Years ago, out to lunch with one of my best friends, he made an observation, “You know, I think you’d be happy never getting married. You’re comfortable on your own. You don’t need someone else to enjoy life. But if you get married, I think you’ll marry a single mother. Lots of guys wouldn’t. Lots of people avoid dating single parents. But you don’t. You’re good with kids. You love kids and you’d love her kids, which would be great for everyone.” While this friend knew me better than most (at the time, we’ve lost touch a bit), he rarely weighed in on my personal life. So it was unexpected but I didn’t disagree. It felt authentic. Still, I’d’ve never guessed this would be a bridge to see a little of myself in the Joker :8. Gah! The Clown Prince of Crime. The Harlequin of Hate. The Jester of Genocide. The King of Arkham Asylum. This is the guy – thanks to HBO Max’s mind-bendingly brilliant and sensationally subversive Harley Quinn – I’m now empathizing with?? Color me surprised.
In my humble opinion, HBO Max’s Harley Quinn is the greatest superhero/comic book show of all time. It captures the essence of all the characters. It’s aware of its roots, drawing from (and filled with allusions to) all the cartoons, comics, and movies which came before. Yet its uniquely it’s own, deviating organically from the source material in brilliant and even shocking ways. It has biting social critiques and justice-oriented messages. Expertly weaving laugh-out-loud humor, action scenes, and intimate moments together, it’s also the single best depiction of what healthy, loving, symbiotic relationships – romantic as well as platonic – look like, how they’re built, and how they’re maintained I’ve ever seen in any pop culture medium ever. Harley Quinn has a lot to teach us and, if we heed those lessons, we can all become healthier, happier people.
However, the show isn’t for everyone. Consensual sex is often discussed and openly depicted. Profanity flows freely (I love Poison Ivy’s “piss cakes of a dick”). And the violence is graphic. Any or all of these things could make someone uncomfortable and, while we should always be willing to wade into our discomfort in the name of growth and examining our biases, it may feel like a bit too much. So not everyone will love Harley Quinn as I do. One of the things which may not sit well with some is the aforementioned shocking deviations from the source material. I doubt any is more shocking than the Joker’s arc over the last three seasons.
Season One sees Harley struggle to leave her abusive relationship with the Joker. She is ultimately successful and her attempt to join the Legion of Doom to spite him puts them on a collision course which results in a now sane, amnesiac, normal-flesh-toned Joker being pulled from the rubble of his old base. In Season Two, he’s become a bartender and entered a relationship with Bethany, the nurse who found him in the rubble and stayed by his side while he was in the hospital. Once Harley triggers his Joker personality again (so they can find the Queen of Fables’ book to free the Justice League to save Gotham from a Parademon army), he believes it’s the end of his time as a suburban stepdad.
However, watching Harley wrestle with her romantic feelings for Ivy, he realizes just because he’s the Joker doesn’t mean he can’t still be with Bethany and her kids, Sophie and Benicio. As they sneak through a hive of sleeping Parademons, Joker has an epiphany:
Joker – “Seeing you toss away your chance with Ivy’s got me thinking about my own love life. I mean I don’t wanna biff it like you did.”
Harley – “Hey, I told Ivy how I felt AND SHE DIDN’T FEEL THAT WAY, END OF STORY! WATER UNDER THE BRIDGE!”
Joker – “Right, right. The screaming about it at the mere mention of her name certainly backs that up.”
Joker – “Look at these hideous monsters. Aww, Bethany and I used to cuddle just like that. God, we could just sit on the couch and talk about nothing for hours. We just got each other. She always had my back. Good God! That’s true love!”
Harley – “Then you can’t just give up. Love’s a risk and it may not always go in your favor but if it’s true love you have to fight for it.”
Joker and Bethany reconcile and Season Three sees them living together in a loving, caring, committed relationship. The Joker isn’t denying who he was yet he’s made space within himself and his life to be a good partner to Bethany and devoted stepfather to Sophia and Benicio. As the Joker tells Ivy, “I’m both a maniacal force of nature and I want free universal health care. People can be more than just one thing. They grow and evolve.”
