The special woman (Pretty Poison)

Near Apocalpyse of '09 LogoIt’s September 14, 1992, the day before “Nothing to Fear,” so check that episode’s entry for top movie, song, and headlines. On TV we have “Pretty Poison,” with story by Paul Dini and Michael Reeves, teleplay by Tom Reugger–and as this is the first episode to distinguish the two, a word of explanation may be in order: a story credit means that the credited person or people came up with anything from a single-sentence premise for the episode to a multi-page plot outline; the teleplay credit indicates who actually wrote the script based on that story.

It’s an important distinction to make here because this is an episode that does well a lot of what “The Last Laugh” did poorly, while still being problematic in its own way, and it’s therefore important to have a sense of who likely did what so that we know who to thank, or, alternatively, to blame–though frankly, given that all three of the writers involved went on to write some truly excellent episodes, the worst we can say about any of them was that this may not have been their best work.

But that makes the episode sound poorly executed, which it very much is not. Looking at “The Last Laugh’s” failures makes this episode’s successes quite clear. First, it briefly sustains some genuine mystery; although the hair is something of a giveaway, we never see the face of the ominous figure in the opening scene, just that they seem to rescuing a particular rose from destruction; later, when Dent is poisoned at the Rose Cafe and the camera lingers on the rose symbol in the window, it provides the audience with a clear red herring, one shared by the police. Batman likewise does not immediately know who did it; he only begins to suspect Isley after she visits Dent in the hospital and Batman remembers her kissing him right before he collapsed; it is only when Alfred’s research reveals Isley to be an expert in extinct plants, like the one that provided the poison, that he goes after her.

Along the way, we get a few scenes that sketch out the shape of the friendship between Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent–first, them together, smiling as they break ground for the new prison, then laughing together at dinner, followed by Wayne’s mounting panic after Dent collapses, and finally his frequent visits to the hospital. Even though, to a long-time fan of the series or of the Batman comics, it seems obvious that Batman’s closest relationship ought to be to Alfred, so far we have seen far more evidence of his closeness to Harvey Dent. Which in turn works to make the action in the latter half of the episode more urgent; because we see that Batman cares about Dent, we know that he must be feeling a great deal of pressure to find the antidote, on a personal level, again, unlike “The Last Laugh.”

That second half of the episode, where the action happens, is also quite well constructed. Just as in “The Last Laugh,” it is built as a series of deathtraps and escapes, but never feels as repetitive, even though it happens over a shorter time and includes four, rather than three, traps. This is mostly accomplished through escalation–each trap is more threatening and requires more effort to escape than the last–and by linking the traps together so that the progression feels organic. (Fitting, given the greenhouse setting.) So, the first trap is a simple trapdoor over a pit full of cacti; Batman is able to escape by grabbing an overhanging vine. This vine turns out to be the tendril of a monstrous Venus flytrap, which attempts to devour him. His struggles with it attract Isley–now revealed as a new (to the series) villain, Poison Ivy–who doses him with the same poison as Dent. Finally, his continued struggles to escape the plant and get the antidote from Poison Ivy eventually cause an electrical fire that spreads rapidly through the greenhouse, forcing him to deal with both poison and fire while dodging shots from Ivy’s wrist-mounted mini-crossbow. This steady raising of the stakes helps convey the danger of the situation and increase the audience’s tension, where having the most successful trap first in “The Last Laugh” defused it.

But unfortunately, this final action sequence is where the episode’s biggest flaw becomes apparent: Poison Ivy is played as a bog-standard femme fatale, rather than explored sympathetically the way, say, Two-Face or Mister Freeze will be. Which is particularly unfortunate since the episode starts out seemingly sympathetic to her motivation; at least, the deeply cynical “5 years later, a better, safer Gotham” caption in the transition from the destruction of the near-extinct rose’s habitat to the completed prison, followed immediately by a criminal escaping that prison, suggests a great deal of skepticism about whether replacing a field of flowers with a prison was actually a good idea.

But from the moment she kisses Dent, Ivy is played as dangerous and invasive. The facade of a “good girl” she shows in her first scene–attractive, kindly, conscientious about waiting for Wayne to eat, but willing to accede to Dent’s judgment, which is to say entirely non-assertive and therefore non-threatening–drops after the kiss as she sashays away. One of the men in the restaurant–and in this shot, everyone visible except Ivy appears to be a man–even loses the thread of his conversation about business and turns to stare at her as she walks by. Rather than depicting this as rather creepy behavior on the man’s part, the camera is clearly showing Ivy as an invasive element, the lone woman in a male space, her red hair and dress vibrant in a room full of black hair and brown suits, the only thing moving, and the center of the shot, with all eyes on her.

The death trap sequences make this much worse, because each shows another aspect of the femme fatale. The hidden trapdoor is treacherous and deceptive. The poison kiss is a literal kiss of death, a romantic and sexual encounter that contaminates, corrupts, and ultimately destroys the man. The fire is passion and heat, turned deadly and destructive.

A giant "venus flytrap" that is obviously a tentacle monster with a razor tooth-lined vagina in the center.
I mean, honestly now.

You may note I skipped the second trap in the previous paragraph; that is because it is the most ludicrously blatant of them all, and deserves its own paragraph. You see, that’s not at all what a Venus flytrap looks like; rather, it is very clearly a vagina with teeth that is also a tentacle monster. (Note that the animation studio for this episode, Sunrise, was and still is a major producer of anime, and as such the animators almost certainly consciously knew what they were doing with at least the tentacle monster part–such creatures were already a staple of Japanese animated porn by 1992, and have precursors in Japanese erotica going back at least two hundred years.) The vagina dentata is a classic symbol of the male fear of feminine sexual power, that the vagina (standing in for the woman) will devour or castrate the man. The tentacles dragging Batman in make this a seduction or even a rape, compounding this fear that the man will become powerless if the woman is sexually empowered–and this is clearly Poison Ivy’s toothed, tentacled vagina we’re talking about, not just in the sense that she owns it, but that between its color scheme (red flowers and green vines, just like her red hair and green costume) and the fact that she becomes unhinged immediately after accidentally shooting it, it is symbolically a part of her.

That is, after all, what the femme fatale, and thus Poison Ivy, is about: a woman owns her sexuality and is empowered by it, and thus becomes an unacceptable threat and corrupting influence to the men around her. She is not a Madonna, a virginal, simpering, dependent, pure, innocent weakling, and therefore must be a whore, which in this case means using her sexuality to destroy men–literally, with a kiss of death.

Later episodes will do a much better job with Ivy, particularly with her relationship with Harley Quinn (though that, too, has its issues). But here she showcases a major problem with the early episodes of this show: it is very much a boy’s club. Fully half of humanity is just not allowed to have a voice or point of view; women are found in supporting roles (Summer Gleason, Francine Langstrom) or else stock noir characters rooted in the misogynistic attitudes of an era when women had only just gotten the vote.

The show, and especially the larger DCAU, will eventually do better; here and now, however, it’s hard not to look at Poison Ivy and imagine an alternate version of this episode where she got the attention, care, and character-revolutionizing innovation of “Heart of Ice.”


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