It’s May 10, 1993, two weeks before “His Silicon Soul” and a week after “The Demon’s Quest.” The top song is, as it will be two weeks from now, Janet Jackson’s “That’s the Way Love Goes.” The top movie is Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story; other movies of note in the top ten include Dave and Indecent Proposal (numbers two and three respectively), and, further down at seventh, The Sandlot. In the news, Paraguay has possibly its first democratically elected president, Juan Carlos Wasmosy; there are allegations of election fraud, but his victory is certified by an international panel. William Randolph Hearst, Jr, son and successor of the infamous publisher, dies on the 14th, which is also the day Disney Channel actress/singer Miranda Cosgrove is born. There’s no evidence that reincarnation was involved, but you never know.
This episode seems like it shouldn’t work. The Ventriloquist and Scarface are really just a lesser reiteration of Two-Face—two personalities, one more criminally inclined and dominant, and with a clear visual distinction of which is which—but without any of the menace implied by both his grotesque appearance and his terrifying obsession with the caprices of random chance. But nonetheless it does work, thanks largely to an excellent script by Joe R. Lansdale.
With this second episode, Lansdale reveals the hints of a pattern, which will be borne out in at least some of his later episodes. Previously, in “Perchance to Dream,” he separated Batman’s two aspects and placed them in conflict against each other, in so doing finding a way to explore how the identities we perform can become our prisons. Here in “Read My Lips” that exploration is even more pronounced, as Wesker’s ventriloquist personality is held prisoner by, essentially enslaved to, his Scarface personality.
Of course the notion that the puppet is the real master is hardly unique to this episode. Puppets and dolls are a staple of horror, thanks to the Uncanny Valley—the effect whereby the almost-human can be more unsettling than the entirely unhuman. Indeed, the Batman comics imply that Scarface is in some sense alive or haunted, as he has retained the same personality across multiple ventriloquists. But in the DCAU, that possibility is toyed with and ultimately rejected. (The best use of this concept is in the far-off Justice League episode “A Better World,” where all the villains in alternate Arkham have been rendered docile via lobotomy, and it is Scarface, rather than the Ventriloquist, who bears the scars.) Scarface is an expression of some aspect of Wesker that the Ventriloquist cannot express himself, so he channels it through the puppet. Despite shock-scares like the doll’s eyes snapping open when Batman touches it, Scarface remains fully inert without the Ventriloquist’s animating presence.
But then, the Bat is inert without Bruce Wayne to put on the cape and cowl, isn’t it? And as we saw in “Perchance to Dream,” Wayne is held in thrall by the Bat, as much a prisoner as the Ventriloquist—and like the Ventriloquist at the episode’s ending, he has carved his own prison, and will rebuild it if it is removed. But this is not the only reflection of the Ventriloquist-Scarface relationship elsewhere in the episode. During the initial heist sequence, Rhino carries one of the other henchmen on his shoulder, not unlike a ventriloquist carrying a dummy. Later, we briefly see Batman and Alfred together; Alfred’s role as manservant is not to dissimilar to the function the Ventriloquist performs for Scarface, right down to both wearing tuxedos.
But it is still the Batman-Bruce Wayne relationship that Wesker most resembles. Both are engaged in elaborate performances that allow them to channel aspects of themselves into fictional constructs that they have reified through performative crafts. Bruce Wayne’s fear and rage are channeled through his costume to become the Bat, just as Wesker’s feelings are channeled through puppetry to become Scarface. Notably, Wesker has chosen a symbol of excess, rebellion, and defiance: long before the now better-known remake starring Al Pacino, 1932’s Scarface told the story of a young man, loosely based on Al Capone, who rises ever higher in the Prohibition-era Mafia before going down in a blaze of glory. It is an attractive story, and in his use of it we can see that what the meek and mild Wesker craves is a way to express not fear and the rage induced by loss, but the defiant anger of someone who feels he deserves better.
Despite that he is clearly ill, there is no tragedy to the figure of Wesker in this story. As always, the episode frames its final reveal of the new Scarface taking form under Wesker’s hands as a moment of horror, but as with the puppet’s eyes earlier, there is no monster here. Instead, the recreation of Scarface is an act of defiance by Wesker; like the prize fight at the episode’s beginning, we have not actually seen the end of his battle.
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