Venture Bros: Viva los Muertos!

I don’t think it’s too much of an exaggeration to say that “Viva los Muertos!” is the reason that television was invented.

No joke: just the other day I was asking myself if there is an upper limit to the themes and issues that an episode of Venture Bros could address.

Question answered.

The themes this week are among the grandest imaginable: war, authoritarian control, the one-ness of existence, the border of life and death and the nature of humanity.

We start in the middle of a war film.  The Monarch is sending his henchmen into battle.  We are behind the orange-tinted goggles of one of them.  The Monarch, unlike last episode, is not there for the invasion; no, this battle he’s sitting out, content for now to send his men to their deaths, as any good general does in any war.

It’s present day, but the language of the henchmen comes from older war films.  The trench recalls World War I and the reference to “taking this hill” recalls Paths of Glory, Kubrick’s study of military cruelty, where primping generals sip tea in chateaus while sending their men to die for no reason at all.  It makes me wonder what the Monarch’s goal for this incursion was, why he’s not participating today, what he has to do that’s more important.

As in Paths, the incursion is a failure and our POV henchman is quickly dispatched by Brock, only to be brought back to life by Dr. Venture, in the manner of Frankenstein’s Creature, just in time for that landmark film’s 75th anniversary.  “The Holy Grail of super-science,” Rusty crows, life from death.  Death, science wishes to show, is not the undiscovered country, the land from which no traveler returns, but just another tool for maximizing profit.  The fact that Venturestein can hardly be called human atthis point seems to be beside the point — Dr. Venture has re-animated dead flesh and stands to profit greatly from it.

Like Frankenstein’s Creature, “Venturestein” identifies Dr. Venture as his father, a notion Dr. Venture quickly quashes.  “I get enough of that noise from these two,” he says, gesturing to Hank and Dean.  This brings up an important and vital aspect of Dr. Venture’s parental instincts: why does he keep bringing Hank and Dean back to life, since he has no interest in being a father?  “Dean, as of right now Hank is better than you,” he snaps at his children, as good an example of bad parenting as we are likely to see on television this season.  And yet we will see later in the episode that parenting isn’t always just a nurturing instinct born of love, it can also spring from a desire to mold and warp, to control and shape an unformed mind.  Dr. Venture puts Venturestein in Hank’s bed to teach him, what else, the relative value of a life of legalized slavery (which explains his afro head and the beat about Hank and Dean trying to find “Africa-America” on the globe), or, as Venturestein succinctly puts it, “Prostitution!”

Now then: The Groovy Gang.

The average writer says “Hey, let’s have the Mystery Gang meet up with the Venture Bros.  It’s a natural.  And they can be middle-aged and failed, driving around in a beat-up van solving mysteries.”  But it takes the genius of the creators of Venture Bros to take the mystery gang and invert them from optimistic, youthful children of the 60s (don’t forget, Fred, Daphne, Velma, Shaggy and Scooby were, literally, on their way to the Woodstock festival when they were waylaid by their first mystery) to a pack of the darkest, most repugnant criminals of ’68-’78, namely Ted Bundy, Patty Hearst, Valerie Solanas and David Berkowitz (and his talking dog Harvey).  And so “Ted,” the leader, becomes a vicious, controlling thug,  good looking and charming on the outside but murderous and brutal on the turn of a dime, threatening to put Patty “back in her box” and regularly threatening “Sonny’s” life.  (It’s hard to see why Val, whose real-life counterpart felt that her life was controlled by men in general and Andy Warhol in particular, would be part of this gang, except that she seems to see herself as some sort of protector/predator of victimized Patty.)

Ted pulls the van up to the Venture compound in a thunderous rainstorm (a rare use of “atmosphere” in the Venture world).  “I smell a mystery!” he says, apropos of nothing.  Or is it?  Ted can’t know about Venturestein running amok inside the compound.  What mystery is he referring to?  And then we realize: Ted Bundy, and all intelligent, cold-blooded killers, fascinate us precisely for their investigations into the same mystery that Dr. Venture is “prostituting” inside the compound: the border between life and death.  In a sense, Ted is always pursuing not just “a mystery” but the mystery — what happens to us when we die?

