Decided to become a supervillain (Mad as a Hatter)

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It’s October 12, 1992. The top song is, as seemingly always, Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road,” with Patty Smyth, House of Pain, Bobby Brown, and TLC also charting. The top movie is Steven Seagal vehicle Under Siege, with Last of the Mohicans and The Mighty Ducks at the number two and three spots, respectively. In the news, yesterday was the first of three debates between U.S. Presidential candidates George Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot; today, an earthquake in Cairo kill over 500 people and injures over 6,500; and on the 17th, the shooting of Japanese exchange student Yoshihiro Hattori in Baton Rouge, Louisana occurs; the acquittal of his killer on self-defense grounds will prompt international protests calling for tighter gun control in the U.S.

On TV, we have “Mad as a Hatter,” a badly underrated episode that picks its way carefully through a potential minefield of issues. Structurally, this episode mimics the “sympathetic villain origin story” that are frequently among BTAS’ best episodes, such as “Heart of Ice,” “Two-Face,” and “Clayface.” Thus we follow an unusual, but hardly monstrous, individual as the pressures of what amount to more or less “normal” life issues–the loss of a loved one, mental illness compounded by a serious physical injury, drug addiction–lead the person into a grotesque path, resulting in the creation of a monster from what was once a man.

In this case, the pressure on Jervis Tetch is unrequited infatuation with his coworker Alice, and his attempts to deal with his emotions lead him down a darker and darker path until he becomes the Mad Hatter, gets defeated by Batman, and at last we see a mournful final shot that speaks to the sorrow of his fall.

Except for one thing: until that final shot, the episode is never sympathetic to Tetch, and rightly so, because he has more in common with Scarecrow than Mr. Freeze: he is as corrupt at the start of the episode as at the end. The only change necessary to transform Tetch into the Mad Hatter is for him to recognize that he has power, at which point he does what he has wanted to do from the start. This is not corruption, but self-indulgence.

Consider the first we see of him: using his mind-control technology to make rats do his bidding, crowing happily that his technology will allow him to control anything. A few minutes later, however, he is claiming to Marcia Cate and Bruce Wayne–his bosses–that his prototype “isn’t ready.” And small wonder–Wayne describes Tetch’s topic of research as enhancing the human mind, but what Tetch is actually developing is a means of controlling the human mind. He is lying to his bosses about what he’s developing, because he knows that no ethics board on the planet would approve mind control research. He must know that he will be found out eventually; the only plausible explanation is that he is planning on going into supervillainry from the start.

And consider how the episode treats his infatuation with Alice. When he sees her sobbing in the break room, tearfully explaining to Cate about her problems with her boyfriend, the jubilant music highlights the contrast between her pain and Tetch’s happiness. He is ecstatic that she is suffering, because this gives him an opportunity to–in his own words–“win.” In other words, despite his overtly friendly behavior toward Alice, he doesn’t care at all about her feelings; he sees her purely as a possession, a prize to win in a competition of power and status.

When he takes her out, his duplicity is blatant; he claims to be trying to cheer her up, but really he’s repeatedly seeking to demonstrate his power. Using his mind control technology, he drives off the two muggers–nearly killing them both, it should be noted–to demonstrate his power to “protect” Alice, then at the restaurant he uses his control over seemingly the entire staff to demonstrate his power to “provide for” her. Throughout, she is clearly uncomfortable with his romantic gestures, such as when he takes her hand in the restaurant or invites her to dance in the park. He is oblivious to her discomfort, however, just as he was oblivious to her crying before; all that matters to him is the demonstration of power.

Tetch’s history is implied rather than shown, but the implications are strong enough to be fairly easy to read. He’s a short, unattractive, socially awkward scientist with a consuming passion for a children’s fantasy story; it’s hard to imagine a more textbook example of the stock nerd character. Further, he pretends to be Alice’s friend, while actually not caring about her at all as a person, because he is infatuated with her. (And just in case we missed that, the episode kindly spells it out for us: when he finally resorts to outright kidnapping, his henchman are dressed as the Walrus and the Carpenter, who, in Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, pretended to be friends to the oysters so that they could devour them.) He is, in other words, a clear example of Nice Guy Syndrome, fully a decade before it was first named, though long after its first depiction, the “Nice Guy” being a staple of romantic comedies since at least Cyrano de Bergerac.

Like the classic “Nice Guy,” and in stark contrast to actually nice guys, Tetch pretends to be nice toward the object of his infatuation while actually viewing her as a thing to be tricked into becoming his possession. His mind control is simply a metaphor for that manipulation, a complete removal of the agency of the people around him so that they can be reduced to simple systems whose buttons he can press.

It is small wonder that he spends most of the episode toying with the idea of using his technology on Alice. His entire goal is to possess her, and he demonstrates repeatedly he doesn’t care about her feelings, only about “winning.” He desires her as evidence that he has power, not as a partner with her own agency–he quite clearly cares nothing for the agency of others, as throughout the episode he uses his cards to override that agency whenever someone gets in his way. So, of course, once he encounters an obstacle in claiming Alice, he overrides hers as well–and by the time we see her again, she’s wearing different clothes.

Tetch’s path, in other words, is not from a more or less upstanding member of society to a monster, but from already pretty monstrous person to likely rapist. Put aside his fantastical technology, and he is just another entitled, self-centered misogynist who saw an opportunity to assert power and took it. Notably, at no point does Batman express the slightest bit of compassion toward him, the way he did toward all the other sympathetic villains in their episodes; the only emotion we see Batman express toward Tetch is contained, but clearly visible, rage when he realizes to whom the mind control technology belongs, not too different from his reaction to the Sewer King.

But if Tetch’s story is not a fall from grace, but simply a revelation of his true colors, what are we to make of the final shot of the Mock Turtle statue weeping for him? That requires us to have read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and recall who the Mock Turtle is. He claims to be crying because once he was a real turtle, but was transformed into his current state–yet his meandering story about his youth is never concluded, and according to the Gryphon, “It’s all his fancy, that: he hasn’t got no sorrow, you know.”

In other words, the Mock Turtle’s tears of self-pity are based on delusions about who and what he is. Tetch’s self-pity and his entitlement go hand-in-hand, and so that final shot is revealed–like the happy music when he sees Alice crying–to be a depiction of his own emotional state in contrast to what has really occurred. Just as Tetch is happy in a sad moment because he thinks he is about to get what he wants, he is upset at the defeat of one of the most horrifying villains in the series so far because, as that villain, it means he’s definitely not getting what he wants.

This is an episode ahead of its time. At a time when the most visible fictional instance of an entitled, white male techno-wizard nerd on television was Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s fan-hated wunderkind Wesley Crusher, in Tetch we have a vision of the entitled white male nerds of the future. In Tetch’s cards we see the Gamergaters, MRAs, and PUAs yet to come. The Mock Turtle thinks he weeps for himself; in truth he weeps for what he will become.


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