Maybe he and I have something in common after all (Two-Face)

Near Apocalpyse of '09 LogoBatman is defined by guilt.

The most obvious guilt is his parents’ death. Some versions of the story have young Bruce Wayne be the cause of their presence in that alley where they were shot, but it’s unnecessary; he survived a traumatic event that they didn’t, and that nearly always brings intense guilt to the survivor, especially a child. He was helpless, left alone alone with his anger and his guilt, the big, bad Batman (reflection of, and fundamentally the same as, the monstrous Man-Bat), until it ate him away from inside and turned him into a shadowy figure that punches criminals, knowing it cannot accomplish real change, that it serves no purpose except trying and failing to exorcise his pain and guilt and rage.

This is the darkest episode we have covered yet. It lacks the overt misogyny and castration-fear of “Pretty Poison,” true, or the corruption of innocence that lies at the heart of “Christmas with the Joker,” but as origin stories go this is a pretty brutal one, and one the episode explicitly ties to Batman’s own origins. The dream sequence where this connection occurs, early in the second part, is worth unpacking: at first glance it appears to be Harvey’s dream, paralleling his dream of being chased by Big Bad Harv in the first part. However, with the appearance of Bruce Wayne we find it is his dream, and Harvey falls off a bridge into a red glow, screaming for help, only to become Martha and Thomas Wayne, the latter of whom–played by the same voice actor as Harvey Dent–asks why Bruce didn’t save them.

Batman swears to save Harvey, to bring him back from wherever he is hiding inside Two-Face, but he can’t; his skills are focused on gadget-creating, crime-investigating, and villain-punching, none of which are particularly useful in resolving psychiatric issues. Of course, they’re not actually particularly useful in reducing net crime, either, since they do nothing about its underlying causes such as poverty, social unrest, and hopelessness, so he’ll press on trying to save Harvey anyway.

He has to, because that’s the only way to save himself. Harvey is Batman–driven by guilt over an incident when he was a child, over which he had no control; crafted out of equal parts fear and anger (Big Bad Harv is as much bully as Batman is a bat); lashing out at those he blames in an often needlessly elaborate fashion that turns it almost into a game (everything in twos).

The machinations of chance drive relentlessly to destroy Harvey and create Two-Face: the incident as a child that led him to repress his anger; the incidents at the raid and the party that drew Candice’s interest; the stray bullets, pushed off target by Batman’s attempt to save his life, that caused the explosion that cemented his transformation–all are accidents, coincidences; it is no wonder that he becomes a mercurial creature of chance, basing all his choices on a binary between “good” and “bad” determined by a coin toss.

And all because of a single mistake–by Batman, adding still more to his guilt. But like Dent’s childhood bully, the triggering incident wasn’t the real cause; another disease existed from the start. (There is a great deal to be said about BTAS’ treatment of mental illness, little of it good. However, at least this episode shows that the stigmatization of mental illness can be more damaging than the illness, so perhaps that criticism can wait for an episode that is directly about mental health treatment.)

There is nothing anyone can do to save him; there is simply too much bad luck to oppose. In the end, even Batman is reduced to just flipping a coin and making a wish, once again feeling the guilt of failing to save someone he cared about.

It’s September 25 and 28, 1992. Topping the charts are, as always it seems, Boyz II Men. The Last of the Mohicans opens at number one this weekend, knocking Sneakers into second place. In the news, Spanish artist Cesar Manrique dies; the Provisional Irish Republican Army destroys a police lab in Belfast; and a joint US, Colombian, and Italian operation arrests 165 people on money laundering charges associated with the cocaine trade.

On Batman the Animated Series, we have “Two-Face,” a two-part tale of a divided soul obsessed with binaries, twos, and twins, who reminds us that every coin has two sides.

It’s September 25 and 28, 1992. Boyz II Men top the charts, as they have for many weeks and will continue to do for many more, while The Last of the Mohicans opens atop the charts this weekend. In the news, TV and film actor Keir Gilchrist is born; Mexico reestablishes diplomatic relations with Vatican City after 130 years of silence; the Cartoon Network launches in a few days.

There are many pairs in Two-Face: Harv and Harvey; Two-Face and Thorne; Batman and Two-Face; the twins Min and Max who become Two-Face’s goons. But perhaps the most interesting is the pair of Candice and Grace, the only two prominent women. Candice is fairly straightforwardly a “bad girl” cut from the same cloth as Poison Ivy–very nearly literally, as she wears a red dress reminiscent of the earlier villain’s hair and has a similar scene of sauntering away from the camera. She is an active and menacing figure, who conceives and carries out not only the scheme to uncover Harvey’s secret psychological treatment but also the trap that uses Grace to capture him. Grace, by contrast, is the innocent, loving, passive “good girl” who calmly waits (albeit with occasional prodding) for Harvey to set their wedding date and is happy to subject herself to the dangers posed by Big Bad Harv or Two-Face if it means helping Harvey.

This is the classic Madonna-whore complex, the binary division–fueled by the sexist fear of feminine power and sexuality–of all women into wicked, dangerous, active, powerful, sexy “bad girls” and good, safe, passive, submissive, loving “good girls.” But perhaps such a binary division is appropriate in an episode about Two-Face, who divides all the world and its myriad choices into binary opposites of “good” and “bad.”

It ties in, too, with the themes of chance and guilt, by denying both. After all, there’s at least one blatant religious allusion in this episode: when Two-Face stares at the picture of Grace in his wallet, a credit card is visible and has on it the number 666, the traditional Number of the Beast. It’s just remotely possible that a Madonna-figure who is named Grace and tries desperately to give Harvey forgiveness and salvation, whose love is stated to be the source of hope, might possibly have an outside chance of being another one.

No, the show isn’t exactly subtle, but Grace still represents a direct rebuke to Two-Face’s belief that life is ruled by chance. As she says, he has made choices that mattered: to run for office, to take on Thorne, to be with her. He has friends, allies, and loved ones, who can help him weather the vagaries of chance–and they are not his by luck, but because he chose them and they chose him.

No one will ever truly save Harvey. Not for long. The weight of narrative is too strong; he is more interesting as Two-Face, and therefore, given time and sufficient episodes, will always become Two-Face again. But if anyone could save him, it’s Grace. That’s why, when Batman tosses Two-Face’s coin in the fountain at the end, it lands “good” side up: there is always the possibility of a lucky break, even if it has to happen after the series is cancelled.

That is one of the defining traits of Batman, at least as much as his guilt: he tries to save others, because it is his way of trying to save himself. He is so often a protector of broken or endangered children because he was one himself–and largely still is, on the inside. He sees himself in Man-Bat and Two-Face, and tries to rescue them, too–but not just them. He tries to save all his enemies. That’s why his villains always end up in Arkham Asylum–a hospital–rather than prison. Why he never kills them, even after the dozenth time the Joker has escaped to kill others.

Batman believes there is a possibility that every single one of his villains could someday turn their lives around. He has to, because he sees himself in too many of them; if they can’t be rescued, neither can he. So he goes on fighting for them, trying to find grace, forever.

Batman is defined by hope.


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