The serial killer cannot keep himself from his quest in the same way that Dr. Venture can’t keep himself from his own.  One kills from insanity and the other brings men back to life from a different kind of insanity.  The killer answers to a higher power (a point driven home by Sonny’s dog, growling at him about “The master’s orders”) while the scientist pretends to be that higher power to reverse the process.  And so unholy Creator and equally unholy Destroyer are set on a collision course on the Venture compound on a dark and stormy day.

(There’s more than a little of George W. Bush in Ted as well.  When asked for reasons for invading the Venture Compound, Ted invokes both God and the lack of gasoline as reasons enough.  When Sonny questions further, he’s met with accusations of disloyalty and the barrel of a gun.)

Because Venture Bros episodes consistently teem with twinning and reflections, our B-story this week concerns a more serious version of Creator and Destroyer.  Brock feels bad about killing Venturestein (twice) and crashes Dr. Orpheus’s shaman party (or “Dracula factory!” as Ted puts it, completing the “Universal Monster Movie 75th Anniversary reference” beat [and also bringing up vampirism, the other most-potent “life from death” myth of the 20th century]) .  The shamans all drink wine made from the ego-destroying “Death Vine” (which reminds Brock a little too much of “a Jonestown thing,” yet another reminder of authortarian control, a bad father, run amok) and when Brock tells his story of killing the henchman, the oldest, most respected shaman tells a seemingly unrelated story of having sex with a dolphin.

Or is it unrelated?  Sex, after all, is the opposite of murder, and the dolphin could be seen a purer, more instinctual level of existence.  The dolpin, which science has shown is the intellectual equal (if not superior) of humanity, manages to live a free, toil-free life in spite of its intelligence.  It sees no need to organize into complex societies, print money, go to war or enslave children (to name only the most radical of the offenses listed this week).  The shaman’s story of the dolphin, in spite of its absurdity, is truly the opposite of Brock’s story of senseless, state-sanctioned murder.

Dr. Venture is a bad father, and so is Ted, and so is the unseen government constantly lurking in the background of the Venture world.  Dr. Venture has finally achieved success; the army wants 144 of his Venturesteins to use as walking bombs; Rusty has no trouble taking the order, and assumes that Brock, the born killer, will simply “make some dead bodies” for him.

But Brock is changing; he’s questioning the limits and certitude of his powers, his “license to kill.”  And so he “drinks the Kool-Aid,” as it were, with the shamans (who lose their lunches, as well as their egos, as they drink from the Death Vine) and has his hallucination involving that same dolphin spoken of earlier.  The dolphin explains the importance of empathy and the oneness of existence to Brock (just as its darker twin, Groovy, commands Sonny to murder on the behalf of the mysterious “Master”).  The hallucinatory dolphin is then, of course, murdered by a hallucinatory Hunter Gatherer, Brock’s own authority (and father-) figure.  Hunter sets Brock straight on his nature and purpose in the world.  We are here to kill, he insists, on the behalf of our masters, invoking another Kubrick war film, Full Metal Jacket.  It’s enough to snap Brock out of his confusion and set him back on his path of righteous destruction.

Meanwhile, in another part of the compound, Sonny sees Hank and Dean and freaks out.  They’re supposed to be dead.  He knows because he killed them some time earlier.  And again, it’s funny but it’s also not.  The serial killer, the one who sees it as his brief to send souls off to the undiscoverd country, confronted with two of those souls returning?  The Destroyer confronted with two souls undestroyed?  It’s as serious and confounding idea as the scientist bringing the dead back to life.

And so there’s a showdown in the cloning lab, where Hank and Dean are confronted with their own confounding image, rows and rows of themselves (providing the show with its best line, “I think they’re in a ‘saw their own clones’ coma”).  Ted and Sonny are ready to kill Hank and Dean, but we see that, as murderous as they are, they are, after all, mere amateurs.  Brock is a highly trained, skilled professional, acting on behalf of a government (and the family he loves).

