Tardy to the Party: Harley Quinn

I was present at the birth of Harley Quinn.

On second thought, that might be a bit of an overstatement. I suppose her “birth” would actually have been when the script, the artwork, and the voice were combined for the very first time, and I didn’t bear witness to that particular event.

However, I was definitely present for her official public debut, and I know the story of her conception by heart—Paul Dini, one of the writers on Batman: The Animated Series, was inspired by a dream sequence on the soap opera Days of Our Lives in which actress Arleen Sorkin sported a jester costume. Dini, along with artist Bruce Timm, combined the imagery depicted in the show with aspects of Sorkin’s personality (coincidentally he happened to be friends with her) to create a sidekick/girlfriend for the Joker. She was meant to appear in a single episode, then fade into the annals of cartoon obscurity.

That episode was called “Joker’s Favor.”

But she returned for another episode. And then another. In the end, Harley Quinn appeared in 14 episodes of the series, including a few where she enjoyed a starring role, like “Harley and Ivy,” “Harleyquinade,” and “Harley’s Holiday.” She became so popular that several years later she made the rare transition from cartoons to comics, becoming part of Batman comic book cannon.

It just so happens that I was in exactly the right place (my living room floor) at exactly the right time (sometime after I got home from school, probably between 3:30 and 5:00pm on September 11, 1992), to experience Harley Quinn’s introduction to the world.

This was one party I was actually on time for.

Although I can’t claim that it was love at first sight, as the show progressed and more episodes featured Harley in some way, she soon became my favorite character. I scoured the Earth for Harley Quinn items to surround myself with, but the pickings were slim for quite a few years because while I was perfectly on time for her coming out party, my enthusiasm for her character was ahead of the curve by a long shot.

Still, Harley Quinn’s popularity grew slowly but surely, gaining her an increased number of comic book appearances including key roles in titles like Gotham City Sirens, The New 52, Suicide Squad, and multiple ongoing series. She was also featured in various video games, from 1994’s The Adventures of Batman & Robin, to 2018’s DC Unchained and Lego DC Super-Villains. For the most part I didn’t follow her down these paths; I was content to remain with the original Harley Quinn in her original medium, only occasionally taking a peek at what else she was up to as time went on. Of course, I also enjoyed the perks of her new it-girl status; merchandise bearing her image was now widely available, and I took full advantage of this fact (see the sampling of items below).

When I heard that Harley was coming to the big screen as a member of the Suicide Squad movie, I was understandably nervous—a new actress taking on a live action version of my beloved clown princess of crime could be an utter disaster if not handled properly. I know the movie itself was widely panned and many fans were disappointed overall, but I kinda liked it. I think that’s because her characterization was my main focus. Even the film’s most vocal critics seemed to agree that Harley Quinn was a bright spot in an otherwise unwatchable movie. For my part, I was entirely satisfied with her…even though she wasn’t a carbon copy of the version on B:TAS, she remained true to the original’s essence. I thought Margot Robbie was glorious, equal parts fun and crazy, clever and silly, strong and vulnerable. My biggest, perhaps only, complaint had to do with her costume—I didn’t really expect her to wear her infamous black and red unitard (I understand that what looks good in cartoons/comics doesn’t always translate well in the real world), but my first reaction upon seeing her movie outfit was, “Where the f#@! are her pants?!?” On one hand, I don’t disagree that Harley would wear something like that…on the other hand, do we have to sexualize her that much? Did her “shorts” (I use the term loosely) have to be that short? I guarantee you they were not comfortable. And shouldn’t one be comfortable when fighting (or committing) crime? Then again, I guess I should at least give the moviemakers some credit for having her hair somewhat tied back (small side ponytails aren’t ideal, but they’re better than having your hair loose and flying all over the place while you fight).

