It is not without some sadness that we post this final installment in Jeremiah Lawson AKA Wenatchee the Hatchet’s epic Batman: The Agony of Loss and The Madness of Desire series. He has taken us so far beyond what any of us – even in our wildest dreams – could have imagined possible when it comes to Batman: The Animated Series, uncovering its remarkable philosophical depth, artistic daring and emotional umph, not to mention a set of psycho-spiritual parables that outshines almost all of its live-action competition. Seriously! If you’ve been reading this final chapter (on salvation), you know that he’s saved the best for last.
PART SIX: CROSSING THRESHOLDS, or Stories of Apostasy and Salvation in Gotham City
Formerly you never forgave anyone. You judged people without mercy. And you praised people with equal lack of moderation. And now an understanding mildness has become the basis of your uncategorical judgments. You have come to realize your own weakness–and you can therefore understand the weakness of others. And be astounded at another’s strength. And wish to possess it yourself.
From “The Ascent”, The Gulag Archipeligo by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
C. THE VENTRILOQUIST: PUTTING THE OLD MAN SCARFACE TO DEATH
Stories of redemption in mainstream cinema tell us about people who redeem themselves, or find redemption in the love of another. But stories of redemption for those who neither seek nor deserve it are rare. Certainly, if salvation were easily found in Gotham then Batman wouldn’t have the most legendary enemies in comics. Batman has seen enough darkness and folly in the human heart that he can even laugh at Harley Quinn’s wistful dream of a domesticated life with the Joker. Yet Batman nevertheless continues to appeal to Harley’s gentler side. He refuses to give up on the warped and broken Harvey Dent. Despite having every reason not to, Batman offers to help to a remorseless Clayface find a cure for his condition time and again. The Dark Knight embodies a paradox of seeing the human condition as broken but fraught with the possibilities of real hope.
The citizens of Gotham represent a curious paradox all their own. Many of Gotham’s most notorious criminals are spurred on by their own brand of justice. Whether it is Jervis Tetch, Edward Nygma, Mary Dahl, or Harvey Dent, the desperate search for redemption becomes the paradoxical path to apostasy. When redemption actually arrives in Gotham it comes not to those who seek it but to those upon whom it bursts forth, to the powerless or unwilling.
Among Gotham criminals one of the least powerful or willing was Arnold Wesker, the Ventriloquist, with his old dummy and master Scarface. Wesker and his dominant personality Scarface put together the most flawless heists in Gotham City. Commissioner Gordon warns Batman at the start of “Read My Lips” that this new gang has been pulling of heists “with the precision of a Swiss watch-maker.” Even when Batman confronts a suspected member of the new gang in Gotham, the big thug Rhino says the Bat has nothing on him. When Batman finally encounters The Ventriloquist and Scarface he’s astonished. Not only is Scarface the dominant personality but Wesker and Scarface genuinely don’t know what each other are thinking. Batman puts a listening device on Wesker’s suit and starts surveillance. Wesker’s skill as a Ventriloquist is good enough to even fool the computer in the Batcave into identifying Scarface and Wesker as different people (remember, folks, this is a 20 year old show now).
When Batman figures out the Ventriloquist is planning to steal platinum, and goes to intervene, he is quickly knocked out by Rhino, and regains consciousness suspended over a pit of mannequins with razor-tipped hands. Scarface addresses his own gang and Batman with some of the most memorable lines in the entire cartoon run:
See, the Bat’s not so tough. Comes up against Scarface, he’s just another dummy. It was a TRAP, Bats, start to finish and ya fell for it like a world-class sucker.
The only heist Scarface planned that Batman figured out in advance was designed for the sole purpose of trapping him! Not even the Joker managed that track record.
But Batman gambled on Scarface’s arrogance. He tells Scarface, “You’re not as smart as you think you are” and points out that Batman couldn’t have walked into the trap’s location without inside help. Batman has realized that the only way to stop the Ventriloquist is to exploit the conflicted personalities inside Wesker’s mind and play to Scarface’s egotism and paranoia. Batman tells Scarface that Wesker has been the traitor in Scarface’s gang, feeding him information in exchange for legal protection.
