It’s November 13, 1992. That’s a pretty big jump–two months–from the air date of our last episode, and the three episodes after this all aired in September, so let’s leave the pop-cultural history items until we get a run of episodes in November.
It’s an interesting choice to make this the first episode produced after the pilot, since it seems pretty clearly to have been intended to air later in the season from the start. The Christmas theme makes much more sense in mid-November than in September, while the much later-produced “Joker’s Favor” serves as a much better introduction to the character as a character, as opposed to a narrative force. Admittedly, it’s a little odd that it aired in the middle of the month instead of the end—the last BTAS episode of 2012 aired on November 24—but then again airing it earlier both results in the Joker escaping from Arkham twice in a single week and is a subtle jab against the whole idea of the “holiday special” that this episode appears to be.
It’s fairly obvious from the start that this is not the pilot; the animation is less fluid and more repetitive, and the general tone is a shade more cartoon-y. Gotham is apparently a peaceful place on Christmas Eve, elderly ladies kiss strange men for returning dropped packages, and Robin both exists and is square enough to actually want to watch It’s a Wonderful Life.
His desire to watch that film, and his explicit positioning of it as a parallel to Batman as a story about how “one man can make a difference to an entire city” is fascinating as a framing for this episode, because that’s not really what It’s a Wonderful Life is about; more accurate would be to say that it’s the story of a city which would descend into chaos and darkness if not for the efforts of one man, who is never thanked or validated in any way, until he is on the verge of self-destruction himself. Given where Bruce Wayne ends up in the DCAU, that’s a more accurate description of Batman, too.
But then, that we shouldn’t take Robin’s framing at face value is perhaps suggested by the fact that he doesn’t manage to completely frame the episode; the actual frame is the Joker, who begins and ends the episode by mocking Christmas and Batman both. Mark Hamill, in his second-most famous role after some space movie, absolutely devours the scenery as the Joker, and his performance drives the episode as he renders grotesque and absurd the very idea of the Christmas special, imbuing every syllable with both mockery and malice as he plays at a fake version of the “celebrity Christmas special”—a sort of one-off variety show hosted by and featuring an assortment of minor film, music, or television stars that was once ubiquitous on American television—of which Hamill’s own Star Wars Christmas Special is one of the most notorious examples.
In the hands of the Joker, this staple of the Christmas season is upended. The Joker here is engaging in the spirit of carnival—another Christmas tradition, far older than celebrity television specials–in which the sacred is profaned, the social order upturned, and the grotesque and bizarre celebrated. His special guest stars are not fellow-celebrity “friends” brought on for a performance, but hostages he intends to kill and a puppet he painted on his hand. He is a force of chaos, constantly changing mood, switching rapidly from playful to murderous, and able to transgress powerfully against the narrative, most notably when Batman traces his single in classic World’s Greatest Detective fashion, and Joker simply isn’t there—another reason this could never have worked as the second aired episode, since there needs to be time to establish a typical narrative before the Joker can transgress it.
Perhaps most interesting is his habit throughout the special of peering out from inside television sets. He is aware that he is on television, most notably when he announces “a word from our sponsor” just before BTAS itself goes on a commercial break, and this knowledge both explains much about him and grants him tremendous power. The explanation is simple: everything is absurd to him because nothing is real; he knows that he, his surroundings, and his endless war with Batman are all just a cartoon. The power is his aforementioned ability to transgress the narrative: he recognizes that there is one, and therefore isn’t bound by it. He can even force Batman into a television set—twice, when Batman is in danger, once on the runaway train and once at the observatory, the Joker is able to watch it on television. His special is not simply a show-within-a-show of BTAS; he has made BTAS a show-within-a-show of his special.
It is worth noting that the Joker is largely without origin at this point in the show. Much later, when BTAS’ success is well-established to the point of making movies, a version of his origin will be told, but neither here nor in any of his first several appearances in airing order is he given an origin, in sharp contrast to other prominent Batman villains like Two-Face, Catwoman, and Poison Ivy, all of whom are given either full origin stories or at least first run-ins with Batman in their first appearance. The Joker is, instead, a known quantity from the start—rather than the “multiple-choice past” of The Killing Joke, he has no past at all. The reason is displayed here: BTAS is emboited as a television show within the Joker’s show, which is emboited as a television show within BTAS, ad infinitum. There is no “outermost” show, no “real” fiction—no space within which the Joker can be real enough to have a past. He is just colored lights flickering across a screen, scripted lines read with enormous and deliberate performativity—as opposed to the more naturalistic readings by the other actors in the episode–by an actor, emphasizing Hamill and thereby denying even the possibility of a real Joker.
And all of it is just so that he can hit Batman in the face with a pie. That’s all—he unravels any notion that he exists within a real space, the entire concept of “continuity” upon which superhero comics in general and the DCAU in particular rely so heavily, just for one cheap gag that only he finds funny. He shrieks, right at the start, in the very first regularly produced episode of the show, that none of this actually matters—which, of course, the very idea of a Christmas special does as well, since “real life” doesn’t have any such thing.
Once again, we have the time-honored notion of the villain as mirror of the hero, but in a curious way. It isn’t just that the Joker is mercurial and aggressively silly while Batman is dour and defensively stoic, or that the Joker is a murderous criminal while Batman is a determinedly nonlethal vigilante. Batman is the core “reality” upon which BTAS revolves, the unchanging figure that gives life to the rest; the Joker is unreality and fictionality, the reminder that this is all just a show, and as such he is a force of destruction and death—not in the sense of causing characters to die, although he can do that, but in the sense of being a threat to the very show itself, by undermining its obvious ambition to be serious, dark, and gothic with his own aesthetic of absurd, grotesque carnival.
Spoiler alert: He wins. BTAS dies, and it’s the Joker that kills it, in a sense. But—well, we’ll talk about the “but” when we get to it.