Taking a break from studying for her midterms, Barbara Gordon (Melissa Gilbert) takes on what seems to be a fairly open-and-shut Catwoman case. But why would Catwoman (Adrienne Barbeau) return to the scene of the crime? Protesting her innocence, Catwoman proposes an unlikely alliance with Batgirl; Robin remains suspicious, but Batgirl sets off in search of the real thieves.
Taken as the final episode of Batman: The Animated Series, “Batgirl Returns” is a curious bird. Batman appears not at all, save for a cutesy dream sequence, while Bruce Wayne is relegated to Paris, handling a Wayne Enterprises business deal on which the fate of the entire European economy seems to lie (“This WayneCorp merger is vital for the European common market,” he says). So it’s a shame that we don’t get a proper sendoff for Kevin Conroy. We do get brief appearances from three of the show’s greatest villains – The Joker, Two-Face, and The Penguin – but they too appear in said fantasy sequence, wordless yet nevertheless menacing. It’s a nice moment when the stellar designs are trotted out once more, allowing us to appreciate how effortlessly iconic this show could be.
This opening fantasy, though, is a very strange place to begin this episode, hinging as it does on Batgirl’s fantasy of rescuing Batman and wooing him over. Put another way, now I see where Bruce Timm gets it. For an episode that ought to be about the empowered women of Gotham, there’s an odd tendency of the episode to try to put Batgirl “in her place,” as when Robin’s efforts to protect her usually come off as condescending and perhaps even a little toxic. Indeed, the very notion that Batman needs Robin to watch over Batgirl seems needlessly paternalistic, given how well she acquitted herself in “Shadow of the Bat.” It’s quite a shame, then, that BtAS never gave Batgirl more than two episodes to breathe; seeding Barbara Gordon’s journey toward the cowl was one of the great slow-burn long games of the show, but I can’t help but feeling there was more here. (The New Batman Adventures would ultimately prove me right, with Batgirl joining the cast more or less full-time, including in one of the best episodes of the series.)
As a finale, though, perhaps it’s for the best that BtAS doesn’t go for a predictable wrap-up but instead reminds us that the show has often been less about Batman and more about the world he inhabits. Without Batman, we see the budding romance between Dick Grayson and Barbara Gordon, who remain delectably unaware of their alter egos and the simmering tension there. That dynamic could have comprised its own episode (and though the show never quite got there, the tie-in comics had a good bit of fun with it). We also see a new side of Catwoman, still smarting over her treatment in “Cat Scratch Fever” (me too, Selina, me too); her opportunity for revenge is classic Catwoman, as is her inimitable way of keeping her promise to Batgirl to turn herself in. The extension of the cat-and-(winged)-mouse game to the wider Bat-family leaves Catwoman in a fascinating place, a perfect note on which to part with her.
Furthermore, “Batgirl Returns” ties up one more loose end on the show when it revisits Roland Daggett and his bid for control of the Gotham underworld. With characters like Daggett and Rupert Thorne, this show had an extensive subplot about the class of criminal who would come to rule the city, with Two-Face putting in his own bid in “Shadow of the Bat.” With Thorne appearing largely retired in “Second Chance” (after his last-ditch effort in hiring the titular “Bane” to kill the Bat), Daggett reaches his absolute zero here – circumstances brought on by his own doing, as distinct from the more interesting villains being victims of circumstance – and having Catwoman twist the knife at episode’s end puts a fine button on that plotline. The city, it turns out, belongs even in absentia to the Bat.
A good finale should leave us wanting more, and this episode really does. Fortunately, The New Batman Adventures to come would fulfill much of that promise – more Batman, more Batgirl, more Gotham, and even more unlikely team-ups like this one (Catwoman allies with Nightwing, while Batgirl gets a “super” visitor from out of town). “Batgirl Returns” is, however, Melissa Gilbert’s swan song as Batgirl; she’d be replaced by Mary Kay Bergman for the SubZero film and ultimately by the definitive Tara Strong in TNBA, but I always appreciated the way Gilbert gave Barbara wisdom beyond her years, a kind of playful adultness to match Loren Lester’s youthful trying-too-hard attempt to be a grown-up. But this interpretation of Batgirl was always someone who refused to believe she had something to prove; rather than the full-fledged member of the family we’d meet in TNBA, this Batgirl was content merely to take inspiration from a team that never quite embraced her as it should have. We did, though; it’s hard not to read a Batgirl comic without hearing Shirley Walker’s orchestral swell, so suited to her swooping dives into action.
Writers: Michael Reaves and Brynne Stephens
Director: Dan Riba
Villains: Catwoman (Adrienne Barbeau) and Roland Daggett (Ed Asner)
Next episode: That’s all she wrote for Batman: The Animated Series, but stay tuned for a few end-of-series debriefs, Top Ten style. But Batgirl returns, and so will we, old chum, as we charge headlong into The New Batman Adventures.
🦇For the full list of Batman: The Animated Series reviews, click here.🦇