close read

Harley Quinn Grows Up

Photo: Courtesy of HBO Max

Spoilers follow for the end of the third season of Harley Quinn.

The third season of HBO Max’s animated series Harley Quinn ends with its leading best friends and romantic partners at a crossroads. Madcap psychiatrist turned agent of chaos Harley Quinn and deadpan, guarded ecoterrorist Poison Ivy must recalibrate how they see themselves as individuals among the wild personalities of heroes and villains in Gotham, while also remaining committed to the future of their relationship.

When the season finale closes, Ivy has reaffirmed their relationship, proving just how different it is from the abusive one Harley was mired in with the Joker, even as it takes Harley on a dramatically different path, jumping valiantly into the Gotham evening as an ally of the Batfamily. With Harley committed to heroism and Ivy poised to head the Legion of Doom after Lex Luthor was wowed and threatened by her efforts to terraform Gotham, where does the couple go from here? How will the series still find humor and pathos in the diverging goals of the couple? (Thankfully, Harley Quinn has been renewed for a fourth season, so there will be an answer to these questions.)

This season saw Poison Ivy growing into her villainous power while Harley came into her own as a reluctant hero alongside the Batfamily, including the spunky Batgirl/Barbara Gordon, the emotionally stunted and yearning Nightwing/Dick Grayson, and the brutal, hilariously committed Robin/Damian Wayne. But it also saw wild detours into Bruce Wayne’s tortured psyche, under-the-sea monarchy funerals for King Shark, and the Joker’s mayoral ambitions — all story lines working to ask and answer the season’s central questions of what it means to evolve, and whether change is possible for people wrecked by deep trauma.

While the series considers these questions via a multitude of narrative threads, its strongest has been the development of Harley and Poison Ivy’s relationship. The show is giving what many comic fans have yearned for: a genuine focus on the queer love affair between these two villains who in many ways are diametrically opposed. Where Poison Ivy is taciturn, Harley is a loud motormouth; when Poison Ivy demands caution, Harley goes full throttle into bad decisions. The second season ended with Ivy leaving Kite Man at the altar in a fiery fashion before running off with Harley with lustful, devil-may-care insouciance, and going into the third season, showrunners Justin Halpern and Patrick Schumacher promised not to break the couple up. “We still have the occasional fan reaction of ‘I don’t like Harley and Ivy together. She should get back with the Joker,’ which we’re never going to do,” Schumacher argued. “Harley and Ivy will never break up in the series as long as we have a say.”

When Ivy and Harley first met in the refined folds of the beloved, noir-inflected masterwork Batman: The Animated Series, they proved to be an unexpected but electrifying pairing. Created in 1966, Poison Ivy started as an intriguing character held back by the lustful gaze and imagination of male writers, more one-note femme fatale than the bold and cunning ecoterrorist she would become. Harley Quinn was the moll to Joker’s gangster, created by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm specifically for the animated series, but her presence proved so fresh, so beguiling, so confident in its construction that she made the transition into comics and has become one of the most potent and well-regarded creations in DC Comics’ firmament. In Batman: The Animated Series, the two formed an intriguing alliance, with Ivy encouraging Harley to love herself and let go of the Joker’s toxicity, and Harley providing Ivy the connection she typically spurns as someone who deeply hates what humanity has wrought upon the Earth.

In its first two seasons, Harley Quinn built on this history, transforming the reluctant allies into sexual partners who explode Ivy’s would-be marriage before realizing that there’s something beautiful worth nurturing between them. This evolution undergirds the dynamics of the third season and its finale, offering new horizons for the duo and rooting the characters’ development in love rather than the perpetual trauma they’re so often subjected to in the comics. Harley Quinn’s colorful, adept world building — which often nods to the comic canon before eschewing it altogether — makes this love story possible, but the series could have played things very differently. Crafting entertaining stories about a committed couple has a higher difficulty level than the easy drama that comes with television’s typical insistence on the will-they/won’t-they tension, and Harley Quinn goes all in on the more difficult approach. A committed relationship is the bedrock of both the show’s character development and its main narrative avenues.