“Joker: The Killing Vote” (S3E6) is a Harley-and-Ivy-less episode (each season has one) which finds Joker frustrated at his kids not getting admitted to Gotham School District’s Spanish language dual immersion program. The opening of the episode does a brilliant job of setting up the Joker’s new status quo and it gives us a ‘90s sitcom theme song for his new life XD. If you have a spare 3:17 (or even just 1:59 to get through the theme song!), here it is:
I love it so much! Joker is a part of the community! Look at all those relationships! And look at how Joker sees himself! When he enters the school office Janice says, “I was just sneaking my shows. But who needs TV when you got Gotham City’s most infamous criminal mastermind turned sane bartender turned back into unhinged but now equally charming psychopath?” Joker tells her, “Hahaha, Janice please, I’m just plain, old Sophia and Benicio’s stepdad.” Clearly Joker is growing and evolving.
Before this show – across movies, comics, and cartoons – I’d seen the Joker do a lot of creepy, malevolent things. Never liking clowns, the Joker was one of my childhood’s greatest fears. I watched Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) a lot (because I was a kid who loved superheroes when there were hardly any superhero movies) even though Jack Nicholson’s Joker scared the hell out of me. I still have visceral pangs of uncertainty and fear when I see Mark Hamill’s Joker in Batman: The Animated Series’ “Joker’s Favor” (S1E7). In the comics I’ve seen the Joker beat Jason Todd/Robin to death with a crowbar; kill an entire troop of Cub Scouts, at least fifteen children, by giving them poisoned cotton candy; paralyze and rape Barbara Gordon in a story so horrific I couldn’t call it “good” let alone “a classic;” and be a physically, emotionally, and sexually abusive asshole to Harley Quinn through their relationship.
As evil characters go, I don’t know there is one worse than the Joker. Resisting any clear mental illness diagnosis, he makes us wrestle with questions of the nature of evil. In his text Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight, professor of psychology Travis Langley writes:
The Joker defies diagnosis. His behavior doesn’t neatly fit any specific mental illness beyond his obvious psychopathy. He has no conscience, no empathy, no personal concern over right and wrong. Antisocial personality disorder describes him in many ways but is inadequate, failing to distinguish him from many petty thieves. There’s so much more to the Joker. We just don’t know what’s going on inside his head and for storytelling purposes, it’s best that we don’t. Knowing he had a specific mental illness might endanger our sympathy.
No conscience. No empathy. No personal concern over right and wrong. This is the character who’s now identifying himself as, “just plain, old Sophia and Benicio’s stepdad.” This fundamental bedrock shift in the character is staggering and, if I’m being honest, at first I wasn’t sure I liked it.
I always saw the Joker as the personification of evil. This character wasn’t ill. He wasn’t hurt or confused or “the hero of his own story” doing what he thought was right though it wasn’t. If there was just one character in all of fiction who is ABSOLUTE EVIL it’s the Joker. So seeing Joker in a healthy, loving relationship and doing all he can for his partner and kids felt…a little wrong. Also, more personally, several people I love very much have suffered in abusive relationships. Part of me still struggles to forgive those abusers so, knowing how Joker treated Harley and understanding the Joker as an abuser and reading my own personal experience of loved ones as victims and survivors of abuse into that dynamic, I bristled at the idea of Joker in a happy and loving relationship like that.
However, with all Kalie has taught me about monsters and Monster Theory over the years, I know we often use the label of “monster” to otherize, drawing lines between “us” (those like us and thus safe) and “the other” (those deemed different and thus dangerous), which is never a good thing. Also, as the Center for Prevention of Abuse states at the beginning of their article on helping abusers, “Perpetrators often abuse because of learned attitudes and feelings of entitlement and privilege, which can be difficult to reverse. To start the recovery process, an abuser should locate a certified batterer intervention program immediately. While people do have the capacity to change, they need to genuinely want and be committed to all aspects of change in order to do so.”
