Originally airing on January 16, 1999, and written by Paul Dini based on a comic by Dini and Bruce Timm, “Mad Love” from The New Batman Adventures tells the tale of Harley Quinn, The Joker’s loyal henchwoman and the one person who unconditionally loves the psychopathic criminal. Of course, it’s clear that Harley has issues of her own.
As an original creation of Batman: The Animated Series producers Timm and Dini, Harley is one of the greatest things to come out of the series. While she may have been a simple sidekick at first, voice actress Arleen Sorkin’s performance and her continually strong storylines in B:TAS quickly turned her into a fan favorite. In fact, her widespread love resulted in her induction into the DC Comics Universe in 1999. She’s been a staple of Batman’s world ever since and even has her own successful series today. While there are many factors in Harley’s success as a character, “Mad Love” is clearly one of her greatest stories and is a can’t miss for fans of Batman in general.
Told from Harley’s perspective, “Mad Love” tracks her quest to take down Batman permanently in order to have The Joker all to herself while also flashing back to the first time she met The Clown Prince of Crime. The episode opens with The Joker and Harley nearly killing Commissioner Gordon until a timely intervention by Batman. But the failure of the plot and Harley’s failed attempts to seduce Joker afterward show her desperation to be happy in her relationship. While Harley realizes early in the episode that she’s in an abusive relationship, she’s convinced it is all Batman’s fault, instead of the inherently horrific nature of being a psychotic in love with a psychopathic murderer.
Although it had been mentioned once before in Batman: The Animated Series, the big revelation here is that Harley was once Joker’s therapist during one of his many stints in Arkham Asylum. With the real name of Dr. Harleen Quinzel, the young therapist develops sympathy and then love for Joker through their many sessions. While it may be done in a somewhat simple and cartoonish manner, there is real pathos and emotion here as we see possible depth to The Joker and the true nature of Harley.
Is this a real romance? Is Joker only using Harley? Has he ever really cared about her? The audience and Harley herself are forced to face some tough answers.
Inside the Mind of Harley Quinn
What really makes “Mad Love” so special is that it gives nearly exclusive focus to Harley Quinn. While Batman and The Joker play vital roles in the story, it’s really her episode. The intense focus on Harley and her origins gives the character new layers, which move her past simply being a fun and charismatic character and into someone with actual depth. “Mad Love” stands on its own as a story and can be a great introduction to the character for those unfamiliar with Harley Quinn, but it’s even more powerful when viewed in order with the rest of B:TAS. Audiences fell in love with Harley over the course of nearly a decade of animation, only to be given a devastating look at her origins.
Shockingly, “Mad Love” first aired almost seven years after Harley Quinn’s first appearance ever in the episode “Joker’s Favor” in Batman: The Animated Series in 1992. While the comic that was adapted for the episode was published in 1994, seven years is an incredibly long time to wait to give a fan favorite character an origin in the medium that introduced her.
Were it not for the animated series’ rebirth in The New Batman Adventures, Harley Quinn fans would have never been able to see her roots fully explored in cartoon form. In fact, this was one of the last episodes of The New Batman Adventures to air before the series’ end. While Harley would appear in the animated movie Batman: Return of the Joker¸she would not appear in the Justice League or Justice League Unlimited cartoon series, which continued the DC Animated Universe started in Batman: The Animated Series, Harley would see her story evolve in the comics, which used her origins, personality, and relationship with The Joker.
Because so much of “Mad Love” features voiceover by Sorkin as Quinn without distorting the actual events of both past and present, audiences are able to see the character’s distorted views for what they really are. It’s a simple trick to storytelling, but it’s incredibly effective in this story. Given that “Mad Love” is only 22 minutes long, Dini had to get a lot of information and inject enough emotion in a limited amount of time to make everything work. While the story may be fairly straightforward, it’s the depth of character that really takes “Mad Love” to the next level.
Manic, Depressing, Deadly Love
Harley has such unbridled love for Joker that it borders on manic. Small bouts of depression are contrasted against her gleeful thoughts of having the man of her dreams all to herself. When those delusional fantasies are compared against reality and the shocking abuse she suffers, it turns “Mad Love” into true tragedy. Although this is still a superhero cartoon, these ideas make it far different than what someone unfamiliar with B:TAS may expect.
Even Batman plays a less heroic role here than normal. While he may save lives and fight The Joker in a climactic train battle by the end, he isn’t here to save Harley from her demons. He does speak truth into her life in a pivotal moment, but it’s just as much about trying to knock sense into Harley as it is about saving himself when his life is on the line. Batman may know how dark Harley’s life is, but he’s only there to stop crime. It may be that Harley is truly beyond anyone’s reach.
Given that this is an all ages cartoon, Batman: The Animated Series had to use restraint in what was shown. Even so, there are many brutal events that happen in the scope of “Mad Love,” and most of which see Harley on the receiving end. She’s violently slapped by Joker so hard that she flies across a room and is thrown out of a window by her lover, falling multiple stories before landing in a garbage-filled alleyway. Importantly, none of it is played for laughs. This is serious physical abuse in an emotionally abusive relationship that can leave audiences gasping. And the consequences are just as severe. Harley is shown with multiple casts and in traction by “Mad Love’s” end.
But what are a couple broken bones when the man you love leaves you flowers and says he’s sorry? Of all the dark themes explored in the course of B:TAS, the resolution of Harley’s story may be the darkest one ever. Thankfully, the strength of storytelling and powerful animation on display mean that the issue is explored with proper respect to its serious nature.
If you’ve never seen “Mad Love” or have lapsed in your B:TAS viewing, check it out as soon as possible. You may just find yourself as hopelessly in love with Harley Quinn as she is with The Joker.