A clue, clowny (Harlequinade)

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It’s May 23, 1994, a week after “Trial.” The top movie is Maverick, followed by The Crow and When a Man Loves a Woman. The top song is “I Swear” by All-4-One; Madonna, Ace of Base, and Prince (with “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World”) also chart.

In the news, yesterday Pope John Paul II issued a letter reiterating the Catholic Church’s policy on who can be priests, namely “No girls allowed.” That’s actually pretty much it–the next interesting thing to happen, at least according to my usual in-depth methodology for researching the news of the day for these essays (namely, checking the Wikipedia page for that year), isn’t until June.

But that’s okay, because we’ve got plenty to interest us here in “Harlequinade,” one of the true highlights of Batman: The Animated Series. This is the moment at which Harley Quinn finally becomes fully formed as a character: already we have seen that she is both funnier than the Joker (in “The Laughing Fish”) and a better avatar of chaos and change (in “Harley and Ivy”). Now we learn that, far from the the ditzy sidekick role she performs or the working-class background she implies with her accent, she was once a respected clinical psychiatrist, which is to say both an educated professional with profound knowledge of the workings of the mind and a fully trained medical doctor. She describes herself as someone who listened to other people’s problems until she met the Joker, the first person to truly listen to hers, and in that moment the transition begun in “Harley and Ivy” is complete, from depicting her dedication to the Joker as a gag to depicting it as a pathology.

It also gives us the one time the Joker has actually performed the primary function of the Trickster, the literary and folkloric figure who sows chaos and thereby triggers transformation and growth, though admittedly he does it offscreen (at least until the flashbacks in “Mad Love,” still years in the future). As we have repeatedly seen, for all that he claims the iconography of the trickster, for all that he is positioned narratively as the chaos to Batman’s order, he’s really just another petty crook who wants to be at the top of the structures of power, not tear them down. But when he played the joke of turning Harleen Quinzel into Harley Quinn, he created the woman who actually is everything he pretended to be.

Enter Harleyquinn.

In pantomime, a British form of theater popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that still endures (albeit somewhat modified) as a Christmas tradition, the entry of the character Harlequin indicated the shift from the more dramatic portion of the program to the more comedic ending section, the harlequinade. This closing act, in turn, derived ultimately from the Italian commedia dell’arte, a form of theater dating back to the Renaissance and characterized by comedy, the use of stock characters and plots, and improvisation.

In the harlequinade, the Harlequin served as the main character and hero, a magical trickster who used his pranks to free his lover Columbine from her miserly old father, Pantaloon. Pantaloon, in turn, would pursue Harlequin, “aided” by his bumbling sidekicks Clown and Pierrot. (In later years, Pierrot became more of a tragicomic romantic figure, Harlequin’s unlucky rival for the heart of Columbine.)

As a Trickster, Harlequin served as a liminal figure, wielding the magic of transformation and transition, most significantly in using the rod he carried, the “magical batte,” to transform the scene of action from the conclusion of the prior portion of the pantomime to the setting of the harlequinade. That same rod would frequently be used to whack the three villainous characters in the course of his pranks, hence its other name, the “slap-stick.”

“Harlequinade,” unsurprisingly, heavily references the traditional harlequinade. The arrival of Harley Quinn on the screen signals the transition from the relatively serious, even dark, cartoon that is the bulk of Batman: The Animated Series to an episode that manages to be quite light and funny even while the Joker is threatening to murder ten million people and Harley is again depicted as an abuse victim. (Without, it should be noted, ever depicting abuse itself as light or funny.) And of course Harley already had the name and costume of the Harlequin; with this episode she receives the magical batte as well (not to be mistaken for the magical Bat).

Harley is uncontainable in this episode, twice slipping casually out of the handcuffs Batman places on her. She, not Batman, defeats the Joker, and much of the episode consists of her tricking people. Mercurially, she swings constantly between being on Batman’s side and on Joker’s, because like any true Trickster she defies such simplistic binaries; Harley is for Harley, so she will betray Batman to the mobsters in an attempt to escape him, then distract the mobsters from Robin freeing Batman when she realizes her life is in danger (not to mention that she’s annoyed at the mob boss for hitting on her, calling back to her scene with Bullock in her first episode), then betray Batman and Robin to the Joker when she realizes they intend to hurt him, then turning on the Joker when he might kill her friends and pets, and finally throwing herself into his arms at the end when that is no longer an issue.

She even manages to save the day with slapstick, literally: she knocks the Joker silly with her magic batte so that he shoots down his own plane and gives Batman and Robin space to defuse the bomb. Neither hero nor villain, she stands straddling two worlds–Batman and Joker, order and chaos, horrific abuse and comedic slapstick, servile armcandy of a manchild who plays at upending the social order and beloved partner of a woman who pursues true revolution. She is a liminal figure, and thus intimately connected with both humor (which relies on juxtaposition, the placing together of things which do not otherwise connect) and magic (which relies on association, the connecting of things which do not otherwise go together), the dual realms of the Trickster.

But what spell is she casting? What is the transformation which the Harlequin brings?

To answer those questions, another question: the harlequinade has five characters, traditionally, but this episode’s principles number only four. Who is missing? Perhaps the two sidekicks are combined into one, Robin serving as both Clown and Pierrot to Batman’s Pantaloon. Alternatively, perhaps the episode is simply not mapping quite so neatly onto the harlequinade, the characters not meant to be taken as precise equivalents to the traditional roles–certainly Joker has much of the Clown about him, and his henchmen resemble Pierrot, while Robin really isn’t bumbling enough nor Batman old enough to quite work as Clown and Pantaloon, respectively.

An image of a Columbine flower.Or maybe a character is missing altogether, prominent in her absence. Perhaps Joker is not Columbine at all, but another bumbling clown. Perhaps the true Columbine, Harley Quinn’s true love, is still missing, and the harlequinade not yet ended. Maybe the transition to something lighter, more colorful, more playful is still in progress.

Something new entered the world with “Harley and Ivy,” something revolutionary: cooperation without hierarchy, the concept of team. The rigid structures of old cannot abide the new, and so we saw with “House and Garden” that Ivy needs this world to end. And now Harley has ushered in a shift in tone.

There are still quite a few episodes to go before it happens, but it is inevitable now: the revolution has begun. The time of apocalypse is at hand. The changing of the very essence of all things is nigh.

For the sake of her poisonous flower, Harley Quinn has cast the spell of the Harlequin, the spell that changes setting and tone. Soon now, a world will die.

From its ashes, the DCAU will be born.


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3 thoughts on “A clue, clowny (Harlequinade)

  1. “Mad Love,” still years in the future

    Actually, Wikipedia tells me the publication date of the original ML comic was February of ’94, so it could have been in the works at the same time as this episode.

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  2. Hmm, I was thinking of the episode, which was a good couple years after this one. That said, given how long animation lead times are compared to comics, it’s unlikely there was *that* much overlap. Still, this story was clearly in Dini’s mind from relatively early on.

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