The Matt Signal – Episode 47: Birds of a Feather

Plot summary: Two rich socialites are so starved for drama they hatch a plot to gaslight The Penguin.

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Each Saturday and Sunday Matt Waters recaps an episode of the legendary Batman: The Animated Series, building an overall ranking along the way. Plus best performances, the ever-popular Villain Watch and more!

Notes

Episode Title: ‘Birds of a Feather’

Original Air Date: February 8th, 1993

Directed: Frank Paur (10)             

Written: Chuck Menville (story) (1) & Brynne Chandler (3)

This was the last television script written by Chuck Menville, who is credited with the revitalisation a stop-motion technique called pixilation in the 1960s as well as the creation of the holodeck on Star Trek. The more you know!

This was the last produced episode under Laren Bright’s tenure as a story editor. Let’s see if things dramatically fall apart going forward…

Recap

Penguin and his goons’ attempt to rob an art gallery but are of course thwarted by Batman. Oswald does his best to fend Bats off with his arsenal of gadgets, but ultimately falls victim to the old falling chandelier gambit.

Completing another stint in prison, Penguin declares he will reclaim his place amidst Gotham’s elite with no trouble at all…

Except nobody is there to collect him from jail and he’s forced to take a bus with the poors. Oh how the mighty have fallen.

Speaking of which, socialite Verona Vreeland laments her declining standing, especially in comparison to the splash one of her previous parties made thanks to Joker crashing it. Her pal Pierce Chapman brings Penguin’s recent release to her attention, giving her a (very, very bad) idea.

Oswald returns to his old penthouse, bummed out to discover it abandoned, with dust guards over all the furniture. Batman emerges from the shadows to warn that he’ll be watching. Penguin again claims he’s reformed, but Bruce doesn’t buy it.

Fate calls Veronica Vreeland telephones, inviting him out to dinner at a fancy restaurant, giving her and Pierce quite a giggle.

Dinner… does not go well. Oswald tells vulgar prison stories and eats whole fish, disgusting wealthy patrons and driving away business. Penguin queries Vreeland’s ulterior motives, but she lays on the charm enough to lull him into swoony compliance.

Muggers set upon the pair during their walk away from the restaurant, but Penguin is easily able to fend them off. Unfortunately, Batman intervenes, falsely assuming Oswald’s guilt and takes him down along with the thieves. Though titillated by the whole affair, Veronica protests and the pair walk free.

The next day Pierce and Veronica share a laugh about Penguin when, wouldn’t you know it, Bruce Wayne happens to run into them and strike up a conversation about why Vreeland would want a notorious criminal to attend her upcoming party.

Undeterred by Bruce’s warning, Veronica attends Pagliacci with Oswald, who proceeds to squawk along, causing quite a scene. Vreeland cringes but pretends to find it charming. But doctor… I am Pagliacci. Good joke. Everybody laugh Roll on snare drum. Curtains.

Sorry, not curtains. The party! Oswald thoroughly embarrasses himself, much to Pierce’s delight before excusing himself to admire an extremely expensive penguin broach he plans to give Veronica…

Unfortunately, he overhears his ladylove and her BFF gossiping about him and elects to gas them with one of his trick umbrellas. Bruce and the other guests run in to help, but not in time to prevent Penguin flying away with an unconscious Vreeland.

The next day, Pierce gives Jim Gordon shit for being bad at his job, but before he can fall victim to police brutality, a robotic bird crashes through the window carrying a ransom note demanding Pierce pay $1,000,000. Batman is of course listening in.

Finding himself in decidedly NOT the rich district, Pierce sweats bullets at the thought of encountering a poor person, despite Batman and the GCPD watching on from above. Following Oswald’s instructions, Pierce falls down a manhole, landing on a giant rubber duck in the sewers!

Pierce eventually finds himself in the empty opera house from earlier, where Veronica is tied to an enormous chandelier. She pleads with him, offering even more money, but he declares all he ever wanted was friendship, and wisely chooses not to believe her claims that she was growing fond of him.

Batman arrives and the old foes battle once more, with Penguin (wearing a Viking helmet) flying around on a prop dragon that breathes real fire. It kind of rules.

But Bruce is quickly able to diffuse the situation with batarangs, saving Veronica and taking down Penguin (and his dragon). He literally won every encounter in this episode by throwing things.

Veronica doubles down on her affection for Oswald as he’s led away by the cops. He blames high society for the whole affair while Batman stares at them from the rafters like some sort of phantom… of the opera…

Best Performance

This is another tough one, because Kevin Conroy was on top of his game despite being a relatively minor part of the episode, while our three guest stars were all fantastic.

Marilu Henner and Sam McMurray are pitch perfect as candidates for the guillotine, with Veronica’s deceptions playing off Pierce’s love for drama. They’re both obnoxious, but in a different ways, illustrating the dangers of bored rich people gaslighting criminals for their amusement. Henner does just enough to leave me undecided about Veronica’s true feelings, which is good!

But Paul Williams crushes the material presented to him, tackling the lengthy diatribes and big words in particularly smooth fashion. Everything about Penguin is over the top, but Williams helps to ground him in a very real place, and this episode is largely a showcase for him.