Dr. Venture comes in just in time to snap Hank and Dean out of their stupor, pulling, what else, a great, paternal lie out of his back pocket, a parental fib, prompting Hank and Dean to exclaim that Rusty is “the best dad ever!” bringing the episode full circle.  The ultimate bad father has, magically, become the ultimate good father, at least in the eyes of his cruelly manipulated children, and that’s a lesson that needs to be learned, especially with an election five weeks away.

UPDATE: mcbrennan, typically, has spurred a few more thoughts, mainly about Dr. Venture and his back-up plan to, essentially, send his own children off to die as brainless zombies in an unnamed war.  I was reminded of two Leonard Cohen songs.  He was writing, of course, about Vietnam, but they will serve here:

“Story of Isaac” contains this verse: 

You who build these altars now
to sacrifice these children,
you must not do it anymore.
A scheme is not a vision
and you never have been tempted
by a demon or a god.

And “The Butcher” begins:

I came upon a butcher,
he was slaughtering a lamb,
I accused him there
with his tortured lamb.
He said, “Listen to me, child,
I am what I am and you, you are my only son.”

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29 Responses to “Venture Bros: Viva los Muertos!”
  1. craigjclark says:

    This week’s episode certainly was a crazy quilt of references and cultural signposts. For my part, though, I took the opening discussion in the trench outside the Venture Compound about not getting too chummy with the “new meat” as being more of an allusion to Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One.

  2. mcbrennan says:

    Your analysis is brilliant as usual. I really look forward to reading your thoughts on the new episodes. Early on, when I was first watching the show, I’d think about some of these things and then think “No, they can’t have possibly meant…” But they did and they do.

    It seemed to me that the crux of Brock’s “crisis of conscience” was he knew he had used unnecessary violence against the dead henchman–“I knew if I let him go this one time, he’d never come back…but…” Given the substantial amount of material in tonight’s episode that could be viewed as a commentary on Iraq, the Bush administration etc, the theme of disproportionality–and the fact that despite being killed twice, the dead henchman won’t stay dead–is pretty telling.

    I think you hit the nail on the head when you said righteous destruction. When Brock returned from his encounter with Hunter Gathers, the only words that Brock retained, echoing from his lips like a mantra, were “don’t hunt!” And the first thing he did was kill two of the most notorious “hunters” of the past 30 years, Ted Bundy and the Son of Sam. That’s righteous destruction in a nutshell. And while Gathers says “a hammer can’t love a nail”, Brock and Venturestein in fact end the episode together like a couple of old pals (albeit heading for some kind of prostitute that does it with dead guys in Batman masks.) Somehow I don’t think Brock will be willing to kill needlessly again, despite his training and his mentor and the orders of the government. He seems genuinely changed.

    The theme of slavery–be it prostitution, little Jorge’s “bonded servitude”, Venturestein’s future as a wholly-owned U.S. government weapon or Brock Samson’s status as a “tool” of the government–it’s a devestating indictment of our current economic and military policies as well as a powerful philosophical question: are we, as Gathers tells Brock, “beyond good and evil”? “Beyond” in the perverse and amoral Kissingerian realpolitik sense–beyond as in above, not the original meaning Nietzsche intended. The blind loyalty to state that Hunter Gathers espouses–as a hammer has blind loyalty to whomever wields it–is just another construct to justify the unjustifiable, the very thing Nietzsche railed against.

