It’s September 17, 1992, between “Be a Clown” and “P.O.V.,” so we don’t need to rehash the news and charts. Today’s episode is an adaptation of Dennis O’Neill’s 1976 Batman comic “There’s No Hope in Crime Alley” by Gerry Conway, himself a rather well-known comics writer–among other things, he wrote the Spider-Man comic where Gwen Stacey died, co-created the Punisher, Firestorm, Steel, Vixen, and Killer Croc, and wrote the first official Marvel/DC crossover, Superman vs. the Amazing Spider-Man.
The episode is perhaps unique among the episodes we’ve discussed so far in that it is very much about Batman himself, revealing much about the character, albeit in a rather understated way. The villain is the relatively uninteresting businessman Roland Daggett–previously seen as the provider of Renuyu to Matt Hagen prior to his transformation into Clayface–who plots to destroy the Crime Alley slum in order to clear space for a development project he has planned.
Daggett is a suitably slimy villain, focused entirely on profit and not getting caught, with little care for either the legality of his activities or the human cost. He is smug, untouchable, and walks away clean at the end of the episode while his minions go to jail. But he is not the focus of this episode; primarily it is about Batman, and his determination to make a mysterious annual appointment with a previously unseen woman, an elderly doctor and charity worker named Leslie Thompkins (played pitch-perfectly by Diana Muldaur, who is experienced at playing older doctors with strong convictions, having spent a season as Dr. Kathryn Pulaski on Star Trek: The Next Generation).
As revealed beautifully in a silent scene where Batman, searching Thompkins’ apartment for clues to her disappearance, leafs through her scrapbook and comes across the newspaper clipping about his parents’ death, the appointment is the anniversary of the Waynes’ murder, and Thompkins comforted young Bruce in the aftermath. This was strongly hinted at early in the episode when Thompkins described her own motivation for remaining in Park Row that was long after its deterioration into the dangerous and poverty-stricken Crime Alley, that she once saw a boy who’d witnessed his parents gunned down in front of him, and now she worked to try to keep things like that from happening again.
She is, in other words, yet another parallel for Batman himself, another iteration of the protector fantasy. But where Batman is a violent figure that destroys those who threaten us, Thompkins is gentler, wrapping us up in her arms and telling us that it’s going to be okay.
Notable, then, is a major character choice Conway’s story makes distinct from O’Neill’s. (One of two major character differences, but the other–that Alfred knows what the appointment is about in the episode, but not the comic–isn’t so much a choice as a natural consequence of the fact that in the DCAU Alfred had worked for the Waynes since before they were shot, while in the comics, at least in 1976, he wasn’t hired until after Batman and Robin started working together.) Namely, the comic is explicit that Thompkins does not know who Batman is or why he comes to see her every year on this date, while the episode doesn’t explicitly say either way, but strongly implies in its final scene–in which Batman lays two roses on the site of his parents’ murder, while Thompkins puts a comforting arm around him–that Thompkins knows this is the little boy whose parents were killed in front of him.
The episode, in other words, established Thompkins not only as a protector and comforter of Bruce Wayne as a child, but as an adult superhero as well–she is a confidante, someone whom he trusts to know his secret identity and keep that information safe. She is thus not only a parallel to Batman himself, but to Alfred as well, an elderly surrogate parent who knows and guards Batman’s secret, providing him with love, support, and someone to rescue when there is need for a more personal stake.
Despite never being seen or mentioned before, the episode establishes quite thoroughly how important Thompkins is to Batman with the sequence of disasters he has to rescue people from, delaying him from their meeting and clearly frustrating him a great deal. Much like “The Laughing Fish,” this series of action setpieces is pretty clearly there just to fill out the time and build tension, but it works rather better, first because it does fulfill a plot function–causing Batman to be late so that Thompkins goes looking for him and gets captured–second, because we know there is a time limit and Batman doesn’t, and third, because Batman’s mounting frustration at being delayed is clearly visible, making it clear to us that meeting with Thompkins is so important to him that stopping a runaway trolley full of people is an annoying diversion by comparison.
But perhaps the most telling insight of all is that Batman seems on the verge of physically attacking Daggett at the end of the episode, and has to be restrained by Thompkins. Since we have established her as a protector figure, we can read this moment as her protecting him–but why? There are two ways to read it, the first that she is protecting Batman from violating his moral code, and the second that she is protecting him from harm.
The first possibility is that she is protecting Batman from violating his moral code. The question then is, what is it Batman intends to do that’s so wrong? He’s clearly very angry at Daggett, and understandably so, as Daggett is insufferably smug about his belief that he will suffer no legal repercussions for the attempted destruction of Crime Alley and murder of quite a number of people. So we might think that she is protecting him from killing Daggett–except, as we saw in “The Underdwellers,” Batman is quite capable of pulling himself back from murderous rage. No, if it is a moral dilemma that she’s protecting him from, the act in violation of his code is attacking Daggett at all. But why would that be? Batman has shown no hesitation in attacking Penguin or Rupert Thorne for hatching schemes carried out by their minions, so clearly he is okay with punching people who plan criminal acts as well as those who carry them out.
But Daggett is different. Daggett, who describes the people he’s about to blow up as a “criminal underclass” who stand in the way of “progress,” presumably defined as whatever increases his personal wealth, is somehow less deserving of being punched than a Catwoman or a Poison Ivy–people arguably trying to make the world a better place, albeit using illegal means to do so. Why?
The answer to that question lies in the second possibility, that attacking Daggett risks harm to Batman from which Thompkins acts to protect him. What kind of harm could this be? Not physical harm, obviously; Daggett showed little sign of combat ability when attacked by Clayface, and does not appear to have any bodyguards or minions available to him in the confrontation with Batman in this episode. What he does have, however, are reporters, camera crews, and a great deal of wealth. By attacking him, on camera and in front of reporters, Batman would empower him to devote his resources to crafting a narrative in the press, in which rogue vigilante Batman attacks a pillar of the community without provocation. He could depict Batman as a menace, disrupt his relationship with the police, and sow increased hostility and distrust among the people of Gotham, severely hampering Batman’s efforts against crime.
Daggett, in other words, has power. He sits atop the social order which Batman works to defend, and so to attack him is to undermine that order. Daggett enjoys the same privileges of power and wealth that permit Bruce Wayne to dress up in a costume and commit crimes of his own–because, let us never forget, Batman is a criminal who commits assault and battery on a nightly basis. That he preys on criminals does not change that being a vigilante is itself a crime–and even if he were deputized by the Gotham Police, as in the Adam West version, he would still be guilty of police brutality many times over. Only his many toys keep Batman from ending up dead in an alley or rotting in Arkham, and those toys are a direct product of his wealth, his position atop the social order.
Because Daggett is also a parallel to Batman, or more specifically to Bruce Wayne. Both are wealthy, powerful men respected within the community. Both seek to improve Gotham, within their own visions of what that improvement entails. Both habitually abuse their positions of power to get away with criminal acts.
For Batman, to attack Daggett is to attack himself. To expose him is to risk exposing himself; to root out the corruption he represents is to wreak havoc on the order Batman protects. It is a trap we have observed before: at least as it is constructed at this point in our journey, there is an innate conservatism to the figure of the superhero. As a product of the protector fantasy, Batman must protect us from scary changes to the status quo–which means he cannot fight evil when that evil is inherent to the system itself. He cannot defeat a Roland Daggett or a Max Schreck; that seems to require a Catwoman.
But she is nowhere to be found in this story. There are only protectors, and so the only real change we see is the destruction of some buildings that were condemned anyway. Crime Alley endures; poverty endures; Daggett endures. The system rolls on.
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