By Jarrod Jones. It’s a beautiful alchemy of Max Fleischer and Frank Miller, of Neal Adams and Tex Avery. It’s arguably the greatest cartoon to ever air on television. Aside from all that, what’s so fascinating about Batman: The Animated Series is that  — after twenty-five years — it is still widely considered to be the gold standard for Batman adaptations, in any time, in any medium.

Achingly tense, emotionally gripping, and black as pitch, it depicted the Dark Knight Detective in his natural habitat, grimly hunting criminals in a vast, seemingly bottomless abyss of sin and evil called Gotham City. Listed below are the five episodes that cut the deepest, the five finest representations of Batman: The Animated Series.

On Leather Wings. (Air Date: September 5, 1992) One of the finest episodes the series ever produced is also the first episode that ever aired. Directed by series regular Kevin Altieri and written by Mitch Brian, “On Leather Wings” is a brilliantly executed opening salvo for any television program. The episode not only looks like a million bucks — the animation is, simply put, gorgeous — but Brian and Altieri carefully unravel the plot in such a way that the viewer is sucked in not only by the beautiful imagery, but by the intrigue it offers.

This first episode introduces many of the series’ supporting characters pragmatically: nothing is shoehorned in, and nobody is taken for granted. (The two second cameo of Harvey Dent is handled beautifully, an enticing tease of things to come.) A slick, savvy marriage of Frank Miller’s Year One and the work of Neal Adams and Dick Giordano, “On Leather Wings” introduces an established Dark Knight operating in a city that is still very wary of this creature of the night. No Robin, no Bat-Signal, no bullshit, this is easily the most primal Batman: TAS episode ever produced. Essential viewing.

BEST LINE(s): Alfred: “I would say, Sir, that we have ourselves an incongruity.” Batman: “Incongruity, Alfred? He’s lying. And I’m gonna find out why.”

BEST MOMENT: Dr. Kirk Langstrom’s transformation into Man-Bat. That the episode waits seventeen minutes to reveal the monster that has eluded both Batman and the GCPD illustrates the patience and diligence Batman: TAS had in abundance. And the sequence isn’t played for Saturday morning audiences; the metamorphosis is as frightening as the show would be allowed to depict. It’s still spooky, twenty-five years later.

EPISODE’S MVP: Indisputably, Kevin Conroy. His demonic elocution is beyond iconic by now, but hearing the Batman speak for the very first time rocked every single person who heard it to the core. This was Batman, through and through, and Conroy’s mindful separation between Bruce Wayne’s lilting tenor and Batman guttural baritone made the character shine in a manner that made previous incarnations seem pale in comparison.

Two-Face, Part I. (Air Date: September 25, 1992) Poor Harvey Dent. The doomed District Attorney of Gotham City faces his reckoning in “Two-Face, Part I”. Sure, the end game is spoiled in the title, but the destination is nowhere near as fascinating as Harvey Dent’s 22-minute descent into his own personal hell. (Mostly why the vastly inferior second chapter isn’t listed here.) Once again beautifully directed by Kevin Altieri and written by Randy Rogel (based on a story written by Batman: TAS producer Alan Burnett) “Two-Face, Part I” is an eerie glimpse into the fractured persona of a broken man.

What makes this episode so great? It spends the majority of its running time establishing how far gone Harvey Dent was before he was violently forged into Batman’s arch-nemesis. There’s no glossing over the messier aspects of Harvey’s id for the sake of wider audiences; Dent’s plight is always at the forefront of the episode’s focus. These tragic overtones were often neglected in his earlier comic book iterations, but through the diligence of its creators, “Two-Face, Part I” put a stamp on future works featuring the villain, such as Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s The Long Halloween, which begat Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.

BEST LINE(s): Gordon: “What in the name of heaven did you think you were doing?” Dent: “I… don’t know. I guess he just pressed the right button.” Gordon: “That’s one heck of a button.

Rupert Thorne: “We need to dig up some dirt on our dashing DA. Something really juicy.” Candace: “Well, I’m afraid that going to be a problem. Dent’s so clean, he squeaks.” Thorne: “Just stay on his tail, Candace. All men have something to hide. The brighter the picture, the darker the negative.”

BEST MOMENT: Appropriately enough, it’s a two-way tie.

