The late Arleen Sorkin has a singular honor among superhero actors. Harley Quinn was created especially for her by DCAU guru Paul Dini, famously matching the actor’s own personality. It was intended to solve a logistical problem with a single episode (someone needed to jump out of a cake), but it soon took on a life of its own.
Today, Harley is one of DC’s most popular characters, complete with a hit show of her own on Max. But Sorkin, and the DCAU, remain her purest embodiment. Harley appeared 20 times in various projects in the franchise, along with another eight cameos where Sorkin’s voice wasn’t used. It’s a staggering number for a character intended for one-and-out status, even without considering her long-term legacy. The episodes that used the actor are ranked below, from worst to best.
20 BTAS: ‘Lock-Up’
Season 2, Episode 14
Harley plays a very small role in “Lock-Up,” in which a sadistic guard at Arkham becomes a villain after the inmates out his brutal practices. She appears early to testify against him, seeming to renege before confessing that he treats them all like animals. She then bows out to let Batman and Robin take on the freshly minted supervillain.
“Lock-Up” works best as a novelty one-off, with a baddie interesting enough to make a solid origin story but not much beyond that. Harley’s presence isn’t quite superfluous, but she’s here mainly to generate sympathy before throwing her tormentor against The Dark Knight. The episode speaks mainly to her status as a strangely likable foe.
19 The New Batman Adventures: ‘Joker’s Millions’
Season 1, Episode 7
One of The Joker’s old rivals has the last laugh by leaving him a fortune which turns out to be bogus. “Joker’s Millions” keeps the focus squarely on Mr. J, first ecstatic at his turn of good luck, then horrified at stepping into his late enemy’s trap. Harley occupies an intriguing subplot, however, as he first abandons her to the police and then replaces her with a lookalike after he hits the jackpot.
The episode is largely a lark, with The Joker forced to play straight man to very funny effect. And while Harley is left on the sidelines — barring an ill-fated effort to escape Arkham — her revenge is merciless. She reveals herself as a guard on the transport back to the asylum, then takes a nightstick to him while his hands are cuffed. Considering what he’s put her through over the years, he most assuredly has it coming.
18 The New Batman Adventures: ‘Girls’ Night Out’
Season 1, Episode 20
The success of “World’s Finest” led to more DCAU crossovers between Metropolis and Gotham City. “Girls’ Night Out” puts Kara Zor-El and Barbara Gordon in the spotlight, as Superman baddie Livewire joins Harley and Ivy for another round of mayhem. Lori Petty steals the show as the new villain in town, but the bulk of the episode pits the three baddies against Supergirl and Batgirl.
Harley is reduced to comic relief, as Pam gushes over Livewire’s abilities and leaves her non-powered partner the odd crook out. She’s also the first to fall when her boxing glove gun backfires against The Girl of Steel. The episode is fun, but it doesn’t give her much to work with.
17 Gotham Girls (Series)
Gotham Girls was a series of Flash shorts released from 2000-2002. Each ran just a few minutes and involved micro-game play depending on the topic. They depicted several of Gotham’s female characters from the DCAU engaged in various wacky hijinks. Each episode is canon, and the series retained the original voice actors for all of their previous DCAU roles (including Sorkin for Harley).
They’re intended as slice-of-life one-offs, which doesn’t give them much chance for development. But they retain their affection for all of their protagonists, and Harley gets a few choice moments of her own. The high point is Season 2, Episode 8, “Gotham Noir,” in which she envisions herself as a hard-boiled detective on the mean streets.
16 Static Shock: ‘Hard as Nails’
Season 3, Episode 1
Though a member of the DCAU, Static Shock is very much his own hero, with a unique rogue’s gallery that doesn’t require cribbing from Gotham City. “Hard as Nails” is a big exception, as the young hero teams up with The Dark Knight to stop a super-powered friend gone rogue. She soon falls in with Harley and Ivy, who have their own uses for her powers.
The bulk of the story focuses on her, as well as the comparative novelty of Virgil joining forces with Batman. But Harley has a great entrance — arriving on a blimp decorated with her themes — and the perennial criminal gal pals make a refreshing change from the likes of The Joker. Sorkin and her partner in crime Diane Pershing are in fine form, despite some cringe-worthy lines that haven’t aged well.
15 Justice League: ‘Wild Cards Parts 1 & 2’
Season 2, Episodes 21 and 22
Harley barely makes only a token appearance in “Wild Cards,” which is divided between two episodes as usual for Justice League. There’s hardly time for her, as The Joker declares war on the assembled heroes with the aid of the freshly minted Royal Flush Gang. Its newcomer Ace is the real showstopper, threatening to drive The Justice League insane and setting up a beautiful coda during the Season 2 finale of Justice League Unlimited.
That leaves Sorkin’s Harley relegated to just a couple of scenes as she dutifully sets up the episode’s real stars, only to be knocked unconscious by her abusive beau at the end. “Wild Cards” has a justifiably high reputation among fans, particularly in how the non-powered Joker can legitimately take on the entire League. But Harley lovers hoping to see more of Sorkin’s performance are better served with different episodes.
