Venture Bros: Showdown at Cremation Creek, Part II

Everyone needs a story; it’s how we define ourselves.  Our lives are meaningless without a narrative to transform them.  Without a narrative, a human life is seventy years of haphazard coincidences.  With a narrative, they become poetry, drenched in meaning and drama.

Some people take this idea further than others.

In this concluding episode, David Bowie fulfills his promise as a symbol of transformation.  He transforms all over the place in this episode — into Iggy Pop, Dr. Girlfriend, an eagle, a pack of cigarettes.  In real life, Bowie took the idea of narrative as a transformative device to baroque extremes, creating a new persona with each new album.  It’s difficult, I imagine, for a modern audience to understand how audacious and exciting this was back then.  Madonna puts on a new hat with each of her reinventions, but for her it feels more like a marketing decision, a way to keep the old perpetually new.  With Bowie, the transformation was the subject of his art itself.  And what’s more, he transformed himself every year for 15 years or more, a decision that would make today’s marketing executives shudder in horror; no sooner would he acquire an audience but would then shed it immediately the next album (or, famously in one instance, even in the middle of the tour promoting the current album/persona).  Now he has settled in to his still-current permanent persona of “David Bowie,” classy British guy with a reputation for brilliance.  (How ironic that Bowie’s most recent album is titled Reality.)

The woman he’s giving away, Dr. Girlfriend, comes all this way without finally transforming herself: she pointedly never gets to say “I do” to The Monarch.  She hasn’t completed the commitment ceremony, she’s still the woman of a half-dozen costumes and personas.  Would that make her spiritual father Bowie happy, or would he be saddened to know that his spiritual daughter hasn’t yet found herself, is still gathering meaningless personas, is still, in essence, pretending to be something she’s not?  Lady Au Pair, Queen Etheria, Dr. Girlfriend?  Who is she, finally?  Who could she be if she can’t even settle on a narrative to define her life?  If she’s not careful, life will decide her narrative for her.

That is, after all, what has happened to Dr. Venture.  He’s decided that narrative is for babies.  Burned by narrative at an early age, he’s thrown it on the trash heap and decided to face life on its own terms.  As a result, he is in control of nothing in his life.  He has no ideas, he’s haunted by the ghost of his father, he’s dominated by his twin brother.  In this episode, while everyone else is busy heroically pursuing their narratives, he gripes, carps and eats a sandwich.  Thrust into an actual heroic journey, Dr. Venture can only retreat into the most mundane details of life.

(A friend of mine once told me that, in psychoanalytical terms, one has until age 30 to decide who one is.  After that, one is stuck, reinvention is impossible.  This is how we know that Elvis Presley is dead — one cannot crave wealth and fame for 23 years and then, at age 42, decide one does not care for them after all.)  (Elvis Presley — speaking of people who live their life according to an invented narrative — his being Dr. Faustus.)

But look at Dr. Girlfriend’s boyfriend, The Monarch.  He has chosen the butterfly, the ultimate symbol of transformation, as his narrative device (which he calls “a theme thing”).  Who knows, after all, if his absurd story of being raised by butterflies (back in Season 1) is true or not?  It must have seemed true to him at the time; in any case, he’s picked his narrative and he’s sticking by it, regardless of the apparent inconsistencies and the scorn his decision brings.  (If The Monarch and Dr. Girlfriend have a baby, that baby’s lullaby can only be David Bowie’s “Kooks.”)

Brock, like Dr. Venture, doesn’t have time for pretense; he just wants to get on with it.  Yet he has defined himself by another, more subtle narrative, that of the protector of the innocent.  He transforms himself in this episode, donning the hated butterfly wings (Brock gets his wings; his tatoo of Icarus, ironically, does not), to do what, exactly?  Not to protect Hank and Dean or Dr. Venture.  Hank he only protects as an afterthought, Dean’s protection is left in Hank’s hands (“Am I my brother’s keeper?” quoth Cain) and Dr. Venture is left in the hands of his arch-enemy The Monarch.

(The Monarch, in a telling moment, when faced with certain death, invites Dr. Venture to escape with him.  Why?  Why not escape by himself and kill his arch-enemy?  I’m guessing because, as I’ve said earlier, The Monarch defines himself by who he’s arching; without Dr. Venture, he’s nothing.  This is borne out by the end of the show, where The Monarch gripes about Phantom Limb being his “new” arch-enemy — as though he would have it any other way.)

