RANDALL WINSTON”S FAVORITE BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES EPISODES
A Batman Fanboy Lists His Favorites Episodes from the Iconic Saturday Morning Cartoon
By Randall Winston
More than any other animated property (perhaps even more than The Simpsons, which is no mean feat considering my obsession with all things Springfield), Batman: The Animated Series stands as the program that really demonstrated the power and potential of really great storytelling, animated or otherwise. Batman was always my favorite superhero, even before the series’ 1992 primetime debut, but years later–even after Tim Burton, Joel Schumacher, and Christopher Nolan’s contributions to the Batman mythos–I still best remember all of the fine details and every emotional crescendo I experienced watching B: TAS, in a way that transcends nostalgia and settles into a lifelong sense of hearty appreciation and complete awe. As happens in animated television shows, some episodes were drawn better than others, and some individual stories or arcs were more engaging, but as a whole the series was a triumph on any scale. Making this top ten list was one of the most difficult, rewarding compilations I’ve ever undertaken, simply because I truly love almost every episode of the series. (In fact, I reserve the right to change any of these entries at any time into perpetuity.) Alas, the task is before me, so without further ado (and in no particular order)…
“Old Wounds” (Original Airdate: October 2, 1998):
More so than the comics bearing his name, this episode cemented my love for the character Nightwing, the subsequent alter ego of Batman’s first and former sidekick Dick Grayson aka Robin. “Old Wounds” duly displays how heroism can be interpreted differently between two partners who are almost like father and son. Robin’s shocking departure as Batman’s sidekick only heightens the episode’s sense of familial strife and transition, showing a “son” whose anger at his ideological and practical differences from his “father” has reached its boiling point. The episode also begins and ends with a conversation between Nightwing and his “brother,” the new Robin, Tim Drake. Dick’s conflicted relationship with Batgirl’s alter ego, Barbara Gordon, is even explored. What results is an age-old tale of the love and conflict between members of a family–even a family of vigilante superheroes.
“His Silicon Soul” (Original Airdate: November 20, 1992):
My brother and I still recite entire sequences from this episode almost a quarter century after its debut. The setup: a damaged, decommissioned robot doppelganger of the Batman begins to fight crime before discovering its true nature. It follows through on the story from the earlier brilliant two-parter “Heart of Steel” but escapes the potential Terminator franchise comparisons by developing that story further, becoming a tale of the robot’s individual identity. Even after the Batman doppelganger assumes the prime directive of its maker–the supercomputer H.A.R.D.A.C–it struggles with equally inherent feelings of heroism and the preservation of life. That inner conflict, and the fateful decisions the robot makes to reconcile that turmoil, lead to one of my favorite closing lines of the series, uttered by Batman himself: “Could it be it had a soul, Alfred? A soul of silicon…but a soul, nevertheless?”
“The Man Who Killed Batman” (Original Airdate: February 1, 1993):
Two-bit loser Sid is the smallest of small-time crooks, looking for an easy score. The soft-spoken, nebbish criminal becomes involved with a gang of thieves that convince him to be their lookout. When the operation runs afoul of the Batman, Sid’s oafishness leads to the Batman’s apparent demise. The fun of this episode comes from the different groups’–police, criminal gangs, super-villains, etc.–reactions to Batman’s “death,” as well as Sid”s newfound fame/infamy. Particularly fantastic is the Joker’s surprising reaction to the news. All the while, Sid just simply seems completely in over his head. Such a delightful episode.
“Two-Face” (Original Airdate: September 25[part 1] & September 28 [part 2], 1992):
Like Mr. Freeze’s introductory episode “Heart of Ice,” this is an episode that tends to top “Best episode…” lists, and for good reason. In a similar manner to that earlier episode, “Two-Face” explores the tragic origins of the eponymous former Gotham District Attorney-turned-villain. However, in my mind it is elevated above both “Heart of Ice” and another tragic super-villain origin story “Feat of Clay” by exploring both the seeds of mental illness that gave birth to Two-Face and the DA Harvey Dent’s personal friendship with Bruce Wayne. These two elements increase the pathos of Harvey’s eventual turn to villainy and give Batman personal stakes when he is unable to save his friend, neither as his loving friend Bruce nor as the dark superhero he has styled himself into. Additionally, this episode’s haunting score is exemplary of Shirley Walker’s invaluable musical accompaniment throughout the entire series’ run.
“Harley and Ivy” / “Harley’s Holiday” (January 18, 1993 / October 15, 1994):
This entry is, perhaps, a bit of a cheat, enfolding two episodes into one love-fest for Harley Quinn, the Joker’s outstanding henchwoman/sidekick. While her character was introduced in another wonderful episode, “Joker’s Favor,” she is really given the chance to shine in these episodes. In “Harley and Ivy”–which, perhaps, built on the success of Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise two years prior–Harley is cast out of Joker’s life after one of many his temper tantrums. By chance, she runs into another villain, Poison Ivy, and the two team-up on a crime spree around Gotham City, much to Batman and Joker’s chagrin. “Harley and Ivy” also features a great turn from Renee Montoya–one of my favorite characters who, like Harley Quinn, became so popular in Batman: The Animated Series that she was introduced into DC Comics continuity. In “Harley’s Holiday,” time in prison has given Harley a new outlook on life and a true desire to go legit…so how does she keep getting into trouble? The episode is a hilarious comedy of errors displaying what it’s like to be a down-on-your-luck former super-villainess…and let’s face it, I’ve felt that way more times than I care to admit.