Needless to say, all this gushing about my favorite Bat-villain has merely been a preamble to the focus of my article—the new Harley Quinn cartoon series, which premiered on November 29, 2019 on DC Universe, which is yet another streaming service I refuse to pay for, thus making me tardy to this particular part(y) of Harley Quinn’s nearly 30 year-long existence. Marketed as “an adult animated television series,” and filled with enough f-bombs and grisly violence to live up to that claim, the show follows Harley as she breaks up with the Joker, forms her own crew, and tries to make a name for herself as a supervillain worthy of fear and respect.

I became aware of the series thanks to the ads that started popping up on my Facebook timeline around the time of its release. They included 30 second-ish clips from episodes, trying to entice me to join the DC Universe (or, at the very least, sign up for the free trial period that might provide me with content entertaining enough to convince me that it’s totally worth the cost). I watched every clip provided by these “sponsored” posts, and ever so briefly considered checking out the streaming service. But I had no real intention of ever paying for it, and I’m not the kind of girl who signs up for free trials of anything unless I’m seriously considering following through and actually buying whatever it is (which just goes to show that, sadly, I’m not villain material myself). No problem, I figured that I’d just wait until the series became available to rent on other platforms that I already have access to (namely Netflix or Amazon Prime Video).

It wasn’t until one night in late May, when I stayed up later than I should have and was mindlessly flipping through the cable guide, that an unexpected title popped up under the SyFy Channel’s listings: Harley Quinn. Could it be? Was this the series I was patiently waiting to be released just about anywhere other than the newly created, annoyingly superfluous DC-centered streaming service?

Yes it was.

That’s how I discovered that the series was available on Optimum On Demand, though it was slated to expire in a few days. I crammed as many episodes as I could into the next few nights, not quite making it to the end of the series before it was removed, but seeing enough to know that I liked it. A lot. And I wanted to write about it.

(Author’s note: In case you’re wondering if I ever managed to catch the final couple of episodes, I ended up purchasing season one on iTunes so I could finish watching it. Unfortunately, as of publication, I was unable to find it available to rent anywhere, although you can still stream it on DC Universe or buy it on a handful of streaming services like Amazon Prime Video.)

Episode one of Harley Quinn, titled “Til Death Do Us Part,” begins with a bunch of rich, white men toasting their good fortune while standing around a pyramid of money on a yacht. Their smarmy, self-congratulatory nonsense is interrupted by Harley, who flips onto the deck wearing her classic black and red costume, wielding a matching oversized mallet. Initially unwilling to take “the Joker’s girlfriend” seriously, the men soon realize that she means business when she breaks one of their number’s legs. They react to his injury by drawing their guns on her. That’s when the Joker makes his presence known in a gruesome, Silence of the Lambs-inspired move that causes some of the characters to vomit. Harley’s understandably frustrated that he’s undermined her control of the situation once again, and tries to express these feelings to him as he alternates between tossing acid bombs and utilizing a flame thrower against the yacht’s guests. Despite the Joker’s objections that now is not the time, Harley insists on talking about it, a conversation that leads to her confess that she no longer wants to be his sidekick. Her aspiration is to be his partner so she’ll be taken seriously as a villain.

Cue Batman, whose appearance annoys the Joker even as it saves him from having to respond to Harley’s declaration. Instead, the Joker pushes Harley towards Batman, instructing her to distract him while he makes his getaway in a submarine, promising to rescue her from her inevitable incarceration at Arkham Asylum “by breakfast.” Batman takes her to Commissioner Gordon, and the two men try to persuade her to give up the Joker, but there’s no way she’d do that to her Puddin’. Instead she accuses Batman of performing carnal acts with bats and dreamily reminisces about a romantic evening she recently spent with her beloved Mistah J that culminated in a marriage proposal.

Six months pass, and we discover that Harley’s still in Arkham with nary a phone call or visit or jailbreak in sight. Enter Poison Ivy, Harley’s truest and most loyal friend, a constant source of love and support, and the only voice of reason in Harley’s otherwise frenetic life. She gently tries to convince Harley that the Joker isn’t coming, that he doesn’t care about her, but Harley refuses to believe her. Over the next six months, Ivy repeatedly attempts to drive the message home, but to no avail. Even when the entire population of inmates, exacerbated by Harley’s inability to see reason, proclaim in unison “He’s not coming!” she remains unconvinced.

