“Baby-Doll” (season 2, episode 11; originally aired October 1, 1994)
The past two episodes of The Adventures Of Batman & Robin have been two of this season’s weakest stories, so leave it to Paul Dini to finally get the Dynamic Duo right in “Baby-Doll,” one of the most heartbreaking 22 minutes of children’s television you’re ever going to watch. As a kid, I didn’t always latch on to the deeper emotional themes of this series (explosions and punching were good enough for me), and this is one of the first episodes where the human story took precedence over the superhero one.
This recap goes up on my 25th birthday, which is appropriate considering it’s the first age that really feels adult to me. I’m at that point in my life where I have a steady stream of bills and a job that pays for them. For the first time, I had to pay taxes instead of getting a refund. Being a grown up isn’t fun, and I can sympathize with a character like Mary Dahl who longs for the carefree days of childhood. Technically, Mary longs for the carefree days of her child-adulthood, which is a smart twist on the usual Peter Pan syndrome.
One of my favorite original B:TAS villains, Baby-Doll is the psychotic alter ego of Mary-Louise Dahl, an actress born with systemic hypoplasia, a disease that prevents her from aging. At the age of 20, Mary was the child-like star of her own sitcom until she was humiliated on her birthday by new character Cousin Spunky, who is more than loosely modeled on Cousin Oliver from The Brady Bunch. She left the show after the birthday episode fiasco to pursue a dramatic career, but her turn as Lady Macbeth was panned by critics and she never rebounded. On the anniversary of the day it all went wrong, Baby-Doll gathers her on-screen family to celebrate her birthday one last time before blowing them all to bits for betraying her.
“Baby-Doll” is especially chilling because of its foundation in reality, specifically in its depiction of a child star whose life after stardom is less than ideal. Part Gary Coleman, part Shirley Temple, Mary Dahl isn’t that far-fetched a villain, even if she has a ridiculously cutesy visual. A lot of that realism comes from Alison LaPlaca’s amazing voice acting, and the shifts from Baby-Doll’s high-pitched squeak to Mary’s somber, grounded speaking voice are the episode’s most chilling moments. Mary delivers the saddest monologues this side of Victor Fries, and the tragedy this episode is that she probably would be praised for her Lady Macbeth if she looked like the woman that appears in the funhouse mirror.
Beyond the inspired villain, this episode is great because it actually portrays Robin as competent and valuable to Batman’s mission. Dick is valuable to the investigation because he watched Baby-Doll’s show as a kid, and it makes sense that Bruce would have been too old to bother with that type of entertainment. When Batman and Robin deduce that Spunky Spencer is Baby-Doll’s next victim, Robin takes Spunky’s place and infiltrates Mary’s operation from the inside. He saves the TV family by pulling the dynamite stick out of the birthday kick, and takes care of Baby-Doll’s goons while Batman chases her down. Paul Dini brings Robin into the plot without making it seem silly, and that’s because Dick is on the same footing as his partner.
When Batman and Robin track down Baby-Doll and her gang, Mary escapes to a nearby carnival. Batman picks her out of the crowd by swinging into public view, where he’s bombarded by excited children, leaving one little blonde girl all by her lonesome. It’s a clever trick, and shows how well Batman can use his environment to adjust variables and make his job a lot easier. Mary flees into the hall of mirrors, where some major melancholy goes down in one of B:TAS’ most heartbreaking scenes. Among all the distorted images, there is one mirror that shows Mary as she would look without disease, and as she stares longingly, she says, “Look. That’s me in there. The real me.” It’s a moment full of joy and sadness, and then Batman shows up to bring Baby-Doll back to reality. “Why could you let me make believe?!” She screams as she shoots at Batman, knocking out all the mirrors until she’s left with just one.
Standing in front of “the real me,” Mary empties the final rounds of Mr. Happy Head into the mirror, tears in her eyes as she pulls the trigger over and over. It’s an unsettling, incredibly effective image of a shattered girl-woman who is coming to terms with her reality and can’t fully grasp the broken pieces. In that moment, Mary breaks down like a child and clutches Batman’s leg, repeating Baby-Doll’s signature catchphrase with a new sense of crushing defeat: “I didn’t mean to.”
- Batman Beatdown: When Mariam goes after Batman, he catches her with a line bataranged to her ankle, then swings her around like he’s going for the gold on the hammer throw.
- The contrast between the cheerful pink lettering and the broken-doll image of the title card sets a perfect tone for the episode to come.
- Robbie Rist, who played the infamous Cousin Oliver, is the voice of Baby-Doll’s on-screen brother Brian Daly. Great casting by Andrea Romano.
- I wish they showed some of Gotham Rep’s production of Death Of A Salesman, or set a fight scene in Willy Loman’s kitchen.
- That first shot of Mary’s non-Baby face when she says, “It was hard for me out there,” conveys so much story in one single image.
- “I remember this show from when I was a kid. It still stinks.”
- Robin: “Wow Lady, you’re good.” Mariam: “It’s a living.”