[Plot] The Tragic Subplot of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight

With this two-part series, you get to choose your own adventure!

  • Below you can read the tragic subplot of The Dark Knight—Harvey Dent’s storyline. Then, to see how Batman’s arc is built around it, read the encompassing plot.
  • If you want to start with Batman’s story or read  through the full plot chronologically, here’s the heroic storyline.

You can jump from one post to the next at any time by using the teleport links.

The Tragedy of Harvey Dent

Villains are the heroes of their own stories. In The Dark Knight, Harvey Dent goes through the 8 C’s just like protagonist Bruce Wayne, with just two alterations.

Instead of an Allies and Abilities section after the complication, Harvey gains enemies and displays his tragic flaws.

And since Harvey’s story ends tragically, his seventh C isn’t a curveball that sets him back; it’s a final burst of  confidence.

Teleport to: [Review of the 8 C’s] [Prologue] [Bruce Wayne’s Captivation & Opening]

Harvey Dent’s 8 C’s

Captivation, Opening

Before Harvey shows up on screen, he’s described by Lt. Gordon:

GORDON

When the new DA gets wind of this, he’ll want in.

BATMAN

Do you trust him?

GORDON

Be hard to keep him out. I hear he’s as stubborn as you.

For comic book fans, Harvey’s captivation comes when he pulls out the coin to flip for who will lead in the courtroom and Rachel calls him Harvey. DC fans know that Harvey is Two-Face’s real name, and coin-flipping is his trademark, so once he’s introduced, they automatically know who he is and whom he becomes.

For viewers who may not be as familiar with Batman villains, their captivation is just how likable this guy is, and how easy it is to root for him:

RACHEL

I’m serious, Harvey, you don’t leave things like this to chance.

HARVEY

I don’t.
(sincere)
I make my own luck.

And if that’s not enough to make you like Harvey, then watch his whole opening scene:

Clearly Harvey Dent is the heroic type, right?

Change, Reaction

Dent calls Gordon into his office to partner with Gordon. He also acknowledges that Gordon works with Batman, but it’s all in subtext until Gordon clues the audience in:

HARVEY

Fancy stuff for a city cop. Have help?

GORDON

We liaise with various agencies—

HARVEY

Save it, Gordon. I want to meet him.

GORDON

Official policy is to arrest the vigilante known as Batman on sight.

As soon as Harvey partners with Gordon (and consequently Batman), Harvey’s story begins to change.

[Meanwhile, Bruce follows a lead and asks Fox for a new suit]

When his date with Rachel gets crashed by Bruce Wayne, Harvey unknowingly, reluctantly meets Bruce is Batman. Harvey wins over Bruce, who decides to throw him a fundraiser. This sequence has plenty of lines to dig into. For one, Harvey clearly respects Batman and considers what he does to be not an honor, but a public service. He says he might be up to taking up Batman’s mantle. This is also when Harvey says this thematic (and prophetic) line:

HARVEY

You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.

Teleport to: [Primary Change, Reaction]

Complication, Enemies & Flaws

Later, Harvey meets with Gordon and Batman. Gordon and Harvey both blame each other for a leak to the mob, and we’re reminded that Harvey came from Internal Affairs and had investigated all of Gordon’s cops. Gordon, Harvey, and Batman all agree that Lau (a Chinese businessman and basically the entire mob’s accountant) needs to be brought in if they want to take down Gotham’s crime ring. But Batman is the only one who can do it, because Gordon and Harvey don’t have jurisdiction in China, and Batman doesn’t need jurisdiction. Harvey is still bound by the law—he’s helpless here, but he does makes the call that Batman should go, and he accepts that there will be consequences:

GORDON

We’re going after the mob’s life savings. Things will get ugly.

HARVEY

I knew the risks when I took this job, Lieutenant. Same as you.

Teleport to: [Primary Complication, Bruce’s Problem #1: Hong Kong]

Enemies & Flaws: Going After the Mob

In the first Enemies & Flaws sequence, Harvey:

  • uses Lau to testify against the mob
  • repeats his distrust of Gordon’s cops when he questions keeping Lau in Central
  • arrests 549 connections to the mob
  • is warned by the mayor that politicians, journalists, and crooked cops will be after him, too, now that he’s targeting the mob

Teleport to: [Bruce’s Problem #2: The Fundraiser]

Enemies & Flaws: Threats from The Joker

In the second Enemies & Flaws sequence, Harvey:

  • is threatened by the Joker (police find his DNA on the dead “Batman”)
  • is saved by Bruce when the Joker turns up at his fundraiser
  • is threatened by the Joker again (A “Harvey” and “Dent” double murder)

Teleport to: [Bruce’s Problem #3: The Parade]

Enemies & Flaws: Going Rogue for Rachel

In the third Enemies & Flaws sequence, Harvey:

  • discovers that Joker is targeting Rachel next (a thug’s name tag)
  • steals a paramedic truck with the thug inside
  • plays Russian Roulette with the thug, then tosses his coin for the thug’s life—but in both of these cases, he’s bluffing.
  • is caught “torturing” the thug by Batman, who admonishes him
  • gets angry at Batman for considering turning himself in

We see a bit into Harvey’s fatal flaws in these sequences. First, we see that he admires the capacity for judgment:

MAYOR

549 criminals at once?! How did you get Surrillo to hear this farce?

HARVEY

She shares my enthusiasm for justice. After all, she is a judge.

Second, we see what he has to lose.

BATMAN

You’re the symbol of hope that I could never be. Your stand against organized crime is the first legitimate ray of light in Gotham for decades. If anyone saw this, everything would be undone—all the criminals you got off the streets would be released.