The reveal. Once Harvey sees the ruin that Rupert Thorne has wrought upon him, actor Richard Moll gives such a horrific scream that it gutted any viewer that heard it, young or old. (I remember my mom running into the living room when she heard it from the kitchen.) As Dent stumbles out into the hospital hallway in time to stun his fiance, Grace, it’s understood that nothing will ever be the same again. That kind of irrevocable truth rarely finds its way into any form of popular media, say nothing of a purportedly shallow children’s entertainment.

Harvey Dent’s psychoanalysis. To watch such a quiet, methodical sequence occur in a cartoon meant for kids, where an established character is brought under hypnosis to reveal a sinister subconscious… it’s a surreal moment. Altieri’s animation is stellar, handling the transition of Harvey Dent into Big Bad Harv very delicately. As for Richard Moll’s vocal performance, well…

EPISODE’S MVP: … It’s downright frightening. Richard Moll’s Harvey Dent is the voice I hear whenever I read Two-Face’s dialogue in any comic book. It’s because of this single episode that it will be forever tattooed on my psyche.

Heart of Ice. (Air Date: September 7, 1992) The tragedy of Victor and Nora Fries is told for the first time here, and then ever since.

It begins with a rote action-packed sequence that introduces one of Batman’s many gimmick-beholden supervillians — this time, Mr. Freeze — the kinetic and fluid animation churning along with an almost passive excitement… and then something happens.

A considerable amount of depth is given to a formerly superfluous arch-criminal, as Mr. Freeze decides to leave one of his cronies to die freezing from the ice that the villain supplied too wantonly. That lack of emotion on chilling display might fall flat in another cartoon, but in Batman: TAS, it’s only a glimpse into what’s to come. In writer Paul Dini’s first Bat-assignment, “Heart Of Ice” would prove to be one of the series’ most popular episodes, snagging an Emmy Award for good measure (for Outstanding Writing In An Animated Program). It’s easily one of the most melancholy installments in Batman: TAS, which says quite a bit. It’s also an incredibly fun Batman adventure.

BEST LINE(s): Batman: (after dispatching a few henchmen) “FREEZE!” Mr. Freeze: “That’s MR. Freeze to you.” Considering how far puns like this can go in the other direction, this one almost seems quaint.

Mr. Freeze: “Think of it, Batman. To never again walk on a summer’s day with a hot wind in your face and a warm hand to hold. Oh, yes. I’d kill for that.

BEST MOMENT: Freeze kicking over a fire hydrant, and using his gun to propel himself up hundreds of feet through a ladder of ice. It’s a magnificent display of animation.

EPISODE’S MVP: The late Michael Ansara would bring a gravitas to the role of a mostly forgotten Bat-enemy, and by doing so, ensconce the relevancy of that character for decades after. No amount of Schwarzenegger buffoonery could obscure Ansara’s work. This episode is a testament to that.

Harley’s Holiday. (Air Date: October 15, 1994) The greatest gift Batman: The Animated Series ever bestowed upon our unworthy existence was the character of Dr. Harleen Quinzel, AKA Harley Quinn. Once a promising young psychologist, Harleen was warped by the Joker into becoming his absolutely subservient moll, doomed to suffer the countless mood swings for which the Clown Prince of Crime was infamous, never finding the solace of her ill-advised Happily Ever After.

Created by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, Harley was an instant hit: a minor-league henchman with a major-league fanbase who demanded solo outings for the manic marvel, and for her third appearance — detached from her ruby-lipped beau — writer Dini (teamed with Kevin Altieri, whodathunkit) offered the quirky jester a chance for a normal life.

What begins as a slight misunderstanding (that involves a little pink dress) quickly escalates into a monumental comedy of errors as Harley — petrified at the thought of being locked up in Arkham Asylum once more — kidnaps society shill Veronica Vreeland in a desperate bid for freedom. The duo survive the combined threats of a jilted Detective Bullock, long-suffering gangster Boxy Bennett, Veronica’s possessive father, General Vreeland, and the Dynamic Duo, and somehow forge an unlikely friendship along the way. For all of Batman: TAS’ overt darkness, “Harley’s Holiday” was a splendid diversion into the series’ rich annals of comedy.

BEST LINE(s): Harley: “Hey, remember me? That big charity bash a few years back? The one the Joker robbed? I was the clown girl holding the gun on ya!

Veronica: “What are you doing? That’s my father!” Harley: “No. That’s your father… IN A TANK!

