Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Batman: The Animated Series - "Mad as a Hatter"

“Twinkle, twinkle, little bat; how I wonder what you’re at!”

Paul Dini returns to scripting duties with another supervillain origin story, this time for the Mad Hatter (Roddy McDowall). A gifted scientist named Jervis Tetch falls head over heels for his coworker Alice, and as his mind warps into a wonderland of his own making, his obsession with Alice leads him to conflict with Batman, who can’t help but notice all the strange mind-control devices plaguing the city.

“Mad as a Hatter” is a strange episode for me because I remember really loving it as a kid (maybe just because for a while I had a difficult time getting a Mad Hatter action figure). The older I get, however, the more unsettling this episode becomes, the less sympathetic the villain, and the more genuinely dark I find “Mad as a Hatter.” This is somewhat unique for a Paul Dini origin story – I’m thinking specifically of “Heart of Ice” and “Mad Love,” both of which give their villainous main characters a humanizing and sympathetic backstory. Even though we’d probably never become the villains ourselves, we understand them, and we see just where and why it all fell apart for them.

With Jervis Tetch, however, there isn’t that moment where his life changes. His wife doesn’t die; he doesn’t meet a sociopath who manipulates him. He’s just a creepy loner who develops an unhealthy obsession with his coworker and the Lewis Carroll novel from which he will eventually take his criminal moniker. What’s striking, though, is the way that Dini makes Gotham City the initially unlikely but ultimately inevitable site for Tetch’s distinctive brand of madness to run wild. His Wonderland-inspired mania, combined with the coincidence (or perhaps not) of his friend Alice’s name, play out in a bizarre amusement park modeled after – you guessed it – Alice in Wonderland. (Sidebar: years later in the comics, Paul Dini would create a character named The Broker, whose job it was to find these happy coincidences of real estate and sell them to the optimal villain; fortunately for The Broker, Gotham City was – under Dini’s pen – revealed to have been a tourist trap many years ago, populated with this daft superfluity of derelict theme parks.)

“Mad as a Hatter” is an engaging enough episode, highlighting that mainlined insanity Dini so frequently brings to his stories, but it does lack a little in the department of psychological complexity; put another way, The Mad Hatter is more pathetic than sympathetic. There’s also a pronounced lack of detective work on Batman’s part, as he chases Tetch around the city, waylaid by the mind-controlled goons in Lewis Carroll attire, until the grand guignol climax at Storybook Land, which takes all this allusive subtext and renders it on the level of the literal. Batman encounters the Hatter at a mad tea party, wards off the Red Queen and her soldiers, and encounters an actual flying jabberwock (of sorts).

I’d be remiss if I didn’t draw out the episode’s most remarkable strength – not its deliberate peculiar brand of strangeness, though that’s certainly memorable. No, it’s Roddy McDowall’s casting as The Mad Hatter; McDowall’s unique cadence gives Tetch a titch of lilting deranged pathos, but he does indignant fury almost as well as Mark Hamill’s Joker at the moment when his mind irrevocably snaps and he blames Batman for forcing him into the role as this episode’s villain. “Mad as a Hatter” is maybe a B-list episode at worst (a high-B from Paul Dini, which is as good as an A from anyone else, mind you), but McDowall’s characterization and the abject unapologetic weirdness push it just shy of Top 10 material – as I’ve said before, if only because there is so much other good stuff coming down the pike.

Original Air Date: October 12, 1992

Writer: Paul Dini

Director: Frank Paur

Villains: The Mad Hatter (Roddy McDowall)

Next episode: “Dreams in Darkness,” in which Batman finds himself on the wrong side of a cell at Arkham.

🦇For the full list of Batman: The Animated Series reviews, click here.🦇

No comments: