Harley Quinn’s story has always been a love story. Since her first appearance in “Batman: The Animated Series” in 1992, the psychiatrist turned pinwheeling hellion has always overflowed with spirit, smothered those around her with affection, offered up her heart on a silver platter even when she knew she was offering herself up to get crushed. Harley’s story has also always been entangled with that of the Joker, the Batman universe’s most iconic and sophomoric villain, who twisted her into a stranger shape and treats her like a particularly annoying stray dog. For years, Harley’s complete devotion to the chronically careless Joker was her most defining characteristic.
It’s only in the last couple years that comic adaptations like “Birds of Prey: The Fantabulous Emancipation of Harley Quinn” have deigned to acknowledge that Harley might be a character worth exploring on her own terms. And while “Birds of Prey” came as a bright relief (especially after the grim dirge that was “Suicide Squad”), Harley’s gotten an especially smart showcase in “Harley Quinn,” a razor-sharp animated series that’s now available on HBO Max after its two-season run on DC Universe. The series picks up with Harley after the Joker’s unceremoniously dumped her. Without the crutch of that relationship, Harley has to figure out what to do, where to go and, most dauntingly, who the hell she even is without him.
As voiced by executive producer Kaley Cuoco, this Harley is just as fun, codependent and unabashedly demented as her predecessors. Given 20 episodes, though, Harley finally gets the kind of room to shine and mess up and grow that DC figures like the Joker and Batman seem to get every other week. She also, finally, gets to be straight up hilarious; “Harley Quinn” is a love letter to the “Batman” universe, but it’s first and foremost a comedy that spits more jokes per scene than most live action sitcoms attempt in an entire episode.
Soon enough, Harley, her sardonic best friend Poison Ivy (Lake Bell) and Harley’s random assortment of henchmen — including Tony Hale as telekinetic jerk Dr. Psycho and Ron Funches as the lovable King Shark — make their mark in Gotham, a city otherwise packed to the brim with aspiring supervillains like her toxic ex (voiced by Alan Tudyk). This show’s version of Gotham includes so many cameos and DC Easter eggs, in fact, that an extremely fun meta game while watching “Harley Quinn” is trying to identify every MVP in the voice cast, including Sanaa Lathan as a supremely unbothered Catwoman, Jacob Tremblay as a petulant Robin and Christopher Meloni as an alcoholic Batman fanboy Commissioner Gordon. (The unexpected best, though, might be James Adomian as Bane, who in “Harley Quinn” is an enormous, tender pitbull of a robot man who just wants everyone to be their best selves.)
By almost entirely removing the Joker from the equation, “Harley Quinn” has so much more space to figure out what makes Harley as a character so compelling, and it uses every inch of it. The show delves into her mind — quite literally, at one particularly memorable point — and fleshes out her history to paint a more complete and compelling picture of an obsessive, ambitious woman who’s as fiercely loyal as she is completely deranged. When she takes over Gotham by sheer force of will, it defies logic, but it’s no less believable than anything the Joker’s pulled, anyway.
There’s one aspect of “Harley Quinn,” though, that isn’t just well done, but is a beautiful reshaping of a dynamic that’s existed for Harley since her inception on “Batman: The Animated Series.” That show allowed Harley a single episode of independence, in which she reels from a brief breakup with the Joker by teaming up with Poison Ivy. Together, they bring out the best in each other as criminals, but also as friends who don’t want the approval of Gotham’s many inflated male egos. (The climax of “Harley and Ivy” features the pair tying Batman up with the cords from irons and vacuums — or what Ivy sneeringly calls “the tools of female domestic slavery.”) But “The Animated Series” ultimately couldn’t let Harley go too long without throwing her back into the arms of her beloved “Mr. J,” making her foray into personhood more of a detour than a new path.
By the end of its first season, “Harley Quinn” does let Harley relapse, so to speak, back into her Joker addiction. And yet she, unlike almost every previous iteration of Harley, quickly realizes how bad he is for her and ditches him for good. Freed from the constraints of that defining and limiting dynamic, the second season of “Harley Quinn” gets more intricate with its storytelling for just about every character. But some 27 years after Harley and Ivy first teamed up, “Harley Quinn” dives headfirst into their partnership and sharpens the give and take that makes them so well suited for each other. Harley is all instinct and id, while Ivy is all caution and calculation; Harley welcomes chaos and connections with open arms, while Ivy warily eyes anyone who dares speak to her, lest they eventually hurt her. Together, they bring out the best in each other, while also refusing to indulge the worst in each other. They’re true friends — and eventually, much to the delight of any fan who picked up on “Harley and Ivy”’s obvious subtext, partners in all senses of the word.
Harley Quinn’s story has always been a love story. But for too long, that love story was dependent on the Joker’s vicious whims, reducing Harley to a simpering mess. In giving her actual distance from the man who supposedly “made” her, “Harley Quinn” gives this character an actual chance to figure out who she is and what she wants when she’s not standing at the Joker’s side. And as it turns out, Harley is plenty funny, smart, wild and brave enough on her own terms, “Mr J” be damned.
The first two seasons of “Harley Quinn” are available to stream now on HBO Max.