No, Brock drops all his obligations in order to rescue Dr. Girlfriend, the damsel in distress.  This is, of course, one of the oldest narratives in existence, which could be why Brock falls back upon it when faced with a crisis.

It certainly explains what happens to poor Dean in this episode.  Left alone in the engine room, filled with anxiety and feelings he cannot define or control, Dean conjures up the grandest narrative of all, involving a melange of “heroic journey” tropes, including a damsel in distress, a magic ring, a white, bearded deity, magical animals, enslaved innocents, an evil robot overlord and a giant flying dog.  Why does he retreat into this bizarre, ridiculous narrative?  Because otherwise his life has no meaning.  This all comes out in the final moments of his delusion where he frees the enslaved orphans (symbol of his trapped innocence) and rants not about an evil robot overlord but about his own father and the absurdities heaped upon his young life, the monsters and yetis and evil scientists he must contend with every day.  Dean’s “real life” makes no sense and he doesn’t have the tools to fashion a useful narrative for himself.  Instead, he fashions an un-useful narrative as a weapon against his doubts and pain (and, interestingly, puts his father’s life in danger as a result).  (How Dean manages to change from his butterfly outfit back into his street clothes is another question entirely.) (The dog-dragon, of course, is from The Neverending Story, in which a motherless boy, guess what, disappears into a narrative in order to deal with his grief.)

Meanwhile, Dr. Orpheus and co. have found themselves stuck against reality’s brick wall.  How will he and the Order of the Triad rescue Hank and Dean, when Dr. Orpheus can’t even buckle his seatbelt?  With the aid, of course, of a fictional character, a minor character from Star Wars, conjured not from the movie but from a trading card.  The Alchemist worries that the creature is an abomination that should be killed; Dr. Orpheus opines that, whether the creature fictional or not, it is still a living thing.  And, it turns out, their salvation.  (Of course, no one in the Venture universe ever really learns the lessons they’ve been taught — no sooner are they rescued by a fictional character than they roll their eyes at Dean for retreating into a world of fantasy.)

The need for a narrative in life reaches its bleakest, most terminal point with the death of the Monarch henchman in Brock’s arms.  Spitting blood onto Brock’s shoulder, he confesses that the time he’s spent under his command have been the finest of his life.  This is, of course, the narrative that every soldier tells himself as he goes into battle, that his actions have meaning, that he’s risking his life for something meaningful and worthwhile — without it, what he’s doing, throwing his life away, is the ultimate in perversity.  The soldier’s lie withers as his body is transformed into a hunk of meat, from a living thing to an object.  And Brock, who has no use for pretense in the first place (or sentimentality for that matter), listens to the harmless lie, then uses the body to jam the engine of an approaching aircraft: finally, in death, the unknown soldier becomes useful.

(Or maybe I’m wrong; maybe the henchmen is sincere in his statement to Brock, maybe he finally has found meaning through serving under Brock — after all, one would have to have a pretty empty life indeed in order to find fulfillment dressed up as a butterfly.)

Hank wants that henchmen’s narrative so badly he can taste it.  He disobeys Brock’s command to take care of Dean (“Why do you have to be the screen door on my submarine?” he pouts) and joins the henchmen’s fight.  When faced with the reality of it, of course, he recoils in horror and screams like a little girl.  Hank wants that narrative but in the end he doesn’t have the guts for it.  (“Again, again!” he blurts after his near-death experience, clearly not understanding the meaning of the dying henchman’s story.*)

Henchmen 21 and 24 have long functioned as Shakespearean clowns in this show, speaking in malapropisms that nevertheless reveal theme and authorial intent.  Here, they talk about a group of lost henchmen and reference the phenonmenon of the “urban myth,”  underscoring humanity’s need to make up narratives out of thin air in order to deal with the chaos and absurdities of life.

Dean finds his purpose by recycling a heap of pop-culture detritus and fashioning it into a meaningful narrative.  The Venture Bros does something quite similar, turning over bits of trash to find the wriggling, bleeding humanity underneath.

And it’s very funny.