All this is to say it’s not impossible for an abuser, as the Joker was with Harley, to change. It’s certainly not easy. It takes a lifelong commitment to healing and changing behavior grounded in the abuser’s choice to change. It takes a supportive community, work in therapy, and dedication. But it can happen. Plus, we don’t lose the Joker as the personification of evil since he still personifies fucked up, unrepentant evil in most Batman stories. Harley Quinn just gives us something else, something healthier and more hopeful. It’s the ultimate redemption story.
We see Joker is trying to change too! As he tells Batman-cum-Debbie in his nightmare, “Why are you still chasing me?? I’m a different person now. I haven’t been in a dark alley in forever! C’mon, I’m a stay-at-home dad. I mean, I’m not ‘their dad.’ I’m not trying to replace him. Unless one day they ask me and, [smiling] heh heh, that would mean the world to me.” Again, he is growing and evolving.
After they tell the kids they didn’t get into the dual immersion program, Benicio tells his parents he wants to go by “Ben” now, so he won’t standout in school. Bethany and Joker are heartbroken and Bethany wants to smash Debbie’s face in with a tire iron. Joker tells her he can handle it, his trademark laugh echoing as he says he knows how to deal with archenemies. The scene cuts to Joker holding a covered dish and knocking on Debbie’s car window as she pulls into her VIP parking place at the school.
Joker – “Hey Debbie, nice parking spot. So, you’re a VIP, huh?”
Debbie – “Uh, yes I am because I have a very important job and I need a very important spot. Whadda ya want?”
Joker – “Listen, I just want to show my appreciation for you and all you do [hands her the dish]. It’s arroz con pollo, from me casa to su casa.”
Debbie – “Mmhmm, and is that an ethnic dish or…?”
Joker – “It sure is ‘ethnic.’ Speaking of racist, I couldn’t help thinking about the dual immersion program and how amazing it would be if you could pull some strings.”
Debbie – “Oh I see, so you and your strong smelling dish are trying to bribe me, is that it? Is that what you’re trying to do? Bribe me?”
Joker – “Strong smelling…? No, heh heh, it’s just that there are only twenty-four spots in the program for all of Gotham school district and I know you have friends on the committee.”
Debbie – “Oh, okay, so you’re threatening me then? Didn’t you used to blow things up?”
Joker – “Hahahaha, no, no. That was over a year ago. That’s the old me. The only thing I’m blowing up here is your waistline with my yummy dish.”
Debbie – “Aw, I think it’s so cute that you’re out here trying to do stuff for your kids. It’s adorable. Ha. I so wish I could help you but it’s just outta my hands. And I guess it’s outta your hands, too.”
Joker – “Hahaha, whose hands would you say it’s in?”
Debbie – “Well, the city sets the budget, so I’d take it up with them. Or the mayor, but no, I guess he just died. Oh boo hoo. Well, I guess you’ll just have to go down to City Hall and file a complaint [hands back the dish and drives away].”
Joker – “Oh, I’ll file a fucking complaint. [checking the now-empty dish] Oh my God, there were bones in this.”
Look at this! To help his kids THE JOKER tried talking with his PTO-ruling, über-vain nemesis and offering her food! And then, when this doesn’t work, what does he do? The Joker runs for mayor to bring education reform.
That night the Joker and his goons emerge from an explosion on the steps of City Hall. With news cameras rolling he says, “Attention Gotham City, I’ve had it with your shit! I tried being a villain, that didn’t work. I tried being a good stepdad, that didn’t work. I tried meditation and…that, that almost worked, until the app I was using started charging. Yet the city remains a hateful asshole. That’s why things are going to change right now.” The Joker draws a gun and the crowd panics. Grabbing a police officer and pointing the gun at her head, the Joker pulls the trigger…and a “Joker for Mayor” flag drops from the gun. He declares, “I’m running for mayor! Ahahahahaha!”
