After the season’s weakest episode, Harley Quinn bounces back with not just a series high point but one of the definitive onscreen depictions of the Batman mythos. The ingeniously titled “Batman Begins Forever” harkens back to a number of different Bat-films and shows, all in service of diving into Bruce Wayne’s afflicted mind and getting to the heart of his vigilantism, which it does better than any Bat-media since Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (the 1993 spinoff film to Batman: The Animated Series). Of course, this being a Harley show means the zany villainess is along for the ride, reliving Bruce’s worst memories alongside him via mental projections. But the result isn’t just a reel of Batman’s greatest and most traumatic hits. It’s also a touching story about Harley balancing her penchant for mischief with her medical background; after all, what better way to make good on the numerous “Batman should go to therapy” memes than having Harley be his psychiatrist?
But first, a quick recap for the uninitiated, since the episode feels like the kind of Bat-story that even folks who don’t watch Harley Quinn might jump in on. Harley and Poison Ivy are a couple, and they’ve recently kidnapped Bruce to find out where he’s keeping (and studying) Ivy’s plant friend, Frank, a talking Venus flytrap whom Ivy imbued with the power to resurrect the dead fauna under Gotham for her terraforming scheme. Also the self-professed thespian Clayface is posing as Billy Bob Thornton — the real Thornton was decapitated by Catwoman’s pet tiger — in order to play Thomas Wayne in a biopic directed by James Gunn. Yes, Thornton and Gunn voice themselves.
The episode opens with some verbal “Bam! Biff! Pow!” from Harley (à la the ’60s Batman show), orienting us in its throwback-laden story as Harley and Ivy try to torture answers out of a bound Bruce. Despite being dangled upside down by Ivy’s vines, the billionaire playboy knows the pair won’t kill him since he knows Frank’s location.
To get into Bruce’s mind, Harlivy seeks the help of their delightfully foulmouthed (even by this show’s standards) former friend, the telekinetic megalomaniac Dr. Psycho (Tony Hale), who makes a welcome return this season as an incarcerated podcast host at Arkham Asylum — sorry, Arkham Community Center. The running gag of Bane trying to retrieve his pasta-maker finally returns, albeit over an anonymous radio call (where he uses the pseudonym “Rane”), as the duo breaks Dr. Psycho out. He agrees to help them but only in exchange for a podcast appearance from Harley. A deal is struck, as the show’s title card appears not in its usual Suicide Squad–inspired neon but in Frasier’s Florentine Regular font with a sketched outline of Gotham’s skyline.
“Batman Begins Forever” is not, however, a Frasier send-up, even if it starts out like one (notably, the season’s other highlight, the Joker-centric “Killing Vote,” began as an ’80s sitcom), because the show has much more on its mind than mere genre parody. Dr. Psycho’s powers send his consciousness — along with those of Harley, Ivy, and Clayface — tumbling into Bruce’s mind, the same way they entered Harley’s brain in season one. (King Shark, mourning the deaths of his father and brother, is too busy distracting himself with video games to join them.) But rather than an array of memories this time, the villains find one memory in particular, drawn in the Art Deco style of The Animated Series: the night Bruce’s parents were killed in a dark alley.
The ominous score and blood-red sky from the ’90s cartoon add a sense of foreboding as the masked killer, Joe Chill (or Cool or Camel, depending on whom in the group you ask), guns down the Wayne parents. The group tries to move on to more recent memories so they can locate Frank, but everywhere they turn in this mental projection, they find only this memory of the Waynes’ murder, repeating infinitely. It’s both a unique challenge for the villains as well as a genuinely melancholy depiction of Bruce’s psyche: the defining event of Batman’s life playing out on loop with the young Bruce (voiced by Jack Stanton) unable to escape his fate.
It’s as hilarious as it is haunting, with Dr. Psycho and Ivy commenting on how often the killing occurs (a jab at its countless media depictions) while Harley realizes its psychological gravity as dozens of movie theaters playing The Mark of Zorro appear around her, with little Bruce and his parents exiting each one, soon followed by gunshots and a kid too traumatized to give them any answers. It would be easy enough to simply parody Batman’s origin (Teen Titans Go! To the Movies does an adequate job), but the framing here tells an intimate story, often keeping a wide-eyed, innocent Bruce in the foreground as the villains look on. While Ivy gets fed up with the recurring trauma and Clayface is only concerned with studying Thomas Wayne for his role, Harley sees it as an opportunity to tap into her professional talents (much as she did last week with her motivational speech to herself) but not before trying some ass-kicking first.
She attempts to interfere with the memory, but no matter what she does, it rearranges itself to achieve its original outcome. This Christopher Nolan–esque dream concept, à la Inception, is soon joined by an apparent Tenet reference (the gun Harley kicks out of Chill’s hand flies back to him in reverse), portending further callbacks to Nolan’s work on Batman, but not before a touching moment when Harley hugs young Bruce during the shooting, averting his eyes. Messing with this memory ejects Ivy, Dr. Psycho, and Clayface from Bruce’s mind, but it allows Harley to linger.
