Batman: The Animated Series is as known for re-working the origin of characters like Mr. Freeze as it is for creating characters that established roots later in the comic book realm, such as Roxy Rocket. This isn’t about them though for this is ranking the top Harley Quinn Episodes!
The ability to create characters is precisely where we land on our feet, with arguably the most memorably created character to come from the show itself: Harley Quinn. The long-time moll of The Joker and later collaborator with Poison Ivy first came about thanks to writer Paul Dini and artist Bruce Timm. Early artistic renditions had her as more of a 1940’s screwball type character with some hints of what was to come later on. Inspired largely by Dini’s friend, Arleen Sorkin, whom would later lend her voice to the character, Harley Quinn debuted in the episode, “Joker’s Favor,” which aired on September 11th of 1992.
As the series continued, viewers began to learn more about Harley’s background including an absolutely masterful one-shot comic titled, “The Batman Adventures: Mad Love,” released in February of 1994 to award winning praise. That comic unofficially (or officially depending on which fans you talk to), created her backstory including how she fell for The Joker and transformed from Harleen Quinzel to Harley Quinn.
The name Harley Quinn is a play on Harlequin, the most common type of comic servant character related to stage plays and spun off the archetype of the Zanni character, which was a slow-thinker but nimble and athletic. The Harlequin character is known mostly for the ability to speak freely of those superior to them without much fear of reprisal due to the character’s inherent status as a clown or comedian. This type of characterization is both toyed with and played straight throughout the series as it relates to Harley Quinn’s character.
Given the scope of Harley’s character, how instrumental she was to both the development of The Joker and Poison Ivy, and her transition from television to comic book mythology in the Batman universe, I thought it only fitting that I countdown her top 5 episodes of Batman: The Animated Series.
The Countdown [Spoilers Ahead]
Episode 5: The Laughing Fish (Air Date: January 10th, 1993)
Quick aside, honorable mention to “Joker’s Favor” for introducing us to Harley and her costume. This episode is really the first episode that allows an expanded role for Harley from side villain to the key henchwoman to The Joker. Harley not only helps administer the laughing gas to a victim, via perfume bottle, but we get some small insights to her character. We see her aversion to fish (including offscreen vomiting after Joker stuffs some of his patented “Joker Fish” into her mouth) but we also get a great glimpse into the darkness of her character when she displays excitement at feeding Detective Bullock to a shark. The biggest character moment occurs at the end, though, when we see her sobbing hysterically as The Joker has vanished into the open sea. This moment is really what triggers Harley and Joker as a one-sided item but also offers the viewer the awareness that Harley isn’t with The Joker for money or anything else but instead out of true devotion and love.
Episode 4: Harley & Ivy (Air Date: January 18th, 1993)
Anybody who knows me, knows I absolutely adore the relationship that Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy have together both in friendship and more. The ‘subtext’ has become so pronounced since this episode’s airing that even creators Paul Dini & Bruce Timm have stated publicly that they have a romantic involvement.
With all that said, I really like the fact that we see a glimpse of Harley in crime for herself after The Joker kicks her out. Upon meeting up with Ivy, whom Harley has heard of despite calling her, “Poison Oaky,” the instant adoration that Harley showered upon Joker is implied here as well. The best part though is that we see, criminally underrated more often than not, the brains Harley does have as she helps both of them escape from the clutches of Detective Montoya.
The triangle relationship between Harley, Joker, and Ivy is immediately distilled in this episode to help set up its future foundation in other media. Harley adores Joker and Joker sees Harley as a necessity albeit an often undesired one. Ivy plays the mediator, secretly enjoying Harley’s companionship while disproving the notion of Harley and Joker’s relationship. The parallels of spousal abuse rings through each character and their interactions with one another and is a bit of a disquieting yet key background aspect.