    The audaciousness of Jackson, Doc, and Ben Edlund is staggering. It’s been building all season, all of both seasons, but look at this show tonight and tell me who the bad guy is. Who’s the villain of this universe? Has the Monarch or Phantom Limb or anyone else done anything even remotely as monstrous in the entire series as Dr. Venture attempted to do in one episode? Creating an army of C-4 packed corpses? Ordering his bodyguard to go out and randomly kill people to provide the meat for said experiment (especially unsettling in the context of the serial killer references)? And finally, apparently planning on killing and reanimating cloned copies of his own sons to serve as cannon fodder in that army (again, only stopped by Brock)? The Monarch’s going to have to be pretty creative to come up with an evil to outdo that. That one of the putative heroes of the show could be presented as so aggressively evil is pretty shocking. Likewise the presentation of the “Groovy Gang”–universally-known cartoon good guys morphed into repugnant (and very real) mass murderers, and deranged, victimized women (and a truly frightening Satanic dog) suggests exactly what you say at the end of your analysis about “the good father”–that the shiny, happy images we’ve been fed on television, the archetypes and code language that tell us what’s good and what’s evil were manufactured half-truths or bald faced lies. If that lesson isn’t learned this election cycle, it’s going to be a very bad thing indeed.

    It was a mind-blowing episode–very funny, but often almost closer to harrowing. I can’t wait to see how the season ends.

    • Todd says:

      It also occurs to me that Brock’s discomfort with meeting Venturestein is not unlike his discomfort with finding the dying Race Brannon in Season 1. He looks at Venturestein and sees nothing less than himself. He’s been formed into a governmental tool of destruction no less than Venturestein has.

      However, Brock has his job, and his nature, and Death is not evil, and neither is The Destroyer. Westerners have made these figures evil because we think we can conjure up a technological force strong enough to defeat them, but we cannot, we can only hold them off. Death, in eastern religions, is merely transmutation, and destruction is as vital and important to the universe as creation. Brock would never be happy screwing a pink dolphin all day, it’s not his nature.

      • mcbrennan says:

        ‘He looks at Venturestein and sees nothing less than himself.”

        Not only that–and forgive me for rambling on as I tend to do pretty much daily around here–but something struck me about the character design, the physical resemblences between the shaggy son of Sam and Rusty (in his college days), and Ted Bundy and Brock. The real Bundy had black hair, but this one–maybe because of Scooby-Doo’s Freddie and maybe not–looked much more like Samson. In their brief moment of confrontation it was almost like a mirror image, and I thought Brock was almost facing what might have been: a killer without conscience or purpose or context. If Brock’s an angel of death, the emphasis is squarely on angel. Maybe ultimately it’s that more spiritual power he serves, the higher purpose of killing to protect and defend the goodness of life.

        It also occurred to me–late, as usual–that when Brock killed Ted and Sonny, he wasn’t just killing intruders (as he’d done with Venturestein), he was exacting unconscious revenge (justice?) on people who literally murdered the boys. For all we know, those might have even been the original Venture Bros (though the boys’ ages Myra suggested in the previous episode might suggest otherwise). Unlike the boys’ other (known) deaths, this one wasn’t comic or bumbling or funny, it was brutal and horrible, and Brock’s retribution was everything his killing of Venturestein wasn’t–warranted, proprotionate and just. Brock’s the opposite of Dr. Venture, the moral center of the story, which would be hilariously ironic if his character was not so beautifully written and performed.

    • toku666 says:

      Closed captioning (never 100%, check any Metalocalypse episode) had him as saying “BROCK HUNT.”

      “Harrowing” is certainly a good word. This was by far the darkest episode of VB to date.

  3. jebbypal says:

    I love your analysis, but one nitpick —

    But it takes the genius of the creators of Venture Bros to take the mystery gang and invert them from optimistic, youthful children of the 60s

    –Don’t you think the writer of this episode, Ben Edlund, deserves a little bit of credit for the plot and all as well?

  4. popebuck1 says:

    I have to call out yet another influence for the opening POV sequence in the trenches and Venture’s lab – two groundbreaking episodes of “M*A*S*H.” There was the episode filmed entirely from the “Point of View” of a soldier/patient as he visited the 4077th, and a later episode, “Follies of the Living – Concerns of the Dead”, with a young soldier who dies at the beginning of the episode, but whose restless spirit hangs around throughout the episode, waiting for further instructions.

  5. rfd says:

    Todd, I look forward to your weekly analyses almost as much as I do the episodes themselves.