Ranking

This was a simple, but well executed episode that did its darndest to tell another sympathetic villain story. Oswald is frequently written as a tragic character but this is one of my favourite treatments of him; he’s more refined than his fellow criminals, but too ghoulish for the wealthy elite and ultimately fits in with neither despite his delusions to the contrary.

Menville and Chandler deftly tie together both the titular turn of phrase and the vague plot of Pagliacci to weave a story about lonely rich people taking advantage of each other with tragic consequences. It’s far from the series’ best plot, but it features some fun little set pieces to bolster it.

The opening scene with Batman foiling Penguin’s heist is as quick and effective as action scenes get, giving both characters some shine and delivering an exciting little back and forth in under two minutes. It also manages to further flesh out the show’s sense of history, with presumably years passing between the opening and the other events, leaving us to wonder how many other episodes occurred in between.

I don’t want to get too carried away though, as it doesn’t mine the material deeply enough, and I’ve arguably done a little of the work for it in this write-up. It’s fun, action-packed, and has some top-tier voice acting, but it’s still limited.

  1. The Laughing Fish
  2. Almost Got ‘Im
  3. Heart of Ice
  4. Robin’s Reckoning Part I
  5. Perchance to Dream
  6. Two-Face Part I
  7. Joker’s Favor
  8. Feat of Clay Part II
  9. Robin’s Reckoning Part II
  10. Beware the Gray Ghost
  11. Mad as a Hatter
  12. Heart of Steel Part II
  13. Vendetta
  14. Appointment In Crime Alley
  15. Two-Face Part II
  16. Birds of a Feather
  17. Heart of Steel Part I
  18. On Leather Wings
  19. Pretty Poison
  20. Feat of Clay Part I
  21. Joker’s Wild
  22. It’s Never Too Late
  23. See No Evil
  24. The Clock King
  25. The Strange Secret of Bruce Wayne
  26. Eternal Youth
  27. The Cape and Cowl Conspiracy
  28. The Cat and the Claw Part I
  29. Terror in the Sky
  30. P.O.V.
  31. Christmas with the Joker
  32. Day of the Samurai
  33. Fear of Victory
  34. Be a Clown
  35. Night of the Ninja
  36. The Cat and the Claw Part II
  37. Nothing to Fear
  38. Prophecy of Doom
  39. Tyger, Tyger
  40. If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?
  41. Dreams In Darkness
  42. The Last Laugh
  43. Cat Scratch Fever
  44. Moon of the Wolf
  45. The Under-Dwellers
  46. The Forgotten
  47. I’ve Got Batman in My Basement

Villain Watch

Penguin (Paul Williams) (fourth appearance)

What a difference two episodes can make. Penguin went from the lowest ranked villain not named Sewer King or Boss Biggis all the way up to the top 20 after his excellent turn in ‘Almost Got ‘Im’, and after this episode he’s cracked the top ten as far as I’m concerned.

Leaning so hard into his highfalutin upper crust gimmick has worked wonders without sacrificing any of the gadgetry he’s predominantly known for, because everybody loves a trick umbrella. Both of these make him a nice mirror image of Batman, albeit a far more crass, less conventionally attractive one.

Speaking of which, they also harnessed a little of the gross DeVito energy, but not to such a degree that I don’t want to look at him. One can’t help but sympathise with him for being made a freak-show by a pair of rich snobs, and it’s up to you to decide if his feelings were sincerely platonic and likewise if Veronica had a legitimate change of heart. Regardless of your takes on these two things, there’s a surprising amount going on here, even if it is all very surface level compared to the more emotional arcs enjoyed by other villains.

  1. The Joker
  2. Mr. Freeze
  3. Two-Face
  4. Clayface
  5. Mad Hatter
  6. Catwoman
  7. Poison Ivy
  8. The Riddler
  9. Clock King
  10. Penguin
  11. Killer Croc
  12. HARDAC (and Ronda Duane)
  13. Rupert Thorne
  14. Lloyd Ventrix
  15. Harley Quinn
  16. Josiah Wormwood
  17. Scarecrow
  18. Roland Daggett (and Germs & Bell!)
  19. Tony Zucco
  20. Man-Bat
  21. Hugo Strange
  22. Red Claw
  23. Arnold Stromwell
  24. Mad Bomber
  25. Tygrus (and Dr. Dorian)
  26. Kyodai Ken
  27. Nostromos (and Lucas!)
  28. Cameron Kaiser
  29. Dr. Dorian (and Garth)
  30. Professor Milo
  31. Romulus
  32. Sewer King
  33. Boss Biggis

Plugs

Eager for more long-form coverage of Batman? Why not check out my podcast with Mike Thomas, The Tape Crusaders, which reviewed every Batman movie and delved a tiny bit into the animated series.

Speaking of my podcasts, There Will Be Movies continues Monday Little Women.

Kevin & Jerome’s Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul podcast, Reel Bad, will be dropping its final episode (for now) before the end of the month.

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Matt Waters

Brit dude who likes both things AND stuff and has delusions of being some kind of writer or something. Basketball, video games, comic books, films, music, other random stuff.

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