You know that laugh. You’re more than familiar with the signature pairing of a dramatic red lip with a purple suit and a green coiffure. But do you really know the Joker? The latest episode of Harley Quinn, entitled “Joker: The Killing Vote,” has us wondering if Gotham’s clown prince of crime might be on his way to becoming a good guy.
Over the decades, DC fans have seen the Joker take on a bevy of fucked-up forms. In Batman, he was a mob boss with murderous makeover plots. The Dark Knight gave us an anarchist whose smile was as cutting as his depraved sense of humor. Joker stole pages from Taxi Driver and Psycho to illustrate an aspiring comic pushed to his brutal breaking point. In Suicide Squad, he was a Hot Topic addict with a barrage of trashy tattoos. Then, in Harley Quinn, Batman’s number-one nemesis was firmly framed as a toxic ex-boyfriend, the ultimate antagonist to growth. Now, in the animated show’s third season, Joker is taking his most shocking turn yet.
Over the course of Harley Quinn, we’ve seen Joker (voiced by Alan Tudyk) go from a recurring thorn in his ex-girlfriend’s side to a restored Joker trying to piece together how to balance his thirst for mayhem and violence with his love for his girlfriend Bethany and her kids, Sofia and Benicio. Just as Harley Quinn has followed Harley’s arc of processing a toxic relationship, the cartoon is also showing how her former abuser is trying to do better. Of course, progress is never a straight path.
The Joker versus Debbie!
He may have left his Gotham lair behind for a suburban family home, but Joker nonetheless is plagued by nightmares of his “most challenging enemy yet.” Forget Batman. He’s talking about Debbie (Amy Sedaris), the PTA’s resident Karen. In a battle for the limited resources at their kids’ school, her weapons are the pull, privilege, and blind arrogance of a rich white woman in America, while Joker has left his threats, goons, and bombs behind. So, this supervillain turned stay-at-home stepdad fights her pull with homemade arroz con Pollo!
Writer Conner Shin and episode director Joonki Park create a delectable and deranged comedy by showing how even the Joker falters in the face of a foe so frustratingly familiar. Debbie is, after all, an archetype of every smirk-smiling rich bitch who feels entitled to everything she has — and everything you have while she’s at it. When his peace offering fails, Joker channels his rage into violently preparing dinner for his family. (Relatable.) Then, he changes focus, choosing instead a fight he’s pretty sure he can win against a less formidable former enemy.
The Joker versus Commissioner Gordon for Mayor of Gotham!
Capitalizing on the chaos of Gotham, where crosswalks are haunted and even the mice have street violence trauma, this mayoral race pits the incompetent and politically unmoored Gordon (copaganda daddy Christopher Meloni) against the Joker, who is running openly as a socialist. To the delight of his supporters, be they called “Jo Bros” or “Sane Clown Posse,” Joker supports universal healthcare, education reform, free college tuition, and defunding the police. (More bad news for Gordon!) Joker’s policies are wildly popular, even though he pursues them in a “Like Joker do” fashion. To get the ball rolling on wealth distribution, he robs a bank to chuck the cash directly to the common person. His political campaign features the ominous parade floats, Tim Burton-style balloons, and creepy make-up makeovers of Batman.
Even Barbara “Batgirl” Gordon is a fan. But as Joker’s popularity soars, so too does his ego. Though he initially ran to improve the school district for his kids, he’s swiftly addicted to the attention, the press coverage, and the fans who swoon over his sex appeal. (Look, I get it. There’s just something about a man who looks rugged in a cardigan.)
Soon, he’s ignoring Bethany and the kids during dinner to ogle himself on TV, and he’s missing soccer games. That is, until Two-Face swings in with a kidnapping scheme.
The Joker as villain versus The Joker as stepdad.
Serving as Gordon’s duplicitous campaign manager, Two-Face kidnaps Benicio to blackmail Joker into dropping out of the race. After hijacking his own parade float to race to the meet-up at an abandoned roller coaster, Joker seems poised for villain-on-villain violence. But that was the old Joker. The new Joker simply quits the mayoral race and rushes to rescue his son.
“You think I made a hard choice. Wrong,” Joker says to Two-Face, as he cuts Benicio free of bondage. “I’m only running for mayor for my family. And I can quit for my family just as easily.” Cradling his son, he confesses, “I just want to be someone my family can be proud of.”
Of course, this is Two-Faced, and being a lying prick is his whole deal, so there’s betrayal and violence and a runaway rollercoaster rescue. In the end, Joker will prevail. He’ll save his son. He’ll become the mayor, fix school funding, and even get to push Debbie out of VIP parking spot. When he cackles in delight at her ire, we cackle with him.
The Joker is his past and his present.
Too often with redemption arcs, audiences are urged to forgive and forget. Harley Quinn doesn’t deliver this live-laugh-love bullshit. It’s a show that’s been explicit about the many ways the Joker was a bad partner, which is a discussion that continues through the finale of Season 3. But it’s also a show where the “bad guys” aren’t so easily defined. Some of them are slur-spewing Dr. Psychos; some of them are ardent environmentalists who go too far on occasion. Harley is a hellion who has a heart of gold. And while she’s spent this season searching for what that means in a world of superheroes and supervillains, her ex is learning that being the bad guy isn’t all he has the capacity to be.
In the most joke-packed sequence of this episode, the writers reference every cinematic incarnation of the Joker up to now, all within a playful parody of an ’80s sitcom theme song that swiftly sets up how he’s become a beloved part of this suburban community.
As Joker dances through his home and down a flight of toy-scattered stairs like Joaquin Phoenix did, the song goes:
“I used to think life was a tragedy;
An agent of chaos was all I could be.
But I found a best friend, who completes me.
No one will ask, ‘Why so serious?’
All it takes is a joke a day,
To keep the gloom away.
But baby, it feels like it’s just you and me!
Wait til they get a load of us!”
On one level, this is an unapologetic slew of allusions to movies all available on HBO Max. But on another, more meaningful level, it’s a sly and silly way to underscore Harley Quinn‘s theme about the complexity of people, even supervillains. None of us are all one thing or another. It’s not a world comprised of Joker-face white or Batman-suit black. There’s shades of gray all over Gotham.
Joker is the man who said and did all these things. He’s also the man who loves Bethany enough to move out of Gotham City, who adores his children enough to fight for them in a way that won’t get him locked away in Arkham. He’s the man who struggles with his ego and his thirst for vengeance and validation. Sometimes, he’s “a bit of a douche.” But he’s also the man who chooses not to murder a foe, opting to take his family out for tacos instead. Perhaps most importantly, he’s not one to dwell on his past mistakes; instead, he looks forward to a future where, even if he may not be a good guy to the world, he’s a hero to his kids.
And yeah, he’s also petty enough to relish the triumph over Debbie by stealing her parking spot, then crowing, “I am your nightmare now, bitch.” To be honest, we love him for the lot of it. Because redemption need not be forgetting to forgive; it can also be a little bit petty.