  6. robsalk says:

    that ain’t the half of it

    Hey there – new around here, referred by Heidi at the Beat. Great write up on last night’s episode. For my money, the most disturbing part of the whole thing was the very end, where it appeared that Doc was about to pull the plug on his children’s “backups” to make sure he could fill his Venturestein quota for the government. Since it’s been established that Doc views the clones as both physically and emotionally interchangeable with the originals of his biological children, the idea that he would casually turn them in to brain-damaged zombies and sell them to the goverment as weapons is possibly the most depraved idea of all. Venture Bros is in some seriously uncharted territory these days!

    • popebuck1 says:

      Re: that ain’t the half of it

      No kidding – is the two-part season finale seriously going to feature an army of zombie Hanks and Deans, marching into Baghdad stuffed with C-4? It’s looking pretty likely…

  7. eronanke says:

    Quick note;
    Dr. Venture is trapped by the “Scientist/Adventurer” paradigm, which means he must a) have adventures, b) have a body guard, c) attempt great science and d) have at least one child who will stumble upon mysteries.
    I think that conceptually, to be taken seriously, he MUST have the boys alive and with him.
    There is also the issue of taxes; being a penny-pincher, he’ll want to declare them as dependents, dead or alive, so it’s best to keep them alive.

    • noskilz says:

      Dr Venture is certainly an pretty wretched parent, but he seems to have some kind of real attachment to the boys — otherwise wouldn’t the fastest soulution to a “seen your own clone coma” possibly be offing the current set and starting over? But then I kind of hope Venture is mostly incredibly oblivious and self-centered rather than actively evil, so maybe I’m just kidding myself.

      Is it possible that Venture’s perspective might be something along the lines of the kids being an combination of whichever bodies happen to be active as well as the machinery that supports them? The dialogue in “Powerless in the face of death” seemed a little suggestive. Or not. All I can be sure of is that whatever the answer really is, it will be awesome.

      I’m a little curious how Venture might behave if confronted with a situation where he can’t readily replace the kids current bodies — and wondering if cleaning out his supply of clone slugs for venturesteins is going somewhere or just a gag for this episode.

  8. mr_noy says:

    As usual, I am impressed by the insights offered by the posters on this site. I would just like to throw out a few names I haven’t seen yet.

    I think “Ted” and the way in which he berates anyone who questions him has less to do with George W. Bush (and I’m not one to defend W.) and has more to do with his being an amalgamation of Charles Manson and David Koresh, as well as the aforementioned Ted Bundy.

  9. greyaenigma says:

    Rushing a bit, but…

    My initial impression of what bothered Brock most about Venturestein was that he failed to stay dead. (Maybe not the first time that happened to him, though.) We also some some more non-parental humanizing of Brock in the last episode with the argument over the music with HELPR.

    Also, I’d been debating whether the boys were going to snuff it at the end of this season, but dismissed the idea as being too derivative of South Park. The revelation that they’d been killed two years ago (one year before last season, presumably) had me revisiting my original suspicion.

    Also, why do so many of the accents end up being germanic?

    One does wonder why a guy capable of cloning people in vats and programming them as he likes would actually need an army of the undead.

    • Todd says:

      what bothered Brock most about Venturestein was that he failed to stay dead.

      Another echo of what bothered Sonny about Hank and Dean.

      • greyaenigma says:

        Yep. I recalled Brock’s shock at his first kill (on the football field); I couldn’t help wondering whether his ultimate biggest fear would be not merely failing, but having the dead rise and exacting revenge. I thought that theory was dashed when he got up, yelling “HUNT!” but his ultimate befriending of Venturestein may be the flipside of that — he finally gets a chance to reconcile with one of his victims, and symbolically all of them, especially his first.

  10. laminator_x says:


    The other movie homage in this episode was the scene in which Venturestein awakens in the lab. Thet was very much mimicking the POV and dialogue from Murphy’s awakenning as the Robocop at the hands of Omni Consumer Products.

  11. ghostgecko says:

    The humanization of Venturestein towards the end reminded me a little of Bub the zombie in “Day of the Dead”. Ironically, Venturestein he has more personality as a – what did they call him, short bus seat wetter? – than he did as a human being.

