“The Last Laugh”
Written by Carl Swenson
Directed by Kevin Altieri
Music by Shirley Walker
Animation Services by Akom Production Co.
Original Airdate: September 22nd, 1992
Plot: The Joker attacks Gotham with laughing gas to cover a crime spree, and Batman must chase him down before Alfred and all of Gotham succumbs to permanent madness.
This is one of my least favorite episode of the series because it’s so boring. I see what they were trying to do: a long, mostly dialogue-free chase sequence that recalls the Max Fleisher cartoons that inspired the show. However, those Superman cartoons were seven minutes long, and this episode tries to hold my attention with one chase for twenty two minutes and fails.
There’s almost no plot. There’s zero characterization. This episode presents none of the affection we had previously seen between Alfred and Bruce, so we have no reason to understand how important Alfred is to Batman. We don’t even get much interaction between eternal adversaries the Joker and Batman, as the Joker basically plays the Roadrunner all episode. I don’t like the funk score. It clashes with the mood of the piece. And I don’t like that the Joker is again “defeated” when he accidentally trips and almost falls into a chemical vat, just like the end of “Christmas with the Joker.”
There a few nice moments of animation: Batman punching the Joker through a periscope, the Joker’s goons rolling their eyes as the boss makes yet another terrible joke, the reveal of what’s under Captain Clown’s mask (a shot that is straight out of the Fleisher cartoons). And it’s nice to see the Joker in his regular costume, and hear Efrem Zimbalist Jr.’s iconic take on Alfred for the first time, even if his character is underserved in this episode.
That’s it. That’s all I have to say. Let’s move on to a much more interesting episode.
Story by Paul Dini & Michael Reaves
Teleplay by Tom Ruegger
Directed by Boyd Kirkland
Music by Shirley Walker
Animation Services by Sunrise
Original Airdate: September 14th, 1992
Plot: Bruce Wayne’s friend, Harvey Dent, has a new lady, Pamela Isley. But when the D.A. is felled by poison, Batman discovers this blushing flower hides deadly thorns as the villainess Poison Ivy.
Hoo boy, let’s get this out of the way, Poison Ivy is a problematic character.
The problem is, while the Joker weaponizes laughter, and the Scarecrow weaponizes fear, Poison Ivy weaponizes being a woman, specifically being a woman in a man’s world. Her modus operandi is seduction, using her sensuality and apparent vulnerability to manipulate the powerful men around her, lure them into traps, and then destroy them. She also traps men with animated vegetables, but more importantly she kills with a kiss. And she’s always been portrayed as a temptress, going back to 1966 when she was created as a Bettie Page knock-off.
The character speaks directly to adolescent male fears about women. Poison Ivy is powerful, because she’s sexy. Poison Ivy is dangerous, because she’s sexy. She distracts men, divides men, makes them weak. It’s not a coincidence that Pamela is introduced breaking up best friends Harvey and Bruce, and the episode ends with Batman being pulled into a fairly blatant representation of vagina dentata. Diane Pershing delivers Ivy’s lines in a breathy whisper that barely conceals her massive intelligence, oak-hard resolve, and toxic disdane.
If this is what the show thinks is “the power of women,” then that would be horrifically misogynistic. The way the writers (especially Paul Dini, who gets his first writing credit here) make it work, and I think they do make it work, is by contrasting Ivy with the other major female characters: Catwoman, Talia, Batgirl, Renee Montoya (who also makes her first appearance here) and, especially, Harley Quinn. There are lots of different powerful women in the Batman universe, and they are powerful in different ways. Being a sexy seductress is specifically what Ivy believes makes a woman powerful, and of course she’s wrong.
But let’s get to the episode at hand. Like “The Last Laugh,” “Pretty Poison” wears its influences on its sleeves. The first two-thirds of the episode are a Batman-ish take on 1940s film noir: the femme fatale, the amateur detective, interrogations held under hanging lamps, worried doctors anxiously looking over charts, deep shadows, jazz music. It’s also one of the most overtly sexual episodes, with Pamela and Harvey’s uncomfortably long kiss, Ivy’s hip-swaying walk out of the restaurant (in a dress inspired by Jessica Rabbit), and her strip tease behind the modesty screen as Batman steals into her private greenhouse. It could be a Howard Hawks movie, until a trapdoor opens and reveals a superhero’s world of giant carnivorous plants and sexy Eve costumes complete with wrist-mounted crossbows.
When we’re still in film noir mode, this episode has some of the best character work so far, particularly concerning Harvey Dent and Bruce Wayne. The flashback reveals that they have been friends for at least five years by this point. Harvey comments on Bruce’s wealth, and Bruce pays for the meal, suggesting a strong financial difference between the two. On the other hand, Harvey Dent has the respect that Bruce lacks. They trust each other enough to listen to each other’s advice, but not completely. Harvey’s line, “there’s nothing we don’t know about each other,” is doubly ironic. Obviously, he doesn’t know Bruce is Batman, but we’ll later learn that Harvey is keeping a big secret from Bruce as well.
It’s also nice to see that when he isn’t hunting Batman, Bullock is a good detective and a loyal bloodhound for Commissioner Gordon. (Though, once again, Batman withholds evidence by stealing Dent’s blood sample. You’d think the doctor, if not the police, could use that.)
The weakness of the mystery aspect of the show is that the episode is only 22 minutes long. Who poisoned the District Attorney? Well, even if you didn’t know Batman has an established villain named Poison Ivy, the title card and the fact that one new character is introduced point pretty loudly to Pamela Isley’s guilt right away. We know she did it, the only real question is why.
And once we’re in superhero world, “Pretty Poison” becomes another revenge origin story. Ivy wants to kill Dent for unknowingly destroying a rare rose. It’s certainly better than the Scarecrow’s revenge origin, first because death by seduction is a more interesting crime than fear gas, and also because her stated motive is a lie she tells herself. She says she fights for the trees, like a busty Lorax, but the fact is Dent didn’t kill her roses, her roses are right there in her greenhouse, and she’s willing to destroy them in order to extract her revenge. This will become much clearer in later episodes, but Ivy’s protestations of environmentalism and feminism are just rationalizations for her need to hurt and control people. Ivy doesn’t want a forest, she wants a garden, one she can prune as she wishes. Remember that idea, because it’s only going to get darker as the series goes on.