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The Adventures of Batman & Robin – House and Garden (Review)

This September marks the twentieth anniversary of Batman: The Animated Series, and the birth of the shared DC animated universe that would eventually expand to present one of the most comprehensive and thorough explorations of a comic book mythology in any medium. To celebrate, we’re going back into the past and looking at some classic episodes.

It’s amazing how thoroughly Batman: The Animated Series was able to explore Batman’s iconic selection of bad guys, demonstrating how remarkably deep and varied his villains are. Paul Dini was perhaps the strongest writer when it came to drafting these psychological portraits of Arkham’s countless denizens, even inventing characters like Baby Doll and Harvey Quinn for the show. (With Harley now an established and iconic character in her own right.) While Poison Ivy had a strong debut episode, and a run of strong appearances, House & Garden stands as perhaps the most thorough exploration of the villain’s psyche, building a relatively complex portrayal of her psychology and pathology in under half an hour.

House call…

You could make an argument that all of Batman’s villains represent our primordial fears, twisted and distorted as if trapped inside a funhouse mirror. The Joker is chaos incarnate, random violence given form. The Scarecrow is fear itself. The Mad Hatter is fantasy run amok, to the point where reality is gone. Killer Croc is our base and reptilian self. Two-Face is duality. The Riddler is uncontrollable obsession. I like to think that’s one of the reasons that Batman’s villains have tended to make a deeper pop culture impact than those of Superman, Green Lantern or the Flash.

If that’s the case, then Poison Ivy is out-of-control sexuality in a green swimsuit. She’s one of the very few major female villains in Batman’s recurring selection of bad guys, assuming you count Catwoman as more of an anti-hero. Her weapon – her toxins – are administered by a kiss. In her first appearance in Batman #181 (replicated in Batman & Robin), her charms were enough to bring two life-long male friends to each other’s throats. (Bonus points if you read a homosexual subtext into the Batman and Robin dynamic.)

Happy families…

If you accept the idea that Batman never really grew up after he lost his parents – that his development was arrested on that night in Crime Alley – than Poison Ivy makes for a compelling foil. After all, Batman and Robin seem like a pair of kids out playing at adventures, dressed in silly outfits and playing with Bruce’s “wonderful toys.” Sexuality is something “grown up” that intrudes on that fantasy, something that threatens it. I think that’s why Poison Ivy works so well with Batman, despite the fact that her plant-powers set her apart from Batman’s more grounded allies and adversaries.

In fact, it can’t be a coincidence that her most frequent plant-weapon is a Venus Fly Trap. The Fruedian imagery is… overt, to say the least. Here, we’re told that her primary targets are wealthy bachelors. She oozes such raw sexuality that she even managed to slip a lesbian relationship into the show under the radar, and she’s voiced by Diane Pershing, who established herself as a successful “romance” author. Even in the young-audience-friendly Batman: The Animated Series, Ivy still seems an inherently sexual villain. As such, she lends herself quite well to the reproductive horror of House & Garden.

Ivy’s peas in a pod…

Early in House & Garden, Ivy confesses that she can’t have children. “I never thought about having kids before,” she explains while introducing Batman to her husband’s children. “I can’t. Nature’s little trade-off for my hyper-immune system.” It would seem to imply that Ivy’s “hyper-immune system” is to blame, and that it might consider any pregnancy to be a hostile foreign organism – a grotesque parody of reproduction. Of her husband, Ivy comments, “He was useful for signing my release papers, and for providing certain raw materials for my experiments.” To Ivy, the sum of the male contribution to any offspring is measured in “certain raw materials”, a rather skewed and warped take on matrimony.

The thing about Ivy is that, like so many of Batman’s more tragic villains, her motivations are easy to understand. The Mad Hatter wants to be loved. The Riddler wants validation. Mr. Freeze wants the love of his life. Ivy has two motivations, both of which remain understandable. Her debut, Pretty Poison, explored her environmentalism, a legitimate concern about the damage that mankind does to the world around them. In House & Garden, we see that she wants domestic bliss, but without having to give up anything she has.

You know you’ve gone too far when even Batman is freaked out…

When Batman greets her as Pamela Isley, she corrects him. “It’s Carlyle now,” she assures him. “Mrs. Pamela Lillian Carlyle.” It feels weird to see Ivy playing the domestic housewife, giving up her own name and taking her husband’s she doesn’t even double-barrel it. In House & Garden, it seems like Ivy is living the life society would dictate to her. She lives in a small suburban house. her husband is absent during the day, presumably earning the money. She takes care of the kids, tends to the garden. It’s almost surreal to see Ivy, the most staunchly independent woman, living the life of a fifties housewife.

It illustrates that perhaps society wouldn’t accept Ivy any other way, and this is her half-hearted attempt to meet it half-way. It’s telling that her photo album, glimpsed at the end of the episode, features more of Harley than her husband. Would the community have been so welcoming had Harley and Ivy moved in next door? Would Gordon and Batman have accepted her promise of reform if she hadn’t played the dutiful soccer mom? Would she have been subject to greater suspicion if she was out working in a job, earning a steady paycheck? What if she started her plant “family” with Harley? Surely society would deem her a monster and persecute her for her “obscene” and “immoral”acts?

