There’s no debate as to whether Batman: The Animated Series is one of the best cartoons of all time. With additions to the franchise like Harley Quinn, villain backstories, and the excellent and iconic cast of Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as the Joker, it’s no wonder it’s received critical acclaim and fan support since the release in 1992.
If there is room for a Batman debate, it’s in choosing which episodes are the best. There is a stunning number of quality narratives to choose from: with over 100, including The New Batman Adventures that I’ve decided not to count in the listing for the sake of the title’s accuracy, ranking the best episodes is a hard process. Despite that grief, what follows is a list of the top ten episodes of Batman: The Animated Series. Strap in.
A one-off character stars in this episode, and that’s about all she can star in, after her family sitcom gig ended 20 years ago. An out-of-work actress who still looks like she’s a child can’t find another acting job, so she tries to create her own. This episode is home to a silly villain with a bow and dress, but the progression to the end of her arch is so achingly stark, it makes for both an amusing and somber watch.
“Beware of the Gray Ghost”
This episode paid homage to the original ‘60s Batman in the best way possible: by making Bruce Wayne a fanboy and giving Adam West the part of Batman’s childhood hero. This episode is light, fun, and heartwarming — and we get to see Batman geek out over his hero, feeling nostalgia for a time in his life.
He remembers watching the show with his dad and that sense of childish wonder shines through in all of Batman’s interaction with Adam West’s character. The writers do a magnificent job of honoring both the serial shows of the time period, and also the man who came before Kevin Conroy, making a poignant and uplifting story for us to enjoy.
This episode depicts the terror of having super-villains running rampant on a daily basis. The story follows an average Gotham citizen whose bad day gets even worse when he takes his frustrations out on the next unsuspecting car in the traffic jam, which happens to be the Joker’s vehicle. For his punishment, the Joker, out of the goodness of his heart, gives him two options: take a bullet in the skull or owe the Joker a favor sometime in the future. The flustered man takes the latter and two years later, the Joker comes to collect.
This episode really shows us the Joker through the eyes of the innocent townspeople, since we’ve only seen him in the context of a fight with Batman, and he’s even more menacing a baddie in this scenario. He’s unpredictable and merciless, and now we get to experience that through the eyes of an ordinary person from Gotham, and not just from Batman.
With there being so many good Harley Quinn episodes, it was hard to choose which one should be considered for the list, but in terms of tone, this episode gives us the best of both worlds. “Harley’s Holiday” is a fun jumble of shenanigans that the jester gets herself into while trying to turn over a new leaf. “Mad Love” is one of the darkest episodes of the series (even though it’s in the continuation series of The New Batman Adventures) which reveals her abusive domestic relationship with the Joker with chilling clarity.
“Harlequinade” is both a light-hearted and dispiriting episode that joins Harley Quinn and Batman as they track down the Joker in order to prevent him from detonating a bomb that will decimate the entire city. The dynamic of Quinn’s childlike exuberance and Batman’s annoyed gruff responses is humorous and fun, lightening the moments of uncomfortable reality when Harley sings a show tune about a domestic abuse victim, or when she returns to the emotionally manipulative Joker, yet again. This episode shows a nice balance between her depressing situation and her bounce-back attitude toward life, which leaves us feeling a little bittersweet.
“I Am the Night”
Both heart-breaking and heart-warming, this is one of the episodes that shows Batman at his most human. At the beginning of the episode, he admits to Alfred that he’s getting tired, and not just physically, but emotionally — and that he wonders what good Batman is even doing, especially after Commissioner Jim Gordon gets shot while on a job. The story delves into Batman’s character, exploring his motivations and determination, and is a wonderful addition to the series by creating a vulnerability that not many stories had achieved before.
“The Man Who Killed Batman”
This episode follows a one-off character named Sydney who’s telling the story to drug ring crime boss Rupert Thorn of how he accidentally killed Batman, and while he liked the attention at first, events just started spiraling out of control after that and he just wants to leave Gotham.
What makes this episode so entertaining is in part the meek little Syd the Squid apparently being Batman’s killer — so that fact brings an element of humor (because obviously Batman isn’t really dead,) and also because of the Joker’s appearance during the story. We’re privy to a an slight exploration of his character when he actually believes that Batman is dead and the moments flesh out their dynamic further than if Batman were actually in the room.
Undoubtedly one of the best two-parters, even winning an Emmy for Outstanding Animated Program in 1993, these episodes delve into Robin’s backstory of how he came to be with Bruce and also give us more depth into a character that had previously just been a spunky kid with a few one-liners.
It’s dark, it’s complex, and it solidifies the relationship between Batman and Robin even more with this tale of a boy trying to find justice for his parents’ death. It’s also a great example of paralleling both the present and past while telling a cohesive and emotionally fulfilling story.
This sad rendition of Harvey Dent’s backstory is one that has been used for a number of publications and films, but in Batman: The Animated Series, we see the slow and dangerous decline of Bruce Wayne’s friend who doesn’t affect his character until he’d already been established as one of the “good guys,” which makes this even more of a sympathetic watch.
“Heart of Ice”
This episode remains a favorite of many fans, because it changed Mr. Freeze from just another generic ice villain into a complex and tragic one. The creators of the show completely reinvented his character, and this rendition is commonly used in the movies, comics, and other television adaptations as his backstory. Before he was just a silly rogue with an ice gun, but the suit he wears and his motivations are explained, creating a sympathetic villain for us to enjoy.
“Almost Got ‘im”
On most fans’ top five list, this episode is clever, imaginative, and funny. Joker, Poison Ivy, Two-Face, Penguin, and Killer Croc are all plopped around a table playing poker. They’re not trying to take over Gotham, not discussing their latest plans, and not devising new ways to kill Batman. Instead, they’re just hanging out and talking about how they almost got Batman.
As the episode continues and the rogue gallery finishes up the tales of Batman’s almost-demise, we start to see the overall plot take shape, what really makes this episode so great is the interaction between all of the villains. They boast about their stories, make fun of their ridiculous plan names, and just have a chill night while they finish up a few more hands. It’s definitely an entertaining watch.