stunning depiction of a woman who escaped her abusive partner into the arms of a far better match, only to return to the familiar suffering of being with her former partner. “Mad Love” takes that further, keeping the focus throughout on Harley’s feelings and desires. We see how the Joker tricked and seduced her, how he played to her expectations and fantasies. At first he seemed to be reaching out to her for support, flattering her ego and making her feel powerful and special at the vulnerable moment of first embarking on a new career. Then he used her burgeoning Nightingale syndrome to make her increasingly dependent on him, and finally a well-timed escape to make her realize that dependency could only be fed by freeing him and becoming truly dependent on him as his sidekick.
In her state of dependency, all she can do is try to please him and hope he gives her the attention and care she desperately needs–attention and care she deserves from someone who will actually treat her well. But she can’t see that, can’t see any way out. She blew up a world to make her own a little less dark, to make a tiny window of space in which maybe a tiny bit of queerness could be allowed–but she herself remains as trapped as ever.
Because although he is the guard and chief torturer in Harley’s dungeon, and creator of her prison, it’s not made of him–it’s made of her. She casts blame anywhere and everywhere she can–on Batman for “getting in the way,” on herself because she “didn’t get the joke”–but it’s the Joker’s fault, the Joker’s doing, the Joker who hits her right after commenting about taking blows from people who didn’t take the joke. He’s the one who’s humorless, and cruel, and neglectful, and not good enough.
Because as we’ve seen again and again, Harley is smarter than him, tougher than him, funnier than him, more chaotic than him. She, not the Joker, captures Batman near-effortlessly here, and she, not the Joker, makes him laugh. She even, as Batman acknowledges, comes closer to killing him than the Joker ever did. She is the most magical, transformative, powerful character in the DCAU to date, the wielder of the Magic Batte and destroyer of Krypton.
And this is where she ends. Oh, she’ll show up here and there, including one last appearance as Poison Ivy’s partner, but in her other appearances she’ll just be an echo of the Joker, his sidekick, the grandmother of Dee and Dee. She goes back to him, again and again, as abuse victims so often do, because he has persuaded her she needs him. That is her tragedy: bringer of the apocalypse, the revolution, the new art style, the one world she cannot transform is her own. She remains, forever and always, in the prison that is Harley Quinn.
And yet there is always that glimmer of hope. That moment just before she sees the flower in the vase–the same flower and vase that started her on the journey down into misery–when she is able to clearly see the Joker for what he is and the harm that is done to her. She returns to her prison again and again, but there is always hope that one day she will transform, and walk free.
Which is yet another reason why it has to end with her. Because as we’ve seen with so many other sympathetic villains–Two-Face especially–the person who most needs to believe that villains can change, that they can heal and grow and eventually leave their prisons, is Batman. If anyone else in this show lives in a prison built by someone else but made from their own selves, it’s him.
Batman has almost never been at the center of his own show. He is a creature of the shadows, and that is where he usually remains–in the shadows at the periphery of the narrative. It is entirely fitting that he should spend the last episode of his show there, too–and that the person at its center be the one character who perhaps most perfectly reflects him, trapped in a tortured persona whose suffering she cannot let end. She, here at the end, is the apocalypse-light, all red and black, that casts the shadows in which he lurks.
And neither of them will ever get that joke.
*Counting Justice League Unlimited as part of Justice League, The Batman and Robin Adventures and The New Batman Adventures as part of Batman: The Animated Series, and the Batman Beyond episode “Zeta” as the first episode of The Zeta Project, all of which seem reasonable enough choices to me.
**I checked. That really sounds like the title of a song from the 1930s, possibly in an obscure stage musical, but it’s not.
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