Whilst exhibiting some awkward growing pains, DC’s audacious, hilarious, queer-as-heck cartoon spends its great third season refusing to rest on its laurels.
Note: this review originally ran on Set the Tape (link).
“You’ve evolved,” says Ivy to Harley during the emotional finale of Harley Quinn’s third season. A finale not defined by a giant nigh-apocalyptic setpiece inflicting darkly-humorous gore-fests upon Gotham citizens, that came in the episode prior, but rather by the show’s protagonists finally having an honest conversation about their feelings. It’s really telling actually that the word used is not “changed,” which typically denotes something ineffably negative and preludes a barrier both parties cannot surmount, but rather “evolved.” An acknowledgement that somebody seemingly set in their ways upon first meeting can undergo unlikely growth which makes them a better person, even if they become different from the person you first fell for. A surprise but not an unwelcome one, and the usage of “evolved” indicates somebody willing to accept that growth rather than mourn losing that person who once was. When delivered by Lake Bell’s typically-excellent vocal work, completely softening in total vulnerable honesty as Ivy does for the first time in a long while, it’s a beautiful scene demonstrating Harley Quinn’s own evolution over the course of its third season into something you can genuinely call sweet.
Yes, this is in fact still Harley Quinn. The unruly piss-take side of the DC Universe where roughly every fifth line is a dick-joke; the Gotham City mayor is on life-support due to a freak accident involving kids driving a school bus, a lamppost, and a rat undergoing its own Thomas Wayne moment; and Bane is still everyone’s collective chew-toy. Justin Halpern and Patrick Schhumacker’s animated sitcom garnered a vocal cult following during its first two seasons on the doomed DC Universe service for its gleefully irreverent ‘no scared cow’ take on a side of DC that’s arguably become exhausted by this point. Amping up character traits like Jim Gordon’s (Christopher Meloni) lone incorruptible cop nature to a manic, pathetically-lonely, and socially-dysfunctional loon in ways which are hilarious yet still remain true to the character’s spirit. Balancing meta-humour, gross-out gags, swears, and an elastic amorality with legitimate stakes, fun likeable characters, and refusing to undercut the drama or action when needs be. And, for a certain subset of the fanbase (myself included), being queer as fuck with perhaps the definitive non-comics depiction of HarlIvy to date.
All of which meaning that Season 3 had to undergo at least some semblance of refocussing. By the end of Season 2, Harley (Kaley Cuoco) and her ragtag gang – King Shark (Ron Funches), Clayface (Alan Tudyk), and Ivy (Bell) – had gotten pretty much everything they could’ve wanted. Aside from Gordon, all their enemies were dead and locked-away; Harley had managed to overcome the most painful of her Joker-related traumas and shifted firmly into anti-hero territory; and Harley & Ivy finally admitted their feelings for one another, racing off into the literal sunset to be gay and do crimes. Whilst on a meta-level, DC Universe folded and Harley Quinn shifted platforms to the currently-embattled HBO Max, presumably with an accompanying change in budget. So, both in- and out-of-universe, the question is very much: what now? What does everybody truly want and how can they reconcile that with the version of themselves they’ve otherwise been defined by for so long?
Season 3 tackles this head-on and is decidedly smaller-scale than the previous two. Rather than coalescing around an externally destructive big bad, Harley Quinn this time chooses to probe its exhaustive cast’s psychologies where the conflicts instead come from an internal denial of one’s own evolving wants under the guise of making others happy. The inadvertent toxic traits characters have taken from prior relationships and are applying to their newer ones. Harley throws herself into ultra-supportive bae mode over Ivy’s desire to terraform Gotham into a plant utopia to degrees which mimic her past abusive relationship with Joker. Ivy’s blindness to the amount she’s keeping herself emotionally closed-off even when in a loving relationship due to past ones with Swamp Thing and the aloof Catwoman that she’s yet to really grow from. An intersecting fear from both women over how acknowledging their growth and diverging paths may cause them to lose the one unimpeachable good thing they have. How do they define themselves and each other?