14 The New Batman Adventures: ‘Holiday Knights’
Season 1, Episode 1
Batman and his friends face a trio of challenges between Christmas and New Year’s, starting with a demented shopping spree from Harley and Ivy. Pamela’s new body control lipstick turns Bruce Wayne into their credit-card flashing chump, as they ring up huge bills and let the rich man carry their bags. The remainder of the episode centers on other villains, leaving them with shortened screen time to make an impression.
In many ways, it constitutes typical tomfoolery for the pair, who take a quiet dig at consumer culture in the process. But it also shows the differences between the two that still affect their relationship today. (Harley loves the holidays, Pam not so much.) And while their relationship remains platonic throughout The Animated Series‘run, their bickering over how to spend the holidays speaks to something much more sapphic: a preview of things to come.
13 BTAS: ‘Trial’
Season 2, Episode 4
The high-concept “Trial” uses most of Batman’s rogues’ gallery, as the inmates at Arkham put him on trial for the crime of creating them. The Joker leads the who’s who of baddies, with Two-Face as the prosecutor and Gotham’s abducted DA reluctantly defending Batman. But Harley has a big part in the action, first announcing the inmates’ takeover of Arkham and then as a “witness” thanking The Caped Crusader for creating her beloved Mr. J.
In the midst of it, “Trial” drops the first details that would become Harley’s origins story. The DA recounts how Harley used to be a doctor at Arkham before The Joker got his hooks into her. It’s easy to miss amid a very full episode, but arguably one of the most vital moments in the character’s history.
12 The New Batman Adventures: ‘Over the Edge’
Season 1, Episode 11
The DCAU has its share of dark moments but few are so disturbing as “Over the Edge.” Commissioner Gordon turns on Batman after Batgirl’s apparent death, with Bruce Wayne publicly outed and on the run. It turns out to be a Scarecrow-induced hallucination, but the details remain hauntingly plausible.
Harley has just a single scene in the episode, which mostly serves to set up one of its few humorous moments. With Wayne revealed as a vigilante, a number of his foes appear on a talk show to discuss the trauma he’s inflicted. That includes a sobbing Harley describing her constant nightmares before joining the other villains in suing Wayne blind.
11 Superman: The Animated Series: ‘World’s Finest Parts 1, 2 & 3’
Season 2, Episodes 16, 17, and 18
The three-part “World’s Finest” serves as a stand-alone movie, detailing one of the most important events in the DCAU. Superman and Batman meet for the first time and reluctantly team up when The Joker offers to sell a kryptonite-laden statue to Lex Luthor. It makes an affectionate homage to the two heroes’ Golden Age partnership, as well as paving the way for the DCAU’s Justice League.
And as is her wont, Harley kicks it off by hitting a hapless antique with Joker gas. Beyond that, she’s solely Mr. J’s hired help, though she takes advantage of her opportunities when they arise. That includes a full-tilt throwdown with Mercy Graves while Luthor and The Joker discuss a deal, as well as painting Luthor’s commandeered flying wing like a giant smile.
10 The New Batman Adventures: ‘Beware the Creeper’
Season 1, Episode 23
Harley has a hard time competing with some of The Animated Series‘ one-off characters, often serving as the butt of the joke while another figure takes the accolades. “Beware the Creeper” is a first-rate episode, depicting one of DC’s weirdest characters as a zany knock-off of The Joker. Unfortunately, it also leaves Harley in the lurch.
The Creeper arises when The Joker hits an ambitious news anchor with laughing gas and pushes him into a vat of acid. The results are like a Looney Tunes character come to life: bound by a sense of righteousness, but otherwise completely unhinged. Naturally, he’s attracted to Harley, and naturally, she’s horrified. It reduces her to a not-especially-kind joke, though it does let Sorkin show multiple sides of the character.
9 BTAS: ‘Harlequinade’
Season 2, Episode 5
Harley evolves over time from the straight-up villain in The Animated Series to a beloved antihero in later versions. “Harlequinade” begins that journey when Batman recruits a reluctant Harley to stop The Joker from detonating an atomic bomb. The plot is standard issue for The Animated Series, but as a showcase for the character, it has few peers.
Indeed, the best parts of “Harlequinade” come at the end, when Mr. J betrays Harley yet again and they all but go to war. Batman and Robin watch their machine-gun-laden exchange before Harley finally pulls the trigger. The gun is empty and he finds her lethality endearing, but it made a hell of a statement that later Harleys could build on.
8 Batman Beyond: The Return of the Joker
Harley’s whereabouts are a huge mystery throughout most of The Return of the Joker. Instead, it’s the Raggedy-Ann-inspired “Dee-Dee” twins who join a reborn Joker in his efforts to destroy Gotham City. But she lingers in the air, especially after the film’s horrifying flashback scene where she helps The Joker torture and brainwash Tim Drake. She’s never come so close to pure evil.
The payoff comes at the end when a foul-tempered “Nana Harley” bails the Dee-Dees out of jail. The Joker never re-appeared in the DCAU, making it reasonable to assume he’s gone for good. That gives Harley the last laugh, even if she’s too angry at her kin to enjoy it.
