It’s September 10, 1992, four days after “On Leather Wings” and a good couple of weeks before “Two-Face,” yet what we are watching is clearly a sequel to it.
Oh, it works reasonably well as a prequel as well, telling the story of how mob boss and drug dealer Arnold Stromwell turned police informant, handing over power to his rival Rupert Thorne, which in turn both sets Thorne up as an established villain for “Two-Face” and explains why and how the police are hounding him so closely–they’re using information received from Stromwell.
Stromwell is very much the main character here, with very little attention given to Batman’s investigation or motivation. We see very little beyond what Stromwell knows, and what we do see outside that serves mainly as foreshadowing for what Stromwell is about to experience, for example when we see a disguised Bruce Wayne leave the diner where Stromwell and Thorne are meeting, or Batman visiting Stromwell’s priest brother, Father Michael. This is Stromwell’s experience, and it is notably framed as a divine intervention.
We start by establishing Stromwell’s worsening situation–his drug empire crumbling, Thorne closing in on him, his son missing. Then comes what is clearly a PTSD flashback to the train accident in which the future Father Michael lost his leg rescuing young Stromwell. Stromwell, we will come to understand in this episode, is haunted by guilt that he, the “bad” brother, survived without injury while the “good” brother was hurt. There is here an unremarked-upon kinship between him and Batman, both survivors of childhood traumas (at what looks to be about the same age, too, just before or during puberty), both haunted by survivor guilt. Perhaps if Stromwell had made different choices, he could have been a hero, too.
Which is, perhaps, the point: Stromwell’s crisis is due almost entirely to his choices. His near-death at the hands of Thorne is a direct consequence, at least as depicted in the episode, of his childhood choices to pursue a life of crime. He is destined to burn–but, as a witness describes it in the episode, Batman swoops in like “a dark angel” to save him “from the fires of Hades.” A bit on the nose, perhaps, but the point is clear: Stromwell is being granted a mystical experience to turn from evil.
Here is the first real instance of the mystical or magical in BTAS. Oh, we’ve had some strange things happening, certainly, such as the Man-Bat or Poison Ivy, but these are couched in the iconography of science, albeit comic book-y, “mad” science. Here we have the first of many instances where Batman’s life brushes up against occult, mystical, or outright magical foes–and allies–who will slowly build in importance throughout the DCAU until, by the end of the metaseries, it is straightforwardly reaching for the mythic. Here, however, the mystical is depicted as an intrusion into the mundane, temporal, corrupt world of crime. There is no sense of a Devil here; the closest we get is Batman’s shadow looking like a horned figure in Father Michael’s office, but Batman is explicitly a dark angel, not a fallen one.
In one of the most common forms of mystical experience in the Christian tradition, Stromwell is vouchsafed a series of visions of present and future consequences of his wickedness: he receives a vision of hell in the form of the burning diner Batman rescues him from, as we already noted, then shown the dizzying drop into the abyss from the roof Batman takes him to. Shortly after he is shown the other sense in which he is destroying his future: his missing son in rehab, in agonized withdrawal from, as Stromwell’s ex-wife is quick to remind him, the very drugs Stromwell sells. Again, very on the nose, but by the standards of early 1990s anti-drug propaganda, this passes for subtlety, as no one actually tells an audience stand-in character that drugs will kill them. (And most of it was propaganda–part of the reason it was so ubiquitous was a U.S. government program that paid children’s shows quite a bit of money to air anti-drug episodes, usually enough to defray the costs of several episodes.)
Finally, confronted with the forgiveness and unconditional love of his brother, Stromwell breaks, embraces him, and confesses his crimes. In case his brother being a priest wasn’t enough to make obvious what’s happening, Batman even turns to look at a cathedral, a lingering shot of which closes out the episode.
This is, essentially, the story of Augustine or Scrooge, the standard Christian story of the wicked man who saw the light and confessed his sins, thereby being freed from them and turning to good. It is an extremely simplistic view of good and evil, and in particular does not examine at all why young Stromwell was a thief or why he started running drugs. Were the Stromwell children very poor, as their depression-era garb in the flashbacks suggests? Was crime a way for Stromwell to escape misery? The episode doesn’t care, any more than it cares why his son would start taking drugs. (There is growing research to suggest that social isolation is a greater cause of addiction than the actual drugs are, which is why most people can take opiates for pain while in the hospital without then becoming heroin addicts, and why drug addiction is so much more common among social outcasts, such as the homeless, than it is in the general population.) It is a very Sunday School sort of view: People do bad things because they freely choose to do those things, but if they admit it they can be guided into doing good things. No underlying systemic causes can be found here.
As a first step into the mystical, it is a very safe and limited one. Far from challenging the mundane world in which we live, this episode openly equates crime with sin and salvation with the authoritarian structures of police and church. Nowhere here is the chaos and personal revolution that necessarily accompanies transformative experience. Nonetheless, the groundwork is laid.
Which is the sense in which this works better as a sequel to “Two-Face” then a prequel. That episode helped reveal that Batman is a creature of hope; this episode clarifies what he hopes for. Stromwell is his greatest victory to date: not because he got a drug-runner off the street or turned a mob boss into an informant; we know perfectly well that Thorne or someone else will step into Stromwell’s shoes, that drugs will continue to flow from producers to buyers, that crime will go on, precisely because this episode–and therefore Batman and structures of authority he allies with–refuses to even look at underlying systemic causes, so all the effects of those causes will continue unchecked. But that’s not what Batman is fighting for; he’s fighting for the soul of Arnold Stromwell, just as he fought for the soul of Harvey Dent in the previous episode, just as he will fight for the souls of every criminal he meets, out of the belief that even the guilty can be redeemed.
After all, if they can’t, what hope is there for his own survivor’s guilt?
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