Gotham’s dysfunctional villains have been so interesting to watch develop because the show introduces each of them at various stages in their journeys to becoming part of the classic Batman rogues’ gallery we’re all familiar with. Some characters’ paths have been in line with the traditional comics lore, while others are wildly reinvented.
In the show’s current season — Gotham’s fifth, and final — nearly all of Batman’s most prominent foes have become power players on the map in some capacity, and their explicit connections to their comics counterparts are clear. We’ve seen the Riddler, the Penguin, a very strange Poison Ivy, and a young Selina Kyle well on her way to becoming Catwoman.
When it came to the Joker, Gotham took its time to carefully lay out the overwrought, ridiculous turn of events leading to Jerome Valeska and his twin brother Jeremiah being the show’s answer to the clown prince of crime.
Interestingly, Gotham made the smart decision of turning Barbara Kean into a much more independent, empowered, and lethal version of Harley Quinn who came into her own power independently of the Joke r— a kind of reimagining Telltale Games would later incorporate into its games.
But the show’s fourth season introduced a new character, Ecco, an acolyte of Jeremiah’s who immediately fulfils a role much like the original Harley Quinn’s in Batman: The Animated Series. Since then, it’s been...curious to watch Barbara and Ecco, seemingly two halves to Gotham’s whole concept of Harley, operate independently of one another and illustrate how much our ideas about the character have changed.
While Barbara’s become a fully-fleshed out character in the time since she was first introduced on the show, the same can’t be said for Ecco. Largely, Gotham’s handled Ecco as if she were meant to embody some of the more retrograde ideas about Harley Quinn that have been incorporated into her character across various iterations throughout her history.
She’s been loyal to Jeremiah and sees being driven insane by him as a gift. Visually, she very much reads as Harley thanks to the excellent decisions being made by Gotham’s costume director, but Ecco’s always lacked her progenitor’s agency and verve. Though this week’s episode, “Penguin, Our Hero,” brings Ecco to the fore in a significant way, it doesn’t feel like it’s meant to really help her become a more nuanced character.
Instead, Ecco’s big step into the spotlight is a gentle reminder that too often, previous takes on Harley have focused too much on over-sexualized aesthetics and not nearly enough on personality.
With all of Gotham’s bridges connecting it to the outside world destroyed, the city’s been plunged into total anarchy as criminals divide and claim land for themselves while civilians are helpless in defence. Reasoning that they must wander into the “Dark Zone”, the most dangerous part of Gotham where Jeremiah and his cult are said to have set up shop, Bruce and Selina set out together on foot with barely any weapons between them and different motivations.
For Selina, who’s quite recently become more than human and more cat-like thanks to a special herb from Poison Ivy, beelining for Jeremiah is an exciting prospect considering his recent attempt to kill her. And her passion for the kill is something that worries Bruce.
Selina’s budding brutality is what ultimately ends up keeping both of them safe as they venture toward Jeremiah’s lair. Selina decides to forego stealth in favour of approaching Ecco, who’s accepting new cult recruits, under the guise of wanting to join. In Jeremiah’s initiation process, Gotham shows us just how many of Ecco’s own personal desires she’s set aside in favour of his. Nothing she’s doing is really for her or because she wants to do it, but because she’s bought into Jeremiah’s teachings.
There’s a level of general horror and disgust that Selina has in response to Ecco and the cult because of the blood-spattered church they congregate in, but as she gets deeper into the process, it seems as if her hostility towards Ecco becomes more focused.
Over the course of the episode, Selina verbalizes how she’s uninterested in playing by anyone else’s rules and is primarily acting in her own self-interests, which is underlined when she meets Ecco, someone with a completely different worldview. Selina and Ecco’s inevitable fight in a drained pool surrounded by dead bodies is peak Gotham and gives “Penguin, Our Hero” a solid dose of proper Batman camp — at one point, Ecco calls Selina “puddin’” and Selina hisses back at her. But by its end, the episode as a whole feels like a somber reflection on times when Harley Quinn’s been reduced to being a lunatic henchwoman wearing bawdy costumes.
Ecco’s not gone, and the episode isn’t even really saying that version of Harley can’t exist. But it is saying that when she’s depicted that way, she’s much less interesting, and is almost invariably going to end up getting knocked around by more fully realised characters.