The season three finale of HBO Max’s Harley Quinn opens with Poison Ivy kneeling on the ground yelling “—uuuuuuuuuuck,” the payoff of the previous episode’s closing, where she fell to her knees shouting “fuuuuuuuuuu—”. She’s holding a limp Harley in her arms, and not because she’s dead. The opposite, actually. Harley let herself get infected with the zombie goop her girlfriend was using to live out her wildest fantasies, transforming Gotham City into an all-green Eden. Harley zombiefied herself so Ivy would stop. Meanwhile — in a galaxy far, far away — in a different fantasy wold, Ensign Beckett Mariner of the USS Cerritos has hijacked an amusement park spaceship, and taken it into deep space — so she can steal a Federation Starship to gather evidence to free her Captain from a sham Starfleet trial.
What do these three have in common, you’re wondering? Well, they’re all three women starring in their own animated series from beloved, multi-gazillion dollar franchises. And they also happen to be the most well-developed chaotic bisexuals I’ve ever seen on TV in my entire life.
I’ve long held the opinion that no shows are doing queer representation like cartoons; Harley Quinn and Star Trek: Lower Decks just prove my point. Maybe animated series in deeply established universes have more creative freedom because they’re viewed by studios as less important than their live-action counterparts. Maybe legacy properties have just accepted that the role of animated spin-offs is to lovingly skewer their real-people predecessors. Maybe it’s simply the fact that less viewers watch these animated offshoots, that they get exported to fewer countries, so it’s less about making bank and more about keeping that branding fresh. Who really knows how the minds of big corporations work? Whatever the reason, DC Comics and Paramount, respectively, have stayed out of the way and allowed Harley Quinn and Lower Decks to thrive under the creator’s narrative visions.
For Harley Quinn, that has meant two seasons of Harley and Ivy being in love. Not winking at being in love. Not hinting at something more than friends. Not subtext. I’m talking wedding-busting, face-smooshing, U-Hauling, “thanks, we’ve been doing a lot of banging” in love.
In season two, they finally admit their feelings for each other and decide they owe it to themselves to at least give their relationship a shot. In season three, which aired its finale yesterday, the couple grapples with their individual identities (How does Ivy get back to her roots, literally and metaphorically? What does Harley actually want to do with her life, now that she’s not in an abusive relationship with the Crown Prince of Crime?) and with being a couple (If one of them joins The Legion of Doom, do they both have to join The Legion of Doom? If one of them wants to bash in Joker’s head with a bat, do both of them have to bash in Joker’s head with a bat?). Being selfless doesn’t come easy to either of these super-(villainous?) women — but they try so hard for each other.
They love being Harlivy, but they also love being their own selves with their own shifting aspirations. They call each other “honey” while saving each other’s lives, repeatedly. They call each other “babe” while blowing stuff up. They know what kind of toilet paper the other one likes and their go-to order at Mama Macaroni’s. They even have their own individual relationships and hang-ups with the Batfam. I’ve never seen anything like it!
On Lower Decks, Beckett Mariner’s personal growth is less tied to romance, but her evolution is no less satisfying. She came out as pansexual early in the series, telling one of her best friends, “I’m always dating bad boys, bad girls, bad gender non-binary babes, ruthless alien masterminds, bad Bynars” — and, this season, we really get to see that pay off as she’s got a real enemies-to-lovers situation going with Jennifer “Jen” Sh’reyan, a female Andorian Starfleet officer. In fact, in last week’s “Mining the Mind’s Mines,” she gets her hands on some glowing psychic ore that makes her start hallucinating her deepest desires and insecurities. Surprise, they involve Jennifer! First, Jen wears a bikini and tries to seduce her. She wants to have fun, go swimming, makeout, just generally have a good and carefree time with Beckett. Then, a whole other Jen shows up and starts demanding labels and morphing into a commitment-greedy lesbian werewolf. They battle it out in the arena of Beckett’s mind and she ultimately decides she still wants to smooch and canoodle with her girl, and also she needs to go back to therapy.
Beckett Mariner is Chaotic Good come to life. She wants to help people. She wants to make the world a better place. She wants to be a good friend and daughter and colleague and Starfleet officer. But she also chafes at just the whiff of a whisper of the echo of the idea of being boxed in by rules. She absolutely refuses to do what she’s told the way she’s told to do it. She hates bureaucracy. She is, in fact, never not getting into trouble. But she’s almost always doing it for the right reason.
It is shockingly rare to see the complex internal lives of women get explored like this on television, to dig through their motivations with them, to see their crunchy exteriors and gooey caramel centers — and to ride the waves of their messy decisions alongside them, without ever losing sight of their humanity. The fact that all three of these woman are bisexual? And in relationships with other bisexuals? One of the most misunderstood, misrepresented, maligned group of characters on this or any planet? It’s a joy to behold. And it’s only in cartoons.