*With the dying henchmen, and Brock’s treatment of him, I keep beingreminded of Snowden, the dying airman in the back of the plane in Catch-22.  “Yossarian heard himself scream wildly as Snowden’s insides slithered down to the floor in a soggy pile and just kept dripping out…Yossarian screamed a second time and squeezed both hands over his eyes…He forced himself to look again.  Here was God’s plenty, all right, he thought bitterly as he stared — liver, lungs, kidneys, ribs, stomach and bits of the stewed tomatoes Snowden had eaten that day for lunch…He felt goose pimples clacking all over him as he gazed down despondently at the grim secret Snowden had spilled all over the messy floor.  It was easy to read the message in his entrails.  Man was matter, that was Snowden’s secret.  Drop him out a window and he’ll fall.  Set fire to him and he’ll burn.  Bury him and he’ll rot like other kinds of garbage.  The spirit gone, man is garbage.  That was Snowden’s secret.”  And Snowden (and Yossarian) signed up to fight and die for one of the worst kinds of narratives, that which insisted that the United States was the handsome prince rescuing the princess of Liberty from the evil clutches of the Fascist overlords.  Perhaps it all come back to David Bowie, who notes, in his song “Soul Love:”

“Soul love, she kneels before the grave
Her brave son, who gave his life to save a slogan
That hovers between the headstone and her eyes
For to penetrate her grieving.”
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Comments

37 Responses to “Venture Bros: Showdown at Cremation Creek, Part II”
  1. amara_anon says:

    Great explanation of Dean’s fantasy escapade.

    What are the inconsistencies in the Monarch’s backstory?

    • Todd says:

      Well, like the inability for butterflies to raise a human child, for starters. And the fact that butterflies aren’t poison or evil, although the Monarch keeps insisting they are. The Monarch has decided that he’s “evil” and he’s sticking with his story, even though its absurd on the face of it.

      • toku666 says:

        That’s an interesting misconception, though. Monarch butterflies are actually poisonous if eaten, but not at levels that would be fatal to humans. Their coloration denotes that facet of their biology to predators, and there are even mock-Monarchs that are not poisonous to consume, but are left alone because their coloration is similar.

        That is not to say, of course, that they have any kind of poisonous bite or sting. Just don’t eat ’em, unless you’re the Monarch, I guess.

        • Todd says:

          Yes, that’s true, Monarch’s are poisonous. But could there be a lamer threat from a supervillain than “I am The Monarch, if you eat me you will die?”

          I suppose if Henchman 21 (or 24?) makes good on his desire to become his own supervillain, he would call himself The Viceroy, which is the butterfly that imitates the Monarch but is not poisonous itself.

          • toku666 says:

            Oh, there is no lamer threat that I can think of, agreed. Koalas peeing on you is worse.

            The loose strands have certainly been laid for 21 to make that grab. He’s been developed in Season 2 to be chafing at the yoke of the Monarch, it was the natural progression of his thought process to go that direction at group therapy, and he seems to have fallen for (lol) Sheila.

            However, you have edified me in that I was unaware that Viceroy was, in fact, the name of that particular butterfly. TWICE EDIFIED BY ALCOTT!

            ps – Your posts with regards to your son have all been amazing reads. Thank you for that.

          • cdthomas says:

            Did anybody notice this?? Did anybody NOTICE THIS?

            Well, don’t say you nevah evah got a shout out, Mr. Alcott.

  2. Now that the season’s over…

    Will you post about the episode of the program you had Tivo’d earlier in the season?

    • Todd says:

      Re: Now that the season’s over…

      I would have to re-watch it again, and my son accidently erased everything on the DVR. Do they show the whole season on The Fix?

      • rfd says:

        Re: Now that the season’s over…

        They probably will. They were periodically re-airing the first season on the Fix before.

      • Re: Now that the season’s over…

        There’s also iTunes, where you can buy all 13 episodes of S2 for $1.99 each.

        (Due to e-mail confusion, I am also CocaCola58204)

        • Anonymous says:

          Re: Now that the season’s over…

          for those of us living outside the U.S. where adult swim isn’t allowed for some reason in the cnetwork package, we get it mostly downloading the next day after broadcast in avi file format, any basic bittorrent site – and its nice, without commercials. Just type in “venture bro” and go.

  3. ghostgecko says:

    “The Venture Bros does something quite similar, turning over bits of trash to find the wriggling, bleeding humanity underneath.”

    Pretty much sums it up. Damn, you’re smart.

    • Todd says:

      There was an art show some 20 years ago by Jeff Koons called “Banality,” where he made these giant replicas and/or adaptations of the ugliest, kitschiest, crassest, most blood-curdlingly awful pop culture knicknacks imaginable. And if you had the stomach to stick around past the initial shock, you started to realize that this crap, ugly as it was, was nevertheless as expressive of human fears and desires (love, sex, God, affection, parenthood) as the highest works of art. And you couldn’t look at pop-culture crap the same way any more.