BEST MOMENT: The day is ended and Harley is returned to the asylum. But Batman has a surprise waiting for her.

Harley: “There’s one thing I gotta know. Why’d you stay with me all day, risking your butt for someone who’s never given you anything but trouble?” Batman: “I know what it’s like to try to rebuild a life.” (reveals Harley’s pink dress) “I had a bad day too, once.” *sniff*

EPISODE’S MVP: No contest. It’s Arleen Sorkin. It’s no secret that Paul Dini based Harley Quinn on his friend. “Harley’s Holiday” displays the simmering energy that comes from Dini’s writing and Sorkin’s talents beautifully.

Over The Edge. (Air Date: May 23, 1998) The worst-case scenario. Everything about “Over The Edge” emanates with an unrelenting dread. From the very first moment of the episode, everything’s gone to seed: the GCPD, led by a bloodthirsty Jim Gordon, has infiltrated the Batcave, hot on the heels of Batman and Robin and shooting to kill. After a narrow escape — with an assist from Nightwing — Batman recounts the events that led to the unthinkable.

Written by Paul Dini, “Over The Edge” is as grim as anything that ever came from the DC Animated Universe, even eclipsing the ludicrously dark Batman Beyond: Return of The Joker. Barbara Gordon — Batgirl — is dead, Jim Gordon knows all of Bruce Wayne’s secrets, and now he will do anything to exact revenge on the vigilante he’s abetted all these years — even sinking so low as to spring the bone-crushing Bane from Blackgate Prison.

As bleak as the story is, the episode is a beauty to behold. The animation is the best the series ever produced: directed by Yuichiro Yano, Bruce Timm’s artistic overhaul of the series never looked better, setting the bar so high as to be impossible to overcome. (And wouldn’t be until the first season of Justice League Unlimited.) Is it a dream? An imaginary tale? “Over The Edge” plays its secrets close to the vest. This much drama demands a massive payoff, and Batman: TAS supplied it by kicking over the table. It twists the concept of what’s possible with storytelling in a 22 minute animated format. It also entertains the casual viewer and the die-hard in equal measure.

BEST LINE(s): Bruce: “You know how I lost my parents. The only way I could hold on to my sanity was to take matters into my own hands. Gordon: “That makes us even.”

Gordon: “How could you? I worked with you — trusted you. And you never told me?” (Batman is silent) “She was my daughter. My daughter.”

Officer Montoya: “FREEZE! Richard Grayson, you have the right to remain silent.” Nightwing: “Waived.” (starts beating down cops)

Mad Hatter: “We demand satisfaction!” Harley Quinn: “We demand money!” Mad Hatter: “Quite so. On advice from legal counsel, we have launched a billion dollar lawsuit.” Lawyer: “If the Bat’s on a spree, Wayne must pay the fee!” So glad Paul Dini found a moment for this.

Bane: “I’m pleased you remembered me, Mr. Wayne.” (punch, hit) “You can’t believe how I’ve look forward to this.” (more ouch) “Though I was hoping for more of a fight.” (looking grim for Batman) “But what could I expect from a killer of children?

Gordon: “Sweetheart, you’re capable of making your own decisions. You don’t need me to approve or even acknowledge them. And in this case, I can’t. All you need to know is I love you. All of you.” (kisses Barbara) “And that is all I have to say on the subject.” (winks)

BEST MOMENT: The GCPD’s assault on Wayne Manor and the Batcave — told in two fragmented sequences — is the first time these eyes ever witnessed such a thing. The swarming silhouettes of SWAT against the portrait of Thomas and Martha Wayne illustrate Bruce Wayne’s failure as Batman better than anything else this episode could conjure.

Batman vs. Bane. Though it was handled before in Season Two, Bane and Batman never got the showdown they deserved in TAS until this episode. (The original episode that introduced Bane was commissioned by the studio — based on the success of DC Comics’ popular Knightfall storyline — and was met by producers with sneers and was titled, appropriately enough, “Bane”.) It’s as violent and scary as anything you’ll find this side of The Dark Knight Rises.

EPISODE’S MVP: The late, great Bob Hastings gave Jim Gordon a hard-boiled dignity the character demanded. “Over The Edge”, with all its bleak imagery, finally gave Hastings the star treatment of which the veteran actor was always capable.

Agree? Disagree? What are your favorite episodes of ‘Batman: The Animated Series’? Let us know in the comments below.

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