Spoiler Warnings For Harley Quinn S01 E01, and Trigger Warnings for abuse and gore.
So…in a move that will surely surprise nobody, I am reviewing Harley Quinn. I know, I know, after I tackled both the Harleen miniseries DC is currently printing and the Birds of Prey trailer, that must be quite the surprise. Just as it must be surprising to learn that, despite being a big fan of DC in general, I held off on getting a DC Universe subscription until I knew for sure that this series wasn’t going to get canceled before airing. I um, I might have a bias.
Anyway, this series was always going to be a bit of an odd duck. Harley’s by no means a small or unpopular character, obviously, so making a series about her wasn’t an odd choice for Warner Bros., but she’s a very chaotic and unconventional character, making capturing the right tone for her essential but risky. Did they manage to pull it off? Well, let’s take a look!
Harley Quinn’s art style is distinct, separate from the typical art of DC Comics while still being fairly immediately obvious in what is being depicted. Every character is immediately recognizable as who they are, even if they don’t necessarily look like they normally do. It’s bright and colorful, popping and avoiding the dull, washed-out look that plagued the early DCEU, but also eschewing the more subdued visuals we tend to expect for something based in Gotham.
It does lead to some issues, Joker looks…odd, with a huge square chin that I’m not a fan of, but overall it’s quite well done. Which is good. Because more than most mediums, animation really lives or dies on the art style and quality. And fortunately, while I wouldn’t go so far as to call Harley Quinn a gorgeous looking show or anything, it’s definitely not bad looking either. Better than average to be certain.
As one might have guessed from the trailers or, frankly from the nature of Harley Quinn as a character, the first episode goes for a more comedic tone, keeping the jokes coming fast and hard. And by and large they, fortunately, tend to land quite well. There are a few that were misses for me personally I confess, but that’s not really a condemnation of the episode on the whole. It’s simply going for a darker, edgier form of comedy throughout, and while it never goes full South Park, it edges close to that territory on more than one occasion.
In addition to that, the series isn’t purely comedic, which I feel works out for the best given the subject matter at hand. It’s lighthearted for the most part, but goes for depth and feeling on multiple occasions, similarly to Men In Black or Guardians of the Galaxy. This is a series (or at least an episode, DC Universe doesn’t follow the Netflix model of releasing the entire season at once, for better or for worse) that knows when to take things lightly and when to take things seriously.
Now feels like as good a time as any to mention that this show is violent, and it does not hold back. There’s a lot of blood, a lot of broken and exposed bones, and a lot of death, so if you’re squeamish, do be careful.
The plot begins with Harley launching an attack on a yacht crowded with rich white men so blatantly and cartoonishly evil they make the Captain Planet villains look subtle. But to be honest, that simply makes it more cathartic when Harley Quinn starts threatening and attacking them. She is, however, interrupted fairly quickly by the Joker, who was using the corpse of one of the men as a costume. At this stage, Harley is still in love with and working for him, and so while he was supposed to be there, he wasn’t supposed to reveal himself until later.
Harley and Joker bicker a bit, Harley expressing a desire to pull her own capers, and become recognized as Joker’s partner, to get into the Legion of Doom (basically the Justice League for villains). Batman shows up, cutting into the argument, and Joker convinces Harley to stay behind and cover his escape, promising to bust her out by breakfast. Batman captures Harley fairly readily and, after a brief bit of interrogation with Commissioner Gordon (here an unshaven, somewhat pathetic wreck teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown at all times), she is taken to Arkham.
Unsurprisingly Joker doesn’t show up, and we’re treated to a series of scenes of Harley’s time in Arkham. She retains her optimism fiercely, despite the rest of the villains constantly telling her that Joker’s not coming for her (though Poison Ivy is likely the only one trying to do so out of kindness). Eventually, Ivy gets a hold of a plant seed, and uses it to wreak havoc, setting Riddler free and knocking Harley out to drag her out when she refuses to leave with anyone but Joker.
Harley briefly comes to a realization about the abusive nature of her relationship with Joker after a hallucinatory conversation with her past self in a picture Ivy keeps. This leads to a brief moment when it looks like Harley is about to break up with the Joker once and for all, however, the Joker displays a rather expert bit of gaslighting to convince Harley to take him back. The result is honestly sad to watch, even if aspects are played for laughs.
Fast forward a while later and a rumor is spreading across Gotham that the Riddler has a riddle so funny it will make peoples’ heads literally explode. Joker is upset about this, feeling it’s the Riddler stepping into his lane, but Harley manages to get him to calm down by promising to go kill the Riddler for him. She heads off to do just that, arriving mere seconds before Batman, only for the both of them to be promptly captured in a death trap, imprisoned in large balls and suspended over a vat of acid. He then proceeds to call Joker to come on over, challenging him to a game, letting Joker decide which one gets to live and which one will die.
Joker, unsurprisingly, picks Batman, his ego not letting him allow Riddler to be the one to kill Batman, and this is the final push Harley needs to realize once and for all that the Joker doesn’t love her, realizing that a memory she’d had of the Joker proposing to her wasn’t real, but her modifying her own memories to be happier. Fortunately, the acid turns out to be fake, simply being one hundred and fifty gallons of margarita mix. The Riddler didn’t have the riddle he claimed, and the entire situation was engineered by Ivy, using the favor Riddler owed her for breaking him out of Arkham to get him to help her show Harley who the Joker really was.
The episode ends with Harley shedding her original outfit from Batman: The Animated Series in favor of a more current outfit, then killing most of the Joker’s henchmen and destroying his hideout, declaring her attention to become the main villain of Gotham before striding away, leaving him humiliated.
So, obviously I’m somewhat biased, but I like to think that my love of Harley Quinn makes me inclined to be more critical of the show rather than less. And to be honest, I quite liked this episode. It was funny, well written, well animated, and genuinely sad at times, and heartwarming at others. I’m quite happy to have seen it, and I hope that the future episodes will continue to have this level of quality!