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Harley Quinn Kicks Off Season 4 With Its Greatest Foe: The System

Harley and Ivy feel the frustration of trying to do good work within the confines of heroic norms and corporate B.S.
  • Harley Quinn (Photo: Max)
    Harley Quinn (Photo: Max)

    Unless you've decided to simply check out and smooth-brain your way through the non-stop barrage of calamities and looming disasters in real life, it's likely you're all too familiar with the frustrations facing Harley Quinn (Kaley Cuoco) and Poison Ivy (Lake Bell) as the fourth season of Harley Quinn kicks off on Max. At the end of Season 3, Harley did more harm than good while attempting to help Ivy exterminate humanity and build a green utopia. Thwarted, Ivy ended up taking Lex Luthor's (Giancarlo Esposito) offer to head up the Legion of Doom. Meanwhile, healing Bruce Wayne's damaged inner child helped Harley realize her instincts were leaning more towards the heroic these days, so with Ivy's urging, she joined the Bat-Family. As Season 4 begins, Harley and Ivy are exactly where they want to be. Their relationship is on solid ground — vibrantly sexy with clearly defined boundaries — and their careers look promising. The only things that can hold them back are institutional misogyny and a turgid reliance on heroic norms! Welcome to the real world, Harley and Ivy.

    Harley Quinn is fundamentally an escapist show. Developed by Justin Halpern, Patrick Schumacker, and Dean Lorey, it's jubilantly bloody, irreverent, hilarious, and queer. And it's a blessed respite from all the other superhero stories on TV and at the movies. We come to Harley Quinn for a break from the rest of the world, to luxuriate in a lunatic punk space that doesn't exist anywhere else. Which is why I'm hesitant to make things too heavy and start drawing parallels between Harley and Ivy and, say, the Democratic Party. But it must be said that Harley's frustrations with the Bat-Family in the first three episodes of the new season are reminiscent of nothing so much as establishment Democrats wringing their hands over what to do with a runaway Supreme Court and insurrectionist right-wing opposition.

    What Harley and Ivy are up against isn't about politics. It's about systems. Harley, in her own way, is trying to do good work in a system that's designed to thwart her best efforts. Like many millennial progressives and first-time Gen Z voters, she wants to jump right into the fray and f*ck up the bad guys. This is what she's good at. She's got her baseball bat and a whole lotta energy, but when she shows up for her first day at the Batcave, she's faced with a bunch of bummer institutional norms.

    Batgirl (Briana Cuoco) tells her that they can't just go around kicking villains' asses. They have to wait for the villains to commit a crime first. In the meantime, Tweenage Robin (Jacob Tremblay) and a thoroughly humorless Nightwing (Harvey Guillén) busy themselves updating their criminal database. Harley has designs on heroically stomping all over Gotham, f*cking up bad guys left and right, maybe expanding the Supreme Court. But noooo. That's not how the good guys operate. "We're heroes," Nightwing lectures. "We update records, do paperwork, and stay fit, until the computer tells us there's a crime."

    Meanwhile, across town at the Legion of Doom, Ivy is finding herself stymied by a different but no less recognizable kind of institutional bullsh*t: misogyny. It comes in different forms, starting with Lex's pandering girlboss pep talk as he greets her on her first day. "There's my new She-E.O," he coos. "Girl power! And all that stuff." It's all empty jargon, of course. Lex can barely maintain his greeting-card feminism for an entire elevator ride, and he eventually dismisses Ivy with a "lean in, disrupt, and things of that nature."

    For Lex, making Ivy the first female CEO of the Legion of Doom is a PR move. This is, of course, demeaning and annoying to Ivy, but she can still work that to her advantage to implement her big idea: socially conscious evil. For example, destroying an oil rig but making the executives drink the oil, so there's no collateral damage to the environment. But here's where she runs into the next problem: the villains in the Legion of Doom are all a bunch of woman-hating buttholes.

    It's no surprise that a group that includes giant rampaging gorilla Grodd and cocaine-hoovering hothead Snowflame are a bunch of raging misogynists (emphasis on the "raging"), but it's still a huge bummer for Ivy. She showed up with a binder full of color-tabbed plans and a sweeping new vision for the LOD. But because her boss is a disinterested corporate feminist and her underlings are spouting men's-rights garbage and sending her bikinis with "I'm a Dumb Boss" on them, she can't get anything done.

    If Season 3 was about Harley discovering she wants to be a hero and Ivy re-discovering her passion for righteous villainy, then Season 4 is making them work for it. After Nightwing outright tells her "Your frivolity is not an asset here," Harley has to try to work within this new system and win these Bat-dorks over. She trains with Alfred, works out with the team, starts to adapt to the hero ethos. But by the season's third episode, Harley has made the decision to move in with the Bat-Fam as a kind of immersion therapy. For now, she's not trying to change the system, she wants the system to change her.

    Ivy's handling things a bit more confidently. After a pep talk from Nora Freeze (Rachel Dratch), Ivy takes a hard line with the LOD dude-bros and shows them who's boss. She still has to navigate the waters of lean-in feminism. She forms a tenuous alliance with Talia al Ghul (Aline Elasmar), who likes Ivy's style and is the only person at the Evil Women in Business Collective luncheon who doesn't speak in Sheryl Sandberg soundbites. But even that proves to be tricky when Ivy and Talia's business interests conflict. Still, Ivy's relationship of mutual respect and unsentimental self-interest with Talia feels refreshingly more feminist than any of the go-girl slogans Lex was throwing at her.

    Ivy is making the system work for her… for now. Lex and his ego and vanity will no doubt present a problem for her down the line, and "socially conscious evil" is a tricky needle to thread, but Ivy is staying Ivy. Which is more than can be said for Harley, who's trying to shrink herself into a little bat-sized box for the sake of the team. Working within systems is hard! They cramp your style. They exist to maintain the status quo. And Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy don't really do status quo.

    The first three episodes of Harley Quinn's fourth season premiere on Max on July 27th, with one new episode every Thursday after that. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: HBO Max, Kaley Cuoco, Lake Bell