Like many older Millennials, many of my fondest childhood television memories involve watching Batman: The Animated Series and Superman: The Animated Series. They introduced me to comics, and the depictions of the characters in those shows were, for many years, the ones against which I judged all others. The early 90s version of Harley was the best and most quintessential version of that kooky, cute clown, and David Ayer was not about to change my mind.
And then came the bedazzled, badass Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), gifted to the world by director Cathy Yan, screenwriter Christina Hodson, and the brilliant Margot Robbie. Their stylistic frenzy carried over into the new Suicide Squad sequel, even if my girl had to share the technicolor spotlight. It makes for a relatively satisfying Harley treat, but if you really want to match that Birds of Prey high, you need Harley Quinn: The Animated Series.
The streaming cartoon premiered in late 2019, a few months before BoP burst on the scene. I’m not much of a fan of adult animated shows, nor was I excited about a show developed, produced, and written by three white men whose backgrounds included a bunch of sitcoms I don’t find all that funny. Eventually, my need for kooky chaos and queer romance won out and I decided to try the first episode. I immediately regretted waiting so long.
The show revolves around Harley (voiced by Kaley Cuoco) post-Joker breakup as she tries to establish herself out from under his shadow. For the first season, she goes to extreme lengths to get an invite to the all-dude Legion of Doom, including crashing the Penguin’s nephew’s bar mitzvah and defeating Aquaman by breaking an aquarium. The second season is set in the aftermath of Gotham being turned into a villain’s paradise of crime and mayhem and has Harley deciding what—and who—she really wants. Season 3 is expected in late 2021 or early 2022, and the wait is killing me! In the meantime, there’s the new comic from Tee Franklin, Max Sarin, Marissa Louise, and Taylor Esposito, Harley Quinn: The Animated Series — The Eat. Bang! Kill. Tour. This 6 issue limited series centers on Harls and Ives on a road trip between the second and third seasons.
Whether they be goons or a squad, every supervillain needs backup. Joining Harley’s crew of misfits is the drama class reject Clayface (Alan Tudyk), creepo misogynist Dr. Psycho (Tony Hale), and social media maven King Shark (Ron Funches). Solitary Poison Ivy (Lake Bell) refuses teammate status at first, but eventually she caves, bringing in her Audrey II-esque talking plant Frank (J.B. Smoove) along for the ride. Tons of other DC characters turn up, too: from the Justice League to Commissioner Gordon, Bane to Riddler, Sy Borgman to Queen of Fables. The huge cast list opens the door to some truly weird concepts, not all of which work but are nevertheless a hoot to watch. One storyline has Commissioner Gordon befriending Clayface’s severed hand, while in another a bachelorette party gets wild when a mind-controlling gentrifier takes over Themyscira.
There is no DCEU connection here; it’s not a spinoff or sequel and is not playing in the same sandbox. It’s 30 minutes of DC shenanigans covered in blood, guts, sarcasm, and sapphic pining. Let me underline those first two. Harley Quinn is not a kiddie show and has a lot of fun pushing the limits of its R rating. As Gotham descends into lawless ganglands, the body count soars even higher and the deaths get even grosser. So many people are beheaded, ripped apart, boiled alive in acid, and eaten by interdimensional demons that you start to feel like the goons that get K.O.’d by gunfire are getting off easy.
The real reason to watch this bonkers-ass show is its emotional core. Like BoP, what makes Harley Quinn succeed is the relationships. Despite efforts to force her boys into being disposable goons, Harley works to keep them as her partners in crime. Poison Ivy and Harley’s relationship is built on a foundation of friendship and mutual respect. It’s hard to see the show’s heart through all the blood and crassness of the first season. Harley spends most of that season trying to get the Joker and his misogynistic crew of Big Bads to acknowledge her and letting a sexist troll have a spot in her crew. Ivy, meanwhile, gets tangled up with F-list villain Kite Man (Matt Oberg), the living embodiment of “have the confidence of a mediocre white man.” The second season is where we realize what we thought was wheel spinning was actually stage setting.
The show takes the B:ATS episode “Harley and Ivy”—where the pair become crime buddies and Ivy tries to convince Harley to leave her abusive jerk of a boyfriend—and builds an entire series around it. All of the episode’s subtext that was lost on little Alex is brought to the surface, it’s rotten core exposed for all to see. Harley has spent her entire life trying to please unpleasable men. She sacrificed her career, independence, and dignity for men who weren’t worth the brain spatter on the bottom of her sneakers. Abuse and trauma have a way of consuming you until you can’t see past them. The show explores what it’s like to live in that space and what it takes to pull yourself out of it. Because no one can do it for you.
A big part of that Feelings Journey requires Harls and Ives to push back against the patriarchy. As with BoP, the first half of the show has our titular villain fighting for a seat at the oppressors’ table. She wants to be accepted on their terms and have her ex admire her skills and regret hurting her. She plays by their rules, even as her actions push her further away from her personal code of ethics. Ivy, too, has been sidelined and harmed by the patriarchy. She has closed herself off from everyone, and when she finally does open up it’s to a man who requires little emotional effort on her part. In season one, Ivy constantly tries to show Harley her own worth, even as she wastes time on an unworthy man of her own. By the second season, those roles have switched. The more Harley and Ivy come to rely on each other and their crew, the more they figure out how to stand on their own two feet.
With its over the top violence, garish set pieces, and extensive back catalogue of baddies, Harley Quinn: The Animated Series is the center of the Venn diagram of Birds of Prey, The Suicide Squad, and Batman: The Animated Series. It ruthlessly skewers fanboys, the comics, and the DCEU with reckless, joyous abandon. Not everyone will tolerate its outlandish plots, predilection for vulgarity, or sugary sweet romance, but it’s very much worth a try. If you can roll with the weirdness and have patience with the clunkier bits, you’ll be rewarded with one of the best season finales in years.
Alex Brown is an Ignyte award-winning critic who writes about speculative fiction, librarianship, and Black history. Find them on twitter (@QueenOfRats), instagram (@bookjockeyalex), and their blog (bookjockeyalex.com).