Warning: there are spoilers about ‘The Joker’ in this analysis
‘The Joker‘ is an American psychological thriller based on the eponymous DC character most recently used in Christopher Nolan’s ‘The Dark Knight’. The film was produced and directed by Todd Phillips, who also co-wrote the screenplay alongside Scott Silver. ‘The Joker’ stars Joaquin Phoenix as the lead character Arthur Fleck.
The film essentially tries to present an origin story of the infamous villain, attempting to show what pushed him over the edge. His background, his mental health, the people in his life, the city he lives in, the events that take place around him. All of these factors play a part in the story Phillips presents.
In this particular instance, I want to focus on the character of the social worker and the purpose they serve in terms of telling the story of Arthur and his transition to a proto-criminal mastermind.
Scene One – “Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?”
In the original version of the script, which is slightly different from the shooting script but essentially the same story, we get introduced to the social worker on page one (Todd Phillips shifts this scene just after the sign theft and subsequent alley assault scene in the final cut of the movie).
SOCIAL WORKER It's certainly tense. People are upset, they're struggling. Looking for work. The garbage strike seems like it's been going on forever. These are tough times. (then) How 'bout you. Have you been keeping up with your journal?
Arthur is crying through fits of uncontrolled laughter. He is clearly not in a good state. It’s interesting to note that Arthur’s condition here originally predated the beating he receives from the five young people after his sign is stolen. In other words, a physical act of violence and accompanying instance of bullying was not necessary for the dire state the social worker finds him in.
The first words we hear him speak are “is it just me?”. Presumably, these are also the first words the social worker hears as well. He is seeking validation. He wants someone else other than himself to help him accept the increasing harshness of life.
The social worker provides that validation. However, she is not here for Arthur. She is here for us. The social worker in this scene provides two things: exposition, emphasis, and world-building.
Emphasis and world-building
We first hear about the garbage strike in the opening seconds of the movie through indirect voiceover narration in the form of a television broadcast while Arthur is putting his makeup on.
Here, we are receiving a clearer, more straightforward reaffirmation of this and its negative consequences on the city. She adds unemployment and poverty into the mix, calling things ‘tense’ and labeling people as ‘struggling’.
An image of Gotham and its citizens is starting to take shape.
When she asks “have you been keeping up with your journal?”, as well as the related dialogue that follows, we learn two things: firstly, that Arthur now has the written form at his disposal, a tool with which to externalize emotions, perhaps unlocking or encouraging a particular side of him, and secondly, that they’ve been having these sessions for some time now.
ARTHUR I've been using it as a journal, but also a joke diary. Funny thoughts or, or observations-- Did I tell you I'm pursuing a career in stand-up comedy? She's half-listening as she flips through his journal. SOCIAL WORKER No. You didn't. ARTHUR I think I did.
At first glance, perhaps this comes across as a criticism of the quality of mental health services available to people like Arthur.
Although that undoubtedly comes along later in the story, in this particular instance, Phillips means to show us how insignificant Arthur is to the world, whether in reality or in his own mind.
We don’t know whether he has for a fact disclosed his stand-up comedy ambitions to the social worker, all we need to know is that he feels as if both himself and his dreams are being ignored and brushed to the side.
The social worker ruffles through some papers-- SOCIAL WORKER Arthur, you’re on seven different medications. Surely they must be doing something. Beat. ARTHUR I just don’t want to feel so bad anymore.
The final important piece of exposition here is that not only is Arthur medicated, but heavily so. A cocktail of seven different medications in fact.
And yet, they barely seem to work for him, we are told. While they do may in fact have some positive effect, that effect is certainly not equating to happiness or peace for Arthur.
Scene Two – “Rise and fall, spin and call, and my name is Carnival”
The character shows up again roughly midway through the story. The first appearance of the social worker kickstarts the first act of the film. Here, their exchange sets the tone for the second act.
SOCIAL WORKER Arthur, I have some bad news for you. ARTHUR You don't listen, do you? I don't think you ever really hear me.
Arthur is already predisposed to rejecting the benefits of these sessions. His experience being locked up in an institution has made sure of that.
Compounded with his fear of personal insignificance and receiving the cold shoulder from a society increasingly focused on individual survival, he not only lashes back, venting at the social worker but, ironically, becomes the person whose turn it is to ignore their interlocutor.
SOCIAL WORKER They've cut our funding. We're closing down our offices next week. He looks around, just noticing some MOVING BOXES stacked against the wall. SOCIAL WORKER The city's cut funding across the board. Social services is part of that. This is the last time we'll be meeting. Arthur nods, not hating the idea.
As lackluster and defanged as the mental health service provided may or not have been, it was still an act of assistance from the city. It may have been the last piece of thread holding someone like Arthur from fully plunging down towards their worst tendencies. Now it is being taken away.
We learn that not only Arthur but people across Gotham will stop receiving access to such services. It’s important to make this distinction considering the acts that follow in act three. The climactic scene on the night of the Wayne murders involves hundreds if not thousands of people.
Certainly, that’s not to say that there’s a one-to-one relationship between mental health provision and criminality, so the above segment only acts as a foreshadowing of an event involving something greater than an individual, not an indirect provision of causation.
As we were told earlier in the story, the city is a bubbling cauldron. Countless factors clash and merge and mutate to form the eventual mass outburst.
Scene Three – “You wouldn’t get it”
Finally, just a couple of pages before the end of the script and the movie, we see a different social worker, but similar to the first one. The script explicitly spells out that there’s an analogy to the first social worker.
He's sitting across from an overworked HOSPITAL DOCTOR (50's), African American woman. Somehow it's the exact same room Joker imagined his mother was in some 30 years ago. The room and the doctor also look vaguely similar to the social worker and her office in the opening scene."
The purpose here is to retain a similar or even identical setting in which Arthur had found himself earlier in the story, at least in terms of how he was and continues to be dealt with by the state’s mental health services. What this facilitates is a focus on the differences in his own approach and reaction during this exchange after his transformation has occurred.
HOSPITAL DOCTOR Have you been keeping up with your journal? Joker slowly nods.
Although this was cut from the movie, the original script continued the theme of the unchanged treatment methods he receives, as it tells us of yet another journal being used.
Again, he was asked if he has been writing his thoughts down.
Joker slides his journal across to her. She picks it up and flips through the pages-- ANGLE ON JOURNAL, blank page after blank page, there's nothing inside of it.
The journal, which we did not see in the finished film, is completely empty. Why is that?
Because Arthur, or Joker, by this point, has abandoned traditional outlets for any excruciatingly intense emotion he has. He has embraced violence.
There is no need for writing down negative thoughts. He puts them to practice. We see this in fewer words in the finished movie through the Joker’s recollection of the Wayne murders and his interaction with the doctor.
The doctor just sits there, waiting for him to stop laughing. Finally, Joker stops himself. HOSPITAL DOCTOR What's so funny? JOKER --just thinking of this joke. HOSPITAL DOCTOR Do you want to tell it to me? Beat. JOKER You wouldn't get it.
He is not interested in processing his feelings or why he has them. He has accepted that he is different from other people. The recollection of a gruesome act of violence brings him unbridled joy and laughter. So much so that perhaps this now becomes his only way of relief and happiness.
We don’t see this immediately expressing itself on-screen, but we see its denouement. The uncertain, even worried look on the doctor’s face. The unhurried escape. The slow, bloody footprints on the cold, stale floor. His metamorphosis well and truly complete.