The next day, the Joker and his gang rob Gotham Bank. When a reporter asks what he’s doing, Joker says, “Some mayoral candidates take bribes from Big Money. I’m skipping the bribe part and just taking the money and giving it back to the citizens. Here’s your money shot!” The Joker tosses armloads of cash into the air and it falls down on the citizens cowering on the bank’s floor, who begin gathering it up. The reporter asks, “Oh, hey, wow. What do you hope to accomplish as Mayor of Gotham?” Joker replies, “Well, to start education reform. Every child should have the choice to be in a dual immersion class and be bilingual. I also want free universal healthcare. [Looking at the camera] Do you think Arkham would have a three year waitlist if everyone had access to free mental health services? And the rich one-percenters are gonna pay for it all. Big changes are gonna happen!” The reporter asks, “You want the rich to pay for all this? Are you like, a Socialist?” Joker looks into the camera again and says, “I’m not like a Socialist. I am a Socialist. And together we’re gonna fix this city!”
As Joker told Ivy, he’s still a maniacal force of nature. Look at his campaign and his goals! He’s being completely honest with the voters. He’s robbing corrupt corporations to give the money back to the people. He’s looking to create education reform, starting with dual immersion classes for all students who want them. He wants free universal healthcare with a focus on access to mental health services. He’s open about being a Socialist. And he’s making the wealthy one-percent pay for everything. Given the corrupt shape our politics, policies, and society, this is chaos unleashed! He’s still burning down the establishment and upending society, it’s just that now he’s doing it for his family. Like Joker do ;D.
His only opponent in the race is Police Commissioner Jim Gordon, whose campaign is being managed by Harvey Dent/Two Face. Gordon is feeling underappreciated and impotent, so he wants the praise he believes being mayor will bring. Two Face wants to be District Attorney again so he’s trying to get Gordon in office and then cash in on that favor (so he poisoned the old mayor, unbeknownst to Gordon). Joker’s meteoric rise in the polls worries them both.
It’s affecting Joker, too. At the dinner table that night, he is more focused on the TV (as former hostages come forward to endorse him because of free universal healthcare) than his family. Bethany turns it off but he’s barely listening to Sophie or Benicio. When Benicio asks, “Dad, you’re still coming to my soccer game tomorrow, right?,” Joker says, “I need to put my focus on the important stuff first, then you guys.” Sophia and Benicio get very sad and Bethany scowls at him. He immediately tries to backpedal saying he’s doing all this for them because they always come first. Joker is so lost in his own hype he didn’t notice Benicio calling him “Dad” for the very first time!
His big campaign event mirrors the parade from Tim Burton’s Batman with Joker’s goons shooting money into the air for the people at the rally. The people are cheering like crazy and Joker is soaking it all in until Two Face calls to say he’s kidnapped Benicio and is holding him hostage. Joker looks to the hundreds of people shouting his name and, without a word, drives his float off to save Benicio!
Driving to the abandoned amusement park we see how sweet, attentive, and caring Joker has become when he calls Bethany. He tells her, “I’m here. No Beth, I’m sorry but you can’t come. I promise I’ll get Benny back safe, just get Sophia to your sister’s house. No, no, no, no, not your brother’s place. Because he smokes and Sophia has asthma, that’s why. Well, someone there smokes. I know I smelled something! [pulling in] Look, I have to go. I love you, bye.” Joker tells Bethany he loves her and we see he is a loving father…who is prepared for a supervillain smackdown in an abandoned amusement park to save his son. As he told Ivy, people can be more than one thing!
With Benicio tied in a rollercoaster cart waiting to be launched along broken tracks, Two Face demands he drop out of the race. Without hesitation Joker says, “Okay, I’ll drop out.” He jumps in the rollercoaster car and turns his attention to Benicio as he cuts him free, “You think I made a hard choice? Wrong.” Benicio says, “Dad!” Joker says, “I’m only running for mayor for my family and I’ll quit for my family just as easily.” Benicio has tears in his eyes as he smiles up at Joker. Taking responsibility and apologizing for his actions, Joker tells him, “I’m sorry I’ve been a bit of a, well a bit of a douche.” Benicio hugs him and the Joker continues, “I love you. Let’s go home.”
