How ‘Harley Quinn’ Transformed the Joker From the World’s Worst Ex to a Socialist Stepfather

Spoiler Alert: Do not read if you haven’t watched “Joker: The Killing Vote,” Episode 6 of “Harley Quinn” Season 3, now streaming on HBO Max.

Like all comic book characters, the Joker has been the subject many diverse interpretations throughout the years, from Cesar Romero’s prank-loving ’60s clown to Mark Hamill’s gleefully maniacal criminal mastermind in the ’90s animated series. But in recent years, the character has been depicted almost exclusively in one light: dark, grim and dangerous.

In Heath Ledger’s acclaimed turn as a scarred version of the character, Jared Leto’s divisive portrayal of a tatted up clown prince of crime and Joaquin Phoenix’s highly physical performance as an ordinary man turning into the Joker, Batman’s most famous nemesis has rarely been allowed to be lighthearted of late, with writers emphasizing his darkest and most murderous tendencies. While some exceptions exist — including the Joker seen in 2016’s “The Lego Batman Movie,” an unlucky-in-hate guy desperate to get Batman to notice him — the 21st century has seen the character portrayed less as a real human than as an agent of pure violence and chaos.

The Joker voiced by Alan Tudyk in HBO Max’s delightful animated DC series “Harley Quinn” isn’t exactly a subversion of what we have come to expect from the character, at least at first. While he gets to display a style of snarky humor that wouldn’t quite fly in the main comics universe — the first line of dialogue in the series is him yelling “My fellow whites!” to a cruise ship full of Gotham’s one percent — the show emphasizes his abusive and gaslighting tendencies, with Season 1’s primary arc following Harley (Kaley Cuoco) as she breaks out of the hold he has on him in order to find herself as an independent antihero.

But in the show’s sophomore year, following a cliffhanger where the character develops amnesia and is seemingly cured of his insanity, showrunners Justin Halpern and Patrick Schumacker decided to take the character into a direction that no other Joker has gone before: a father figure.

“We started to feel with the Joker, ‘What can we do that we haven’t seen before with him?’ He’s such a larger-than-life character, and his dynamic with Harley is so specific, that if we kept him as ‘the Joker who she dumped,’ the character would just constantly want to get his vengeance,” Halpern tells Variety. “So this was a chance for us to go anywhere we want.”

So, in Season 2, Harley discovers that the Joker living a happy, crime-free life with Bethany (Krizia Bajos), the health care worker who nursed him back to health, and her kids Benicio (James Corleto) and Sophia (Sammi Corona-Lampa). And while Harley is forced to bring back his memories later in the season in order to combat a new threat, he retains his love for his newfound family, and ultimately stays with them even as he embraces his renewed insanity — a fitting twist for a show about second chances, and growing into your best self.

“In the same way that Harley is in a good relationship now, we thought, ‘What are the effects of a good relationship on the Joker?’” Halpern says. “This is a person who has only ever advocated for himself his entire life. He’s the most narcissistic manchild possible, and now there are other human beings that he loves, and wants to advocate for. How does that change, and what does that look like?”

So while this new, softer version of the Joker remains largely in the background of Season 3’s opening episodes, the writers dove headfirst into exploring his new wild status quo with the sixth episode, “Joker: The Killing Vote,” which takes a break from Harley and her girlfriend Poison Ivy’s (Lake Bell) storyline for a standalone tale. Now married to Bethany, the Joker throws himself into parenting her children, becoming a staple of their local PTA and warring with the racist president Debbie (Amy Sedaris).

According to Conner Shin, the writer behind “The Killing Vote,” leaning into the idea of the Joker as a stepfather came from a desire to go against what they referred to as the trend in revamping characters to make them “younger, hotter, edgier.” The writers’ room wanted to do essentially the opposite with the supervillain, making him a tamer, goofier figure who truly loves his family. This transformation becomes complete with an ’80s style sitcom theme song opening for the character, which cribs on “Full House,” and is packed full of lighthearted references to the character’s history, from the iconic “Why so serious?” line in “The Dark Knight” to Joaquin Phoenix’s much memed “We live in a society” speech in 2019’s “Joker.”

“There’s something super self-indulgent, and also meta about it,” Shin says about the sitcom sequence. “Like, do you remember when your favorite show had a spin off, and you could tell the parent show that it came from is trying to ease that journey into it? And I’m a child of the ’80s. So I love playing with those genres.”

Schumacker, who said they were inspired to do a standalone episode for Season 3 as a followup to the well-received Season 2 episode which focused squarely on Batman (Diedrich Bader), said that the character as seen in the show is built upon almost every single iteration of the character as seen in popular media. Tudyk, who played an Eric Trump-like Wayne family member on Schumaker and Halpern on 2017’s “Powerless,” took inspiration from Romero’s gleeful demeanor and Hamill’s raspy affect for the “Harley Quinn” iteration of the character, who is a bit petty and immature — even as he does grow to care for his family.

“He really ratchets up the petulant manchild stuff — Alan is so perfect at that,” Schumaker says. “And I am not saying that he’s like that in real life, but he can channel that very, very well.”

