Having a strong continuity can make a story feel grander, but it can also bind a story’s potential to the limits of an established and never-changing canon. And the hilarious, exhilarating continuity of Harley Quinn, DC Universe’s exclusive cartoon series, has made it one of the freshest superhero TV shows of the decade.
Harley Quinn tells the story of how psychiatrist-turned-villain Harleen Quinzel breaks up with her long-time romantic interest, the Joker, and sets out to find her place among Gotham City’s villains and heroes. In the first season, we followed Harley as she formed her own crew of villains and tried to join the Legion of Doom.
[Ed. note: This piece contains spoilers for Harley Quinn season 2.]
Season 2, with its finale airing this weekend, focused on Harley realizing that she might not be supervillain material after all — though that’s after she murders some of the biggest players in Batman’s rogues’ gallery. With those deaths, the series revealed that it’s content to carve out its own corner of the DC Multiverse, with knives if necessary.
“That was always kind of granted to us by DC,” co-creator and showrunner Patrick Schumacker told Polygon. “Deviating from the larger continuity was always a part of the show. We took certain characters in a very different direction, like Commissioner Gordon, and in the first season we killed Jason Praxis, who isn’t by any stretch of the imagination a major character. But the first season was well-liked by both general audiences, as well as internally, with the executives at Warner Brothers and DC Universe really digging the show. [We realized] we could start killing major characters in season 2 without really running into any sort of opposition.”
Warner Bros. tends to keep its DC characters on a tight leash in its television adaptations. Smallville was not allowed to have Batman or Wonder Woman in its story, while the Arrowverse was only recently allowed to incorporate Superman, and Batman only appeared in the Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover (and even then, only in an alternate universe). As Suicide Squad neared its premiere, the Arrowverse shows suddenly executed all the characters that would appear in the movie, like Deadshot and Amanda Waller.
Warner Bros.’ animation doesn’t seem to have this problem, however, as Young Justice and the Justice League cartoons used hundreds of DC characters big and small. In Harley Quinn, it’s not just Batman and Wonder Woman who show up, but almost any supervillain you could name, right up to Apokolips — and many of them die hilariously horrific deaths.
“We were told from the start that this could be our own thing,” co-creator and showrunner Justin Halpern told us. “Our whole pitch on this show was, ‘Villains are bad guys.’ They probably say bad things when they’re not in the middle of a battle or a fight, they probably do bad things. Our stories are going to come from the moments in between all the scenes and movies, and so we were given carte blanche with the villains, for the most part. Occasionally, when we messed with a superhero too much, we might get a little pushback, but for the most part, we had carte blanche because we focused on the villains.”
And Harley Quinn’s second season took great advantage of that freedom. In the premiere, the Joker brutally murdered the Scarecrow. Shortly after, Harley’s quest for vengeance lead her to kill a handful of the biggest and best-known Batman villains, like Mr. Freeze and The Penguin.
Killing of fan-favorite characters doesn’t automatically make the show good, but it has allowed Harley Quinn to have something few superhero shows or movies have: consequences. When Joker destroyed Gotham City at the end of Season 1, the government declared the city a no man’s land. When Penguin is killed, Two-Face fills the power vacuum and takes over Gotham. It allows the show to tell its own story on its own terms, even if it might not be exactly the continuity you know from the comics or the movies.
In fact, most of the characters in Harley Quinn are a little different than what audiences are used to. Kite Man, for instance, became a fully fleshed-out character in the show — one that more closely resembles the tragicomic figure of Tom King’s Batman run.
“We always wanted to have a character serve as a stand-in for a male supervillain with an irrational amount of confidence they did not deserve,” Halpern told us. “He just has a kite, and he thinks he has superpowers, he says it to Ivy a couple of dozen times. And for us, using Kite Man and Dr. Psycho is an opportunity to play with characters that represent these two different archetypes of toxic masculinity. Psycho is this unapologetic misogynist, while Kite Man is someone who has bought into the societal idea of what it means to be a bad-ass dude. Then, over the course of Harley Quinn, we show how Psycho’s redemption is false, because he never tried to broaden his views and simply reverts back to all his flaws. Kite Man, I think, goes on a bit of an emotional journey that broadens his idea of happiness and what it means to be a dude.”
For Mister Freeze, the show’s staff pulled from the pun-obsessed villain played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in Batman & Robin, and the version of the character from Batman: The Animated Series. It and also acknowledged the New 52 version of the character, which painted Freeze as obsessed with a random woman, instead being driven to villainy to save his wife’s life.
“There’s a negative reaction to be had to this idea of a mad genius who freezes his own wife and keeps her half-dead to hopefully save her one day,” Schumacker explained. “We have a lot of female writers on staff, and we all talked about what this would really be like from the perspective of his wife, and from the perspective of other female characters that would learn about this story. It all sounds kind of creepy, and maybe it is. But at the end of the day, he did genuinely love her, which was one of the darkest jokes that we’ve told in the show, that Harley showed up and essentially kills Freeze with noble intentions, before Nora reveals that she gave her husband permission to do this.”
But maybe the show’s biggest additive contribution to the DC canon is the Joker’s new girlfriend. Season 2 saw the Joker with amnesia, holding down a steady bartending job, dating a nurse, and doting on her two children. And that doesn’t change when the Joker inevitably regains his memories — Harley Quinn has the killer clown decide to stay with his girlfriend and her family, acknowledging that there can be more to his life than an obsession with Batman.
“And our feeling on the Joker was that he’s such a big character that you can’t really have him be in a little bit of the show. He’s either in the show or he’s not in the show at all, because he kind of takes over it when he’s in it,” Halpern said. “So we kept him out of the story for the first few episodes of the season. Then we asked ourselves, ‘What is the most interesting way to use him that we haven’t really seen before?’ And this idea that he would gain some perspective by being a suburban dad was really funny to us, and something we hadn’t seen before with Joker. So we decided to have him be somebody who can actually provide some perspective for Harley because of these new experiences he’s had, without fundamentally changing who the Joker is.”
Indeed, though the Joker’s last appearance this season seemed like a conclusion to his story, with the Clown Prince of Crime deciding that his life with his girlfriend was worth fighting for, it doesn’t mean he renounced crime. One of the last things he says to Harley is “Lots of dads are serial killers.” It manages to leave the door open to more Joker stories, while providing proper closure to Harley and Joker’s story and relationship.
This sort of thing is what Harley Quinn does best. It carves out its own little corner of the DC Universe where it’s free to lovingly maim, kill, and make fun of every character we know and love.