After she carries young Bruce to safety, avoiding a hail of gunfire from dozens of grinning Joe Chills, she tells him to think of a different memory so they can escape, to which a teary-eyed Bruce heartbreakingly replies, “All I see is darkness.” He soon transports them from one all-consuming fear to the next as they tumble down the bat-infested well and adjoining cave from his childhood. Once they’re alone, Harley, in typically and inappropriately Harley fashion, tries to befriend young Bruce and strike a deal with him to find Frank — “If I help you get back home, will you show me where my friend is?” — but on their way out of the cave, they encounter several other memories that they watch through illuminated windows. They see Bruce mourning his parents at their grave, his young-adult self training with ninjas, and him first discussing donning a crime-fighting symbol with Alfred. Each vignette uses lines from Nolan’s definitive origin story, Batman Begins. Harley makes snarky comments about these memories, but she quickly realizes that little Bruce sounds an awful lot like a certain crime fighter. “I’m Batman,” he admits as a flash of lightning casts a shadow of a cape and cowl behind him.
Several other Bat-memories make an appearance, like Batman “getting rid of a bomb” from the 1966 movie and his sewer battle with the Penguin from Batman Returns. Seeing his crime fighting laid out back to back, Harley is actually impressed, though she suggests helping the city by introducing affordable housing instead, to which the sheltered preteen responds, “People pay for housing?” But before the shenanigans can go further, a projection of Chill catches up to them, sending them into yet another Animated Series–themed memory at an abandoned theme park, where Bruce is an adult Batman but Harley has taken the place of his sidekick, Robin (costume and all). She’s strapped to a rocket courtesy of her ex, the Joker, as well as the murderous past version of herself, replete with her jester outfit. “Mistah J!” this version calls her clown prince, sending present-day Harley into a fit of embarrassment as she cringes at her past antics.
Batman, who arrives gliding on the hull of his Batwing plane, rescues Robin-Harley, leading to a brief flash of the two in silhouette, much like Batman and Robin in the ’90s cartoons — a glimpse into a fun, strange alternate reality — before fisticuffs ensue with Batman fighting the Joker and Harley taking on the past version of herself. Before it lingers too long on the obvious metaphor, the episode affords Harley a realization that seems to have been a long time coming: She finds fighting crime just as enjoyable as committing it.
However, things tumble back into serious territory (albeit with a few fun quips like Robin-Harley’s “Holy posttraumatic-stress disorder, Batman!”) when the projection of Chill returns once more and guns down Joker and past-Harley. Their bodies land side by side, not unlike Thomas and Martha Wayne, leading Batman’s projection of himself to regress into a childlike state: tiny Bruce in an oversize adult Batman costume. It’s as silly yet honest and vulnerable a depiction of the character as there’s ever been.
To escape into one final memory, Harley engages the Disney-eyed Bruce in a therapy exercise, asking him to check in with his senses while picturing a time he felt safe and happy, which lands them in Wayne Manor on Bruce’s last Christmas when his parents were alive. Chill lands there, too, forcing Harley to hide with Bruce inside a wardrobe, but the young billionaire has learned to trust Harley, so he makes one more admission — and this time, it’s rather shocking. It turns out that, while Bruce initially kidnapped Frank to thwart Ivy’s evil plan, he discovered he could reengineer Frank’s plant-resurrecting powers and apply them to human beings, revealing his own plan after an episode of being trapped by one traumatic memory: He hopes to undo it by bringing his parents back to life.
His projection of Chill, whose grin has taken on a Joker-like appearance, unmasks himself to reveal an adult Bruce, who’s been forcing his younger self to relive that night over and over because he blames himself for leading his parents down Crime Alley. “Everything I do as Batman is to make that one night right, so I must never forget,” he says. “That is my penance. My Bat-shaped cross to bear.” Harley, now the hero in this scenario, begs this twisted, gun-wielding projection of Bruce’s guilt to heal rather than hold on to his pain as a young Bruce begs her for help. But she knows that in order to make any real change, she needs to get out and talk to the real Bruce — though, in a touching moment before they exit this mind palace, she also agrees to keep young Bruce’s secret. “Doctor-patient confidentiality,” she jests.
“Come on, champ, let’s go watch our parents die!” Bruce tells his younger self with a disturbingly chipper cadence as he leads him away. “It’s what we deserve!” Harley awakens from her dream state, optimistic about her next steps, but it turns out that while she was unconscious, the rest of the Bat-family, consisting of Nightwing / Dick Grayson, Batgirl / Barbara Gordon, and Robin / Damian Wayne — or as Ivy calls them, “those fucking latchkey kids” — counter-kidnapped the villains, so she wakes up tied up in Wayne Manor, a total reversal of where the episode began.
Harley begs Bruce to work through his trauma before it leads him to do something reckless. But it appears to be too late — he believes his Frankensteinian plan is “the only way out of the darkness.” The episode has one hell of a crazy cliffhanger with Bruce putting his plan into action and extracting some of the mutant glow from Frank via a mechanism that lowers the strange substance into the ground and onto his parents’ caskets. Shadows of skeletal hands appear across their gravestones, but Frank’s powers can’t be contained, and they begin spreading to the other bodies in the graveyard.
A hole appears in the ground as a glowing pair of eyes lunges at the screening, revealing what appears to be an undead ghoul for the briefest of moments. With an impending zombie invasion (if not a full-on apocalypse), the Joker as Gotham’s mayor, Batman at his most vulnerable, and Harley turning slowly but surely toward genuine heroism, the show ends in the most unpredictable and interesting place that it (or any DC series) has been in quite some time.
• Most of this week’s funniest moments are built into the character interactions, but the ones that stand out the most involve Clayface’s meandering subplot finally coming to fruition. It’s a toss-up between him learning Thomas Wayne had a mustache — and suggesting that James Gunn paste one onto him in post — and him asking Thomas’s memory what his Rosebud was, only for the projection to answer, “My Rosebud is also a sled.”