Image: DC Comics. All art by Sean Murphy with Matt Hollingsworth.

Though Batman: White Knight is technically an Elseworlds story about a rehabilitated Joker seeking to convince Gotham that Batman is the true source of its problems, it’s also a love story. The Joker’s had many a great loves in his life: comedy, crime, Batman himself. But he’s never hurt a loved one as much as he’s hurt Harley Quinn.

Ever since her introduction, it’s nigh-impossible to tell a thoughtful story about the Joker handling his mental illness and taking stock of his relationships and life’s purpose without factoring in Harley. She’s always been the more expressive of the pair when it comes to talking about the intricacies of their relationship. The second issue of Sean Murphy’s Batman: White Knight opens with a newly-sane Joker finding his voice and the courage to truly open his heart—and vision—to Harley.

After video of his nearly being beaten to death by Batman made its way onto the news, Jack Napier (the Joker’s civilian identity) has been working his way through Gotham’s legal system, defending himself in court and arguing that criminal negligence is the real cause of the Joker’s crimes.

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Rather than attempting to properly treat his psychosis and rehabilitating him, Napier successfully convinces a court that Batman—a de-facto extension of Gotham PD—actively kept him from accessing the psychiatric treatment he so desperately needed. In the Joker, Batman and the police were able to find a foil, a “supercriminal” against which they could frame themselves as heroes trapped in a never-ending fight to save Gotham. But, Napier insists, the kabuki theater of it all had material damages on the people of Gotham that he now wants to bring Batman to justice for.

Questionable as Napier’s arguments are, it all boils down to the fact that Gotham City PD doesn’t actually have much evidence to convict him of the crimes he’d been apprehended for so many times. Napier walks free and his message about Gotham’s 1 percent thriving while the rest go without begins to take root. But before Napier can begin his full-tilt crusade against Batman in the hearts and minds of Gotham’s citizens, though, he needs to get his house in order. He needs to make amends with Harley.

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It’s widely accepted that, psychopath though he may have been, the Joker was always a brilliant, calculating man capable of thinking multiple steps ahead of those around him. To think that he was entirely unaware of how his years of emotional abuse hurt Harley and kept her at a distance is silly to say the least. As Napier comes upon Zoinko’s Joke Shoppe, he’s hesitant to open the door to his former hideout, unsure of who or what he’ll find.

Before he has too much time to think about it, the door bursts open to reveal Harley done up in her Suicide Squad finest and elated to see her man back home. As Napier tries to explain to Harley how he’s turned over a new leaf, she resists and ignores him, choosing instead to insist that he slap on his pancake makeup so that they can get back to committing crimes before having clown-themed sex. Confused, Napier soldiers through his mess of a prepared speech before dropping the big gun in his attempt to win Harley “back.” He drops to one knee, ring in hand, and promises that he’s finally ready to give Harley the loving version of himself that she’d always wanted. Then she kicks him in the gut.

To be fair, this is exactly the sort of thing one might expect from Harley after being ditched yet again as Napier traipses off into the night to rendezvous with Batman, then coming home an entirely different man. This anger from Harley, her insistence that Napier’s meds are changing his mind for the worse—it all makes sense if you see Harley as the maniacal enabler that she was during Batman: The Animated Series. 

But this woman isn’t that Harley. She isn’t Harley at all. The real Harleen Quinzel (wearing her classic BTAS bodysuit) steps out of the shadows, and sics her pet hyenas on the impostor before gathering Napier in her arms and getting them somewhere where they can speak like proper adults. We’ve seen post-Joker Harley before and in almost every instance, she’s a much better-off person without him. But Batman: White Knight’s take on Harley, strangely, comes across as one of the most understandable takes on how a real-world Harley would handle coming to the realization that she and the Joker were bad for one another.

In almost every other story like this, Harley finds solace in creating more chaos and mayhem around her as she establishes herself as an independent villain, all the while taking care not to think too hard about her time with the Joker. This Harley—Harleen, rather—is far more contemplative about what she and he meant to one another. Ultimately, Harleen explains, she left the Joker after realizing that she would always have to share him with Batman and that her love for the man would always go unrequited.

Because White Knight is set outside of DC’s primary continuity, there’s no real way to determine how reliable Napier is as a narrator, but as he speaks with Harleen about who he was and why she left, we’re meant to understand that Napier sincerely doesn’t remember most of his Joker life. He doesn’t remember torturing and potentially killing Jason Todd. (It’s left unclear if the second Robin is actually dead here.) But that specific attempt at getting Batman’s attention is what ultimately drove Harley away. He doesn’t know how or if he’ll ever be able to move on from his life as the Joker, but what he does know is that Harleen is the only person to ever consistently have been there for him.

Harleen and Napier’s reunion is not the joyous, madcap sort of affair we’ve come to expect whenever Joker and Harley have ended up back together in the past. It’s somber and contoured by the painful history that they both share and are now sane enough to recognize as the trauma that it was.

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Batman: White Knight asks us to step back and take stock of the long-term impacts that Batman’s activity has had on Gotham City, and this issue in particular asks us to think about who Harleen and Napier are in relation to one another after all these years. This Harleen is more levelheaded and contemplative than other incarnations of the character, but it’s in her willingness to join Napier that Batman: White Knight is able to remind us about the love triangle buried beneath the comic’s other plotlines.

Batman loved Gotham, the Joker loved Batman, and Harley loved the Joker. Now that his affections have seemingly reoriented themselves, both Napier and Harleen are perfectly positioned to give Batman exactly what he wants: the protection of the city. It’s just that they’ve decided he’s the one it needs protecting from.