Note—Batman is talking about organized crime. But Harvey already knows he’s not dealing with organized crime with the Joker—he’s dealing with disorganized, unpredictable, chaotic crime. And that means his tactics need to shift. They will at the midpoint…

Confrontation, Elation

This next scene is definitely the midpoint. It happens dead center of the movie, and it’s a major turning point in the plot.

Harvey tells the press that he is the Batman.

This doesn’t sound like a “confrontation.” It’s not a physical one, surely. Harvey is trying to take the fall for Batman so Batman can continue doing his job. This action is still a confrontation between Harvey and Batman. Harvey is making his own luck. (And how does he do that? By taking away Batman’s agency.)

Alfred offers Rachel (and the audience) some insight to why Harvey may have decided to claim the cowl, as well as why Bruce allowed him to:

ALFRED

Perhaps both Bruce and Mr. Dent believe that Batman stands for something more important than a terrorist’s whims, Miss Dawes, even if everyone hates him for it. That’s the sacrifice he’s making—to not be a hero. To be something more.

This harkens back to the conversation between Rachel, Harvey, and Bruce back at the restaurant, when they were talking about a Roman guardian of a city doing it not for honor, but as a public service.

The ensuing car chase with Dent in an armored car, acting as bait to catch the Joker, seems like it shouldn’t be any sort of Elation sequence, but Dent is actually enjoying it—in the script, as well as in the movie, Dent is smiling and calm amidst the gunfire and chaos. He is pleased.

And then Batman, Gordon, and Dent catch the Joker. Elation.

Collapse, Gloom

So of course the collapse comes next. Dent is captured and brought to a warehouse to die or be rescued. So is Rachel. They’re each given a 50/50 chance to live, because they know Batman will only be able to rescue one of them.

Harvey tries to move but falls, accidentally dousing the left side of his face with gasoline.

Batman, thinking he’s gone to where Rachel was, shows up to Harvey’s warehouse. Harvey is helpless as Rachel is blown up. On the way out of the building, as it, too, explodes, Harvey’s face catches fire.

Harvey wakes up in the hospital and finds his coin—the one he’d given to Rachel—at his bedside.

Half his face is destroyed. One of the faces of the coin is damaged, too.

Gordon visits Harvey and tells him he’s sorry.

HARVEY

No. No you’re not. Not yet.

Teleport to: [Bruce’s Collapse and Gloom] [Bruce’s Comprehension, Action]

Comprehension, Action

The Joker finds Harvey in the hospital and releases him from his restraints. The Joker says Gordon and the mob are all schemers, and that Harvey used to be a schemer, too, but he (the Joker) is an agent of chaos … because chaos is fair.

Harvey pulls out his coin. Now it’s not a lucky coin. He can’t make his own luck anymore. His agency was taken away by chance. Now chance will govern his decisions.

Dent looks down at the coin in his hands. Turns it over, feels its comforting weight. Shows the Joker the good side.

HARVEY

You live.

He turns the coin over. The flip side is deeply scarred.

HARVEY

You die.

First Action: Wuertz

After chance dictates the Joker’s fate at the hands of Harvey, Harvey—as Two-Face—goes on a murderous rampage, targeting everyone who was tied to Rachel’s death and flipping his coin to decide if he kills them or incapacitates them.

His first victim is Detective Wuertz, who had picked him up and brought him to the warehouse.

Teleport to: [Bruce’s Second Action]

Second Action: Maroni

Next he visits Maroni, the mob boss, who tells him the name of the cop who picked up Rachel and brought her to her death.

Teleport to: [Bruce’s Third Action]

Third Action: Ramirez and Gordon’s Family

Harvey forces Ramirez to betray Gordon’s family, tricking them into meeting where Rachel was killed.

Teleport to: [Bruce’s Fourth Action] [Curveball]

Curveball Confidence, Final Exam

Lt. Gordon shows up to the place where Rachel died to find his wife and children huddling together. Harvey disarms Gordon.

Chance might be the judge determining someone’s fate, but Harvey is still a prosecutor. More than that: now he decides who should be on trial.

He’s got Gordon exactly where he wants him, especially after he puts his gun up to the head of Gordon’s little boy. Harvey is confident that Gordon is going to get a “fair” trial.

Then Batman shows up, and it’s time for Harvey’s final exam.

BATMAN

You don’t want to hurt the boy, Dent.

HARVEY

It’s not what I want. It’s about what’s fair.
(To Gordon and Batman)
You thought we could be decent men in an indecent world. You thought we could lead by example. You thought the rules could be bent but not break … You were wrong. The world is cruel.
(Shows his coin)
And the only morality in a cruel world is chance. Unbiased. Unprejudiced. Fair.

Harvey has lost his morality and his sense of goodness. He was the one who needed to hear Rachel’s advice to “Please keep your faith in people.”

Remember when Harvey was boasting about the judge being enthusiastic about justice? For Two-Face, justice means retribution. Justice is punishment. And if he was punished (losing Rachel, burned half to death) when he was doing good (trying to take down the mob), then his punishment must have been determined by chance.

The scariest villains are the ones we empathize with. The ones whose motivations kinda make some sense.

Culmination

Batman urges Harvey to punish the three people responsible for Rachel’s death—Batman, Harvey, and Gordon. So Harvey flips a coin for Batman…

…and shoots him.

For himself…

…and he lives.

For Gordon’s son…

…and Batman takes him out. Two-Face is dead.

Resolution

For Harvey’s resolution, we need to go to Bruce Wayne’s side of the story.

Teleport to: [Main Culmination, Resolution] [Thematic Question]

D&D alignments for the characters in The Dark Knight (2008)

I spent WAY too much time creating this graphic of my D&D alignments for the characters in The Dark Knight.


So, did you read chronologically? Did you choose the heroic or tragic tale first?

Writing brings people together, and so does Batman. Share this post on social media! ❤

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s