It’s February 8, 1993, the day after “Robin’s Reckoning Part 1” (appropriately enough), so see that post for news and charts.
“Birds of a Feather” is one of those cases where an episode is more interesting to discuss than to watch. The plot of it is fairly straightforward: socialite Veronica Vreeland (in her first of several appearances) and her friend Pierce hatch a scheme to get attention by bringing the Penguin to a party. Veronica pretends to be romantically interested in him, but he overhears her and Pierce talking about their scheme, so he kidnaps her for ransom and tries to murder both her and Pierce. Batman, of course, intervenes.
Oh, and one of Penguin and Veronica’s dates is to a performance of Pagliacci, at the opera house where Penguin will eventually hold her and Pierce, which is a bit on the nose, seeing as Pagliacci is about a man who jealously murders his wife and her lover on stage while performing in a comedic play about adultery. But the characters of both the episode and the opera map well onto one another: Penguin is Canio, who loves Nedda and believes she loves him, but responds to her betrayal with violent rage. Veronica is Nedda, who is desired by all three of the others, but chooses Silvio. Pierce is Silvio, who exposes himself to Canio’s revenge when he tries to help Nedda.
But that leaves one character from the show and one from the opera unaccounted for: Batman and Tonio, respectively. They seem not to match up at all. Batman is largely a witness to the drama played out between Penguin, Veronica, and Pierce, while Tonio is the driving force of the opera, as he wants Nedda for himself and exposes her infidelity to Canio out of jealousy.
But then, we shouldn’t assume the mapping has to be one-to-one. It isn’t in the play-within-an-opera of Pagliacci, after all; Canio’s great arietta is a declaration that he is not Pagliaccio, the character he plays, and Silvio is in the audience, not playing Nedda’s character’s lover. Nested fictions are necessarily imperfect mirrors of one another; indeed, it is Canio’s inability to separate his real emotions about Nedda’s infidelity with his character’s feelings about Columbine’s infidelity that leads to the opera’s tragic conclusion, a double murder in front of dozens of witnesses. As either Tonio or Canio (depending on the production) says in the opera’s final line: “The comedy is now over.” The performance cannot survive the performer’s inability to keep their own feelings out of it.
Oddly, the episode implies that it is Veronica who struggles most with this problem. She claims at the episode’s end that she was starting to genuinely like the Penguin, which is to say that her performance as his lover might have been starting to leak into her real self. Conversely, Penguin is damned in part by a failure to recognize parallels between the opera and himself–he sings along with Canio/Pagliaccio at the opera–but this is in a sense going even deeper into his role than Veronica does hers, taking to heart the declaration that he isn’t Pagliaccio (and therefore not Canio either). A declaration which is entirely wrong when the Penguin says it; he is the sad clown, the butt of the joke, the grotesque creature whose suffering is a source of amusement for the rest of us, his beloved Columbina included.
But in all this performance and performativity, let us not forget the most experienced performer of all. This is one of those episodes in which Bruce Wayne, slightly dim socialite and philanthropist, appears, and we all know he is just a mask worn by Batman, who is in turn a mask worn by Bruce Wayne, trauma victim. There are signs that he, too, is struggling to keep his performances organized. Remember that we discussed before that part of the reason for Batman’s code against killing, the reason he keeps putting his enemies in Arkham despite them escaping and wreaking havoc time after time, is his hope that they can be redeemed, which is little Bruce’s hope that he can be healed. And here we have an ostensibly reformed Penguin. He should be overjoyed!
But instead his attitude throughout the episode is watchful mistrust of exactly the sort which could have driven Penguin–who, until he snaps in response to learning he’s been duped by Veronica and Pierce, seems to be genuinely intent on reforming–back to crime. Because of course it is; Batman’s purpose is, above all else, to protect his traumatized innermost self from further pain. Part of that means protecting him from the pain of hopes dashed, by not permitting hope at all. His self-contradictory actions, which simultaneously assume that criminals can be reformed and that criminals are fundamentally Other and can never be trusted, are simply the product of the doublethink necessary to give himself the hope without which he would descend into despair while also protecting him from repeated disappointment.
Which brings us to the one way in which Batman and Tonio really do work as parallels to one another. While today it is far more common to have Canio say the last line of Pagliacci, that was a change made in 1895. For the first three years of the opera’s existence, that line belonged to Tonio, who manipulated this tragedy into existence, and from his perspective, there never was any comedy: he is the one character who is unhappy at the opera’s beginning, due to his desire for Nedda.
So, too, is Batman the one character unhappy from the start. Veronica and Pierce have their scheme, and Penguin the illusory happiness of his false relationship, but all Batman has is suspicion and doubt. They are all he ever has, because for him, the murder of a man and woman during a show happened a long time ago. The comedy ended when he was eight years old.
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