Harley again shows off the sneaky dangerous side bubbling under her surface when she helps Ivy send Batman tumbling tied up in toxic sludgey water. It isn’t until she wilts and calls Joker to check up on him, which results in Joker showing up to try and kill off Ivy much to Harley’s saddened dismay, that Harley & Ivy end up getting apprehended. A nice small touch is shown at the end with Harley and Ivy gardening outside, showing that Harley and Ivy have grown close enough to pursue their friendship within Arkham Asylum even with Joker around.
The episode title references a story starring the Harlequin, in this case, Harley Quinn. This is the episode where her name sake truly shines as she plays the comedic foil to Batman’s straight man all the while not really showing any fear of reprisal when she speaks the truth or commits a folly. Harley, in some ways, is a really good teen girl-esque archetype to Bruce Wayne’s father figure and we get glimpses of Batman’s desire to see her set straight in a higher ranked episode.
A lot of the gags work as a result of both the art style and Batman’s straight man routine. Subtle stuff like Harley’s “sneak, sneak, sneak” as the two are sneaking into Foxy’s hideout are just as funny as the more overt moments such as Batman banging his head against a table during Harley’s song. One of the real show off pieces for actress Arleen Sorkin comes when she sings the song to Foxy’s gang as Robin tries to sneak in to help save the day. Harley manages to pull off sexy in a straight homage to the singers of the 1940’s while the dark lyrics help call back to Harley and Joker’s off again/on again relationship.
Harley, unsurprisingly, turns on Batman when they meet up with Joker and his atom bomb. I really love seeing Harley stand up to Joker first when Joker refuses to go back for the hyenas with a great line, “I’ll get you a goldfish!” but especially when Joker is in a war plane shooting up the entire area. Credit to the art department as the shot behind Harley is, in my opinion, one of the most iconic shots of the entire episode with her staring down the plane. She proceeds to knock Joker out and the plane crashes whereupon she walks up, ready to shoot him at point blank range. This is one of the few times that we see how emotion really fuels Harley and just how angry she is. The gag of the bang flag, complete with rat-a-tat-tat wording followed by Joker’s anger turning into amusement works so well in the context of the entire episode. The big swinging hug and enclosed heart just wrap up a great episode.
Episode 2: Mad Love (Air Date: January 16th, 1999)
This is where some of the controversy probably comes in the comments section. Let me be frank and say I adore this episode. Just adore it and in some ways think it is even better than the comic it is based off of. What pushes it to second place on my list is the enduring fight between Batman and Joker, whereas my number one episode is pretty much all Harley the entire episode.
“Mad Love,” not only tackles the abuse aspect of Harley and Joker’s relationship almost out in the open but also reflects just how much of Harley’s character relies on Joker. Harley’s idea is at once brilliant in having Batman tied up in a predicament he is unable to physically escape from, but also poorly thought out because Batman is able to mentally goad Harley into calling Joker first to tell him what she has done. Batman knows Joker would never live with himself if he didn’t get the credit in killing him and that is precisely what happens. Joker also plays into their comedic driven background by accusing Harley of being a poor comedian after she explains the joke because then there is no joke.
This episode has a lot of my favorite shots in the entire series including the spotlight on Harley as Batman relays the falsified truth behind her relationship with Joker and the overhead shot as Harley plummets to her near death from multiple stories. This shot in particular might be my favorite from the expression to the flightless feeling to the angle used.
One thing I have always loved about Harley’s character, that some writers and fans overlook, is the fact that she is really resourceful and smart. She acts the ditz a lot of the time and one of my favorite touches regarding this actually comes from a fan fiction piece written by Allaine entitled, “It’s Just Allergies”. The thought process of Ivy’s in question goes, “Privately, she’d thought Harley a bit of a ninny for using the old laundry trick, but now she wondered just how sharp Harley really was. If she had everyone, even the Bat, convinced that she was a nitwit, then who was the smart one?” In some ways, this character trait is the closest resemblance to the Harlequin archetype of yore. The archetype of the Harlequin is treated as one of the most intelligent trickster types because they see what goes on around them and are able to espouse this to others precisely because they are not seen as intelligent or are not given a lot of credence. The additional clown motif portrayed by Harley only adds to the dim-headed blonde routine thanks to cultural stereotypes since.