Scarface, incensed, commands his gang to kill the Ventriloquist. Rhino and the other gang members are mortified that their own boss is commanding them to kill him and can’t bring themselves to act. Scarface, disgusted, shouts, “I’m surrounded by traitors!” The dummy Scarface, simultaneously controlled by but controlling Wesker, takes up a gun and points it as Wesker’s face as Wesker begins to weep and plead for his life while preparing to kill himself, easily one of the creepiest moments in the entirety of Batman: The Animated Series.
Now in the comics Alan Grant gave us an Arnold Wesker whose history was ambiguous, Scarface could be a second personality, the ghost of a convicted criminal, or even a demon. All that is certain is that Arnold Wesker and Scarface are completely different personalities and in “Read My Lips” Scarface has no problem killing the man who gives him life. Dini and Timm have firmly said Scarface is all in Wesker’s head. Composer Shirley Walker (who composed the episode’s music) said she liked the idea of the ghost or demon angle of the character, that the man was actually possessed by a devil. Since neither backstory is provided in the scripted episodes viewers get to choose, which respects the ambiguity of Grant’s original concept for Wesker’s background.
What is beyond doubt is that now that Batman has turned Scarface against Wesker he won’t let Scarface kill his puppeteer. Batman literally disarms Scarface with a batarang and takes on his gang. In the ensuing brawl the dummy Scarface is accidentally gunned down by one of the Ventriloquist’s thugs. Wesker is even more distraught at the destruction of the puppet then he was at the possibility of his own death! Sent to Arkham Wesker responds well to treatment but we see that Scarface has simply gone into hiding within Wesker’s still broken mind.
At length The Ventriloquist and Scarface return to pulling off clever heists, even to the point of seducing Selina Kyle back into crime by appealing to her vanity and spite. The Ventriloquist and Scarface together are shrewd enough to not only sucker Batman but Catwoman as well. Catwoman avenges herself by destroying the new Scarface puppet and plans to scratch Scarface out of Wesker but is stopped by Batman. Batman knows that no matter how clever Scarface is he can’t make Selina do what she doesn’t want to do. Wesker has seen that Batman has saved him twice, first from Scarface and then from an angry Catwoman.
In “Double Talk”, the final episode for the Ventriloquist and Scarface we see that Wesker has gone months without a sign of Scarface. Wesker’s response to medication has been good enough that he’s being offered a chance to start a normal life. He’s given a place to stay at the Wayne Gardens half-way house and Bruce Wayne has even offered Wesker a job as a mail clerk at Wayne Enterprises. Wesker is astonished that he’s being given a chance to build a new life after all the people he’s hurt.
But grateful as he is for this new life Wesker is haunted by nightmares in which Scarface returns and kills him. Soon Wesker discovers he’s being harassed by voices in his head and his old minions Mugsy and Rhino. The two thugs found all their purpose working for Scarface and are determined to drive Wesker crazy enough for Scarface to return. Batman fights the thugs off and tells them “Wesker’s off limits” but Batman doesn’t realize that Scarface hasn’t really gone away.
It isn’t long before Scarface returns with Wesker and reveals his plan–lay low long enough to sucker Wayne and everyone else into thinking Wesker was truly reformed, then use the inside connections through work at Wayne Enterprise to steal millions in untraceable bearer bonds. Scarface pulls off another caper that Batman couldn’t work out but Batman appeals to Wesker as Scarface prepares to kill Mugsy and Rhino for presuming to be smarter than their master. Scarface tells Wesker to kill Batman.
The Dark Knight tells Wesker, “He’s the puppet, not you.” Wesker has seen Batman fight to save him and he’s seen that Bruce Wayne’s generosity has given him a new life, home and career. He hesitates. Scarface scolds Wesker for his cowardice, “Come on, what are you waiting for!? For once in your life do something right!”
Wesker angrily resolves, “Yes, I should have done this a long time ago” and guns down Scarface himself. Only recognizing that Bruce Wayne has paid for, and Batman has fought for, a new life for him gives Wesker the strength and resolve to put the old man Scarface to death. The story of Arnold Wesker ends with him back in the halfway house, grateful that Bruce Wayne didn’t press charges and was even willing to give him his job back. This is one of the very few happy endings in Gotham, a criminal restored and saved. Arnold Wesker was not looking for a new life and knew he didn’t deserve it, but when he is given a new life as a gift, free from the devil who ruled him, he accepts it with joy.
Next: We may have exhausted BTAS, but we’re not done with the DC Animated Universe quite yet!