Then one night, exactly one year after she was sent to Arkham, alarms sound, guns go off, and lights flash. Has the Joker finally come to spring her? Of course not! I guess Ivy’s had enough of incarceration, so she’s decided to break out. And she takes an unwilling Harley with her, quickly drugging her delusional friend before she can object.

Harley awakens in Ivy’s apartment, where we first meet Frank, Ivy’s Little Shop of Horrors Audrey II-esque potted plant companion. She immediately attempts to run back to the Joker, who must be worried, after all, but Ivy uses vines to restrain her. She reminds Harley that she’s a brilliant psychiatrist, and was the only person who could get through to her. She proceeds to show her an old picture of them together, back when they were doctor and patient, to emphasize the point. That’s when her previous self in the photo, Dr. Harleen Quinzel, comes to life and speaks to current Harley, helping her to see how problematic her relationship with the Joker is.

Meanwhile, their escape has made the news, and Joker is enraged…because the anchor referred to the Riddler as “Gotham’s funniest villain.” He’s still fuming when Harley and Ivy show up, but he manages to give her an unimpressed, “Oh, hey Harley,” when one of his goons points out that they’re standing in the doorway. Harley storms in and breaks up with him, but the Joker responds with some classic manipulation that quickly wins her over. As the newly reunited couple begin to make out, Ivy dejectedly leaves her friend to the fate she’s chosen.

Their happiness is predictably short-lived, however. Joker gets word that the Riddler has created a riddle so funny that it makes people’s brains explode, and is furious that another villain would dare to try and steal his schtick. Annoyed that her Puddin’ is distracted from their planned celebratory date night, Harley offers to kill the Riddler for him so they can get back to their quiet night in watching a Reese Witherspoon movie, and the Joker takes her up on it.

Harley arrives at the Riddler’s not-so-subtle lair just as he’s about to broadcast his newest riddle on live TV. Naturally, Batman shows up shortly thereafter, also with the intention of foiling his plans. But the joke (riddle?) is on them because they’re quickly captured in clear plastic spheres that are subsequently suspended from the ceiling over vats of acid. Instead of simply dispatching of them both, the Riddler invites the Joker over for some supervillain-level mind games, presenting him with a choice—which one should live and which one should die?

Harley’s confident that the choice is an easy one, and she’s absolutely right. Unfortunately, she’s also completely wrong. He decides that Batman should go free and Harley should be dropped into the acid, a decision everyone (the audience, the characters, literally EVERYONE) could see coming a mile away. Everyone except her. As she sinks into the acid, she once again recalls the same romantic evening that popped into her mind the night Batman caught her a year prior. This time, though, her former self, Dr. Harleen Quinzel, interrupts her thoughts and points out that she’s remembering it incorrectly—there weren’t any violins or dancing or diamond rings at all. And when the Joker promised, “Til death do us part,” he wasn’t talking to her.

He was addressing Batman.

At long last, Harley fully grasps the truth about her relationship with the Joker.

A hand reaches in and pulls her out of the acid. Ivy to the rescue! And that’s not acid…it’s margarita mix. 150 gallons of margarita mix. The whole scheme was a farce to force Harley face the fact that the Joker doesn’t care about her at all. Thankfully, it worked. Embarrassed by her ridiculous blind devotion to the Joker, Harley is understandably hard on herself, but Ivy delivers a touching pep talk that helps her begin to see her own potential.

A knock at the door interrupts the moment—it’s one of Joker’s goons bearing a heartfelt message that concludes with him exploding. And while Harley thinks the gesture is kinda sweet, she assures Ivy that she’s done with the Joker. For reals this time.