Many other characters wrestle with that same philosophical question. Gordon’s shambolic mayoral campaign keeps hitting a brick wall when literally anyone asks him to stake out even a single firm policy idea outside his years of Gotham PD service. Nightwing makes his return to Gotham early in the season rattled with egotistical insecurity. Can Bruce Wayne (Diedrich Bader) really be Batman if he doesn’t flagellate himself to a blackly-comical degree over his childhood trauma every second of every day instead of healthily coping with it? Is Joker (Tudyk) still Joker even when he’s a doting suburban stepdad walking some semblance of the straight-and-narrow? (The answer to that last one, by the way, is such a genius-level response I simultaneously want to scream it from the rooftops and wouldn’t dare spoil it for you.)
That journey to self-acceptance is a messy one for almost all characters who walk it – well, except for Joker but, again, I refuse to spoil that episode. Fittingly, it’s a messy journey for Harley Quinn too. Whilst never outright bad, the first half of the season is decidedly rougher than the show’s been since the very beginning. The plotting is scattered with the new insular shift feeling a little hangout sitcom as the writers try to acclimatise to stories without obvious external antagonists. Clayface and King Shark spend the vast majority of the season on the sidelines barely contributing, with Clayface in particular stuck in a James Gunn-cameoing subplot that never manages to be as funny as it feels like it should. The hit-rate on the jokes isn’t as consistent, although each episode is still good for a few knockout gags. Even the animation takes a real hit; almost every even-numbered episode being drawn at a significantly lower framerate that makes things distractingly choppy and the season as a whole visually disjointed.
Fortunately, these growing pains are the kind mitigated somewhat from leaning on your cast. A rebuilding which takes advantage of a rolodex of characters already so well developed and entertaining to watch that hanging out with them for half-an-hour at a time seeing what they’ll get up to is fun in of itself. At this point, I’m honestly willing to state that Harley Quinn has some of my absolute favourite interpretations of these DC standbys. Kite Man is only in one episode, seeing as he’s being squirreled away to his own Cheers-like spin-off in the near-future, but his self-aware himbo routine remains an absolute delight. The way that the show’s writers manage to balance cracking all of the expected jokes about Bruce Wayne – his obscene wealth, his refusal to get actual therapy, his failure to tackle systemic issues which create Gotham’s crime – whilst still affording him genuine dignity and emotional depth pays dividends in maybe the show’s finest episode to date. Again, there’s Joker and, again, that’s all I’m giving you here.
Then there’s Harley, a character whose journey from villain to anti-hero to potentially dropping the anti- has here been so carefully-paced, paired to a consistent moral code, and really taking advantage of her psychiatry skills. Particularly in the last episode during that afore-referenced conversation with Ivy, it’s rooted in and coded specifically in queer fears and sensations which are so emotionally truthful that they really spoke to me. The show’s adamant refusal to break up HarlIvy – not a spoiler, Halpern and Schumacker have been vocal about not wanting to indulge that ‘will-they-won’t-they’ and queer romance cliché – means that it also gets to explore how couples can go on divergent lifepaths yet still find ways to reconcile those differences without sacrificing the relationship in the process.
Whilst that can cause the first half of the season to feel a bit circular and aimless, it also means that the back-half when these threads begin to converge and everyone allows themselves to be open emotionally soar. The jokes get funnier thanks to the payoffs, the themes become a lot clearer in hindsight, and a real beating sweetness blossoms forth. Way back in 2019, when Harley Quinn was introducing itself by screaming dozens of “fuck”s as Joker ripped a guy’s face off, “sweet” was probably the very last adjective one would expect to attach to this show. For some, it may even be antithetical to what they want out of Harley Quinn – although, rest assured, this is still a show where plant-people zombies spread their virus via projectile vomiting; this isn’t suddenly a maudlin mushy lovefest. But much like Harley, like Ivy, like even Joker, this show has grown beyond its initial character whilst still remaining true to itself. The process across Season 3 hasn’t always been smooth, but it exits the season seemingly surer of itself than ever. Harley Quinn has evolved. I hope it continues to for many more seasons yet.
Harley Quinn is currently airing Sundays on E4.
Callie Petch the kid who never compromised, out-racked you bastards.