I’m usually not a fan of Batman episodes that aren’t about Batman. I mean, it’s Batman. He’s why we’re there. I never could get into Gotham for just that reason. But once in a while, a “Low Bat” episode hits all the right notes, such as with this week’s first episode. And not least because it introduces one of the Animated Series‘ best contributions to Batman lore, Harley Quinn, the only minion Joker has managed to keep around for more than a storyline or two. This week’s episode is a reminder that an episode doesn’t have to be perfect to be special. Let’s rewatch Batman: The Animated Series episode 22: ‘Joker’s Favor.’
The last “Low Bat” episode I can remember at this point in the series is “I’ve Got Batman in my Basement,” which is easily one of the worst episodes of the show. It’s one of the few times a genuinely great show is bad. “Joker’s Favor” is the flip side. This episode, written by Paul Dini, focuses on the Joker rather than Batman, and how the Joker’s antics affect the everyman.
The everyman, in this case, is Charlie Collins, the stereotypical middle-aged schlub. It’s hard to say that life is cruel to him; he has a wife, kids, a job, a working car, and a house. But he’s perpetually frustrated as it seems like life itself is pushing to get out in front of him and make sure he’s at the back of the line. One day, poor Charlie is pushed to the edge as traffic seems to swarm around him. He unleashes a slew of kid-friendly curses at the next driver he spots.
Who just so happens to be the Joker in an extremely cool hat. Oops. The Joker runs the schlub off the road and the rightfully-terrified man promises the Joker he’ll do anything, anything, to get out with his life.
The Joker is a reasonable man (in his own mind) and tells Charlie he’ll be calling on him for a favor.
Two years pass.
When we find the Joker again, still wearing that extremely good hat. One of his henchmen is reading Tiny Toon Adventures magazine as Joker plans his next classic prank. This time, the primary victim is Commissioner Jim Gordon, who is receiving honors for his work to protect Gotham.
Here we get a few peeks into the inner workings of the world of Batman: The Animated Series. First, we see Charlie’s license up close, and we can see its expiration dates, which place the show between 1991 and 1995. We’ve been playing with the exact time frame of the show since early episodes, using things like the airing years of It’s a Wonderful Life to set it in time. With this information, we can guess that Earth-12, the designation given to DC’s animated shows, is stylistically about 60 years behind our earth and technologically about 40 years ahead.
Don’t worry, I’m not overly concerned about this – I just love picking at these details to see what falls out.
We also get an eye into the Joker’s mind, a place that’s locked up tighter than– I was going to say the Batcave, or Arkham Asylum, but those places are both swiss cheese. It’s hard to get into the Joker’s mind and know you’re in there.
Here, we see that Joker has a little black book for all his plans and future lackeys. We see not only has Charlie Collins changed his name to Don Wallace and moved to Ohio, but that the Joker has been paying enough attention to track that. It seems like the Joker has a hard time staying focused, but this proves otherwise.
And then there’s the note: “HE OWES ME A FAVOR!” Written in big, cartoonish text, I’d chalk this up as a weak storytelling device for any other character. But I completely believe that the Joker wrote exactly that down in exactly that way.
And finally, this scene marks the debut of Harley Quinn. It’s hard to imagine that such an iconic character’s first appearance was so innocuous. Harley is just doing what Harley does. She hangs on the Joker’s every word and acts as a hype-woman for all his ideas.
Soon, the Joker has poor Don – I mean Charlie – on a plane to Gotham to help him out with a little favor. The story here is pretty simple and isn’t worth doing a play-by-play on. We see Harley out of costume as she picks up Charlie like a chauffeur. She still has that same smile, though, and it becomes haunting without the makeup.
Here’s Joker’s plan: gas up the GCPD’s big party with a chemical that paralyzes everyone in place and then pin a bomb to the Commissioner’s lapel. Charlie just has to open the door for Harley.
Charlie gets the idea to try to summon Batman and, when left to his own devices, spots a giant bat hanging in the museum where the celebration is taking place. He swings it on a crane and hangs it in the window, and somehow, just somehow, Alfred sees the signal and points it out to Bruce. It’s a cheesy, contrived way to bring Batman into the story that I can’t help but roll my eyes at. And that’s why it’s good that this episode is hardly about Batman.
Harley wins a few points with Detective Montoya as she drags the cake in. Bullock can’t help himself but make a pass at the petite blonde “officer,” and Harley can’t help but slug him with her trademark abandon.
As Joker pops out of the cake, both he and Harley take the center stage. Mark Hamill and Arleen Sorkin brought so much life to these characters, and they play off each other so well. Harley’s over-the-top cheerleading is so perfect, and this is where it gets really easy to see whey Harley stuck as a character. She’s the perfect foil for the Joker. A yes-woman who worships him and isn’t afraid of him. Their relationship is absolutely not healthy, but from a writing perspective, it fits both of them perfectly.
It’s immediately apparent how different Harley is from the show’s other female characters, too. Harley is dangerously childlike in her manner. Unlike Poison Ivy, this character is not one who wields her sexuality as a weapon. Sometimes it can be somewhat of a disguise, but it’s just not a part of the character in the same way. And similarly, we start to see how her innocence, too, is a mask. She knows what she’s up to, and she’s smart as hell. But at this point, we don’t know that she’s a literal doctor of psychology. She’s just Joker’s perfect fit.
And Joker is still wearing that hat! It looks so classy.
Again, we have more stuff here that I wouldn’t be willing to excuse in a lesser episode. Batman drops in and puts a quick stop to the Joker’s plan, and that leads to a chase through the museum and into a replica Mayan-style temple that for some reason includes all traps, fully active and deadly. This is definitely not OSHA compliant. It makes no sense, and it doesn’t help the episode.
But then we get the other really great part of this episode.
As the temple explodes, the Joker tries to make his getaway, only to run into poor Charlie Collins who buries his hand in the Joker’s stomach, reminding us that the Joker is indeed human. As Joker curses him out, Charlie pulls a Joker bomb out of his coat.
“It’s kind of funny. Ironic, really. See, I can destroy a man’s dreams, too!” Charlie says. For just a moment, Charlie truly understands the Joker better than anyone in Gotham. Joker calls for Batman to save him, and then spots the Dark Knight standing in the alley.
“How long have you been there?” Joker says.
“Long enough,” Batman says, with just enough inflection to make sure that Joker knows he’s been seen sniveling and begging. Finally, Joker agrees to let Charlie out of his ‘favor.’ Charlie throws the bomb to Joker, who hides behind Batman.
There’s a split second where Batman’s eyes widen and it’s hard to tell if Batman knows what’s about to happen or not. My read is that he knows that Charlie has enough to live for not to be suicidal, especially when Batman’s already there and has the clown locked down, so he lets the bomb go.
And poof, it goes, in confetti. For once, the expressions on our hero and villain’s faces are swapped: Joker is pissed, and Batman laughs. He doesn’t do that often. Pulling a fast one on the Joker, though? That’s definitely worthy. Charlie will always be the guy who got Batman to laugh.
As Charlie heads out of the alleyway, he looks forward to seeing his family, commenting that he never thought he’d be so happy to go home. He wonders about his wife’s meatloaf. I’m not a fan of this “I can’t stand my wife” trope, but it was the early 90s. Not everything is going to age well.
Visually, this episode isn’t nearly the stunner that Feat of Clay II was last week. It’s a fine-looking, passable episode with a few good shots and some great Joker antics. The story also has a few pretty massive logical leaps that don’t make sense.
But we meet Harley and the episode sells us on her almost immediately, and we learn something about the Joker – he hates being pranked. This is how you make an episode with little in the way of Batman action memorable.
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