SPOILER ALERT: This article contains spoilers for the Young Justice: Phantoms episode “The Lady, or the Tigress?”
We’re now nine episodes into Young Justice: Phantoms on HBO Max, and the latest season of the critically acclaimed animated series has been firing on all cylinders, putting all of our favorite heroes in heart-wrenching situations. One of the great things about Young Justice is the way it makes us look at the heroes of the DC Universe in new ways, which isn’t easy to do with characters that have been around for decades. For example, episode 7 of Phantoms, “The Lady, or the Tigress?,” gave us new origins for both Oracle and Orphan, and it was emotionally intense.
Every time Young Justice has transitioned into a new season there has been a time skip. In season one, we briefly saw Barbara Gordon as one of Dick Grayson’s classmates. Season two picks up five years later, and Babs is fighting alongside the heroes as Batgirl. Season three takes place two years later, with Barbara paralyzed and assisting the team as Oracle. I never questioned this development, since Barbara’s injury has been a part of her story for decades.
After all, it was a given that the Joker had cost Babs the use of her legs, just like it was a given that Krypton had exploded and Bruce Wayne’s parents never made it home from the movie theater, right? I never stopped to question that perhaps this version of Barbara Gordon was injured another way. This made the moment even more powerful for me, because I wasn’t expecting it. But I suppose that’s the nature of tragedy, it always takes us by surprise.
During “The Lady, or the Tigress?,” Orphan’s backstory is revealed over a series of flashbacks. After years of training under her mother Lady Shiva, Cassandra Wu-San is sent to kill the Joker. The Clown Prince of Crime has taken the United Nations hostage and the Bat-Family has come to intercept him. As I watched this flashback, I briefly wondered if the Clown Prince would turn his gun on Batgirl, giving me the Oracle origin I assumed was set in stone.
Instead, Batgirl sees Cassandra lunging for the Joker with her blade and pushes the criminal out of the way. Orphan’s blade slices through Batgirl’s spine, and the heroine screams in pain before falling to the floor. As the Bat-Family rallies around Barbara, she compassionately takes Cassandra’s hand and looks her in the eye. She tells the mysterious assassin that she wasn’t trying to save the Joker, she was trying to save her. Batgirl may not have known who Cass was, but she knew that if she killed the Joker, it would start her on a dark path from which she would never return.
There’s so much to unpack from this moment. Remember, at this point Barbara Gordon didn’t know Cassandra Wu-San. When she made this sacrifice, she was doing it for a stranger. Think about what this says about Babs as a hero. She was willing to put herself in the path of a deadly blade so Cassandra wouldn’t have to live with becoming a murderer. Barbara could have been killed, but she didn’t hesitate.
I don’t have M’gann’s psychic powers, so I can’t read Barbara’s mind, but I would bet that she doesn’t regret her actions. Does she have moments of doubt? Of course, she wouldn’t be human if she didn’t, but the way she looks at Cassandra gives us the sense that she knows she did the right thing.
Batman: The Killing Joke is one of the most analyzed comics ever published, from its ambiguous ending, to Batman’s complicated relationship with the Joker. Some have criticized the story for using Barbara as a prop and feel the former Batgirl had no agency in the comic that changed her destiny. John Ostrander and Kim Yale recognized that and remade Barbara Gordon as the computer hacker Oracle, making her the master of her own destiny. This episode takes a similar approach, but this time it gives Babs the agency she’d been missing. She is not a prop in someone else’s story and not a victim caught in the crossfire of a war between two other men. When Barbara Gordon loses her mobility in Young Justice, it’s doing something heroic and inspiring.
This moment also gives us some insight into Cassandra’s relationship with Babs. Lady Shiva kicks butt, but I think we can all agree that she’ll never be a candidate for mother of the year. Shiva trained Cass to be little more than an instrument for killing. Barbara’s sacrifice surprised Cassandra, stopping her dead in her tracks. She’d been raised in an environment where nobody showed compassion for anyone, and now Barbara has caused the young girl to question her entire worldview. Throughout her childhood, Shiva treated Cass like a weapon, but Babs treated her like a human.
Does Cassandra feel guilty? How does Barbara’s injury weigh on her conscience? Perhaps guilt is one of the reasons she’s loyal to the Bat-Family, because she knows what they gave up for her. But I think that’s only a small part of it. Babs’ act of heroism inspired Cassandra. As Batgirl lay bleeding on the floor, Cassandra saw the true price of violence firsthand. She didn’t want to bring that pain into the world, so instead of becoming a weapon, she became an instrument of justice. Now she goes after killers, so nobody will have to experience the pain she saw Barbara go through. In doing this, she honors Babs, making sure that her sacrifice wasn’t for naught. Batgirl saved Orphan, and now she wants to prove that she was someone worth saving.
Throughout the episode, we hear Artemis recite a famous short story called “The Lady, or the Tiger?,” which this episode is named after. The story ends with a princess trying to decide if she should spare her lover’s life, but in doing so, losing him to another woman, or letting a tiger devour him. The open-ended tale is often seen as a Schrodinger’s Cat type story since we never learn which door the princess pointed to. However, in the context of this episode and Barbara’s story, we can also look at it as a story about sacrifice. By choosing the door with the lady, the princess will be sacrificing her own happiness to ensure her lover’s survival. By choosing the tiger, she’s selfishly deciding, “If I can’t have him, nobody can.”
The story raises the question of what we are willing to sacrifice to help those we love. We’ll never learn if the princess is capable of making that sacrifice, but after watching this episode, it’s crystal clear that Barbara Gordon is.
Look for a new episode of Young Justice: Phantoms every Thursday on HBO Max. Want the latest news out of Earth-16? Visit our official Young Justice series page.
Joshua Lapin-Bertone writes about TV, movies and comics for DCComics.com, is a regular contributor to the Couch Club and writes our monthly Batman column, "Gotham Gazette." Follow him on Twitter at @TBUJosh.
NOTE: The views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of Joshua Lapin-Bertone and do not necessarily reflect those of DC Entertainment or Warner Bros.