Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The New Batman Adventures - "Mad Love"

“Face it, Harl, this stinks. You’re a certified nutso wanted in twelve states, and you’re hopelessly in love with a psychopathic clown! At what point did my life go Looney Tunes?”

Smarting from his latest thwarted attempt to kill Commissioner Gordon, The Joker (Mark Hamill) rebuffs Harley’s advances, pushing the clown princess (Arleen Sorkin) to remember how it all began. In flashbacks, we see how she met The Joker as his psychiatrist in Arkham Asylum, before she fell in love and broke him out as his new henchgirl. As Harley remembers her past, she plans her future with her puddin’, plotting a way to rework Mr. J’s old schemes to kill Batman once and for all.

“Mad Love” is, as memory serves, the last great episode of the animated Batman project, which is really fitting in a number of ways. It’s the last episode by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, adapting one of their seminal comic book works, and it remains the definitive statement on Harley Quinn. (We’ll see her once more, in two weeks, for a zany sideplot.) It’s a brisk twenty minutes, giving us a pair of fully-realized villains whose ambitions are clear, and it features Batman cleverly dodging his way out of danger with his trademark sense of black humor. (“She came a lot closer than you ever did... Puddin’.”) Put another way, it’s at once a high note and a mic drop for Paul Dini and Bruce Timm.

Reviewing this episode is a little like reviewing Citizen Kane – even if you haven’t seen it, you know its reputation is titanic, and the central concept is so culturally ingrained that it’s seeped into the culture by four-color osmosis. Everyone knows the story, and you’ll be unsurprised to see it crack the Top Five of my “Best Paul Dini Episodes” when all is said and done. It’s such a tight and engaging exercise in precision, with a wonderful showcase for Arleen Sorkin, who plays Harley as a multifaceted bundle of mess. She’s romantic, lovestruck, tragic, determined, afraid, clever, infatuated, obsessed, angry, and often a mix of most of them at once. What Kevin Conroy can do with the word “Go” pales in comparison to what Sorkin can do with a well-timed “Puddin’.”

Giving a villain like Harley such a complex psychological and emotional profile is a bit brave, but it’s long been the hallmark of this show that the villains are almost more the star of an episode than Batman is. Joker, too, gets his convolutions, obsessed as he is with marshalling all the strength of his comedic genius against Batman’s vast toyetic arsenal. He’s aware of the theatricality of it all, and it’s been this self-aware mania that has marked Hamill’s Joker tenure as indisputably definitive. He’s genuinely funny – on more than one level, as when he gags, “May the floss be with you!” – and yet frighteningly manipulative. This danger is something that Suicide Squad started to get right, this interpretation of The Joker as emotionally abusive and psychologically controlling, with Harley’s true tragedy being her inability to learn from her own mistakes.

Of course, in the comics, she’s long since learned her lesson, but in “Mad Love” she’s incorrigible, swooning over her Mistah J despite his endless violence. Yet at her core, she’s real; we recognize her cheery optimism and believe in her abiding capacity for love. We can’t help but admire her spirited determination to get back up and try again, even if that is the very definition of madness. In this way, she’s become a kind of accidental feminist icon, representing the capacity for strength and growth in the face of astonishing cruelty. No matter what happens to Harley, regardless of how warped her perceptions can be, she’s determined to continue to try to make the world in her own madcap image, whether that involves a shellacking of whiteface or a good thwack of her oversized mallet. 

We’ve seen throughout that this series often lives or dies on the strength of a particular voiceover artist – Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, Michael Ansara, even Paul Williams as The Penguin. Here, though, Sorkin makes the case (if she hadn’t already) that she belongs on the Mount Rushmore of Bat-voices – indeed, such that I can’t imagine who a comparable fourth would be opposite Conroy and Hamill. (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., maybe? Andrea Romano? Sound off in the comments.) “Mad Love” is then a kind of farewell gift; though Harley Quinn will appear once more, this episode is the treasure by which we’ll always remember her.

Original Air Date: January 16, 1999

Writers: Paul Dini and Bruce Timm

Director: Butch Lukic

Villains: Harley Quinn (Arleen Sorkin) and The Joker (Mark Hamill)

Next episode: “Chemistry,” in which our Dark Knight finally settles down.

🦇For the full list of The New Batman Adventures reviews, click here.🦇

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