  4. greyaenigma says:

    This is, of course, the narrative that every soldier tells himself as he goes into battle, that his actions have meaning, that he’s risking his life for something meaningful and worthwhile — without it, what he’s doing, throwing his life away, is the ultimate in perversity.

    This is close to my theory on why people are so viciously sticking by Bush — if they acknowledge the horror he’s lead us into, they just wouldn’t be able to cope with the reality.

    Also, god damn Cartoon Network for starting the episode a few minutes before the half hour.

    I need to rewatch those episodes to figure out why Dr. Venture and Monarch (and Brock) are helping each other at all. The Monarch has an excuse, I suppose — to do anything other than protect Dr. Venture would be going back on his promise to Dr. Cliffhanger Secret.

  5. mr_noy says:

    I’m a big Bowie fan so imagine my surprise when one night I was flipping channels and noticed a bunch of cartoon characters quoting his lyrics. That was Ghosts of the Sargasso and I’ve been hooked ever since.
    It seems fitting that the season comes full circle by having the Thin White Duke appear as himself and quote from his own classic, “Oh, You Pretty Things.” I couldn’t help but recall another verse from that song:

    Look at your children / See their faces in golden rays
    Don’t kid yourself they belong to you / They’re the start of a coming race
    The earth is a bitch / We’ve finished our news
    Homo sapiens have outgrown their use / All the Strangers came today
    And it looks as though they’re here to stay

    Intentional or just one of those fun coincidences? Who knows, but it was a great end to a fantastic season. Not much else to add, I just wanted to thank you again for your fun and informative takes on one of my favorite shows. I look forward to Season 3 and a new batch of your Venture Brothers recaps.

  6. serizawa3000 says:

    Ashes to ashes, funk to funky…

    I’ve been really enjoying these in-depth reviews of yours. Up to this point I knew The Venture Bros. was not only funny, but also smart, and I dare say one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. But what you’ve said about each episode so far has revealed things I haven’t even thought to think about… mainly because I’m just screaming with laughter at Klaus Nomi trying to kill Sovereign Bowie with his voice, and wondering whether there was going to be some final face-off between Brock and Phantom Limb…

    • Todd says:

      Re: Ashes to ashes, funk to funky…

      The surface of the show is indeed dazzling, and something I should have probably spent more time detailing. Because it’s one thing for a show to have deep roots in philosophy and psychology, it’s something else again to know when to throw in a gratuitous dick joke, and VB knows how to do both.

  7. smithereen says:

    I find the Dean stuff especially interesting. It feels to me like Dean’s world of his own imagining (or however Dr. Orpheus phrased that) is basically a natural outgrowth of what he and Hank have done in their day to day lives. Hank and Dean live in a nostalgic, throw-back world of their own imagining day to day that’s sort of connected to our reality but not really our reality. They have this stunningly bulletproof optimism, and this ability to shake all the horrible things that happen to them off and remain cheerfully afloat. That’s one reason I like the fact that even when they’re killed they come back. It makes sense for them to be immortal in that way because it’s sort of an extension of that unsinkable optimism, and it seems right that when everything about them is untouchable by actual reality the reality of death shouldn’t touch them either. And I do wonder how much of their gullibility isn’t about them being just weird or stupid but about them willfully creating a world where they can retain that optimism, where this is all cool and a fun adventure and they’re super-awesome kids who’re so lucky to have a super-awesome scientist dad and it’s all the greatest thing ever. The easy acceptance of their dad’s explanation for the clones and the immediate bounceback from that, for example, strikes me as self-delusion out of self-preservation.

    So, yeah… what really struck me the most about the Neverending Story-land in Dean’s head was that while that seemed to be moving from the day to day delusion he lives in into an even more disconnected unreality, this was the first time I’ve heard him seriously voice his resentment against his father or show a definite awareness that “hey, my life sucks.” Up until now, I’ve kind of wondered if there’s a bit of him that would give anything to just be normal and go to a school that isn’t a bed etc., but I’d never felt like he let himself feel that unhappiness (or at least not to voice it). I find it very telling that it’s not until he creates an alternate to his alternate reality that he’s able to express those real feelings of unhappiness. It’s almost as if there’s a simultaneous pulling even farther away from physical reality and a drawing closer to emotional reality, as if maybe it’s safer for him to approach what he really feels when he’s doing it from somewhere even more removed from his “real life.”

    I also really like your point about what he creates being an unuseful narrative. I like that in the fantasy world he creates, he is useful and competent (though still called a crybaby and a pussy by others, which is also interesting). But that his actual actions are even more disastrous and unuseful than ever. I’m not sure how all this all fits together in my mind toward a conclusion. I don’t really have one yet other than, you know, deep pity for the kid. But you give me food for thought. And I clearly need to go back and read your other episode recaps.

