As I watch each episode of a show I plan to review, I try to write down each plot point with as much detail as I can and some vague comment about my thoughts on it. It helps me remember the show in more detail. With Harley Quinn, though, I get really weird lines like “King Shark and Mr. Psycho mod a hatchback.” I love my CW shows, but Harley Quinn is a vacation from just about everything else on television. Heavy spoilers follow for Harley Quinn season 2, episode 2, “Riddle U.”
Harley Quinn is hardly a 1:1 representation of Batman canon, but that’s what I like about it. It plays loose with it, but often pulls deep cuts and runs with them for a long time. I can tell the writers have done their research, but I also have no idea what to expect.
This week, for example, I love what the show does with the Gordon family. The main storyline has Harley trying to get power running in her post-apocalyptic mall base. She sets her sights on the brightly-lit Riddle U, a Gotham college campus taken over by you-know-who.
Babs takes the Stage
While Heather Witherby and Isadore Staplebunkin–I mean Harley and Ivy–are investigating, they come across a fierce redheaded student who Harley described as “surprisingly agile.” Our anti-heroes are threatening her in her dorm room in front of a super-cool Batman poster when in walks Jim Gordon in a towel. Because the student is Barbara Gordon.
While the episode is ostensibly Harley’s continued quest to put the other villains of Gotham out of commission, it also ends up being an origin story for Batgirl. The episode puts three of Batman’s best characters at the center of the story and puts them in charge. Harley’s chaos, Ivy’s cool competence, and Barbara’s enthusiastic goodness all shine through.
Toward the end of the episode, Barbara makes her way into the Riddler’s underground lair. He’s captured Harley, Ivy, and Clayface (more on that shortly), but Barbara manages to free them and the other students despite her inexperience. By the end of the episode, Barbara is assembling a Batgirl costume from parts and going out on the town.
For all the influence of The Killing Joke, it does Babs a disservice far beyond the violent assault the Joker commits against her. It also takes this character who had the wherewithal to go out and put herself in harm’s way as a costumed crimefighter and removes all her agency. I like that Barbara is the one making decisions for herself here. She’s smart and strong. Instead of Batman spurring her to action, though, it’s Harley and Ivy, even if indirectly.
Clayface needs love, too
Other characters get their share of the spotlight, too, though. Clayface wants badly to infiltrate the college campus with his friends, but they decide against it–only to run into him there, having already ingratiated himself with the student body. This version of Clayface is undoubtedly silly and not even a little tragic, but there’s still a heart to this character. He wants badly to ply his craft of acting, to be accepted, and to be of value.
And it turns out that when given a chance to do so, he’s really good at it. It was his plan in episode 2×01 that got Harley out of her icy prison, too. These characters are silly misfits, but the show is giving each of them a chance to be competent.
Even King Shark and Dr. Psycho get their chance to shine when an attempt to get a water filter for their mall base goes sideways. They end up, yes, modding a hatchback into a deathwagon so that they can escape from Two-Face’s goons, who are really doubling down on the old-timey gangster schtick. The show seems to be saying with these moments, “look, these characters are cool, but also, this is kind of silly.”
Over and over, Harley Quinn proves to be a loving but self-aware and self-deprecating look at not only Harley but the version of Gotham shaped in her image. Also, I hope Jiminy Riddles, the Riddle U mascot, gets better soon.