In order to gain access to Rusty’s basement, the Monarch and Dr. Girlfriend undergo a transition unlike any other: they become improvisers. The man who dresses as a butterfly says he’ll “just wing it” when they get to the Venture compound. I wonder what their vague, ill-conceived plan was before the Monarch accidentally revealed his “Beaver Inspector” t-shirt? It’s a good measure of how little Rusty thinks of the Monarch that he doesn’t recognize their distinctive high-nasal/low-guttural voices. Improvisation is surprisingly effective, and a stark contrast to the Monarch’s earlier acid-magnet attack, which telegraphed his intent so strongly that Gary could decipher it from a mile away.
“SPHINX Rising” presents a new protagonist for this season, Henchman 21, or “Gary” as he’s more commonly known now. In keeping with The Venture Bros theme of transformation (which is also, of course, the theme of all the fantasy texts The Venture Bros derives from) Gary has transformed from henchman to commander, from butterfly to sphinx. (The Monarch’s choice of identity is not a coincidence – born ungainly as a caterpillar, he soars as a butterfly. So intoxicated is he with the notion of transformation, he overlooks all the inherent contradicitions: butterflies are fragile, delicate creatures, less like the Monarch’s poses of strength, more like his tiny, quailing ego. That’s why his nemesis is Rusty Venture, a man who refuses to transform in any way whatsoever.)
Hopped up on coffee beans, suffering from intense delusions of gradeur and, most important, without a brother to stabilize him, Hank contracts jungle fever and becomes the man he’s always wanted to be: Batman. Or, at least, his own version of Batman. His origin differs from Bruce Wayne’s, because his father is still alive and he never knew his mother (he adopts “the jungle” as his mother), so his Batman is correspondingly different – a hand-made Batman, a very Venture Batman, one who has to take frequent diarrhea breaks.
A few years back, I was talking to a woman from Pixar, who explained to me the logic of Finding Nemo. Finding Nemo, she said, is about, and only about, a father’s relationship with his son. The problem presented by the narrative is that, at the end of Act I, the son is abducted. How could they make a movie about a father’s relationship with his son if the son vanishes at the end of Act I? The answer, they found, was to replace the son with another child, the forgetful fish Dory. The father then plays out the conflict with his son with this surrogate. It’s a simple yet brilliant device, and if you remove the forgetful fish and put in a reanimated corpse, it’s the same device that fuels “Venture Libre.”
Sgt Hatred, in his second-act low-point, finds himself bound to a St. Andrew’s Cross and whipped, something his BDSM-loving ex would have understood. Martin has now transformed into his final mutation and assumes the position of, ironically, liberator, forcing Sgt Hatred to come to terms with who he really is (in a scene, for us old people, lifted and inverted from the 1977 miniseries Roots – The Venture Bros is nothing if not free-ranging in its references). Spoiler alert, Sgt Hatred’s given name is “Courtney.” While only developing breasts now, it seems Sgt Hatred has had a feminine side all along, and now the villain-turned-good-guy must wait to be rescued like a common damsel.
Rusty may actually be a worse employer than he is a father, which is really saying something. After all, he may have left Hank and Dean to die countless horrible deaths over the years, but he never actually intentionally caused those deaths and he always dutifully put things back the way they were. His monomania regarding the Palaemon Project means that he overlooks interns trapped between dimensions, bizarre mutations and cannibalism. Most importantly, it interferes with Dean’s b-story, ie his romance with Thalia, a beautifully specific character, with her unflappable, widescreen collegiate manners. Dean very much wants Thalia, even after seeing her deformity (which, admittedly, is pretty tame compared to some of the things Dean’s been exposed to) but Rusty brushes that uncomfortable fact aside as well.
Dean, in his flight from his identity, moves into “the attic.” The episode breezes by it, but it’s the same room where the deformed Dean clone made his home in an earlier episode. What Dean has to “clean up” to live there, to dispose of his identity, is the remnants of a Dean who died in order to have the identity Dean wants to escape. Seeing as how Dean is already a clone several times over, the issue of identity is already a complex one. In the previous scene, he complains about having spent “years” learning useless facts in his Teaching Bed, but in fact this Dean hasn’t even been around that long. Which brings up the question explored in Moon and Oblivion: is identity genetic, or are we born as clean slates? If Hank and Dean are always Hank and Dean, no matter which Hank and Dean they are, then is the Venture family always the Venture family, or could there be variations? More important, can the family grow, and change? That is, can it break the cycle? Since “What Color is Your Cleansuit” explores the creation and evolution of another kind of family, the question is pertinent.
Any television show can be weird, or transgressive, or irreverent. Rules are there to be broken. The trick is to inflate the narrative with weirdness, but then nail it down something basic, something universal and irrefutable. That’s how the viewer knows the writer cares. The Venture Bros is about as weird as American television has ever been, but it ties down its weirdness with a discussion of the most basic and universal subject imaginable: family. In some ways the show is, despite its science-fiction adventure trappings, a domestic comedy, even, in its grander moments, a family saga.
Act II of “The Terrible Secret of Turtle Bay” begins with a continuation of the episode’s “B” story, as Hank and Dean seek adventure while stuck in a hotel room in New York City. Their father, Dr. Venture, has forbidden them to leave. Dr. Venture was a boy adventurer when he was their age (younger even), but the grown Rusty aggressively denies the boys their own adventures. This is his trip, to exorcize his demons, the boys don’t enter into his plans. One guesses he’d rather not have the boys on the trip at all. One guesses, in fact, that he’d rather not have the boys, period.
So the boys play astronaut with a paper cup in the bidet, then, when that gets boring, they move on to playing submarine in the bathtub with the case that Rusty’s invention came in.
Archer’s arc for “Skytanic” is:
(1) He has no interest in defending a rigid airship against a bomb threat, but goes on a mission to do so, in order to have sex with Lana.
(2) Once aboard the ship, he goes about his job of “finding the bomber” half-heartedly and incompetently, while still trying to have sex with Lana.
(3) His twin motives of “find the bomber” and “sex with Lana” conflict in the person of Singh, and force him to drive Lana into the arms of Cyril, his romantic rival.
(4) Finally, once it is revealed that there never was a real bomb threat, Archer discovers a very real bomb.