    A friend of mine once told me that, in psychoanalytical terms, one has until age 30 to decide who one is. After that, one is stuck, reinvention is impossible.

    That may be one of the scariest, most depressing things I’ve ever heard.

    • Todd says:

      what really struck me the most about the Neverending Story-land in Dean’s head was that while that seemed to be moving from the day to day delusion he lives in into an even more disconnected unreality, this was the first time I’ve heard him seriously voice his resentment against his father or show a definite awareness that “hey, my life sucks.”

      Well, that’s why narrative is useful in defining one’s life. It’s also why a psychologist, when asking a child to reveal a painful truth, will ask the child to tell a puppet or a doll instead of himself — the child needs a layer of fiction to be able to make sense of what has happened to him.

  8. edo_fanatic says:

    Here’s a good question. What do you think is the best song on the album “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust”? Oh and for the follow-up…what’s the best song on the album “Hunky Dory”

    • Todd says:

      Ziggy Stardust is as near-perfect an aural experience as has ever been created. The whole thing feels like heroin to me. But, I suppose if a gun was held to my head, I’d say that “Rock n Roll Suicide” is my favorite moment on the disc.

      Hunky Dory: “Queen Bitch.”

      • edo_fanatic says:

        For some reason on Ziggy Stardust I can’t start with Five Years- I have to go directly to Soul Love…..but yes-the album is truly mind blowing.

        • Todd says:

          “Five Years” is the thing that sets the stage, though. It says “Okay. Guess what. The world is going to end.” And he’s put you in a place where your expectations of what might happen on a pop album go right out the window. Okay, the world is going to end, now what? Your adrenalin goes sky-high. You get a sense of the stakes. After that, the “story” of Ziggy Stardust, such as it is, is that much more exciting. He’s not just some pop star, he is the last pop star.

      • rfd says:

        I’m with you on Ziggy Stardust with the exception of It Ain’t Easy. Tell me that’s a flaw in your listening experience too, oh please.

        • Todd says:

          When the re-mastered version came out on CD in 96, I hadn’t listened to it for years. I stuck it in the player and my mind was blown. It just builds and builds and I cannot find a wrong move on it. Even its ellipses and loose ends (like, say, dropping the whole “world ending” angle of the story) I embraced with open ears.

    • Todd says:

      I’m officially reversing my position on Hunky Dory. Upon reflection, the best song is “Oh! You Pretty Things.”

  9. kornleaf says:

    (A friend of mine once told me that, in psychoanalytical terms, one has until age 30 to decide who one is. After that, one is stuck, reinvention is impossible. This is how we know that Elvis Presley is dead — one cannot crave wealth and fame for 23 years and then, at age 42, decide one does not care for them after all.) (Elvis Presley — speaking of people who live their life according to an invented narrative — his being Dr. Faustus.)

    totally dissagree with your friends.
    there are always the “wake up” stories,

    like christmas carol, or even oliver twist. Or some other, um, non-dickens narative.

    do you know of movies where the main character has to decide which narrative they will take for themselves?

    As in Brazil? Where there are two distinct narratives for the Main character and he chooses the fantasy?

  10. noskilz says:

    Could the Monarch have been doing it for the nookie?

    I really enjoy the episode analysis — too bad I’ll have to wait until season three for more. You come up such with neat ideas that never would have occurred to me on my own.

    What about the notion that by re-uniting the Monarch with Dr. Girlfriend so they can be married properly, Brock solves the Monarch problem?

    Could the Monarch have been doing it for the nookie by saving Dr Venture? Sort of “Hey, pookums, that Dr. Vemture thing is in the past now, I even made sure he got out of the coccoon safely.”

    Partly inspired by some of your comments about Bowie in the previous episode as well as an idle whim, I put fired up my Best of Bowie dvd disk 1 and had a weird sensation as the older videos played and lyrics for videos like “oh you pretty things” and “heroes” suddenly seemed to weirdly take on a new significance in relation to the Venture Brothers.

  11. Anonymous says:

    thanks

    A wonderful, perfect reading that bookends the great conclusion to this season’s episode. It is rare to find on the web, blogs or just in writing, particularly when it comes to what is deemed but a “cartoon” narrative.

    thanks
    art

  12. leborcham says:

    I just DLed this and watched it, as I was enroute last week, and had saved your commentary until now.

    “Where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?”