    I think that was also what I found so disorienting and disturbing about the opening sequence. We don’t know anything about VS before he gets killed, but we’re seeing through his eyes so he is, in a sense, “me”. It’s more affecting than watching the usual bunch of faceless drones get off’d by the hero we’re cheering for (and makes you wonder – most action movies want us to cheer for mass murderers who we’re told are the good guys).

    I was kind of hoping for a Re-Animator callout, since Bride of Re-Animator is one of the rare Frankenstein-type movies that makes the reanimation as a replacement for reproduction metaphor blatant. David J Skal goes into that in his book “The Monster Show” (tho he gets a little too freudian for me at times).
    What Dr. V is doing with VS is really no more morally bankrupt that what he’s doing resurrecting the boys. As other people have pointed out, for some reason he needs those kids (psychological, monetary, whatever) but he can’t be bothered to go through the normal, laborious route of social interaction that would lead to reproduction. He may not have wanted them at all in the first place, but when they’re killed he’d rather just replace them over and over again. Like buying a new pair of socks when the old ones wear out. The very fact of their being so replaceable has probably blunted any affection he may have had for them. It ties in, I think, with little Jorge and VS’s original destiny as an assembly line worker. The human being as machine part. People as seen by a sociopath, as objects to manipulate. That mental disconnect, catagorizing certain catagories of people as “other”, that enables medical experimentation and wars, as you pointed out. Terrific stuff.

    As usual, Mr Alcott, your analysis is extraordinary. I feel like I’m taking a course in Venture Bros, and also I want to marry you. (and Leonard Cohen is great, “First We Take Manhattan” is one of my fav. songs)

    • greyaenigma says:

      Ironically, Venturestein he has more personality as a – what did they call him, short bus seat wetter? – than he did as a human being.

      I don’t know — it didn’t seem like we saw enough of his life (and none of his normal life) to know how much personality he had. I thought for a while this episode was going to be like that Invisibles issue that focused on the life of that one randomly killed guard. Instead, we got to see everything after his death.

  12. thoth93 says:

    I realize discussion has long stilled on this episode …

    But I was reminded while reading your analysis of Hunter’s greeting to Brock upon their first meeting:

    “Happy birthday, Frankenstein!”

    To me, there is an obvious and powerful connection being forged to that statement in this episode, which ties in in a most beautiful and profound manner to your observations about who and what Brock is, as well as many of the other themes thus elucidated.

    • Todd says:

      Re: I realize discussion has long stilled on this episode …

      No doubt about it, Venture Bros definitely rewards multiple viewings.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Now there’s a topic for conversation: established filmmakers who sat in the director’s chair only once. Not too many come to mind but I’m sure they’re out there.

    – Brando starring in and directing the aforementioned One Eyed Jacks
    – Charles Laughton directed The Night of Hunter but he didn’t appear in it.
    – Pacino acted in and directed something called The Imaginary Stigmatic but I don’t think it was ever released.

    I can think of others (actors, producers, make-up men) but they’ve all directed more than 1 film (usually less than a handful and none of them watchable, as best as I can tell).

  14. Anonymous says:

    3:10 to Yuma

    I’m just back from 3:10 to Yuma (Assassination will be later this weekend, after the latest revision of Blade Runner), and the thing you left out that will stick with me for a good long time is the look in Russell Crowe’s eyes when he first sees the barmaid. He wasn’t playing a “character” or an “iconic figure” in that moment.

  15. Anonymous says:

    GWB references

    Always the “Bush is the bad guy” stuff. Christ, get a life already. While you and your kind are ridiculing and reviling the man, remember, we have not been attacked at home again, and that would be due to his efforts. Credit where credit is due.
    Otherwise, I quite enjoyed this piece.

  16. Anonymous says:

    Who is the Genius ? Ben Edlund

    Ben Edlund discovered Jackson Publick & Doc Hammer – I Love this episode – it is something special – Having Said That – I need more Cream Cheese in my animation