It’s September 15, 1993, several months later than any episode we’ve watched so far. However, it’s also the day after the “Shadow of the Bat” two-parter finished airing, so I’ll wait until that entry to cover charts and news across the interim.
“Mudslide” is a response to fan enthusiasm for another Clayface episode, which the creators were reluctant to do as animation costs for “Feat of Clay” had been quite high and they found Clayface difficult to write for. Nonetheless, the effort by writers Alan Burnett (story) and Steve Perry (teleplay) and director Eric Radomski is quite solid, and while Studio Junio’s animation isn’t quite up to the standards TMS set in “Feat of Clay, Part II,” it’s still pretty good.
Primarily, this episode is about movies, and more broadly about performativity. As in “Feat of Clay,” Clayface talks about Hagen in the third person, as someone he once was but no longer is. His transformation has made him not only able to assume any physical identity, but any personal identity as well, and in both cases at the price of losing any identity of his own. He is an actor losing himself in his role, with the loss of physical cohesion driving his crimes simply a reification of that loss.
But he is far from the only one losing themselves in a performance. Consider Stella Bates, the former medical consultant on one of his movies. She clearly has intense feelings for Clayface, but are they her own? Or are they the feelings of the movie character she helped write, toward Matt Hagen’s character in the same movie? That Clayface uses his character’s confession of love from the movie to apologize and thank her rather suggests the latter. Her existence as a movie character is only reinforced by the number of film references around her: the suit she designs for Clayface makes him look like an Oscar statuette, her family owned a motel (as in the Bates Motel of Psycho fame), and Clayface is clearly channeling Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire when he cries out her name near the episode’s climax. And of course in terms of the episode’s plot, she plays the classic film role of the “mad scientist,” with her lab full of levers and glass tubes and the hulking, quasi-human creature she creates on her table.
Interestingly, the episode never makes this explicit. Despite all the implications that Stella has lost herself in a role, the episode never makes reference to the cliche of stalkers who convince themselves they are an actor’s love interest in some movie or soap opera, never refers to her as delusional or even makes an outright statement that she is in love with Hagen. It is simply depicted and left to us to figure out, a signpost to further implications.
Because Stella’s performativity leads us naturally to question Clayface’s. Specifically, given his use of movie lines to interact with Stella, is he just playing a role for her in order to get what he wants? Or is he, like her, lost in a role, unaware that his relationship with her is as artificial as the suit he wears or the forms he takes? Perhaps there is no meaningful difference; after all, if Clayface is, as his dialogue implies, no longer Matt Hagen, then he’s not anyone, just an amorphous blob that takes the forms of others, uses them for his purposes, and moves on. Certainly there isn’t any indication that he feels for Stella as she appears to feel for him.
But he tries. He tries to go back to who he was, with Stella’s help and the stolen MP-40 (which shares its name, probably coincidentally, with the standard submachine gun used by Nazi troops in WWII, a frequent prop in movies set in and around that period), but Batman won’t let him. Batman, whom he tries and fails to devour.
Because if anyone is an actor lost in his own performance, it’s Bruce Wayne. Batman is pure performance, which is why he works best in media and genres known for going over the top–comics, campy 60s television, cartoons–but becomes dull and dour when treated with greater realism. We have seen before (most notably in “P.O.V.” and “See No Evil”) how much of Batman’s power comes from the perceptions of others, perceptions he deliberately manipulates. Without that performance, he is just a man in a silly costume bringing his fists to a gunfight.
So of course Clayface, in trying to recover the person lost in the performance, threatens to devour Batman. If something exists which can reassemble the original person from the trauma-induced chaos of switching between multiple roles, then Bruce Wayne can heal. The person he was when he was eight years old can be restored, can have a chance to grow up and be a complete identity, not fragmented between the Bat and the secret identity. He can be whole.
And if that happens, the show ends. This is narrative collapse, an idea first described by Philip Sandifer in discussing Doctor Who. Briefly, traditional conflict in stories can be understood as a problem for the protagonist, such as a threat to their well-being or an obstacle to their goals. Most Batman stories are no different; villains capture and try to injure him or his loved ones, or they commit crimes and must therefore be dealt with to achieve his goal of punching all of the crime in Gotham. A narrative collapse, on the other hand, is an existential threat to the story itself; the question a narrative collapse raises is not “How will they get out of this one?” but rather “How can there be more episodes after this?”
This is where Clayface stands in this episode. He both commits crimes and physically menaces Batman, yes, but beyond that he threatens the very premise of Batman as a concept. So not only Batman, but the show itself, turns against him, as first rain and then the ocean work to dilute and dissolve him. In the end there is nothing left of him but a shadow in the water, and then even that dissolves. His attempt to recover his identity led to a complete loss of any identity, even as a performance. Very often, the resolution of a narrative collapse comes at a great cost, and this one is no different: Clayface is gone, and will not return until after the series’ complete retooling (which itself is a narrative collapse of sorts, albeit one that occurs largely extradiegetically).
As Batman leads a sobbing Stella away, we see that clearly both their performances are continuing. The series is safe; Batman remains the performance of a fractured identity.
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