Gotham’s worst nightmare has come to life – The Joker (Mark Hamill) has taken possession of an atomic weapon, and he’s just crazy enough to use it. With the mayor insistent on covering up the threat to avoid a panic, Batman realizes he doesn’t have time to catch The Joker on his own. He’ll need the help of a mind as twisted as Joker’s, so he deputizes Harley Quinn (Arleen Sorkin) to help him catch her puddin’ before he turns Gotham City into a crater.
By now you’re probably sick of me saying it, but “Harlequinade” demands I repeat the mantra that’s guided me through this rewatch: the best episodes of Batman: The Animated Series are written by Paul Dini, and the best Paul Dini episodes invariably star The Joker and/or his checkered jester moll, Harley Quinn. And boy is “Harlequinade” a soaring return to form for the show after last week’s letdown, “The Terrible Trio.” This episode is filled with a bonkers energy, from its opening at a gangland arms auction to the very premise of Harley riding shotgun in the Batmobile, through the roller coaster of emotions as Harley realizes that, yes, Mr. J is actually going to detonate this bomb.
In traditional theatrical pantomime, the harlequinade is the moment when the jester and the harlequin take center stage, and so it’s quite appropriate that “Harlequinade” is a real farce of an episode, with Batman ceding control of the investigation and the narrative to Harley Quinn. The result is wildly entertaining, as Harley proves to be an exceedingly poor substitute for Robin; she has her own grappling gun, yes, but it’s in the shape of a clown head, and it inevitably bonks her on the noggin. She ably defers the suspicion of gangster Boxy Bennett (voiced by Dick Miller, in a definitive mob boss accent), but it involves apparently betraying Batman before belting into a violent rendition of “Say that We’re Sweethearts Again” (“And I thought it was a lark / When you kicked me in the park / But now I think it was rude”).
When I reviewed “Harley and Ivy,” I had said that it was “the start of a thematic trilogy for Harley,” of which “Harlequinade” is the ostensible second entry in Harley’s peculiar attempts to go straight and fly away from The Joker. As before, Harley seems aware that her relationship with The Joker is unhealthy – her musical interlude explicates as much – and yet she finds herself irresistibly drawn to him. “He’s a genius,” she swoons; “it’s just a joke.” Perhaps more than any episode before, Arleen Sorkin really shines as Harley Quinn, a role quite literally written for her and which she owned in ways no other performer has quite accessed. She’s believable in every iteration of Harley this episode presents – lovesick puppy, independent woman, serenading siren, white-hot rage, demented admiration – “Harlequinade” asks so much of her and yet she rises to every challenge.
The beautiful tragedy of Harley Quinn – at least, as far as she’d be presented on BtAS – is that she comes so very close to learning her lesson, only to fall for her puddin’ one more time. And in a way, how could she not? She and Joker are perfectly evenly matched, furious anger and creative flair unequalled by any soul in Gotham. Dini pads the episode out with quintessential Joker moments – his old-style bathing suit, his aviator’s cap and tommy gun – but the episode is careful to give Harley her own unique touches, like her love for her hyenas, her need to “slip into something more comfortable” (namely, her red-and-black costume), and her “ha-hacienda.” Dini is such an eccentric writer that his episodes are filled with so many lovely touches, but he’s also a writer who understands the souls of his characters, even if they are warped and perverse. They love each other, and we can’t help but love them right back. “Baby,” Joker closes the episode by telling Harley, “you’re the greatest!” And on the subject of “Harlequinade,” I can’t help but agree. It’s one of the best.
Writer: Paul Dini
Director: Kevin Altieri
Villains: The Joker (Mark Hamill), Harley Quinn (Arleen Sorkin), and Boxy Bennett (Dick Miller)
Next episode: “Time Out of Joint,” in which an underrated villain returns, “faster than a speeding bullet.”
🦇For the full list of Batman: The Animated Series reviews, click here.🦇