WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for director Todd Phillips' Joker, in theaters now.
Joker centers primarily around the degradation of Arthur Fleck's (Joaquin Phoenix) mind and his transformation from a meek street performer to a murderous and theatrical villain. This also means the film is mainly concerned with his disintegrating mental state. But there's a secondary character in the narrative who may have an even rougher psychological ride than even him.
Halfway through the film, it's revealed that Arthur's mother Penny (Frances Conroy) was diagnosed years ago with mental illness and even spent time in Arkham after her obsession with Thomas Wayne may have, in part, led to the dark fate of her adopted son.
Older and largely infirm, Penny mostly comes across as a sweet old lady. Arthur lives with her and cares for her. She does little else other than staying in her apartment, taking her medicine and watching television. But she seems particularly interested in Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), who is running for Mayor of Gotham City and appears on the news frequently. Penny often talks about how she used to work for Thomas and how the pair had a strong relationship before she ended up in the grimier parts of the city. She writes letters to Thomas every day and never receives a reply. Arthur eventually reads one of the letters and finds out that Penny believes Wayne to be Arthur's biological father.
Fleck tries to investigate this claim by visiting Wayne Manor. There, Alfred explains to Fleck that Penny was a troubled former employee with severe narcissism, who developed an obsession with her employer. He even reveals that her delusions extended to the young boy she'd recently adopted, Arthur.
Arthur heads to Arkham Asylum and steals the medical files for his mother when she was held at the hospital. The medical files seem to confirm Alfred's testimony, while also revealing that Penny's boyfriend beat her and abused the young boy repeatedly before being caught by the authorities. Arthur appears to have no memory of this, but brain damage from the incident could be the source of his involuntary laughter.
The files prove to be the most revealing window into Penny's psyche. The medical file is complete with papers and news clippings, claiming that Penny Fleck's adopted son was found in squalor and at points chained to a radiator. According to recordings of her conversations, she claims that she didn't realize what was happening in her own home. It's possible that her reported obsession with Thomas Wayne played a part in that, clouding her awareness from the terrible things happening right under her nose and to herself. That fact that she apparently seemed to imagine Arthur was at the center of the personal drama makes matters all the worse.
It also gives a potential explanation for many of the deep-seated issues within Arthur, making her actions all the more tragic. There's no indication that Arthur remembers these events, and he even appears to be broken by the revelation when he reads the file in the stairwell at Arkham. He's been told to smile and not be bothered by the past by his mother, who apparently allowed him to be abused repeatedly. It's almost become a mantra for Arthur, with his talk about his mother's lesson to "always smile" becoming a major part of his stand-up routine. It's what he tries to do every day, but the impact of her inaction has helped make it impossible for Arthur to connect on any real level. Having it broken so thoroughly parallels Arthur's final cracks, and his murders become more frequent and premeditated.
THE WAYNE PROBLEM
For an already relentlessly grim film, the revelations about Penny are among the darkest aspects of the entire narrative. Penny's obsession with Thomas Wayne puts a more depressing spin on earlier beats with her, such as her insistence that Arthur always checks the mail for a letter that's clearly never coming. She never initially appears purposefully cruel, but her lack of tact has been present throughout the film in regard to her son's ambitions to make people laugh. She turned almost every conversation to Thomas and her, exhibiting potential signs of the narcissism that her medical records apparently claim for her to have.
There are hints throughout the film, however, that there might be more to what Penny is saying than just madness. Among her possessions, found by Arthur after he's killed her, is a picture of a much younger Penny. The photograph is signed "love, T.W." This implies that at the very least, she and Thomas Wayne had some kind of connection that extended beyond employer/employee.
Whether or not this means Arthur really is Thomas' son or if that brief relationship snapped something inside her is left ambiguous. It could even just be another hallucination of Arthur's mind, which also happen throughout the film. Penny's own mental state and the questions it raises (but doesn't answer) gives the film a greater level of ambiguity that plays into Arthur's increasingly wild impulses as the film goes on.
Directed by Todd Phillips, Joker stars Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Bill Camp, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Glenn Fleshler, Douglas Hodge, Marc Maron, Josh Pais and Shea Whigham.