On a patrol of the Gotham docks, Nightwing (Loren Lester) tracks a shipment of smuggled South American guns to Enrique El Gancho. While fighting off the goons, Nightwing finds an unexpected ally in Catwoman (Adrienne Barbeau), who offers her help in an effort to prove she’s gone straight. Batman and Batgirl are suspicious, but Nightwing opts to trust Catwoman, further straining the former Robin’s relationship with the Bat-family.
I don’t think I have terribly much to say about this episode because it’s particularly dull. The episode writes a lot of checks – Nightwing’s tension with Batman, his will-they-won’t-they with Catwoman, an ostensibly reformed villainess, plus a few third-act surprises – but it doesn’t manage to cash those checks as fully as it could have. Instead, it plays incredibly safe and ends up rather boring.
Worse yet, this episode leans on my least favorite kind of Batman story, which was all too common in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In these dreadful Bat-stories, the writers played up Batman’s gruff loner status far too heavily, turning him into an unlikable jerk with no social skills and no desire to play on anything remotely resembling a team. He drives away everyone close to him, who in turn all behave like petulant children. These stories are terrible because they overemphasize the fallen state of Batman’s soul without acknowledging that he uses the Batman identity to overcome that same fallenness; that is, Batman makes Bruce Wayne a better person, not a worse one. For this episode to fall into that trope, then, makes it an unbearable extreme version of something The New Batman Adventures often does – dramatize Batman’s clashes with his ostensible protégés. This friction trickles into Nightwing’s relationship with Batgirl, heavy with its romantic tension; instead of continuing the playful pairing we saw in Batgirl’s early adventures and in SubZero, this episode sees the two junior crimefighters bickering over what should be a non-issue – namely, the implausible reformation of Catwoman, standing in as a metaphor for their inexplicable inability to be with each other.
“You Scratch My Back” is especially infuriating because of its third-act reveals, which I can’t help but spoil here. The one-two revelations are that Catwoman didn’t actually reform (because of course she didn’t) and that Nightwing knew this the whole time, stringing her along until he and Batman could apprehend her. On the first count, this episode is a good indication that the writers have finally figured out Catwoman. She doesn’t need to be immersed in moralistic stories about animal cruelty; she just needs something shiny to chase onto the gray corners of the moral spectrum. What doesn’t work, however, is the twist that the Bat-family was spoofing her, and it doesn’t work because Nightwing’s reveal is entirely emotionless, completely unbelievable after all the acrimony we’ve seen. Recall that we still don’t know why Nightwing quit being Robin, and it’s much more plausible that he’s still mad at Batman than to believe that they fought, reconciled, and are now pretending to fight. Never mind the fact that Loren Lester’s monotone line reading of “She led us right to the emerald, like you said” is perhaps the most misjudged beat since Batman’s apparently insincere “Harvey, no...” from “Two-Face.” Worse yet, if Nightwing and Batman had planned the whole thing, they don’t seem to have included Batgirl in the scheme, seeing as how she and Dick Grayson carried on a private conversation with no incentive to perform being angry at each other.
“You Scratch My Back” is an episode with a lot of unmined potential which chooses to focus instead on petty squabbling and immature silent treatments until an unearned conclusion that pretends everything’s all right. It’s an episode that feeds us sour milk and tries to pretend it’s ice cream. Catwoman is in rare successful form here, but the rest of the episode might end up bumping its way onto the “Bottom Ten” when all’s said and done.
Writer: Hilary J. Bader
Director: Butch Lukic
Villains: Catwoman (Adrienne Barbeau) and Enrique El Gancho (Sal Lopez)
Next episode: “Never Fear,” in which phobia fails.
🦇For the full list of The New Batman Adventures reviews, click here.🦇