“Stop in the name of the law!”
“Not tonight, baby.”
-Poison Ivy, “Harley and Ivy”
I’m going to try very hard to make sure this doesn’t just turn into a bullet-point list of reasons you should watch (or rewatch) Batman: The Animated Series, so I will confine my remarks about the series as a whole to this opening paragraph: it was the greatest animated series in the entire 1990s, a decade bursting and tumefying with great animated series (see also: Gargoyles). It was a little violent and a little stylized (a lot of the background scenes were painted on black paper; the producers called the design Dark Deco) and awash in brilliantly-rendered, nuanced characterization for villains and heroes and even bystanders. It resurrected Mark Hamill’s career, and I will still (loudly, without being asked) explain why his version of the Joker was so much better than Heath Ledger’s with very little prompting at dinner parties. It was cinematic without being pretentious, grounded in rich mythology, witty, tragic, complicated; it payed homage to previous incarnations of Batman while developing its own unique interpretation of major characters. And it had one of the best depictions of female friendship I’ve ever seen. Imagine a cartoon series with a male protagonist that has most of the plot of Thelma & Louise carefully threaded throughout an 85-episode arc, and you’ve landed on the reason that hearing this music still gives me chills.
If you’re not familiar with the series, you probably know Poison Ivy as Uma Thurman from 1997’s Batman & Robin. Expunge your mind of Uma Thurman. Save her for later, when we revisit Kill Bill and pair her up with either Lucy Liu or Darryl Hannah (I haven’t decided which yet). And you may not have heard of Harley Quinn at all (worse luck you). Let me introduce you to them.
I see you are already on my side. Splendid. The Poison Ivy of Batman: TAS is all 1990s feminism — sexy leotards and punching men and Doing It By Herself, while Harley is just…delightfully unhinged.
A bit of background, for those of you who don’t know Harley like I know Harley: she’s a former psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum driven mad by the Joker’s machinations who adopts the unhinged persona of a clown and tags along after him — sometimes his girlfriend, sometimes his second banana, sometimes a lackey he kicks around. Their relationship is (unsurprisingly, given that they are both psychotic clowns) horrible. The Joker (“Mr. J” and “Puddin'” to Harley) regularly hits and insults her, and tries to have her killed on more than one occasion. But Harley keeps coming back; she once forgive him for throwing her out of a high-rise window because he sent her a flower and a get-well card in the hospital. Surely our girl can do better.
Enter Ivy. This, by the way, is an actual screenshot from the actual show; during the episode Harley and Ivy, Harley stays over at Ivy’s house and gets “lessons in good old-fashioned female self-esteem” in one of Ivy’s many attempts to get Harley to ditch Mr. J. The two of them just lounge around Ivy’s beautifully-appointed apartment in men’s shirts and no pants, making dinner together, the way that heterosexual friends do.
Then they become best friends and go on a crime spree together. The newspapers take to calling them “The New Queens of Crime,” which doesn’t please the Joker at all.
Do you remember that scene from 30 Rock where Tracy explains to Pete that there are only two kinds of women?
“Pete, there are two types of women in this world. One who gives you strength, and one who takes strength from you, like Delilah took strength from Samson in that movie.” Mr. J takes Harley’s strength. Poison Ivy gives her strength — literally. She injects her with a toxin antidote that renders her immune to poison — even the Joker’s laughing gas — and increases her physical stamina, an ability that stays with Harley for the rest of the series and saves her life on more than one occasion (particularly the fall from the window in “Mad Love” in The New Batman Adventures).
They’re great together. I mean, for a pair of women who steal anything that isn’t nailed down and poison innocent townspeople in their spare time. By the end of the episode, after breaking into and ransacking the men’s-only Peregrinators Club, Harley and Ivy are finally caught (by, deliciously, a female police officer shortly after Poison Ivy exclaims “No man can stop us!”), but that’s not the end of their relationship by a long shot. It’s one of the only examples of genuine friendship between two villains I can think of in the entire show, and one of the best and most complicated depictions of genuine friendship between two women I can think of in the entire Batman continuity.
Harley’s flakiness and inability to concentrate on anything for longer than 30 seconds drive the capable, determined Poison Ivy crazy (not to mention Harley’s inability to say “No” to the Joker). She calls Harley a doormat (“Your middle name would be ‘Welcome’…”I’m an eco-terrorist of global proportion. I make a contribution“), which, while true, is probably not the kindest thing to say to someone whose boyfriend semi-regularly tries to kill her. But it’s their genuine affection for one another, despite their enormous differences, and their willingness to patch up after an argument, that makes their relationship so unique. (Poison Ivy’s husky, suggestive voice doesn’t hurt either. You know the kind of voice I mean, too: Lesbian Voice. I can’t describe it other than to say that some lesbians have it. Not all lesbians have Lesbian Voice, but all women who have Lesbian Voice are lesbians, probably. It’s a Beebo Brinker voice.)
Also the way they manage to balance whimsy and evil: see “Holiday Knights,” where Ivy manages to hypnotize Bruce Wayne into taking her and Harley on a high-end shopping spree. They don’t even kill anyone! They just buy a shit-ton of diamonds and try on hats together.
It’s debatable, how much the writers of the show wanted viewers to infer a romantic relationship between Ivy and Harley. Sometimes they’re shown taking vacations together and sleeping in the same bed, although there’s always a degree of plausible deniability in the guise of “being good friends.” But it’s there, if you want to see it. Their friendship continues into other series and other adaptations. It just keeps on going.
And they never get caught, not for long, anyway. In their first appearance together, they escape the police by hopping into Ivy’s car and driving off into the night. “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” Ivy says (and how many female friendships, on TV or elsewhere, have ever been compared to Rick and Louis from Casablanca?). Harley gets Ivy’s name wrong at first (“Poison Oaky?”), but it’s a matter of minutes before they move way past being on a first-name basis: for the rest of the series, Ivy is always “Red” to her.
You remember the last minutes of Thelma & Louise — they’re holding hands tightly in the car together, not sure whether to give up, and then Geena Davis says, “Let’s not get caught. Let’s keep going.” Harley and Ivy keep going, too.