King's Ransom

  Riven by jealousy and dissension, the Royal Flush Gang begins to unravel.
  Original Airdate: September 16, 2000
  Episode # 42
  Rating: * * * *

Credits Cast

Written by Rich Fogel
Directed by Butch Lukic
Music by Shirley Walker
Animation by Koko/Dong Yang

Will Friedle as Terry McGinnis
Kevin Conroy as Bruce Wayne
Angie Harmon as Barbara Gordon
George Lazenby as King
Sarah Douglas as Queen

Nicholas Guest as Jack
Olivia d'Abo as Melanie
Parker Stevenson as Paxton Powers
Gabrelle Carteris as Sable Thorpe
Sean Donnellan as Virtual Anchor

A show like Batman Beyond, which for reasons too depressing to go into must concentrate on appealing to a prepubescent audience, clearly must spend most of its running time with exciting (if occasionally repetitive) chase and fight scenes. Conflict is often framed in easily articulated and easily resolved issues of black and white, and between set pieces we are given scenes of only the most perfunctory plot and character development—usually just enough, in fact, to motivate the next chase or fight. Thus, the stories in this series are simpler than in the earlier BTAS or TNBA series.

This is not to say that the show's producers accept the troubling proposition that children should not be presented with challenging material, or the ludicrous proposition that comics and cartoons are not worthy vehicles for subtle treatments. (Again, BTAS and TNBA refute even the suspicion that this is the producers' belief.) But with Beyond's emphasis on surface conflict and surface morals, it does mean that the writers have a harder time working elements of depth and interest into their stories; almost of necessity, the ratio of eye candy ("Ace in the Hole" or "Joyride," say) to intellectual bundt cake is pretty high.

But it should also be recognized that such constraints are not entirely a bad thing, either. If on BTAS the writers had more freedom to engage in thoughtful stories they also had more freedom to engage in the pseudo-profundities of "I Am the Night" and "It's Never Too Late," episodes that apparently thought we couldn't understand what made a character tick unless he sat down and told us, at length, with footnotes, reference lists and illustrated diagrams.

With no time for yammering, an ambitious Beyond writer must rely on implication and intimation to get any deeper concerns across, and give every action or sentence a second or even third meaning, one sometimes hidden even from the characters themselves. It's a tricky business, to be sure. The attempts do not always come off successfully, and even when they do it will be only for an audience prepared to watch with a receptive and searching intelligence. But those successes, such as "Heroes" or "A Touch of Curare," are magnificent in execution and not only concept. This is because it is always more satisfying to catch an implication yourself, to tease out the meaning behind a story, than to have it shoved impatiently into your face.

Because things are implied rather than said, an audience for such a story will have to come to it with a great deal of background information already in place. An appreciation of "Heroes," for instance, already presupposes knowledge of comics in general and the Fantastic Four in particular, just as "A Touch of Curare" presupposes an extensive appreciation of Wayne's relationships with the various Gordons. "King's Ransom" makes no sense without seeing "Dead Man's Hand" and "Once Burned," and if those episodes in isolation remain unsatisfactory, they are amply justified by the way they contribute to the artfulness of the third in the trilogy.

"King's Ransom" honors the classic noir conceit that every promise justifies its own betrayal; that every action springs from a hidden motive; that no plot can ever climax in a final twist. Indeed, it bests even the crime thrillers of the 30s and 40s in the density of its development, packing more twists and surprises into twenty minutes than the classic melodramas could in ninety. Nor does it reduce to a bloodless exercise in narrative architecture: Anger and humiliation are given their just due, but are never overdone, and in one brief, allusive exchange between Ten and Batman, more pain and anguish is squeezed out than in the entire length of "Once Burned." And, paradoxically, it achieves its greatest tragic depth because it develops and never abandons a sympathy for even the putative villains. Unlike most noirs, in this one corruption and betrayal are not made faceless, or endemic, or rooted in simple malice, but are motivated by the very real emotions of fear and resentment. So Paxton Powers goes from villain to victim to villain to victim with such frequency that each role comes to seem arbitrary, due solely to the way that the others in the story choose to treat him. And when the King cries out to Batman "You don't know what it's like to live in somebody's shadow" the two almost become one, so that we cannot escape the thought of how easy it would be for even our hero to turn.

Related Episodes
   * Dead Man's Hand
   * Once Burned
   * Ascension

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