To accurately portray the character’s domestic foibles, Shin took inspiration from the complaints many of the writers on the show had while dealing with schooling for their children, and centered the storyline of the episode around the Joker’s attempts to get his stepkids signed up for a Spanish dual language program. After bribing Debbie with home-cooked food fails to get them into the class, the Joker eventually decides to run for mayor as a way to enact radical reform in Gotham. This turn coincides with the ongoing election plot of the season, which sees Commissioner Gordon (Christopher Meloni) making an ill-advised bid for Gotham’s highest office.

“We knew we didn’t want him to win, so we were like ‘What’s the most humiliating way for Gordon to lose? Who would be the most humiliating person for him to lose to?’” Halpern says. “So then we started talking about how, if you lose to the Joker, you’re the worst politician in the entire world.”

To contrast with the wishy-washy Gordon, who has few real policies in his increasingly disastrous campaign, Joker — in spite of announcing his candidacy by faking a seize of town hall — proposes a series of major reforms that include taxing the one percent, free universal healthcare and providing greater funding to schools. In one interview, the famed villain even outright calls himself a socialist. According to Halpern, the reveal of the character’s political affiliation was intended to give a good reason why the citizens of Gotham would vote for a character like the Joker, and as a way to further contrast him with his archenemy Batman.

“Gotham is in such terrible shape, always in every movie you see, and it’s clearly this extreme example of capitalism. Bruce Wayne is spending billions of dollars, and every street corner you pass there’s people’s living on the streets,” Halpern says. “What would speak to the citizens of Gotham more than somebody who was like ‘All of these fucking billionaires in their castles, how about we hold them to account?’”

Although the Joker briefly develops an inflated ego during the episode from his political run — to the point of neglecting his children in favor of press opportunities — he shows that he has ultimately changed as a person when he leaves a major rally to save Benicio from Two-Face (Andy Daly), Gordon’s unsurprisingly two-faced campaign manager. After the Joker choses to save Benicio and Gordon from Two-Face, the latter has a change of heart and decides to drop out of the race to let Joker become mayor — only to find himself out of a job when the clown’s first act is to disband the Gotham Police Department. So the episode ends with the Joker, as crazy as ever but with a devoted family, enacting his reforms as the official Gotham City mayor.

According to Shin, while writing the episode and thinking about the Joker’s evolution as a character, part of the writers’ room’s idea was that the character should serve in contrast with Harley, as a shadow of her past. Specifically, Shin said that the Joker’s success — as a criminal, a family man and as a politician — helps him fill the role of the worst kind of ex, the one whose success never fails to piss Harley off.

“He’s always going to be the worst ex-boyfriend in the sense that he’s always going to be doing well in a way that doesn’t seem achievable,” Shin says. “I think for Harley to watch, ‘Oh, now he wants to settle down and raise kids and be a devoted father,’ that’s going to be extra frustrating for her to see because now he’s moving on with his life, he’s growing as a person. For a lot of villains, that’s frustrating to watch, as petty as that sounds.”

In addition to penning the latest episode of the main show, Shin is also a writer for the upcoming “Harley Quinn” spinoff series “Noonan’s,” which focuses on Ivy’s ex-fiancé Kite Man (Matt Oberg) as he acquires the titular criminal dive bar and runs it with the help of his new girlfriend Golden Glider (Cathy Ang). Halpern and Schumacker, who developed the show but handed it off to Dean Laurie and Katie Rich, describe it as a play on “Cheers” featuring the “loser, D-list villains” of the DC Universe.

“When we had pitched ‘Harley,’ we were like, it’s ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show,’ but a psycho killer instead of Mary Tyler Moore,” Halpern says. “So when they came to us, and they’re like, ‘Have you guys ever thought of a spinoff?’ The first thing we thought is what other types of sitcoms can fit into Harley’s universe.”

While they remain tight-lipped over details for the spinoff, the writers confirmed that fan favorite Bane (James Adomian), depicted in “Harley Quinn” as a nerdy wimp who gets walked over by the rest of Gotham’s supervillains, will be a series regular, as a Noonan’s customer in the mold of “Cheers” punching bag Cliff Clavin (John Ratzenberger).

“He’s very easy and fun to write for, and whenever we pitch jokes for him, everyone does it in the Bane voice,” Shin says. “We’re not going to stop doing that.”

As to what the future holds for “Harley Quinn,” which has yet to receive an official Season 4 renewal, Schumaker made it clear that he and Halpern would keep working on the series as long as HBO Max and Warner Bros. keep letting them make it (Cuoco recently told Variety the same thing). While the two likely won’t run every season, they hope the show can run for years under new writers — and keep introducing new takes on the classic characters from the DC world.

“I would do the show as long as HBO Max and Warner Bros. want to make the show,” Schumacker says. “The show’s called ‘Harley Quinn,’ but there’s thousands of characters that exist in the DC Universe that we really can just keep going. We want to be ‘The Simpsons’ of the DCU.”

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