Unfortunately, that foundation is undermined by the third season’s desire to excavate the emotional terrain of many characters across its once-nimble, now-fractured ensemble. With Frank kidnapped by Bruce Wayne in order to resurrect his long-dead parents, Doctor Psycho off hosting a podcast, and King Shark navigating family drama under the sea, the show’s ensemble has become disjointed and disconnected, making certain emotional beats feel rushed. This also has a deteriorating effect on the humor: Previously, Harley Quinn was defined by brutal, gut-busting vulgarity tinged with pathos, but now the pathos has taken center stage and the humor’s edge has become dulled and diffuse, spread across a bunch of characters getting individual spotlights rather than playing off one another as a group.

Clayface’s story line is perhaps the best example of the comedic failures of the third season. On paper it has potential — Clayface tries to get cast in a Thomas Wayne biopic helmed by James Gunn (playing himself), starring Billy Bob Thornton (also playing himself), only for the actor to get killed accidentally, leading Clayface to take on his visage to play the part — and ultimately proves important to the season, with the film’s premiere providing the setting for most of the finale. But did it need to take up that much oxygen? Especially considering it didn’t land half the jokes it needed to. Worse yet, it takes away from where the show is at its most dynamic: Harley and Ivy’s story as a couple and individuals, with Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle, DC’s most legendary couple, acting as their curious mirrors.

The way these couples reflect each other provides the season some of its most biting humor and revelatory character beats. Where Ivy is a loner who typically considers herself first, Harley is a woman of boundless energy always aching for connection. Where Bruce is stunted emotionally and yearns to never be alone, Selina is a woman of her own creation who values solitude and control above all else. Where Ivy and Harley have grown alongside each other, Bruce and Selina continue hitting a wall, which comes to a head when Alfred decides to enlist the Music Meister — reimagined as an R&B-styled musical therapist — to get the couple to sing the emotions they’re too afraid to speak, only for Selina to realize she “just wants to be alone.” While the conversations Ivy and Harley have about their growing relationship may start with tense avoidance, they always find a way to come together and see each other clearly, as in the fourth episode, in which Ivy lets slip during the Court of Owls orgy that she and Catwoman used to hook up. Eventually, though, they find common ground when Ivy admits to Harley, “Catwoman didn’t mean a thing to me. You mean everything,” before they begin making out among the blurred-out naked bodies getting it on fiercely.

The season ends with both couples in a dramatically different place than where they started. Selina appears at the premiere to support Bruce and also swipe his mother’s pearls from their display. But before they can take their tentative flirtations further, Mayor Joker has Bruce arrested for tax evasion, forcing him to leave the city he loves in the hands of the extended Batfamily. As he’s led away, he notices a glint in his pocket: his mother’s pearls, returned to him. Even with Bruce and Selina’s vastly different positions in the world, love, the show wants to argue, is still possible.

That argument extends to Ivy and Harley’s relationship, which faced its own mayhem this season. After saving Frank from Bruce Wayne’s clutches and demonstrating her villainous bona fides by taking control of the plant-undead to terraform Gotham, Ivy is forced to give up her Eden to save Harley from being turned into a tree, in a show of intense body horror. But Ivy remains undaunted in her desire even as Harley only half-heartedly supports her plans. In the finale, Ivy is tasked by Lex Luthor with killing Joker, who tries to commiserate with the redheaded badass about what they have in common: Harley. He suggests that Ivy is encouraging Harley to go against her instincts by abetting her girlfriend’s villainous plan, much in the way Joker disregarded her autonomy for his own whims. There’s something gnawing about this conversation taking place in a series that has avoided reckoning wholly with Joker’s abuse of Harley in order to keep him as a crucial aspect of the show’s comedic terrain. Nonetheless, Joker’s words inspire a heart-aching conversation between Harley and Ivy, in which the latter decides it’s okay that Harley wants to be a hero and save the city that Ivy wants to remake in her own image.

Harley Quinn has laid the groundwork for a better, more loving relationship between Selina and Bruce whenever the latter gets out of jail (even if it rushed in order to get there, with Selina featuring very briefly in the back half of the season). And while Harley and Ivy remain committed, it is evident trouble is brewing on the horizon if they continue down the opposing paths they now walk. Both relationships, in their different yet parallel ways, serve as arguments for letting go of your past in order to cultivate a better, more joyful future, arguments that the finale sets up to be both reaffirmed and tested in the coming season. I just hope the show doesn’t neglect to shore up the humor along the way.

Harley Quinn Grows Up