“Beware The Gray Ghost” (Original Airdate: November 4, 1992):
There is a beautiful moment in this episode in which Bruce Wayne’s search for clues about mysterious bombings leads him to rent and watch an old episode of his favorite childhood television show, “The Gray Ghost.” As he sits down to watch the episode, Alfred brings him a bowl of popcorn and, as the camera rotates around the older Bruce Wayne, we shift into the past to see Bruce Wayne as a boy, dressed in his Gray Ghost costume and clutching a GG action figure, eyes glued to his television set as the show’s action gets underway. In a mere moment we see not only a glimpse into the innocent, joyful boy that Bruce Wayne once was, but also–in a bit of meta-transference–I was able to see myself as a young child sitting cross-legged in the middle of my living room, locked in rapt attention as my favorite superhero set off on another adventure. That the aging, eponymous television hero that served as young Bruce Wayne’s inspiration is voiced by none other than 1960’s Batman actor Adam West only adds to the episode’s sense of homage to costumed heroes.
“The Laughing Fish” (Original Airdate: January 10, 1993):
You know that moment when a person you are dating utters something–a quote, phrase, or song–so arbitrary and esoteric (yet immediately familiar) that it leaves you in awe, with the knowledge that that person just GETS you? That is certainly what happened with my girlfriend when we first started dating. She simply sang the jingle from this episode: “They’re finny and funny and oh-so-delish. They’re joyful and jolly Joker fish.” I think my jaw hit the floor as I realized she was quoting one of my favorite episodes of B:TAS–a madcap story featuring the Joker, Harley Quinn, and their gang attempting to trademark their crop of grotesquely smiling sea creatures and become rich in the process. The episode perfectly balances suspense and humor, with typically outstanding voice work (especially from Mark Hamill as the Joker and Arleen Sorkin as Harley Quinn). The absurd premise of this episode only complements its perfect execution.
“Robin’s Reckoning” (Original Airdate: February 7 [Part 1] & February 14 [Part 2] 1993):
I didn’t truly love the character of Dick Grayson / Robin until this origin episode. I was already deeply invested in all manner of comic books when the episode debuted, so I knew the general circumstances that led to Dick Grayson’s adoption of the Robin mantle. However, this episode used Robin’s present to outline his past. During a routine bust, Robin hears a familiar name that he has not heard since the death of his circus acrobat parents. All of the emotions and memories he had seemingly put behind him come flooding back as we are given a glimpse into that fateful night when young Dick Grayson’s life would change forever. After an argument with the Batman, the heroic tables are turned, as Robin has to rescue Batman from the man that killed The Flying Graysons and shattered his childhood. The shift in characterization works very well in the two-parter and gives further insight into the familial relationship of the two heroes. The story also elevates Robin beyond sidekick status and into a great character in his own right.
“The Demon’s Quest” (May 3 [Part 1] & May 4 [Part 2]):
Batman arch-villain R’as Al Ghul is now fairly well known to mainstream audiences thanks to his appearances in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. However, in keeping with Nolan’s focus on creating a “realistic” version of the Bat-mythology, the villain’s turn was decidedly more global militia leader than functionally immortal wannabe despot. This two-episode arc formally introduces the character in an epic story that combines the show’s typical detective work with a globetrotting tale that would not be out of place in an Indiana Jones story. Mystery, international intrigue, swashbuckling, and supernatural elements suffuse this episode–one of the better-drawn episodes of the show, as well–to make it a truly unique, utterly memorable addition to the series. Though Nolan’s trilogy might have crafted a version of R’as Al Ghul for the “real” world, David Warner’s portrayal of the character in “The Demon’s Quest” is perhaps the greatest, most faithful version of the character to ever grace the screen.
“Over the Edge” (Original Airdate: May 23, 1998):
Though this episode treads some pretty dark territory, it also asks some brilliant questions, especially for the ostensibly preteen/teen audience of the show: how would Batman’s mission end? What would signal the end of his mission of vigilante justice? Or bring about his downfall? This episode explores the latter when a tragedy leads Commissioner Gordon to lead a manhunt for the Batman and his allies. We see the heroes fall one by one as one of Batman’s closest friends turns foe and hunts him down, even turning to one of Batman’s most ruthless enemies for aid. Thankfully, it is all a fever dream
Dark Knights for Dark Nights (Honorable Mention):
“Read My Lips”
“Heart of Steel, Parts 1&2“
“Almost Got ‘im”
“I Am the Night”
“Fear of Victory”
“Dreams in Darkness”
“A Bullet for Bullock”
“Night of the Ninja”
“Christmas with the Joker”
“Shadow of the Bat, Parts 1&2”
“Time Out of Joint/The Clock King”
Written and Compiled by Randall Winston
Photography Courtesy of Warner Bros. Animation
Design by Mina Darius
Film Still from Batman: The Animated Series, Photography Courtesy of Warner Bros. Animation