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Revisiting ‘Batman: The Animated Series’: ‘Pretty Poison’


Spoilers ahead.

The story for “Pretty Poison” is credited to series co-creator Paul Dini (and Michael Reaves). Accordingly, it is not surprising that the teleplay by Tom Ruegger exceeds even the pilot in furthering Dini’s larger ambitions for the series.

This episode marks the mass-audience debut of Pamela Isley, aka Poison Ivy (Diane Pershing). Introduced in the comics during “The Silver Age” (1966), her appearance in the animated series predates Uma Thurman’s turn as Ivy in “Batman and Robin” (1997) by almost five years.

An eco-terrorist long before eco-terrorism existed in the real world, Isley’s motives are unique – as are her methods. She is a true femme fatale, sharing the same enthusiasm for toxins as the Joker or Scarecrow, but delivering them intimately with a kiss of death.

Isley’s acquired immunity to botanical toxins and her ability to ensnare men with pheromones are not declared explicitly in “Pretty Poison.” Nevertheless, she does ensnare District Attorney Harvey Dent – who returns in a key role here after a cameo in the pilot.

Visually, it is notable that this version of Poison Ivy was not devised by series co-creator Bruce Timm, but by animation designer Lynne Naylor. According to Timm, Ivy’s retro glamour and overt sexiness is based on the women drawn by comics greats like Will Eisner (The Spirit) and Al Capp (Li’l Abner). Naylor also is said to have been inspired by the bombshells created by vintage animation giants Bob Clampett and Preston Blair. Ivy’s pin-up style further harkens back to the Batman comics, where her look was originally influenced by the decidedly not-safe-for-kids model Bettie Page.

At first, all we see of Isley is her unidentified hands, in gardening gloves. In a sepia-toned flashback, she digs up and pots a rose.

Nearby, Mayor Hill speaks at a groundbreaking ceremony for Gotham’s Stonegate Prison, which he describes as the dream of newly-elected D.A. Harvey Dent, realized with a generous grant from the Wayne Foundation. Both Dent and Bruce Wayne plant their ceremonial shovels during the event.

Five years later, an inmate escapes from Stonegate by helicopter. Commissioner Gordon takes the alarm call and hurries a squad into action, including new Officer Renee Montoya (Ingrid Oliu). Det. Bullock quickly grabs a donut before joining his colleagues. However, Batman is already on the job, having grappled onto the helicopter’s landing gear.

At the Rose Café, Dent waits with his girlfriend, Isley (whom I suspect of having chosen the venue), for his habitually tardy friend, Bruce Wayne. Isley teases Dent, saying she has heard of Bruce’s wealth. (Who hasn’t?) Dent replies that Bruce “still gets his kicks” as Batman crashes the inmate’s chopper and delivers literal kicks to the escapee.

Ironically, Dent vouches that “there is nothing we don’t know about each other” as Batman leaves the subdued criminal to the police. Batman returns to Wayne Manor, where Alfred has his suit and Cord roadster ready for his dinner engagement.

Once Bruce arrives, he entertains Dent and Isley with stories until the latter announces she must go, due to an early meeting the next morning. She leaves Dent with a kiss sufficiently long that Bruce checks his watch. Her sauntering exit in a strapless, form-fitting red dress draws the male gaze from surrounding tables.

After Isley leaves, Bruce asks whether she has a sister. A flushed Dent tells Bruce he has proposed to her. Bruce questions the speed of the engagement. Dent begins sweating, which Bruce jokingly attributes to Isley’s deep kiss. But things turn unfunny when Dent passes out into his chocolate mousse.

Bruce rides to the hospital with the unconscious Dent. In a flash of comic relief, Commissioner Gordon again takes the alert call, while Det. Bullock again takes a donut.

Outside the intensive care unit, a doctor informs Bruce and the police that Dent is in a coma due to a poison which may become fatal absent an antidote. The police question the restaurant’s chef about possible food poisoning, but Bruce learns from the doctor that this is unlikely. Bruce steals a sample of Dent’s blood from the hospital lab.

In the Batcave, a computer analysis shows the poison is derived from the Wild Thorny Rose. Batman prepares to visit the botanical garden for a sample to reverse-engineer an antidote, but Alfred notes this rose has been extinct for five years, leaving Dent to his fate.

Bruce returns to the hospital and stands vigil at Dent’s bedside. He attempts to console a seemingly distraught Isley. When he walks her to her car, Isley tries to kiss Bruce, which he deflects into a hug.

The attempt triggers Bruce’s memory of Isley kissing Dent. Bruce phones Alfred from his roadster, requesting a background check. They learn Isley is a botanist employed by a perfume company; she also lectures on extinct plants, making her the prime suspect.

Batman proceeds to Isley’s greenhouse, where she talks to and plays classical music for her prized rose. Batman steps on a trap door, almost falling into a pit of cacti. He is then attacked by a giant Venus Flytrap with fearsome dentata (the symbolism of which is probably for older viewers). He is immobilized by the plant’s vines.

After changing behind a screen, Isley emerges in her verdant Poison Ivy costume. She tells Batman that Dent is a murderer; the Wild Thorny Rose would be extinct had she not saved it from the bulldozers which cleared away foliage to build Stonegate.

Reapplying her lipstick, Ivy kisses Batman. He spits immediately. Ivy jokes she does not have cooties, while taunting him with a bottle of the antidote.

Batman secures enough leverage to knock Ivy to the ground, gaining time to cut himself free of the Flytrap (which moans in pain). Ivy chases Batman through her greenhouse, attempting to shoot him with darts from her bracelet.

Batman, attempting to gain the high ground, sends a bank of grow-lights crashing to the ground, starting a fire. Ivy rescues the rose plant. Batman saves her from another crashing grow-light, but in his drugged state finds himself clinging to the edge of the pit again. Ivy is about to push Batman into the cacti when he reveals he now has the rose, which he trades for the antidote. The two escape the burning greenhouse.

Dent emerges from his coma. Bruce eases into explaining why Pamela was the wrong woman for Dent. Isley is held in an underground cell at Stonegate. As she stares at the rose plant, she tells herself they can bury her, but she will grow back.

That Isley is allowed to retain the deadly rose may be the sole false note in “Pretty Poison.” Lacing its drama with just enough comic relief, the episode efficiently unwinds the mystery of Isley’s motivation to kill Dent and Wayne.

“Pretty Poison” also takes viewers further into the personal life of Bruce, who is more often the mask worn by his true persona, the Batman. Bruce is shown to have developed a true friendship – or as much of one as his dark secret will allow – with Dent in the years since construction commenced at Stonegate. Bruce seems genuinely concerned at Dent’s impetuous engagement to Isley, beyond the amount needed to maintain his playboy facade. He jumps into Dent’s ambulance and watches over him at the hospital, when not trying to save him as Batman.

The Wayne-Dent relationship is seemingly deeper than it is later portrayed in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” (2008) (and certainly deeper than in Joel Schumacher’s “Batman Forever” (1995)). The series’ creative team, by making Dent this episode’s victim, thoughtfully raises the emotional stakes for the future in which Dent becomes the villainous Two-Face.