However Two Face locks the cart’s bar and sets the ride running anyway. Seeing Gordan leap down into the cart to help them Benicio says, “It’s Superman! Dad, we’re saved!” Joker says, “No, it’s just Gordon. Keep screaming, son.” And they do XD. Hijinks and action set pieces happen. They all survive and tumble from the tracks to safety. Joker holds Benicio in his arms and says, “Benny, Benny…oh, thank God! You’re okay! Physically, mentally this is…messed up.” It’s this really beautiful moment which also shows Joker’s awareness and care for Benicio’s psychological and physical health.
The love Joker has for his children is beautiful. They are his kids even though he’s not trying to take the place of their father. Their relationship was the genesis for this whole piece. I’ve been doing a lot of research on evil lately and I’m presently reading Michael H. Stone, MD’s text The Anatomy of Evil. In the chapter where he discusses crimes of impulse, Stone writes:
Many of the paternal cruelty cases arise in homes where there is a stepparent. We know from studies of child murder that the risk of a child dying at the hands of a stepparent is many times higher than the risk of murder by a biological parent. Worse still is the situation where a woman has a child by a previous union and now lives with a boyfriend (in a relationship not likely to lead to marriage). The boyfriend’s chief interest is in pursuing a sexual relationship with the woman. The child is all too often just a nuisance he has to put up with in order to secure the woman’s sexual favors. In this situation, too many of us behave not so different from other social species. In lion prides, for example, if a new male takes over the pride, he may kill the cubs that had been sired by his predecessor and create a new family of cubs by mating with the lionesses. All the resulting cubs will then be his. This is Nature’s way. Parents are less likely to harm offspring that carry their DNA than that of strangers. The fairy tales of the wicked stepmother were not written to malign women who took on that role; the stories reflect the unfortunate likelihood that a child will receive worse treatment from a mother (or father) who is not the birth parent.
In the margins of this section I wrote two thoughts. First, “This hurts my heart…” It was very hard to read. Even retyping it for this section makes me sad. Second, “This makes the Joker’s arc in Harley Quinn all the more remarkable.” Stone makes clear not all stepparents, adoptive parents, and/or foster parents treat their children in such horrific ways. Though there is a higher percentage of child cruelty cases involving nonbiological parents and there’s something of a biological predisposition – which in no way, shape, or form justifies any such cruelty – for such actions. In this light, Joker’s relationship with Benicio and Sophia becomes wildly subversive indeed.
Here is a character who calls to mind the image of all manner of heinous crimes and we see he’s become a loving father to his stepchildren – something, sadly, not everyone can do. He is running an honest campaign for mayor with real plans to improve the city, independent of corporate interests or systemic corruption – something we hardly ever see in our politics. He even stops Gordon from making a mistake he’ll regret. Again, Joker is growing and evolving.
Once they are free of the rollercoaster, Gordon pulls his gun on Two Face but Joker stops him:
Joker – “Gordon, no! Don’t kill him!”
Gordon – “I have to. He’s done too much.”
Joker – “Look, no one wants to kill Two Face more than me, heh heh heh. But killing him won’t solve the problem. It’ll just make things worse, that’s not what you do. You’re Commissioner Gordon, remember? You make things better.”
Gordon – “Oh my God, you’re right! Whoa, you really have changed! You’re the kinda stepdad I wish I could be for my own biological daughter.”
Joker – “I just want to be someone my family can be proud of.”
Benicio – “I already am proud of you, Dad.”
Joker – “You called me…‘Dad.’”
Benicio – “I’ve been calling you ‘Dad.’ I called you ‘Dad’ like three times on the rollercoaster.”
When you add in the dinner table, Benicio’s called Joker “dad” four times without his noticing. But he does here, with his focus returned to his family. They hug and Gordon tells Joker he’s dropping out of the race. When Gordon says he’s looking forward to working with the Joker, Joker says, “Oh no, no, no. My first act as mayor is dismantling the police department. You’re out of a job, sorry. Let’s go, Benicio.” Bethany shows up, hits Two Face with her car, and comes out ready to smash his face in but Joker calms her down and says, as it’s Tuesday, they should all go for tacos instead of murdering Two Face.
