Batman: The Animated Series – Pretty Poison

Pretty Poison

 

They can bury me in the ground, as deep as they like. But I’ll grow back. We always grow back.

Air Date: 9/12/92

Director: Boyd Kirkland

Writer: Paul Dini, Michael Reaves and Tom Ruegger (Teleplay)

Themes: Environmentalism, Doomed Romance, Friendship, Hubris

Villain: Pamela Isley/Poison Ivy

Synopsis: Batman faces a race against time to save his close friend Harvey Dent when the Gotham District Attorney falls victim to a unique poison, concocted by a botanist with an agenda of revenge.

Review:

An interesting episode. You usually find some sort of deeper message when it comes to any kind of media approaching the issue of environmentalism or conservation. B:TAS doesn’t really go that route, aside from the very first scenes, deciding instead to focus on the insanity and over-reaction of the villain, Poison Ivy. The opening flashback sets things up nicely, both in terms of rare plants being carelessly destroyed, and the shadowy threat that is going after Harvey Dent and Bruce Wayne.

And while this episode is centred around Isley and her madcap revenge scheme, it’s also about a very notable friendship. Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent are close comrades it seems. It isn’t just another one of Wayne’s facades – he and Dent seem genuinely fond of each other in this episode, to the extent that Wayne is one of the first people that Dent introduces to the apparent love of his life too.

This is all important and vital set-up for future episodes when Harvey Dent falls into ignominy, as B:TAS takes the time to set up this friendship, which will make all that follows very personal for Batman. Aside from the obvious nature of their friendship, “Pretty Poison” also shows Wayne’s protective streak when it comes to his friends, which will rear its head again in future episodes. Christopher Nolan and Aaron Eckhart have subsequently added the factor of Wayne’s admiration of Dent – the public hero he can never be – to the popular consciousness, though it really came up first in The Long Halloween.

Individually speaking, Dent doesn’t come off too well in this episode. In bulldozing over rare plants to build a prison he seems ignorant and uncaring. Later, under Isley’s spell, he’s weak-willed and foolhardy. As the DA of a city like Gotham, you would expect Dent to be a bit more capable. We’ll be seeing plenty more of him though.

For Wayne, this is probably the most we’ve seen of him out of costume. Seeing him worry over Harvey’s health – breaking from the investigation just to see him in hospital for example – adds a great level of humanity and believability to the character. Wayne is a man who doesn’t have many human relationships. He has Alfred and Grayson, but aside from that his human interactions are painfully limited. As a man defined by loss, it makes perfect sense to see him fret and worry over what may be one of his only real friends.

It’s an episode of set-up, action, investigation, action, and conclusion. The first action is a really great Batman chase/fight with an escaping mobster, tied into the opening scene as he breaks out of Dent’s prison. He’s just some anonymous crime lord, but it doesn’t matter: this is just to show Batman pull some neat stunts, tied onto the helicopter, and actually throwing some punches with a bad guy.

It’s also intercut nicely with Dent and Isley in the restaurant, waiting for Wayne to show up. It’s very easy to balls up humour in these situations but it works nicely here, as Dent describes aspects of Bruce’s personality as we cut to Batman showing those aspects off in a violent form. It’s subtle, it’s not spelled out, and it’s funny. Kept brief, they don’t detract from the seriousness of the situation.

What about Isley then? One of the lesser Batman villains really, she is a bit ridiculous, an environmental crusader who has no regard for human life. “Pretty Poison” doesn’t go the whole hog with Ivy – showing her as some kind of plant/human hybrid like she is in a lot of continuities – and this causes the episode to suffer from a lack of information for its villain. She has an aim and a motive that is a bit extreme to say the least, as B:TAS struggles to show her in a comprehensive light. Where the creators succeeded so admirably with the Scarecrow, they fail somewhat with Ivy.

That being said, Isley works as a kind of succubus wrapping men around her finger, usually explained by the use of drugs/spores/etc. The bits where she’s just Pamela Isley, seducing Dent and trying it on with Bruce, are fine. It’s only her turn as Ivy where it begins to go wrong. Diane Pershing just isn’t that good as a super villain, her last few minutes in this episode being fairly mediocre, and that’s generous.

As stated, the romance angle works well enough. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the new girl in Harvey Dent’s life is somewhat suspicious, but we all know the feeling of being head over heels with someone after a very short time. Bruce acts as an audience surrogate in these scenes, with a look of grudging respect/genuine discomfort when Isley lays a passionate kiss on Dent’s lips. While we know that something fishy is going on, Pershing works best as that sort of distressed lover archetype, especially in the hospital scenes.

The plot moves in a predictable fashion once Dent is poisoned. The GCPD trips over itself to accuse the wrong people, leaving it to Batman to determine the real villain. The points of the rest of the episode are easily guessed and are met at the appointed intervals – suspicion of Isley, evidence to support the same, a final confrontation, and a status quo ending. This isn’t even meant as a harsh criticism, just a statement that “Pretty Poison” becomes a very standard episode around half way through, a railroaded plot heading towards an inevitable end of the line.

Batman gets to be Mr Detective again here, finding the evidence that everyone else is missing, and working out the details logically. Isley shoots herself in the foot really by clumsily trying it on with Bruce in the hospital, giving him all the rationale he needs to take a closer look at her status, even if he wasn’t suspicious already. With the episode now a race against time, Batman’s work leads him to the big set-piece.

