Comic books are, at times, deeply mature stories that use superheroes and villains to dive deep into the human condition. At other times, they’re soap operas about team dynamics, clones, and surprise children. They’re also created by dozens if not hundreds of artists and writers, and are rife with one-shot characters and plot holes. HBO Max’s Harley Quinn animated series is willing to use any and all of that to bring its version of Gotham to life. Three seasons in, Harley Quinn offers one of the most vibrant depictions of the city and its colorful and dangerous inhabitants.
Will They Won’t They
Harley Quinn Season 2 left us off on a monumental development: after dozen or so episodes of will-they-won’t-they, Harley Quinn rescued Poison Ivy from her willing but misguided wedding to Kite Man (Hell yeah.), and the two lept out of the Corn Factory in a convertible, kissing as they drove off into the sunset. It would be easy to stop there and give the two characters in this iteration a happily-ever-after ending. Harley Quinn thrives on emotional repercussions, though, and to simply send the lovebirds off without digging into the fallout of their decision is hardly the show’s style.
Things pick up during the couple’s honeymoon and spiral out from there. These first four episodes take us from the honeymoon to Ivy’s reflexive need to isolate, Harley’s deeply-embedded need for approval, and then to a secret society orgy. Also, Frank the Venus Fly Trap turns into a god.
Relationships Ain’t Easy
The story so far centers on Harlivy; even the great destined relationships aren’t easy, requiring compromise and hard work. Even people who crave a relationship don’t suddenly lose their personal issues once they find real and genuine love–but if it’s real love, those issues should get the kind of support they need so that the person can grow. And that’s the central theme here. The couple’s Eat Bang Kill tour comes to an end and they end up back in Gotham, hatching a plan to terraform the city, giving it back to the plants.
Harley is ready to love Ivy, but her chaotic nature means that she struggles to stay interested in unmoving, unspeaking plants when things need hitting and blowing up. Meanwhile, Ivy is used to being alone and historically prefers it. When her relationship with Harley endangers her solitude, she struggles to express her needs. Instead of kidnapping one of the characters or something like that, though, the show instead forces them to, in the middle of an orgy (in which they are not participating), actually discuss their concerns, allowing them to acknowledge and reassure each other. Somehow, Harley is still Harley, and also this relationship feels very real and earned.
Gotham is Growing
All around Harley’s crew, Gotham is continuing to grow and evolve. Jim Gordon is running for mayor, the Bat Family is growing with the return of Nightwing (voiced by What We Do In The Shadows‘ Harvey Guillen), and Joker is trying to make his newfound family life work. The Court of Owls even enters the picture in episode 4. The Court acts as a reminder both of how well the writers know their Batman-related DC properties and how willing they are to lampoon every element. The Court is still a clandestine gathering of wealthy individuals with evil agendas, but it’s also subject to both shifts in political correctness and the idea that evil agendas aren’t the only excess that the super wealthy would get up to.
Being an animated show from Harley’s point of view frees the writers up to take a lot of poetic license with characters, but the chaos often leads to character moments that feel genuine. Nightwing struggles to integrate into the Bat Family when he comes up against Batgirl, and the show plays on his tendency to emulate and compare himself to Batman, but then gives both him and Ivy a growth moment when the Riddler traps both crews in a deadly escape room. Nightwing learns that maybe he doesn’t need to be a grimdark one-man army while Ivy realizes that sometimes the path to success is littered with mistakes.
Another comes when Ivy runs into Kite Man at an awards ceremony and her flight response actually forces her to see that maybe Kite Man is going to be okay without her and that she doesn’t have to pretend like her past never happened to move forward into her future–and in fact might have to acknowledge it to do so.
Harley has Staying Power
Into its third season, all the things that made Harley Quinn great are still on display, but along with that is a renewed focus on making character moments like those work both as humor and character development. The show continues to feel like a small miracle.