Batman: The Animated Series is my favorite television show of all time. It combines superheroics with a deep sense of empathy and pathos, and captures it all with a deliberately timeless style. Full of smart writing and great vocal performances, it contains some of my favorite stories of any medium. In honor of its 25th anniversary (oh God I’m so old), here are my picks for some of the best episodes, but I tried to stay away from ones that are straight up adaptations of specific comic book stories, like “Demon’s Quest” or “The Laughing Fish.” Also the whole series is streaming on Amazon Prime if you want to check it out.
12. “Mean Seasons”/”Baby-Doll” (tie)
A recurring theme on this list, as with any writing about this series, is how sympathetic the show’s villains are. “Mean Seasons” is written by Hilary J. Bader and is the only appearance of Calendar Girl. Committing holiday-themed kidnappings (they’d be outright murders if this wasn’t a kids’ show), Calendar Girl is a masked woman who always hides her face. In reality, she is a beautiful woman whose modeling career dried up because she turned 30. The character is voiced by Sela Ward, who was campaigning against Hollywood’s obsession with youth at the time. This episode was my first exposure to that idea, and it is handled pretty well, spoofing the show’s own network lineup of Dawson’s Creek, Buffy, and Felicity as well as showing the artificiality of beauty. Also, Batman fights a robot dinosaur.
“Baby-Doll” is about a character of the same name, an original created for the series by writer Paul Dini. A child actress with a disease that prevents her from aging, she seeks revenge on her former sitcom co-stars and threatens a murder-suicide during a forced reenactment of their final episode. Oh and she hides a machine gun in a doll’s body. Thematically similar to “Mean Seasons,” this episode ends with Batman showing a deep sorrow for Baby-Doll. She would appear in one more episode, “Love is a Croc,” which is also a tearjerker.
11. “Beware the Gray Ghost”
This episode adds a fun little twist to the Batman origin, and gives Bruce Wayne some additional inspiration points besides a bat costume and Zorro. We learn all about The Gray Ghost, a television show Bruce watched as a kid. The show is slightly modeled off the 1966 Batman show, and the main character is voiced by Adam West. Even as a kid I understood the significance of that, and hearing Kevin Conroy’s Batman alongside Adam West is still magical.
10. “Perchance to Dream”
This is the most film noir heavy episode of the entire series, and reflects the German Expressionism/noir styling of Tim Burton’s Batman films in a way the show rarely commits to (the show’s style was dubbed ‘Dark Deco’ by creator Bruce Timm). In this episode, Bruce Wayne wakes up in a world where he isn’t Batman, his parents are alive, and he seems to have everything he wants, except he has all the memories of the real world. Despite relying on some bad science as part of its solution, this episode is both clever and packs an emotional punch.
9. “House and Garden”
The Animated Series has a great take on Poison Ivy, portraying her as a genius eco-terrorist, and this Paul Dini penned episode is the best of them. Batman is investigating attacks by Hulk-like plant creatures, so of course Ivy is his prime suspect. But she seems to have turned over a new leaf (great pun by Commissioner Gordon in the episode) and is happily married and living in the suburbs. Or is she? Again, the empathetic depiction of Batman’s Rogues Gallery elevates the show, and the sad truth at the core of this episode is underscored by Batman’s final lines as Ivy tears up looking at her wedding photo: “Ivy lost everything she had, everything she said she ever wanted. For what it’s worth, I believed her when she told me that for the first time in her life she was happy.”
8. “Harley and Ivy”
This episode debuts the unlikely friendship between Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn, and also the development of Harley as her own character with an identity independent of the Joker. The two women go on a crime spree together, with Ivy demonstrating to Harley how to be an empowered female. It’s a fun romp of a story, and while Ivy’s lessons don’t stick right away, it’s an important piece of Harley Quinn, the series’ breakout character.
This is kind of a weird episode. It’s the Joker (voiced deliciously by Mark Hamil), threatening to nuke Gotham City, while Batman employs Harley Quinn to try to track him down. It’s a harrowing storyline, yet it features some of the most cartoonish gags in the series’ run. Again written by Paul Dini, it captures what I consider the essence of the Joker, in what makes him not just an insane anarchist, but also a clown. And it also adds more layers to his relationship with Harley Quinn.
6. “Over the Edge”
This might be the darkest episode of the series. Commissioner Gordon discovers his daughter, Barbara, is Batgirl after she falls from a roof onto his police car and dies. What ensues is a war between Gordon and Batman, as well as the consequences of Batman’s identity as Bruce Wayne is revealed to the world. There’s a huge amount of story for 22 minutes, but Paul Dini (I honestly didn’t realize how many of my picks he had written when I picked these episodes) is able to make it a tight story. I didn’t want to include two “what if” episodes on this list, but this one ends with a catharsis for Barbara rather than Bruce, and is written so well that it earns a spot.
Yes, one of the best episodes of the series is one in which Batman barely appears. It opens with Batman and Robin investigating a kidnapping at a nursing home perpetrated by their immortal enemy Ra’s al Ghul. The rest of the episode takes place in 1883, with bounty hunter Jonah Hex, a classic DC Western character, on the hunt for Arkady Duvall, voiced by Malcolm McDowell. It’s basically a Western/steampunk adventure, with plenty of blimps, and a very different setting than Gotham City. Seeing the show stretch into the larger DC Universe was a treat and hinted at what was to come with Superman, Justice League and the other animated series to come.
4. “Two-Face” (Parts 1 and 2)
Coming early in the season’s run, this is one of the most mature early episodes. Detailing the transformation of District Attorney Harvey Dent into the villain Two-Face, the basic story may be familiar to everyone thanks to Christopher Nolan, but this episode marks the first major telling of this origin outside of the comics. What makes this particular adaptation arguably superior to Nolan’s is that Dent is good friends with Bruce Wayne, and is not a pawn of the Joker. The physical damage he suffers only serves to manifest his already existent alternate personality “Big Bad Harv.” It makes his story even more tragic and affecting. This is one of Batman’s biggest defeats.
3. “Heart of Ice”
Another Dini episode, this might be the most famous story the show has ever produced, and is widely considered one of the best. Giving a ridiculous villain like Mister Freeze a tragic origin, one truly coming from the most human of emotions, really showed what the show was going to be capable of. This origin is absolutely heartbreaking, and was incorporated into the comics as well as the film Batman & Robin.
2. “Joker’s Favor”
Not only is this episode the first appearance of Harley Quinn and the introduction to this series’ version of the Joker (deliciously voiced by Mark Hamil), but it has an exceedingly clever premise. Charlie Collins, a normal everyday guy, inadvertently cusses out the Joker when the latter’s getaway car cuts him off on the highway after a particularly bad day. The Joker tails him, but lets him go on the promise that Charlie owes the Joker a favor. The story picks up two years later, when the Joker calls in that favor. This version of the Joker is equal clown and terrifying menace, and Hamil is note perfect. And this episode also ends with the only time we see this Batman genuinely laugh.
1. “Almost Got ‘Im”
This story features a host of Batman Rogues: Joker, Penguin, Two-Face, Poison Ivy, and Killer Croc. Are they teaming up to take over the world? Nope. Just a friendly card game where they tell stories of the times they came closest to defeating the Dark Knight. The shorts themselves are fun, but the ending (which I won’t spoil here if you haven’t seen it), is what put this one all the way to number one.
Author: Ryan Silberstein
Ryan spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area, and his nights
as a mysterious caped vigilante saving his city from the disease that is crime watching movies. He lives on a diet consisting of film, comic books, experimental beer, black coffee, and those big metal historical markers around town. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.