When Batman credits Harley with having come closer to killing him than Joker ever had, even adding in Harley’s nickname for Joker, he is doing it largely to rile up Joker but in some ways he is also speaking truthfully. Where Joker ignored the plot due to his rigid thinking, Harley was not only able to see the joke within by turning Batman upside down to the piranhas smiled, but she was also able to execute it herself by making Batman think she was leaving Joker and turning into a damsel in distress when a dummy Joker shot at them.
Episode 1: Harley’s Holiday (Air Date: October 15th, 1994)
The number one Harley Quinn episode. It really marries the humor that makes Harley so fun to watch, from her excitement over her release to her holding up a stamped sane approval form to Bruce Wayne, to the tragedy of what really lurks underneath her character. The fact that even when innocent, she can’t catch a break and in some ways, may never catch a break so long as she hangs out with Joker and Ivy.
Harley is cute as all get out as she goes shopping on roller skates while strolling with Bud & Lou on leashes. I once again love the contrast in emotions and how quickly Harley transitions when she misunderstands the intent of the security guard and believes that her criminal history is being held against her. She goes from happy and sincere to angry and hostage taking in the blink of an eye, settling for being a criminal if society deems her one. It paints an interesting aspect to Harley’s character that as much as she plays up traits, she really does rely on perceptions of herself through the eyes of others to inform how she should act. Part of this is her psychology background and part of it is her ability to mimic appearances.
Upon kidnapping Veronica, we see that Harley sincerely believes in trying to be good even given the situation as she explains she won’t harm Veronica and even comes to her rescue when Foxy tries to kidnap her, albeit hilariously referring to Veronica as her hostage. Poor Harley is pretty much doomed when she realizes Veronica’s father is coming after her in a tank along with Detective Bullock and Foxy.
What makes this episode standout is how sympathetic Harley is even after she escapes to a rooftop and starts complaining to Batman, “I’m having a BAD DAY! I’m sick of people trying to shoot me, run me over, or blow me up!” As a viewer, one feels for Harley in part because she admits she even paid for the dress that led to the entire situation and Harley is only finally captured in part because she falls trying to escape Batman and he is forced to save her. The ending scene is one of my favorites because it parallels Bruce’s sympathy towards Harley and what she went through. Note that Batman gives Harley the dress she so desired and gets rewarded with a kiss.
Harley Quinn: I got one question. I’ve been nothing but trouble. How come you’ve been so nice to me?
Batman: I know what it’s like to try to rebuild a life. I had a bad day too, once.
Harley Quinn: Nice guys like you shouldn’t have bad days.
In some ways, Harley is one of those characters who both sought out a life of crime through her love for The Joker, but also is the easiest one to want to see be a productive member of society because of her verve and emotional appeal. This episode really helped articulate both sides of that aspect that makes Harley Quinn what she is as a character. On one hand, she is dangerous and deadly yet on the other hand, she is whimsical and innocent and naive. It is a really fascinating dichotomy of a character that could easily be written off as dim or one note.
This episode also contains some more of my favorite shots including Harley’s peering over the front car door at the oncoming tank along with her ranting to Batman as she physically fights him to keep him at bay. Another great moment of contrast, needing somebody to listen while physically wanting him out of her life.
So there we have it, my top five episodes featuring Harley Quinn from Batman: The Animated Series. To write up the character of Harley Quinn as one dimensional is doing her a great disservice and refuses to acknowledge the depth and range of her as both villain and in some ways, damsel in distress. To describe Harley would probably take another five hundred words but I hope this list helped showcase how instrumental and vibrant her character is both in the Batman Animated universe as well as to yours truly.
Thoughts? Differences of Opinion? Sound off in the comments!
Credit to Bruce Timm for main image