Harley Quinn and The Joker: Sound Mind review

Paul Dini’s Mad Love is one of the most iconic Batman stories out there. From a The Batman Adventures one-shot comic, to episode of The New Batman Adventures cartoon, to almost innumerable adaptations and retellings, its popularity is part of what has made Harley Quinn such a beloved character. The tragedy of Harley’s unrequited love for The Joker is compelling enough that it helped turn a cartoon henchwoman into one of DC’s most popular characters with multiple comics, her own animated show, and multiple live action portrayals by stars like Margot Robbie and Lady Gaga. With such a beloved and well known story, Harley Quinn and The Joker: Sound Mind knew that it needed to do something different to stand out.

So much of Harley Quinn is defined by the Joker. In the original Mad Love, she becomes infatuated with him, falling for his lies and becoming a pawn in his schemes. The way in which Harley Quinn and The Joker: Sound Mind sets itself apart is by flipping that dynamic on its head. Harley, or more appropriately for this story, Dr. Quinzel (Christina Ricci), is given far more agency than almost any other incarnation of the character. As opposed to being manipulated by Joker’s charms, Quinzel is the one to come up with a plan to use Joker (Billy Magnussen) for her own needs. It’s by appealing to his ego and pretending to be the lovestruck girl that she’s so often depicted as that she plans to manipulate him into doing what she wants.

In many ways this series is a very feminist work. With a new sense of agency also comes empowerment. The series pulls no punches about other characters all treating Quinzel like someone not deserving of respect. One could even argue it acts as a critique of the traditional Harley Quinn story, as the character they treat her like is the one we’ve grown accustom to. For instance, multiple times she is falsely accused of having slept her way into her position, when that’s exactly how she got her psychology degree in the original Mad Love (that specific example is also explored/critiqued by the excellent comic Harleen). Beyond that, other characters consistently question her capabilities and assume that she will be manipulated by The Joker as we’ve come to expect her to be. All of this acts as a backdrop for Quinzel to prove them wrong.

Conversely, Joker is given the opposite treatment. Far from a god of chaos many readers might be familiar with in recent comics, Joker in this show is in some ways pathetic. Sure, he’s still an insane criminal who pulls off absurd crimes and terrifies normal people, but when Dr. Quinzel peels back the layers of his psyche, we see someone desperate for adoration and recognition. That’s what Quinzel is able to recognize and use to her advantage. It’s also ironically what humanizes him and allows Quinzel, and by extension the audience, to sympathize with the pain he feels. It’s similar to the typical dynamic Dr. Quinzel has with Joker while treating him in Arkham, the key difference being that what she sees in him is genuine and not a ruse.


The final line of the series is even one last subversion. It sets up a big reveal of her “Harley Quinn” persona, but then yanks it away at the last second with a tease that she still needs to figure out a name.

Another key element of this series is the realistic way everything is presented. I don’t mean that in the typical “gritty realism” approach that has become the approach du jour for adaptations. What I mean is the way the characters are presented and the struggles that they deal with. Everything is shown in such a mundane way that despite being a world filled with supervillains and masked vigilantes, it comes across as believable and normal. I can’t help but be reminded of the comic series Gotham Central which followed the lives of police investigators in Gotham. Here, like in that series, the down-to-earth depiction of the world lets you empathize that much more with what’s happening. From Quinzel’s interactions with her sick father to the interpersonal office conflict, it all feels like the kinds of conflicts people have every day.

There are drawbacks to this approach, however. When you build such a grounded world, the instances where that breaks become all the more jarring. Allowances need to be made in order for comic book plots to happen, meaning that the writers are forced to walk a tightrope of introducing those plot elements without breaking the façade of believability. Sometimes they slip. One example that comes to mind is that Quinzel’s plan hinges on convincing the board at Arkham that The Joker is sane, which is shockingly easy to do with a small handful of “do you promise to be good” questions. This is somewhat explained later on as pressure to increase “throughput” due to all the new villains on the street, but it still took me out of the story.

Part of that realism is through the non-Joker inmates at the Asylum. The two we see the most often are Arnold Wesker, AKA The Ventriloquist (Andre Royo) and Margaret Pye, AKA Magpie (Mary Holland). Each of them are presented as suffering from genuine psychological problems that they struggle to deal with. It’s exactly the kind of perspective that lets Quinzel sympathize with their, and later The Joker’s, plight. Wesker is possibly the Batman villain who has the clearest and most external expression of his fight with his darker side. He wants to be good, it’s just his puppet Scarface who tells him to be bad. Of course it’s all him, but it offers a way of seeing the internal conflict verbalized and given a persona.

Pye, on the other hand, is a performance artist. She represents the growing need for more extravagant and outrageous forms of crime in Gotham. Pye was always a thief, but she thrives on the attention she gains from her heists, and quickly realized that with the arrival of Batman, it had become an arms race. She acts as a lens through which Quinzel can view the dynamic between Joker and Batman. It creates a plausible perspective wherein Batman really is at fault for Joker’s need to lash out and the new problems facing Gotham. That’s not to say that it’s presented as the correct perspective, it just offers a way for Quinzel to arrive at her views in a sympathetic and believable way.

Shutterstock - Christina Ricci - Kathy Hutchins
Shutterstock – Christina Ricci – Kathy Hutchins

All of these characters are brought to life by the incredible voice acting in the series. Christina Ricci as Harley Quinn does a wonderful job of making the audience empathize with the constant hardships of living in a world that doesn’t care about her or people like her. We are able to follow along with her mindset as she learns more about the villains of Gotham and what their plights are. Characters like Wesker and Harley’s father (Elias Koteas) build up pathos for the downtrodden, and every conversation with them is a gut punch. That’s not to say that there isn’t any levity. Quinzel’s supervisor Grunfeld (Stephen Root) and her aunt Rose (Amy Sedaris) are people who you can’t help but hate, but the way they make you despise them is always hilarious. It’s overall a great cast bringing their A game.

If there’s one weak link in the series, it might actually be Bruce Wayne (Justin Hartley). It doesn’t affect the series too much since he doesn’t feature very prominently aside from a few key scenes, but his role can at times be too accommodating for what Harley needs. Most of Quinzel’s interactions with him are as the billionaire benefactor of the Asylum, and as such he represents the power structures that she and we have come to hate over the course of the show. I think that’s a great angle with which to explore their dynamic. However, whenever confronted with these issues, the way Bruce responds is almost comically incompetent. Bruce vocally defends Batman in the most tone-deaf ways possible, and the same is even true for the reverse (which is maybe not the best strategy for maintaining a secret identity). It’s an approach to the character that I like, but one that could use a subtler hand, like what we got with Joker.

Recommended If…

  • You want a fresh new take on Harley Quinn’s Mad Love origin story
  • Harley is in need of more agency in her own story
  • You want to hear an excellently acted audio drama from a talented cast


Harley Quinn and The Joker: Sound Mind is a fresh new take on the traditional Mad Love origin story. It eschews the characterization of a gullible psychiatrist manipulated by the Joker and turns it on its head. Dr. Quinzel is the one controlling things as we see her journey in discovering her own way to fight against a system that tosses people like her aside. Excellently acted and engrossing to listen to, this series offers a new perspective for what it’s like for those on the other side of Arkham’s walls.

Score: 8/10

You can listen to the entire series now, only on Spotify.