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The Parable of Arnold Stromwell

My kids are in love with Batman and spend most of the day running around in capes building “batman castles.” They’re also two so I have to be careful what I allow them to watch as the content has always been violent. For the most part, the 1960’s Adam West Batman has been a success with the music, bright colors, and Batman’s use of intellect over simple brawn. I try to gauge what is acceptable with what I remember from my childhood. I grew up watching Adam West with my dad and not so long after the initial premiere, I started on Batman The Animated Series.

I remember the show being fantastic with great stories that influenced my thinking for as young as I was. Somehow I was able to look past the art and gunfights to understand the characters and their motivations. Looking back, the series might’ve been too much for me. There were a lot of times that the themes of the show bothered me, but at the same time, stuck with me all my life. The story of Arnold Stromwell, a man in his older age haunted by ghosts of his childhood, stays fresh in my mind even to today from the episode, “It’s Never Too Late.”

The innocence of childhood is portrayed throughout the episode.

The story opens with children playing happily in the street, but pans to a scene where a local crime boss, Arnold Stromwell, is in anguish believing that his only son, Joseph, to have been kidnapped by a rival warring gangster, Rupert Thorne. Events are foreshadowed as Arnie, driven by his men to the meeting, come to a railroad crossing. A sepia-toned memory plays where Arnie, as a child, is playing on the tracks with Mike, a little huskier kid, telling him he should stop stealing.

Arnie gets his leg stuck in the tracks as Michael watches in horror.

A train whistle blows and Arnie’s foot becomes caught in the rail as a train can be seen heading towards him. He manages to get his foot free and jumps out of the way only to realize another train is about to hit him. Stromwell snaps out of the flashback as the car engine revs and they pass over the train track.

When the two are set to meet, Batman seeks the aid of a priest to possibly stop the confrontation. The priest hesitates to aid Batman mentioning, “how he wishes he could give up on Stromwell” as he looks to the ground.

Soon after the rival crime lords meet, Stromwell lashes out at Thorne, but he’s convinced by Rupert’s pleas that he didn’t take his son. Rupert offers help with connections to find Joseph and offers Arnold a seat. Thorne then leaves the room just before it ignites into an inferno. Stromwell’s men are helpless as they watch the explosions from outside the diner.

Thorne leaves believing to be triumphant, but the camera pans to an alleyway as Batman narrowly saves Stromwell. As the police arrive on the scene, an onlooker reports to Gordan that Batman had saved someone from inside the building. He described him as a dark angel snatching a soul from the fires of hades.

Stromwell refuses to go inside the worn down rehab center.

The caped crusader proceeds to carry Stromwell across rooftops finally landing in a remote location where Batman can interrogate Arnold about the gangs. Stromwell refuses to cooperate and then realizes Batman has taken him where he first started out selling drugs. The Bat drags Arnold to a drug rehab center where he discovers his son in poor condition fighting off the effects of the “candy” Arnold claims to sell. Realizing what he’s caused, Arnie agrees to provide Batman with the files needed for the DA to put an end to the drug manufacturing.

Arnold, aghast, swears to make the one who got his son hooked pay. His ex-wife tells him to only look in the mirror to find the man.

At an office building near the train yards, Stromwell produces fake documents for Batman to sift through as he cocks a rifle and prepares to end their confrontation quickly. Thorne’s people show up on the scene and see them in the window of the office. The send a tear gas canister through the window and storm the building, but ofcourse Batman makes quick work of the gun toting villains.

Even being chased by Thorne’s goons, Stromwell still can’t get over the guilt and accept help.

During the commotion, Stromwell escapes wandering outside of the building down a tunnel to escape Thorne’s men. Inside the tunnel he encounters the priest reaching out his hand telling him he can’t run anymore and its time to come home.

Seeing his brother frozen, Michael jumps to push him away.

Fleeing the helping hand, Stromwell runs down the tracks to see ghosts of the past. Again, he relives the scene being trapped on the tracks and jumps to another track, but this time we see the conclusion. Arnold’s brother Michael jumps to save Stromwell and pushes him to safety, but is run over by the train in front of Arnie.

Stromwell can no longer cope with what happened to his little brother.

Stromwell falls to his knees crying out his brother’s name, battered and emotionally beaten from the night’s events. As he cries out the priest comes up behind, laying a hand on his shoulder and reminds him that he’s right there with him, revealing that the priest is actually his younger brother who survived the incident. Michael says he’s there to help him, but even then, Stromwell pulls away retorting he doesn’t need his help.

The clear message from this scene is that sometimes we use pride to hide how much we’re hurting on the inside from our actions.

Michael reminds him of his lot in life, crumbling empire, a failed marriage, and a lost son. Stromwell insists for Michael not to come near him, that last time he helped it cost him his leg. He weeps that Mike knew he was no good and begs why did he save him. Michael simply states, “What was I supposed to do?” He tells Arnold now he has a chance to save himself and to do it for his son and his little brother.

The brothers embrace shortly before the officers arrive.

The episode closes out as police pull up to the scene and the camera pans above head to Batman overlooking the scene and Arnold requesting to give Commissioner Gordan a statement. The ending shot features a cathedral in the distance as a church bell chimes.

This episode featured very strong religious tones that you’d never see in today’s broadcasts.

The concepts of this episode are on the extreme side, but what’s probably most troubling is how children can form connections to these concepts. I had a little brother named Michael and every time we came to train tracks I always thought about the scene where Arnold’s brother is struck by the train. In a weird way, as kids, we tend to overthink things and this episode probably kept me on a straight path most of my life out of fear of ending up in a similar situation to Stromwell. The story at its core is one about repenting, with the religious tones throughout, and as the title states, it’s never too late.

The emotional turmoil seen on Stromwell’s face as he faces his sins and ghosts of his past means more than just a drug dealer realizing the folly of his ways on a children’s cartoon show. Now as adults going back to rewatch the series or to sit with our children the first time they watch it, what are we supposed to take away? This is a universal message to everyone, not just crime bosses, but anyone who feels like they can’t come to terms with what haunts them-a broken promise, hurt feelings over an argument, or even just time away from loved ones.

What Are Your Thoughts?

Let us know in the comments what you think about Batman The Animated Series. What’s a good age to introduce it to children? Are some of the episodes a little intense? How about the moments from the show that stuck with you?

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