At the same time, Harley knows can’t really have a fresh start until she puts the past behind her, and she still has unfinished business with the Joker. So she strides confidently back into his lair donning a new costume—though she’s stayed with her traditional palette, she’s now wearing a half black/half red tank top, half black/half red briefs, black and red knee socks, one black and one red sneaker, both with matching pompoms, and a black choker. She throws her old costume at the Joker and announces that she’s not only leaving him, she’s going to replace him as the top supervillain in Gotham. In an attempt to make a point about how ridiculous she sounds, he sics his goons on her. She manages to hold them off admirably, though her mallet gets destroyed in the process. Surprisingly, and to his credit, the Joker does give her an opportunity to call it off at that point, but when she refuses to give, he orders his goons to kill her. In the ensuing fight for survival, Harley gets her hands on a bat, which becomes her signature weapon for the rest of the series, and continues to successfully defeat his goons. In the end, she blows up the entire lair, and the Joker is partially buried under some rubble. She doesn’t kill him, though. She wants him alive so he can watch her rise to become an even greater villain than he is.

This episode is a promising start to what ended up being a pretty damn entertaining show. Still, I did have a couple major issues with the first episode: there are 3 f-bombs and one “shit” dropped (no pun intended) during the first minute alone, and some of the fight scenes are not only incredibly violent, they’re astonishingly gory. It’s as if the creators decided that in order to definitively prove this cartoon is geared towards adults, they needed to include a gratuitous amount of blood, guts, and fucks (the word, not the act). Don’t get me wrong—I’m no prude. As a true-crime/horror fan, I’ve seen my share of violence and gore, and as a high school teacher I’ve heard my share of foul language. I also frequently drop f-bomb myself (not in front of students, obviously), so it’s not like I object to the use of the word. But in my opinion, this episode took special pains to go way over the top with both the curses and the carnage. That said, I’m happy to report that this problem is unique to “Til Death Do Us Part”; subsequent episodes tone down the language and the bloodshed a bit for the most part, doling out each in more reasonable doses.

Throughout the series, Harley and Ivy’s friendship continues to grow and blossom (that pun was intended). Ivy is extremely patient with her easily excitable friend, whose regular temper tantrums typically result in some kind of broken technological device. Her advice is continually sound, and she’s always there for Harley, even during heists she has no interest in participating in. I’ve never really cared for Poison Ivy as a character, but I’ve definitely become a fan of her on this show; she’s my favorite character (after Harley) by far. Anyway, as time progresses Harley ends up creating her own crew, a motley collection of misfit evildoers that no one else wants to work with, including Doctor Psycho, Clayface, King Shark, and eventually Sy Borgman. Together they perform various heists, some more impressive (and successful) than others, each one a small step towards their ultimate goal of receiving an invitation to join the Legion of Doom, thus legitimizing their villainousness. Along the way mistakes are made, feelings are hurt, and a certain ex-boyfriend is able to temporarily weasel his way back into another certain someone’s life. But no one’s perfect, and by the end of season one lessons have been learned, mistakes have been forgiven, and characters have grown, each in their own way.

That brings me to Harley Quinn herself. I’ll be honest with you, she’s not the easiest character to love—she’s selfish and shortsighted, she refuses to consider anyone else’s opinion/advice, she’s prone to violent, childish outbursts that almost always result in the destruction of someone else’s property, and she has an exceedingly unhealthy fixation on the Joker that seems almost impossible to break, even when she’s making every conscious effort to do so. But, as Ivy points out in episode 7, though Harley’s a bad guy, she’s a good person. And though she possesses a surplus of excessively annoying flaws, those flaws also relatable (I can certainly relate to her terrible taste in men, as well as her ridiculous devotion to them). That’s probably why I’m so fond of her… she’s an exaggerated version of a part of me.

In any event, season one of Harley Quinn was a helluva roller coaster ride, and I eagerly await the day I have access to season two, which has already been released on DC Universe (but not on any other platforms yet, as far as I know). If you’re looking for an entertaining bit of fictional madness to distract you from the horrifying real madness of what’s going on in the world today, this show fits the bill. And don’t worry, you don’t need to be a huge Batman nerd or Harley Quinn fanatic to be able to appreciate the show. C’mon…give it a try. I’m sure Harley’d be happy to let you join her crew.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *