Wow... not even another week yet and I've already parsed another arc-driven "season" of the Exnihil custom order for rewatching the DCAU.
It may be that there are simply fewer episodes remaining of the original Batman: The Animated Series and, accordingly, simply fewer to choose from to try to make an order... or, it could be that as the creators themselves got deeper into the original production, they were more cognizant of telling a cohesive story (as opposed to stand-alone one-offs). Indeed, all but a handful of the eps included in this "season" are from the second production run.
In any case, it certainly seemed like the eps I was watching this time around were made with a very particular ethos in mind. Whereas "season 1" of my order felt very film-noir, "season 2" was a bit horror/monster-centric, and "season 3" was definitely sci-fi, "season 4" has - to my mind at least - an overwhelming "Hitchcock-ian" feel to it.
Some of the references are overt, other thematic, but one thing is clear: Someone on the production crew almost certainly had Hitchcock on the brain.
Let’s take a look, shall we?
No, no… it was just a rhetorical question… we shall:
We kick off this season - picking up the threads of last season’s finale, I Am the Night - with the two-parter, Shadow of the Bat, again putting the focus on Gotham's second family, the Gordons. Poor Commissioner Gordon can’t catch a break. After being shot in last season’s finale, this opener finds him arrested for collaborating with Rupert Thorne, leaving it up to daughter, Barbara, to clear his name. I thought it important to begin this season with Babs, as it will be a while before she is featured again (or her dad, for that matter). It provides a nice continuity (Dick is also featured, so - both home from college) and keeps the character in mind during the long gap. Also providing a nice through-line is an almost throw-away line about Batman hearing talk of a new cartel. Obviously, it refers to the the reveal of Two-Face here, but... it also might have a bigger payoff later in the season as we head into...
Off Balance. Batman gives the shakedown to the Society of Shadows, as the Hitchcock influences begin to become apparent - certainly the more obvious references to "Vertigo" but also the Statue of Liberty scene suggesting the film, "Saboteur". The intro of Talia sets the stage for what will be an important recurring theme throughout this season, Bruce’s regrets about his love life. Also... ya know... Ra's al Ghul!
The dramatic conclusion of last episode shifts as we drop into another story in medias res, catching up with Killer Croc in Sideshow. Hitchcock abounds as another "Saboteur" reference is made (a felon being guarded by circus folk), as well as the tremendous suspense of a cliff side chase evoking "North by Northwest".
Perhaps it was the circus atmosphere of last episode, perhaps the dalliance with Talia, but something has put Bruce in mind of his past as he searches out an old love, Zatanna in - fittingly enough - Zatanna. Nice continuity nods here, with the references to Bruce heading to Japan, and his future holding a Joker. The original order I was following placed the ep far earlier, but I felt it was too slick and not of the same dark mood there. I much prefer it as a later addition, holding off on expanding the heroes of the DCAU as, of course, we will meet Z again, later on. Side note: it's super odd - but a deeply-satisfying foreshadowing to the order I chose - for "Bond villain," Montague Kane to refer to Batman as "Detective".
We next take a nice 1950’s noir turn with A Bullet For Bullock. A fun story, as fan-favorite Harvey Bullock swallows his pride and enlists Batman’s help. Strange recurrent imagery over the past three episodes (completely coincidental) of people being chained up. Odd. No explicit Hitchcock here, other than the general noir feel (good lord - those amazing jazz horns!), but we’ll remedy that in the next ep with...
Catwalk. Man alive, Selina Kyle is Grace Kelly in "To Catch a Thief". This episode continues the theme of past regrets (“I was the cat who walked by herself... until I met him"). Continuity all around with a cameo of Bullock at the party scarfing down food, a recurrence of Veronica Vreeland in contrast to Selina, the return of Scarface (super-good call, I think, in spacing his initial appearance so far from his return - I actually smiled from ear to ear at Selina’s reaction to him), and the whole idea that Penguin was still at large (after having had his conviction overturned in last season’s finale).
We now hit the midway point of the season with the two-part payoff to the Society of Shadows plot line with The Demon's Quest. I was originally going to place this much nearer to the end of the season to act as more of a climax to an ongoing behind-the-scenes threat but - apart from "Off Balance," and a couple of vague references that you’d have to squint to imagine - there actually isn’t that much to justify it. Pity... I think it would have been a lot more powerful if that had been the case. As it is, there still is a lot to recommend it: the return of Talia having more resonance after having revisited past loves, Zatanna and Catwoman; the amazing menace of David Warner as Ra's al Ghul; and the vast international scope providing a sense of scale (and suggesting the exotic locales in such Hitchcock films as "To Catch a Thief" and the "Man Who Knew Too Much"). It also serves as a midseason reintroduction to Robin (absent since the opener).
The clawing hand of Ra's al Ghul at the end of last episode provides a nice visual transition to the clawing hand at the beginning of House & Garden, a bizarre - but quite sad - episode featuring the return and attempted reform of Poison Ivy. The placement of Batman's glimpse into quiet domestic life has a deeper meaning now that he's revisited no fewer than three doomed romances this season. Also quite cool is the idea of Dick studying for finals, as the end of the semester provides a continuity as to why he's featured for the remainder of the season (although how was he not missed during his kidnapping by Ra's? Perhaps that's why he’s got to study so hard now :-) ). The appearance of Ivy is a nice reminder of the "costumed contingent" of Batman’s rouges - completely absent to this point, with the debatable inclusion of Catwoman - the return of which is presaged by Ivy looking at photos of Harley at the end, which nicely leads into...
Harlequinade, a slightly comedic episode that I enjoyed way more than I expected. Given the more serious vibe the season has focused on, I thought this ep would stick out like a sore thumb, but the lighter mood actually acts as a nice counterpoint. Bits of personal continuity include the possibility of Harley’s rotten mood at the beginning of the ep being attributed to the absence of Ivy; Bruce’s idea of enlisting Harley at all being perhaps spawned by his recent thoughts about love; the inclusion of Robin (now home on summer break); the references to fellow Arkhamites (including "lizard man" and "puppet head" - both of them, to this point, infrequent villains who were featured this season); and the suggestion - more on which later, of course - of Harley having been a psychologist. The idea of the corrupt mental health doctor is yet another Hitchcock ref: "Spellbound" - as is Joker’s bi-plane: "North by Northwest".
The references continue as we see a bit more international intrigue, learning something of Alfred’s past in The Lion and the Unicorn, a spy thriller with elements of Hitchcock’s mid-30’s spy-centric output: "The 39 Steps," “Secret Agent," and "Sabotage". Plus, the return of Red Claw because... no idea (although, honestly, it didn’t bother me, at all).
Also not bothering me was The Terrible Trio, a generally reviled episode. I, too, remember not liking this when I was younger, but this time around - shrug - it was OK. Perhaps my easier judgement was colored by the fact that I was primed for "Spot the Hitchcock" and this - with the snobby frat boys and their superior attitude toward their lessers - seemed to take its inspiration from the film, "Rope". Also Hitchcock-adjacent is Robin being laid up with a broken arm - shades of "Rear Window" - which provides a convenient reason for his absence in the season-proper conclusion...
Trial! I say "season-proper" because - as we’ll see - we are actually going to close out with a feature film. But - before we get there - we have this tour de force featuring a great many themes of the series overall, as Batman is forced to run the gauntlet with a kangaroo court of baddies holding him accountable for their very existence. This episode has an epic feel, and would have definitely benefitted from being a two-parter (indeed, it was originally shortlisted to be the plot of the first feature film) but, even so, still provides a great story worthy of a finale. The return of Janet Van Dorn, intro-ed in the "Shadow of the Bat" opener, provides a nice symmetry to the season, and the wealth of references to past episodes - rouges' past encounters in Pretty Poison, Mad as a Hatter and Almost Got 'Im, as well as Poison Ivy being returned to Arkham after fleeing in "House and Garden" (and being welcomed back by Harley) give the sense that we are seeing a universe with a real emphasis on internal consistency. Highly rewarding! And - since we are being rewarded - let’s top it all off with an epic hour and a half long feature film:
Awww, yeah… widescreen treatment time, as we revisit everything we've come to know and love about Batman’s world. A great mix of mobsters and costumed baddies, origins abound as we see the beginnings of the costume, Bruce’s martial arts training, the Batcave, the Batmobile, on and on… and delve into some pre-series versions of old faves with Gordon, uniformed cop Harvey Bullock (!), and the man who would be Joker ("Gasp… can it be?"). Placing this after "Trial" provides a deeper meaning to the various references in the film to Bruce’s mental state ("Unstable," "a madman," “model of sanity"). What’s more, this movie also provides the perfect crescendo to Bruce’s season-long dalliance with his inability to find love, as we see the actual "one who got away," Andrea Beaumont. In retrospect, I really wish she had been featured more throughout the DCAU as it developed, but she still does have at least one more important role to fill - as we will see waaaaaaaaay down the line. Good stuff!
Whew... out of breath.
So... what are we looking like? Let's look:
I am very glad I started this experiment... I think I’m coming to a much greater appreciation of the genius of the crew who put these shows together.