One of the most-invoked psychological readings of the Batman/Joker relationship is that the Dark Knight’s existence summons his archenemy into being. Various stories have had different takes on it over the years, some positing that the Joker persona was always going to emerge in Gotham. The new episode of the Batman: The Enemy Within video game plays with that idea in a way that makes Bruce Wayne very culpable for the Clown Prince of Crime.
Image: Telltale Games
There’s been a fractured triangle of need and not-quite-love at the heart of The Enemy Within. Throughout the episodic game’s first three episodes, Bruce Wayne, Harley Quinn and John Doe have all been tethered together in transactions aimed at getting them closer to their individual desires. We know that Bruce wants to stop the super-criminal cabal the Pact from ravaging Gotham and that John Doe wants Harley’s love – and this episode finally reveals what Harley’s after.
The former psychiatrist wants to create a volatile restorative cure for physical and mental illness using a super-virus and the blood of the now-dead Riddler. She’s trying to stave off the condition that led to her father taking his own life. Harley doesn’t give a damn about anything that might get in the way of this goal, as seen when she abandons the rest of the Pact after their robbery gets interrupted.
Episode four of Enemy Within has some of the clunkiest pacing and story logic of the season so far, but I’m willing to forgive it for the gripping moments of character dynamics that happen. Actor Anthony Ingruber delivers his best work as John Doe, growling out menace and upset mewling at how he gets treated by Bruce and Harley. After Harley gets away, Bruce and federal agent Iman Avesta go back to the Pact’s old haunt to try and figure out where she’s gone. They find John Doe in the abandoned train station, drunk and licking his wounds after a painful encounter with the woman he’s pining away for. Harley’s hurt him, physically and emotionally, and it doesn’t seem as though Bruce cares very much.
Later, when Bruce meets John at a defunct carnival attraction, his seething pain is even more raw. This proto-Joker is portrayed as just disturbed enough to not be understood as sympathetic, but it’s also made clear that John Doe has been treated poorly by all the major players in this story so far. Part of him relishes chaos and others’ physical pain, but you sense that John Doe’s trying to keep those urges at bay.
Moreover, he’d probably have a better chance at that if he had regular ongoing support from someone who actually really cared about him. Bruce Wayne could be that person, but he needs to use John’s proximity to Harley for his own crimefighting ends.
The betrayals that John Doe gets slapped with at every turn of this episode add to the heavy inevitability that’s hovered over this entire season. The Enemy Within has put players in the awful position of being responsible for the birth of the Joker. More than any episode so far, I struggled with the dialogue choices I could make. They all felt bad – either outright lies, evasion, or half-hearted justifications for Bruce’s rocky relationship with John. And it seemed telling the truth was just adding fuel to the fire, which made it harder to try and stay true to the idea of Batman that I have in my head.
Telltale’s bespoke Bat-universe is delivering a Joker who’s the product of abuse, self-serving manipulation and neglect. It’s a slow-motion character study of the Clown Prince of Crime and, when the hellish consequences start rocking Gotham City, there’s no way that Batman – and the players controlling him – will be able to tell themselves that they’re blameless.