That brings us to the creepiest moment of the episode, as Batman wrestles with Ivy’s monstrosities while the women herself does the classic “undress behind a curtain” thing, as suitably seductive music plays in the background. Isley’s world is a warped nature reserve, and her sexuality is her primary weapon. She views men and the world they dominate as the enemy, treating Batman as a bothersome fly she has mind to devour. As I said, Pershing’s performance in this scene lets the whole enterprise down badly, as the bizarre situation is mixed in with poor VA.

Isley’s obsession ends up getting the better of her. Her vengeance leads to Batman getting poisoned as well, but in the ensuing battle a fire destroys most of her criminal work, to her horror. Ivy has a lot of hubris leading to nemesis: Batman is just the unwitting agent which brings it into being. For all her traps and monsters, Isley is easily dealt with in the end, giving up the answer to Batman’s problems in exchange for one plant. Her disregard for human life in favour of plants is the main characteristic that drives her, but it also a fatal weakness. Treating the rare rose that serves as the episodes MacGuffin like a child, she is easily apprehended and defeated.

The dual finish reinforces the dual message/theme of the episode. Wayne returns to the hospital to watch over and protect his friend while Isley plots her return from a prison cell, with the only thing that she cares about still in her possession. At least in terms of coherent story telling and central messages, “Pretty Poison” holds true to the end.

Tidbits/Quotes:

-I really like the opening sequence, especially the very first shot of a plant being carelessly destroyed by people working on the prison. That sets up Ivy’s motivations quickly.

-A “X Years Later” card is not really necessary. I mean, we just saw the structure go from non-existent to built. I think we got it.

-Petty standard stalker imagery – newspaper clippings pinned to a wall for example – is used effectively to let us know that something sinister is happening, which is good considering we don’t get a look at our villain properly until near the end.

-And there is Renee Montaya in a small cameo, her first appearance in the production sequence. She’ll become far more important.

-Comedy Bullock is back with a vengeance here, scarfing down donuts when a crisis is happening and getting nowhere with his “bad cop” routine. This is his lot in life.

-What can you say about Harvey Dent? Other than the fact that his animation model leads me to believe he has some link to the Hapsburg dynasty.

-While her VA isn’t stellar, the model for Isley is still really great, that voluptuous femme fatale type figure. Ivy is supposed to be a bit of a vamp, so her being Betty from Mad Men works really well. I believe she was based, in appearance, off Bettie Page.

-The GCPD actually suck in this episode, going after the wrong people in their investigation and never even seeming to suspect the botany expert who just turned up in Dent’s romantic life the week before. We’ve also gone back in terms of police trust in Batman. Elements of the production run are out of sync in that regard.

-Alfred is really good in this episode, showing off his intelligence in knowing everything about the restaurant Wayne is going to and later when he actively assists in the investigation of Isley. Batman is a good detective, but he has help from a very competent source.

-I was wondering why the GCPD were racing to be at Dent’s bedside when he fell ill, considering they couldn’t possibly have known what happened to him, until I realised that it makes perfect sense in this town. The DA being put in a hospital in Gotham? Definitely sinister.

-I do like the simplicity of the Macguffin device, and Ivy’s obsession with it, placing the plant above human life.

-I also love that moment between Wayne and Isley outside the hospital, when she moves to kiss him and he quickly – so fast you could blink and miss it – turns it into a hug. It’s a very subtle, but vital, animation to do and it worked really well.

-Oh man, what to say about Isley’s killer plants, especially the one pictured above? I think we all know what the animators are going for. It’s frustrating that the episode doesn’t go into even the slightest bit of detail as to how she was able to pull off their creation, considering their nature. Them spewing yellowish substances when cut is vomit inducing too.

-There is a lovely subtle line in the script that actually makes you realise how dangerous Isley is – when she wonders out loud who her killer plants have caught “this time”. How many others has she killed with these monstrosities?

-Hate, hate, hate the trope of fake crying being turned into maniacal laughter. It’s so hard to pull that off, and Pershing doesn’t do it here, making it seem more like Ivy is spasaming than anything else.

-Isley dubs her antidote “Rose from the dead”. Kill me now.

-The destruction of the greenhouse is a good backdrop for the final confrontation, even if the fire spreads unnaturally fast.

-This episode is easily the worst yet for bad animation, with lazy artistry all over the place. A few select examples, among many: The city backdrop looks slanted during the mobsters escape. Subtle actions with hands, like people eating food, looks abysmal. When Jim Gordon takes a call, the cord goes through the phone. Bruce Wayne frequently looks out of proportion, fat almost. Nearly everyone has a really clunking, unnatural walking animation.  Ivy’s vagina plant loses some teeth, then regrows them for the next shot. Isley looks very out of place in the final shot, like she’s been pasted into a separate scene. On and on they go. Really bad effort.

-And some inconsistencies to mention as well. It’s never verified whether Isley has plant powers or is just a really good botanist, which would go some way to explaining how she made the giant man eating plants. The Doctor in the hospital leaves Bruce Wayne alone with Harvey’s blood sample, and after it’s stolen no alarm is raised. The dishwasher in the restaurant is dressed rather well for that job. And it’s never cleared up as to whether Isley was brainwashing Dent in order to win his affections so fast, or whether that came from her own charms.

Overall, not a half-bad episode, but some serious letdowns in parts.

To see the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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8 Responses to Batman: The Animated Series – Pretty Poison

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