The episode ends with Harley and Ivy returning from New Orleans, shocked to see Joker ran for mayor and won. Debbie then arrives at the school to see a new sign at her parking spot: “Reserved for the Mayor.” As she drives away in a huff, the Joker says, “I’m your nightmare now, bitch. Ahahahahahahahahahahaha…”
Harley Quinn has given me the Joker story I didn’t know I needed, just one more thing I love about this show :). To see Joker on such a path of redemption – in a healthy and loving relationship, being a loving stay-at-home dad, making dinner, helping with homework, even getting into local politics to make a better life for his children – is a remarkable thing. While I resisted it at first, I now see its beauty, which was a rich personal journey itself. It’s hard to believe I now connect and empathize in such a way with a character who was the stuff of my childhood nightmares! But life is about change and growth, healing and evolution. Many roads can take us there if we’re open to it, you know, like Joker do.
Oh, it just occurred to me, if you don’t watch the show the title of this piece probably doesn’t make sense. Early in Harley Quinn S3, Harley and Ivy go to the 83rd Villy Awards since they’re nominated for “Best Couple.” Joker’s hosting and his opening song is “Like Joker Do,” which he repurposes into his campaign slogan. The song is one of the HOOKIEST THINGS EVER so, if you’d like to hear it, well here it is:
 Cecilia Aranovich and Tom Derosier, dirs. “A Fight Worth Fighting For,” Harley Quinn, season 2, episode 11, HBO Max, 2020.
 Joonki Park, dir. “The Horse and the Sparrow,” Harley Quinn, season 3, episode 10, HBO Max, 2022.
 Joonki Park, dir. “Joker: The Killing Vote,” Harley Quinn, season 3, episode 6, HBO Max, 2022.
 Jim Starlin, Batman (Vol. 1), no. 428, October 1988.
 Frank Miller, The Dark Knight Returns (Vol. 1), no. 3, August 1986.
 Alan Moore, Batman: The Killing Joke, March 1988.
 Travis Langley, Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight. (Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 2012), 152.
 “helping abusers,” Center for Prevention of Abuse. Accessed February 11, 2023. https://www.centerforpreventionofabuse.org/i-need-help-for-someone-else/helping-abusers/
 Park, “Joker: The Killing Vote.”
 Okay so, do I really need to keep citing this? I mean, all these quotes are pretty much going come from this episode from here on out. I think seeing “Ibid” a dozen more times is kinda annoying. Oh! How about this? I’ll put a citation in for anything not from this episode. Coolio? Coolio.
 Michael H. Stone. The Anatomy of Evil. (Guilford, Connecticut: Prometheus Books, 2017), 98-99.
4 thoughts on “Like Joker Do! – Clown Prince of Crime or Loving Partner and Stepdad?”
Great write up! I really need to get around to watching this. I hear such great things about the show and I’m a huge DC fan, so I’d probably really like it. Hopefully it gets to continue as a DC Elseworlds property.
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Thank you for the comment! I read it was approved for at least a fourth season so it looks like, at least for now, it’ll be going forward as an Elseworlds show which makes me really happy :). I hope you enjoy it when you get to see it, too!
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Do you think he will STAY redeemed (at least in this show)? In comics if this happened, his wife and children would be killed so that way he’d become evil again.
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This is a fascinating question! My bet is yes. One of the things I love so much about the show is it exists in it’s own little DC Universe (it will get the “Elseworlds” brand now that James Gunn and Peter Safran are running things, I’m sure) so they can do things they couldn’t in the mainstream continuity. Unexpected characters die and (as of yet) they don’t come back. They put Harley and Ivy in a loving, caring, committed romantic relationship clearly and directly where it tends to be flirted with in other mediums. Character development happens in ways you wouldn’t expect or could never happen in the comics (like…wait, should I spoil this one bit? hmmm well SPOILER ALERT Bruce begins to work through his trauma with an actual therapist and try to heal in a way he doesn’t in the comics END SPOILER, ALERT HAS PASSED). So its willingness to upend things which feel set in the service of an original story (which still feels completely organic for all the characters involved!) would indicate that sort of classic twist won’t happen.
But they’ve surprised me so many times before so I could be wrong!
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