Back seat driver…

Heteronormative sexuality permeates the episode, as one might expect. The show actually makes decent use of the mandated Robin, as we join one of Dick Grayson’s “study sessions.” The kid is hardly subtle as he hits on his partner. He suggests, “I just thought it would be fun to get together… and study… and talk… and… em…” Guess the kid never quite learned Bruce’s patented pick-up technique. His partner playfully flirts, “And?” This is the sort of good-old-fashioned wholesome heterosexual courtship society deems acceptable, while being less tolerant of Ivy’s queerness.

Ivy’s attacks all target single men, and it’s safe to say that she has a strong misandrist attitude – she resents the idea of a male-dominated world dictating her place in it. In that respect, Ivy seems to have a legitimate point – like so many of Batman’s villains. That doesn’t excuse her actions or her own reverse sexism, but it makes her easy to understand and makes it easy to see where she coming from. When Batman confronts her, she assures him, “I meant it when I said I wanted a family that loved me. I just wanted it on my terms.”

She’s melting, melting, oh what a world!

That doesn’t sound so bad, but the problem is the same problem that haunts so many Batman foes. Her “terms” include murder, extortion and kidnapping. While she’s justified in feeling society shouldn’t impose its own relative norms on her sexuality – whether living with Ivy, having a career, keeping her last name – it’s her actions that are too extreme. Much like Victor Fries crosses a line in his love for Nora, or Jervis Tetch becomes a villain in his courtship of Alice, it’s Ivy’s methods that make her a villain. It’s her motivations that make her tragic.

I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for Dini’s Batman, as he seems to occupy the golden mean. He’s not too bright and cheerful, but he’s also never too cynical and dour. He’s serious enough that he has dramatic weight, but is never so heavy that he sinks a fun cartoon. There’s also something optimistic about his take on Batman, something I quite like. For example, this version of Batman is shown to be somewhat sensitive to his villains, tempering his righteous anger against crime with a sincere compassion.

Subtle.

He is skeptical of Ivy’s reform, but it genuinely seems like he wants to believe her. “Could it be that Poison Ivy has truly reformed?” Alfred asks as Bruce mounts his surveillance. Bruce responds, “I want to believe it, so why can’t I?” There’s even a nice tender interaction between the pair, one that almost fooled me into hoping she was reformed on the first watch. After she finds him spying, Ivy takes the time to wish him well. “Batman, good luck.” Kevin Conroy perfectly captures the cautious, but sincere, optimism in his reply, “You too, Mrs. Carlyle.”

Underneath it all, it seems like Batman actually has hope – a crucial ingredient for the character that is often forgotten. Dini’s House & Garden script works for Batman because it positions that hope against bitter experience. At one point, Bruce even laments, “I’ll have to fall back on my instincts, and right now they’re telling me that Ivy’s fairy tale lifestyle isn’t everything it seems.”It seems like he knows there’s no other solution to this puzzle, even though it runs directly against what he wants to believe.

All tangled up…

This gives Dini’s script a hint of tragedy. After all, he takes great care not to even introduce a red herring suspect, or a potential culprit to cast suspicion off Ivy. The only other person who could be doing something is Ivy’s husband, the only new character given enough lines to plausibly end up a villain. It’s very clear from the outset that, due to the structure of the story, Ivy must be guilty, and her new life must be a lie. It’s really only a question of how, and that’s what makes House & Garden so effective.

By the way, I love how the show takes full advantage of the freedom they’re given by Broadcast Standards and Practices. The harm the show can cause to humans is severely curtailed, but they can get away with a lot of violence to non-humans. That’s why Scarface tends to get it pretty bad whenever he appears. Here, the death of Ivy’s “children” is unsettling and disturbing – as well it should be. It’s hard not to feel some small measure of pity for them (and for her) as they melt when Batman applies a judicious amount of weed whacker. (Or, as he calls it, “insurance.”)

Go on, plant a kiss on him…

House & Garden is a wonderful little episode, the best show featuring Ivy during the show’s run, a superb Paul Dini script, and an illustration of everything that the series does so well with its superb cast of villains.

4 Responses

  1. I think this episode was hands down one of my favourites from the show — in addition to the more obvious ones. This gave us such a sympathetic Ivy that they never touched on again it’s just sad — the episode really focused on someone just wanting to have a normal life and a lot of that contrasts with Bruce’s own longing for a family that he’s lost, making Ivy very, very personal. I like how they even gave us a glimpse into Dick’s life in college, shows us that he’s picked up some of Bruce’s charms in getting the women to be interested! Heh. Just wished it was Batgirl but heck, dude’s in college! Going back to the theme of a family, and so much so a nuclear family of the 50s, in retrospect this is the sort of episode that shows just how the 50s era Batman of the Silver Age never did the character justice — THIS is what the characters in Gotham are like; they all WANT that perfect atomistic life, that sense of normalcy, but they can’t. In the end, they are just lost in their own crusades and abnormalities and eventually it is that abnormality that Batman accepts when he chooses to continue on donning that mask every day, accepting his status as someone who will live on his own instead of long for something he cannot have, and something that Ivy has to grow to understand. What I love about it is that you really can’t blame her to be evil … not really. A much richer characterisation than what we had in the earlier episodes. If there’s a Poison Ivy episode in this series, it’s this one!

    • Very fair, on all counts.

      Ivy’s debut wasn’t bad, but House & Garden is the best story featuring her, for my money.

  2. This is for my money, the best Poison Ivy story ever. It’s hard to add anything you haven’t said above. A personal favorite moment of mine is Batman nearly having a heart attack upon discovering the fetuses Ivy was growing in the pea pods

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