It’s September 22, 1992, a week after “Nothing to Fear.” Boyz II Men are still sitting atop the charts, and The Last of the Mohicans is going to open at number one this weekend. In the news this week, the U.S. Navy announces plans to discipline three admirals for failure to properly investigate the sexual assaults of 26 women, including the assaults that comprised the 1991 Tailhook scandal; Shawn Russ (named Gregory Kingsley at the time) “divorces” his parents, becoming the first U.S. child to successfully sue for emancipation; and the UN votes to expel “Yugoslavia” (by now reduced to just Serbia) for its attempted genocide in Bosnia, which had declared independence earlier in the year.
On TV we have the only episode written by Carl Swenson, “The Last Laugh,” and honestly it’s not hard to see why. There is nothing offensively wrong with the episode, but it is nothing but a sequence of fight-deathtrap-escape-fight-deathtrap-escape-fight, with no real characters to speak of, and no particular obstacles or escalation. Batman immediately pins the crisis du jour on the Joker, finds him near-effortlessly, then gets beaten up by an inexplicable robot and left to drown. He escapes and immediately finds the Joker again, narrowly escapes being killed by the robot and destroys it, and the Joker escapes. Batman chases him into some sort of foundry or metal recycling plant, and the Joker sets off another deathtrap, which Batman narrowly escapes, and this time catches the Joker. There is no escalation, no sense of mounting stakes, and no variation, which means there is no particular reason that Batman caught Joker the third time as opposed to the other times, except that it was a 22-minute episode. It could just as easily have added two or three more deathtraps to be a two-party, or a couple of hundred deathtraps to be an entire season.
Presumably, Alfred’s exposure to the toxin is meant to give a sense of urgency to these proceedings, but unfortunately Alfred and Batman are both extremely stoic characters, and there is no one else for Batman to emote to. There isn’t even any alternative outlet for his feelings that could serve to suggest he is upset about Alfred; he does not hesitate before going out, or seem any angrier than usual when confronting the Joker.
For his part, the Joker is oddly mundane compared to his previous outing. Far from trying to usurp the show, he behaves like a typical villain from the Adam West Batman, undertaking a ludicrous and elaborate scheme just so that he can commit some robberies. It’s quite a step down from trying to trap Batman inside a rogue Christmas special, and Hamill seems to be responding to the lackluster script by giving a far less energetic performance. This does help, however, to distinguish his Joker from Nicholson’s: Hamill’s is actually capable of dialing down the intensity at times, while Nicholson’s is always at maximum.
There are a few strong moments here, however. There is something delightfully cynical about Summer Gleeson reporting a massive gas attack on the city by talking about how the stock market is on the verge of collapse. The music also steps up to the plate in a fantastic way, particularly this blend of a driving, horns-and-percussion heavy motif used for the Joker’s schemes in action, which then abruptly cuts to the Joker’s own playful, woodwind-dominated motif when he is actually onscreen. Unfortunately, as the episode goes on this switching becomes nearly as repetitive as the trap-escape structure.
But ultimately, the lack of any character moments or variation is what really hurts this episode. One fewer deathtrap could have given time for Batman to use the Joker’s belief in his death against him, or even better to have a seen earlier in the episode where Bruce Wayne has to talk to someone about Alfred, forcing him to show real emotion in order to maintain that persona.
But that would require him having someone to talk to–which is the real service this episode provides, highlighting a major problem of the show. Batman has no life outside of punching crime in the face, which means that the show needs to either focus heavily on the villains and their stories (as the first three episodes did to varying degrees) or consist of little other than Batman punching crime. It needs to establish something more to him, give him relationships beyond the very formal and limited relationship with Alfred. True, the show was able to achieve some insight into him through his exposure to the fear toxin in “Nothing to Fear,” but he can hardly be exposed to hallucinogens every episode.
No, what he really needs are interactions with characters who aren’t criminals, so that we can see who he is when he isn’t punching things. Fortunately, the next two episodes will provide.
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