7 BTAS: ‘Harley’s Holiday’
Season 2, Episode 11
Harley steps out on her own as an ostensibly reformed criminal in “Harley’s Holiday,” only to see it all blow up in her face. A misunderstanding gets out of hand, forcing her to return to her usual ways almost in spite of herself. The episode reveals a far more sympathetic side to the character and plants the seeds of her eventual evolution into an anti-hero.
More importantly, it gives Harley the spotlight all to herself, with neither The Joker nor Poison Ivy anywhere to be seen. It’s proof of concept that the character needn’t be beholden to those around her, and that she’s going to be herself regardless of circumstances. She even reaches an accord with Batman, who expresses empathy for her struggles.
6 BTAS: ‘The Laughing Fish’
Season 1, Episode 46
“The Laughing Fish” is great for reasons that have nothing to do with Harley. Its story comes straight from a classic comics plotline, with The Joker threatening to kill anyone who won’t help him patent his hideous grinning fish. It demonstrates not only the series’ affection for Batman’s roots but also the way it can tell a wide variety of Batman stories while making them all its own.
In the middle of it, The Animated Series establishes The Joker’s abuse of Harley in surprisingly dark ways. He forces her to eat one of his fish over her protestations, then stuffs her into the top of a giant fish costume to help sell his crazed scheme. It finds a little genuine tragedy in her core, making her more than just a colorful sidekick.
5 BTAS: ‘Harley and Ivy’
Season 1, Episode 47
Though they remained platonic friends in The Animated Series, Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn were clearly made for each other. Their initial meeting is another of the series’ sparkling masterpieces, as Harley moves in with her new bestie after a fight with Mr. J. They prove a nasty criminal duo and give The Caped Crusader all he can handle.
The Animated Series always made the extent of The Joker’s abuse crystal clear, giving Harley a sense of tragedy at her inability to break free. Her partnership with Ivy lends her a sense of identity separate from his, as well as a reliable friend who stands up for her even when she won’t stand up for herself. Without it, there would be no Harley Quinn, and both characters would be considerably less interesting.
4 BTAS: ‘Joker’s Favor’
Season 1, Episode 8
Harley’s golden introduction was intended to be a one-off, positing her as a variation of the gun molls on the Adam West Batman TV series. It’s also the introduction for Mark Hamill’s Joker, seen here blackmailing an ordinary Joe into helping with his dirty work. The Clown Prince of Crime may have found his greatest incarnation with Hamill, and the episode absolutely does him justice.
And yet it’s Harley who invariably draws the eye. As the new ingredient to the mix, she has an instant novelty value, which she accentuates with her sharp tongue and an impressive array of skills. It’s a minor miracle to make that strong of an impression in light of what Hamill was doing, but the one-off gun moll soon returned for more episodes. The rest is superhero history.
3 BTAS: ‘The Man Who Killed Batman’
Season 1, Episode 49
Besides being one of The Animated Series‘ funniest episodes, “The Man Who Killed Batman” sees Harley absolutely steal the show from under everyone’s noses. When low-end crook Sidney Debris seemingly bumps off The Caped Crusader, he finds himself in a world of trouble with The Clown Prince of Crime, who can’t abide anyone else slaying his hated foe.
Harley scores the episode’s biggest laugh with her kazoo-rendered version of “Amazing Grace,” played as The Joker sends a pleading Debris into a vat of acid. But her real magic trick comes earlier when she poses as an attorney to get Debris out of prison. It was a very early appearance, and the act likely fooled a number of viewers when it first aired. Only when she reveals herself does Sidney — and the audience — realize how much trouble he’s in.
2 BTAS: ‘Almost Got ‘Im’
Season 1, Episode 35
Another ensemble piece makes Harley just one of the gang but remains one of the very best episodes the show ever produced. Five of The Caped Crusaders’ greatest foes play cards together in a den of ill-repute, as each of them reveals the closest they ever came to knocking him off. The high-concept notion pays off beautifully with a lot of humor that never undermines the threats.
And while it’s not Harley-centric, it gives her the anchor spot: holding Catwoman hostage off-site until Batman comes to the rescue. It typifies her modus operandi of either opening or closing the proceedings. The Animated Series‘ undeniable high point wouldn’t feel the same without her.
1 The New Batman Adventures: ‘Mad Love’
Season 1, Episode 24
“Mad Love” is Harley’s shining moment in the DCAU: officially encapsulating her origins for the first time and revealing the complexities of her decidedly unhealthy fixation on Mr. J. Animated Series co-creators Paul Dini and Bruce Timm had previously told the tale in a comic-book one-shot, re-created immaculately for the series itself. It recounts Harley’s early days as an ambitious psychologist, who falls under The Joker’s spell at Arkham and morphs into his willing accomplice.
Harley never breaks away from The Joker in The Animated Series: that’s left to subsequent versions of the character. “Mad Love” charts the core of his abuse, and the cost to her soul, while quietly suggesting that she’s meant for better things. As Batman reminds The Joker in the episode’s finale, she came closer to actually killing him than her “Puddin'” ever did. Harley’s journey from abuse victim to abuse survivor begins with this episode.
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