The Venture Bros: “The Devil’s Grip” part 1
“The Devil’s Grip” has four major protagonists: Sgt Hatred, Col Gentleman, the Action Man, and The Monarch. Two of these characters are decidedly minor in the Venture universe, another is an arch turned guardian and the last is a straight-up villain, the villain of the series. Their stories are intertwined in this episode around the theme of “regret.” Hatred regrets giving up his job as guardian, but is then moved to rescue Dr. Venture by his default-setting of “soldier.” The Action Man regrets not living a more square life and is moved to action by the presence of Hank in his life, Col Gentleman just plain regrets, and The Monarch starts at a place of ultimate power (for him) and slowly slides toward regret. Regret, in this episode, leads to nostalgia, a form of homesickness, and leads in all cases to comings home. “The Return Home,” in all cases, is not presented as a retreat but as a gesture of healing, a symptom of wisdom, a reassessment of each characters’ place in the universe.
What, then, is “the devil’s grip” of the title? The object of The Action Man’s affection uses the phrase to refer to the effect of rock-n-roll on the young, but all the protagonists of this episode are in the grip of another kind of devil, the grip of self-perception. Each one of them has led a life based on a certain image of themselves, and each has come to regret that life. Each minor character is given a major character to reflect upon. Col Gentleman gets the already-reflective Dean, who has spent the entire season moping in his room, and the Action Man is given Hank, who is infinitely less reflective than Dean, and thus up for pretty much anything. None of the characters take a single moment to reflect on the loss of Rusty, whose supposed death-by-disco-ball is the inciting incident of the plot. Sgt Hatred, meanwhile, is given Gary, who is given his own regret-and-homecoming storyline, and the Monarch is given Dr. Girlfriend, about which more later. The first order of business for the Action Man is to lay to rest Dr. Entmann, under a tree in his retirement home in Boca Raton. Speaking of regret, Dr. Entmann was, for the Action Man, a kind of Jiminy Cricket, and the Action Man repaid Dr. Entmann’s loyalty and forbearance by squishing him accidentally with a rocking chair. Dr. Entmann is dead, but his final act (getting squished) has, in its way, been his last lesson to the Action Man, who now leads a circumspect life on the square. His burial ceremony for Dr. Entmann is a scatological ritual that acknowledges, in the basest terms possible, the action of life: elimination. The Action Man first urinates on Dr. Entmann’s coffin (a cardboard box), then demands that Hank defecate on it as well (to “bring new life”). Shit is life, the ritual suggests, and, perhaps, the reverse is also true. Our bodies, it’s been observed, are mere vessels. Life passes through us, and so does waste, of more than one kind.
In Tangiers, Col Gentleman instructs Dean in the local ways. Dean, being Dean, isn’t interested in either the “new” of an old city, nor in the life of an adventurer of any age. This in spite of the fact that Col Gentleman is an absolute badass, taking out a nosy thug with his cane-sword and the thug’s own thumb. Back at the Venture compound, Sgt Hatred seeks out the help of Gary to rescue Dr. Venture. Both men, of course, are former enemies of Rusty’s, and Rusty is, after all, a pain to be around in the best of circumstances. Why not just let the Monarch have him? Again, self-definition comes into play: both Hatred and Gary are, at heart, soldiers, and a soldier without a mission is like a samurai without a master. I once asked the cartoonist Tony Millionaire what he would draw if he didn’t have to draw a weekly strip to bring in money, and he said “If I didn’t have to? If I didn’t have to draw I wouldn’t draw anything.” In the case of Hatred and Gary, two soldiers at their leisure invent a mission to occupy themselves, because it is in their nature. And I keep being reminded of Vonnegut, who said “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be very careful what we pretend to be.” Each one of the characters in “The Devil’s Grip” has spent his or her life (mostly his: the episode doesn’t exactly pass the Bechdel Test) pretending to be one thing or another, and thus they have become confused as to who they really are. Meanwhile, at the Monarch’s house, the Monarch is in a state of heightened ecstasy. The moment he’s been waiting for all his life, when he has Dr. Venture at his mercy, has finally arrived. The script does nothing to disguise the highly sexual nature of the Monarch’s lust for torture, Rusty for him is the jewel in a crown of perversely misplaced sexuality. Here’s a man who has a lass as comely as Dr. Girlfriend at his disposal, yet he pines for the day when he can have his way with a skinny, bald, middle-aged man. Dr. Girlfriend, for her part, understands completely the role Rusty’s torture plays in the Monarch’s sexuality and demands that Rusty live up to it. He is, for all intents and purposes, a sex toy used in foreplay between the Monarch and Dr. Girlfriend. Dr. Girlfriend’s devotion to the Monarch, however weird that is, encompasses full knowledge of his lameness. Both she and Rusty know full well that the Monarch is too lame to follow through with any kind of effective torture. Rusty, for his part, would rather skip being the sex toy and go straight for being the sex recipient — “cut out the middleman” as it were.
Back at the old-folks’ home, Hank dives head-first into the Action Man’s plot to seduce Rose (who happens to be Billy Quizboy’s mother), pretending to be a “troubled teen” hooked on “the devil’s music.” This allows Rose to “straighten Hank out” and therefore allows the Action Man to make time with her. It’s a ruse out of the sitcom playbook and a parody of everything The Venture Bros otherwise takes so seriously: the effect of play-acting on personality. The Action Man pretends Hank is his son, and Hank pretends to be a devil-rocker, pretenses that couldn’t possibly stand up under serious scrutiny, all so that the Action Man can woo Rose. What happens if Rose falls in love with the Action Man? She will know almost immediately that he has no son, and shortly afterward she’ll learn that Hank’s devotion to show tunes is also a pretense. Even in the midst of regret, the Action Man cannot keep himself from lying to get women. Despite all that Dr. Entmann did for him, that is his nature.
In Tangiers, Col Gentleman, for reasons unknown, tasks Dean with tracking appearances of Salem the cat on episodes of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, to note which appearances are a puppet and which are a real cat. Now, I’ve seen the show in question, and the cat-vs-puppet schism of the show is pronounced and maddening, but it hardly seems a subject worth the time of a man who is capable of unhanding brutes in Moroccan bars. And yet, this is what retirement brings a man who has denied his nature too long: he retreats into obsessive cataloguing of trivia (a trait, I venture to say, not unknown to the Venture audience). When not getting lost in irrelevant data, Col Gentleman retreats into memory and requests that Dean take down dictation for his memoirs. As much as Dean wants to escape the cycle of pretense, Col Gentleman wishes to escape into it.
Hatred and Gary sneak into the Monarch’s Flying Cocoon, looking for Rusty. Gary sees that the Monarch (or perhaps Dr. Girlfriend) has gotten him a Guild Conference t-shirt: a token of remembrance and presumed loyalty. The Monarch has been pining for Gary’s return all season, he wants Gary to know that the Cocoon is his home. It’s worth noting that a “cocoon,” psychologically speaking, is akin to “the womb,” ie “that place where we develop, before we spring out into the world.” Gary left the cocoon a season ago, and even the Monarch got himself a house when he got married. Gary’s return to the cocoon symbolizes his own dawning awareness of his true nature: he is a hench for life.
The Monarch, meanwhile, is finally ready for his big moment with Rusty. He’s dressed himself to the nines (in a deluxe Ming the Merciless getup) but the impact of his entrance is thwarted when he finds that Dr. Girlfriend has blindfolded him. Already the Monarch can feel the air going out of his sails, so to speak, and his trials have not even begun.