The Venture Bros “SPHINX Rising” part 1

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“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.)

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What does Gary want? Gary wants “to be good.” This, in and of itself, is a relative anomaly in the Venture universe. Gary has marked the errors of his ways and wishes to make amends. Or, perhaps, since all is vanity, he wishes to kick ass for good, which he’s actually, shockingly, pretty good at. When we find him in “SPHINX Rising,” he’s launching a one-man assault on a Bad Guy. He’s figured out where the Bad Guy is, he’s figured out how to use a jet-pack, he’s modified his Monarch wings to work as a glider, he’s capable with weapons and he strikes with lethal force, all things he was never able to do as Henchman 21, with his closet full of movie tie-in toys. Playtime is over for Gary, he’s now ready for work. To take up his destiny, to quote from later in the episode.

But not so fast, because he’s still dressing up in a ridiculous costume and he’s still a dork, humming his own little theme song as he attacks, just like in the episode way back when where he and 24 hum “Mars” while preparing for dork-battle. Transforming into “SPHINX Commander” is just another dress-up game, which, of course, implies that espionage work in our universe is just another dress-up game for boys who aren’t ready to settle down, start a family, deal with real life (paging Mr. Bond).

In any case, Gary’s first mission as SPHINX Commander is a Venture-style disaster. His mission against the Bad Guy is actually an attack on a covert OSI mission led by Brock Samson himself. Brock is no stranger to transition himself: he’s gone from being an OSI agent to being Rusty’s bodyguard to being a member of SPHINX to going back to OSI. The question is, with all those transitions, has he really transformed, or just changed his costume? The central question of The Venture Bros is “Is real change possible?” In Gary’s case it’s: “Once a dork, always a dork?” His attack on the Bad Guy ends with the deaths of an 8-year-old boy-villain and a valuable informant, wrecking a weeks-in-development undercover operation. (It also highlights the nature of undercover operations, and, again, espionage in general: if all you do is pretend to be someone else, who are you? Or, as Kurt Vonnegut said, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be very careful about what we pretend to be.”)

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Back at the Venture compound, it’s another breakfast scene. Last episode, Sgt Hatred made face-shaped breakfasts for everyone, but today he’s off on a mission, leaving Rusty and Dean to cold cereals and, worse, each other. Dean is eating his cereal while something is eating him, but he won’t tell his father about what that is, not yet. Meanwhile, the Monarch launches the episode’s b-story: a very Monarch attack on the Venture compound, full of calamitous failure. Having developed an “acid magnet,” his plans to destroy the Ventures (after infantilizing them by making them soil their pants) run aground with one well-timed shot from Sgt Hatred (coached by Gary in a rare successful team-up). Having failed with plan A, the Monarch resorts to plan B, dumping the lunch room furniture on the Venture’s lawn. The Monarch refuses to believe that Gary has foiled him – he’s still loves him and is in denial about his need to move on, villainy-speaking. Although he is not so transformed that he is not tempted to eat the Buffalo wings that fall out of the Monarch’s cocoon along with the cafeteria tables.

Having just joined SPHINX and having been just as quickly been abandoned by it, Gary is once again an orphan looking for a family. Desperate, he puts an ad on the internet seeking new members. He doesn’t get “new” members exactly, rather, he gets old members – plus Hank. The “old” members of SPHINX are all in different phases of their lives. Some have moved on, gotten married and had children, others live lives in isolation or quiet desperation, spying on their exes. Hank, having successfully transformed into Batman for an episode, is most keen to join, to “meet his destiny.”

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The rest of his family, overhearing him, thinks “Destiny” is a girl and that Hank is “growing up.” Hank, like Gary (who now insists on being called “Viceroy,” yet another indicator that he’s not ready to shed his butterfly identity), is not growing up, he’s merely changing costume. The domestic scene that plays out in the living room, with Rusty being “busy dad” looking at blueprints, Sgt Hatred being “busy mom” while ironing and Dean brooding while reading a book, shows the divide between “relative normal” in the Venture world and the rest of the retrograde madness that rages without. Hatred, most of all, wants to transform into a mother and his body, with its monstrous new breasts, seems ready for the change.

(It’s worth noting that the Viceroy butterfly, in real life, developed its coloration in order to mimic the Monarch, because Monarchs are poisonous to lizards and birds and so forth. That is, the Viceroy is not harmful, but only pretending to be.)

His acid-magnet plot having failed, the Monarch makes another go at destroying Rusty, this time involving a much lower-tech approach: he and Dr. Girlfriend (the all-time costume-change champ of the show, and who is now referred to as “Dr. My Wife”) will, yes, change costumes, sneak into the Venture compound and plant explosives. The costumes they choose are elaborate but as dumpy as imaginable: they dress up as a couple of low-rent exterminators. Odd, since they could probably just dress in normal street clothes and not be recognized by Rusty, who doesn’t seem to remember who the Monarch is from episode to episode: the Monarch is his Homer Simpson to Rusty’s Mr. Burns: no matter how many interactions they have, Rusty seems to just block them from his mind, dismiss them as minor irritants, even though many of their encounters have led to the deaths of his sons or hideous (yes) transformations of their own.

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As Act I comes to a close, the episode now introduces Gary’s chief antagonist. In keeping with the insights into the world of real-life espionage, Gary’s antagonist is not a “bad guy” but a “good guy,” OSI Chief Hunter Gathers. Hunter’s speech to his new recruits (a parody of the opening scene of Patton, a scene so parodied at this point that it hardly counts as a reference) is intercut with Gary’s speech to his own “new recruits,” who are, for the most part, “old recruits.” Hunter’s speech is full of bluster and pyrotechnics, Gary’s is homely as a parents-night at a preschool. It’s worth noting that Hunter has done his own share of transformations over the years, grown his own set of breasts in fact. His namesake is Hunter S. Thompson, but Thompson was a dyed-in-the-wool anti-authoritarian. Hunter Gathers is closer to Thompson’s collorary in the funny pages, Doonesbury’s “Uncle Duke”, who went from being an unhinged Rolling Stone reporter to the ambassador to American Samoa and worse. Gathers declares the Guild of Calamitous Intent to be OSI’s enemy, but it isn’t long before he reveals his true objective: to destroy SPHINX, his one-time rival and one-time family, once and for all.