Harley’s been second fiddle to the Joker since her very first appearance back in the Batman: The Animated Series episode “Joker’s Favor” in 1992. In the nearly-three-decades since, little has changed. Now, DC Universe is giving Harley her due. Harley is stepping out into spotlight all on her own in DCU’s Harley Quinn series. Here’s our take on the first episode. Moderate Spoilers follow for Harley Quinn Episode 1, “Til Death Do Us Part.”
“Till Death Do Us Part”
Any story set in the same mini-verse as Batman starts with a tall obstacle ahead of it: making someone other than Batman and Joker the main character in a world where they’re usually the only characters. Batwoman has been working at this since it premiered last month, and now it’s Harley’s turn to make her mark with her eponymous DC Universe animated series. Since its announcement, DC has positioned Harley’s show as the most bonkers thing the company has ever put out.
Immediately, I think they might be right. The show quickly establishes a Harley-specific tone for just about every character, and immediately goes about establishing its mission statement: This show is about Harley Quinn, not about Joker, and not about Batman.
The primary goal of the show, or at least this episode, is to examine the relationship between Harley and Joker. Many fans treat the couple as #relationshipgoals, but even a cursory examination of their interactions over the years shows a pretty clear picture: Harley wants Joker a lot more than he wants her. And the episode goes about putting that idea to the test while poking fun at—but never making fun of—Batman’s world and the villains that fill it.
After Batman foils an attempt to rob a boat full of rich criminals, Harley ends up in Arkham, believing with absolute confidence that her man will come for her, break her out, and whisk her away. After a year of this, Harley’s friend Poison Ivy tires of Harley’s delusion and breaks her out to help her make a clean break from Mista J.
Yeah, that’s on-brand
For all this to work, it has to feel authentic. And it does. After the Riddler announces his plan to kill everyone in Gotham with a riddle, Harley shows up to take him down and finds herself—along with Batman—captured and held over pools of acid. The Riddler gives The Joker a choice: Save Harley or save Batman. Of course, Joker sees it another way. To his twisted mind, the choice is between saving Harley and letting someone else get the credit for killing Batman.
If this dilemma isn’t cut right out of a comic story, it’s at least very convincing. This feels like exactly the kind of situation Joker would end up in and he makes exactly the choice you’d expect him to make.
And so, dejected and covered in margarita juice, Harley strikes out on her own to show Joker what an independent Harley looks like.
Throughout the episode, the show is constantly playing with Batman’s cast. Batman is as humorless as you’d expect. Poor Jim Gordon is nearly unhinged and prone to rant about anything, including all-inclusive resorts. Gordon feels like he was lifted straight from The Tick cartoon. In Arkham, meanwhile, we learn that Calendar Man has a wife and child and that while he can remember when Harley was put in Arkham down to the day, far more personal days elude his memory. The Riddler, Killer Croc, and even Man-Bat all see Harley’s delusions for what they are.
Getting Harley and Joker right, though, is the most important thing here, and the show nails both of them. Kaley Cuoco (Big Bang Theory) voices Harley, and she smartly doesn’t try to emulate Arleen Sorkin and Tara Strong’s BTAS version of the character. She does call the Joker “Mista Jay,” but otherwise lends her own voice to the character. Cuoco skips the 1920s mob-moll voice we’re familiar with, but the attitude and performance are still all Harley.
And while some stories tend to show Harley as an air-headed sex kitten, Harley Quinn makes no bones about the fact that Harley is competent, perceptive, and dangerous. She was a medical doctor of Psychiatry, after all. That’s not something you do just as a side gig. I’m not going to pretend Harley Quinn is the first to focus on her as being a competent character, but the show treats Harley like the ultra-violent genius she is from square one.
A Joker for the ages
Joker, too, is just right. Alan Tudyk—who also made a great villain in Doom Patrol—voices the Joker here and belongs somewhere up near Mark Hamill in the pantheon of portrayals. Harley gives Joker a look that crosses some of his classic and modern looks to make a Clown Prince that both fits the show’s off-kilter tone and his iconic style. Throughout the show Joker casually kills his minions, sending one as an exploding telegram to apologize to Harley. He’s moody, too, though. Calling the Riddler “Gotham’s funniest supervillain” sets him off like nothing else. Imagine the Animated Series’ Joker, but completely unleashed and R-rated.
Harley Quinn isn’t afraid to get gory, either. Whether it’s Harley making someone’s tibia jut out of their leg or Joker puppeteering someone’s face, this show is violent. Nothing is quite as gross as Harley and Joker making out, though.
Harley is absolutely a reason to keep my DC Universe subscription going at least a little bit longer if this first episode is any indication. The show is hilarious, disgusting, and feels completely authentic to the character in every way I could hope for. The awesome voice cast is a treat to listen to. Definitely don’t miss Harley Quinn.