Venture Bros: Guess Who’s Coming to State Dinner?

“Guess Who’s Coming to State Dinner,” like The Big Lebowski, is about people living in a world where things once meant something but don’t any more. That’s a major theme for Rusty Venture in any given episode of course, but it’s stated pretty boldly across the board here. Just as the burnouts and washups of Lebowski try in vain to scare up some of the glamour and intrigue of the 40s Los Angeles of The Big Sleep, the heroes of “Dinner” all live in the shadow of some greater, more genuine heroism.

Bud Manstrong, who’s been in space for years with a (supposedly) irresistable woman (whose face we never see), feels that his mission and his lack of sexual experience somehow combine to make him a hero. He lives in the shadow of the genuine heroism of the Space Age astronauts and is cursed with a name that recalls both Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong. He has a domineering mother with the hair and pearls of Barbara Bush (but the mouth and drinking habits of Martha Mitchell). His haircut, his “manly man” physique and attitudes, his imagined virtue and rectitude, his humiliation at the hands of Brock, have all collided to make him into quite a quivering sexual ruin.

Rusty complains from the start that Bud is no hero (and who are the “terrorists” responsible for crashing the space station? Could it be that the Guild has actually committed a crime, caused — gasp — an actual death?), and he’s correct, but also wrong at the same time, as he believes the title of “hero” belongs to himself for owning the space station. Of course, he owns it only by default, since he inherited it from his father, just as we have inherited the space program from a previous generation, and have turned it from a stunning, still-incredible symbol of adventure and the American Spirit into a depressing series of milk-runs for the Pentagon.

Vietnam, itself a ruinous war for men who sought to become heroes, is mentioned in passing. Vietnam, of course, has acquired its own heroic myth, that of the brave soldier who has made it through hell. Brock mentions it to Rusty, who, of course, brings up that Brock was too young to have fought in the war. Brock says that he never mentioned fighting in the war, thus reducing Vietnam’s shadow of World War II heroism to a sadder, even more pale charade.

“Phonies!” says Bud’s mother, dismissing all the guests at the table while slipping a hand onto Brock’s thigh. Brock, as usual,is the simplest, least complicated, most comfortable man at the table. Brock is a hero every week, a “real man,” but doesn’t brag or make a big deal of it. Indeed, he often tries to reason with the man he’s about to kill or dismember, stating flatly what’s about to happen and how the other man can avoid a grisly fate.  A real hero knows that heroism is often something to be avoided and that discretion is the better part of valor.

But yes, the President is a phony and the head of the Secret Service is a phony (with his masking-tape perimeter and his priceless halting line-reading regarding same).  The old cleaning woman seems genuine, and of course “saves the day” in the end, proving that heroism can often be found in simple wisdom and household common sense.

“Dinner” borrows the plot of The Manchurian Candidate, and just bringing it up shows how far we have fallen from the Space Age. The original was, and still is, a subversive, mind-blowing, utterly original movie. Its remake, while not without merit, can’t hope to hold a candle to the brilliant, unnerving Cold War masterpiece.

Who else is a true hero in this episode? Well, Dean as usual tries, although he’s beset with Hank’s taunting and his own almost total lack of education. It’s one thing for a pair of teenage boys to be unfamiliar with The Manchurian Candidate, but to be unfamiliar with the career of Abraham Lincoln is something else.

Lincoln, one of the greatest presidents who ever lived (another, Roosevelt, gets Lincoln’s approval), also steps forward as a true hero, although he is saddled with the dimwitted boys, allegations of homosexuality and his own limited ghostly powers. Even in the face of crisis and failure (he, after all, saves the wrong man and for the wrong reason and is shot in the head for the second time in his existence), he retains his good humor, elegance and panache.  Maybe it’s impossible to be a true hero in these times, but it’s at least possible to attain grace and keep your sense of perspective.

(Lincoln’s plan for saving the president, by the way, represents the most imaginative and yet prosaic method of “throwing money at the problem” I’ve ever seen dramatized.)

As Manstrong is unmasked as an unheroic, twitching masturbator he exclaims “My God, it’s full of stars!” Which is, of course is a reference to 2001: A Space Oddessey, the ultimate Space Age cultural triumph, and another shameful reminder of how far our culture has fallen.

The chip in the back of Manstrong’s head turns out to be a massive red herring. Given the episode’s theme it could hardly be otherwise. The question remains, however, why? Why is the chip in the back of his head? Did he put it there? Did the doctors? Or was it part of the accident, too close to the nerve to remove, just another random occurence in a rudderless world?
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10 Responses to “Venture Bros: Guess Who’s Coming to State Dinner?”
  1. rjwhite says:

    See, I thought that the space station had landed in the desert, on top of some notorious terrorists, so Manstrong was being hailed as a hero as though he had killed them on purpose.

    • dougo says:

      That’s what one of the newspaper articles said, at least as far as I could make out in freeze-frame.

      • Todd says:

        Thanks for the clarification.

        • Anonymous says:

          mrs. manstrong put the micro chip there. thats why they had the flashback to the surgeon. whenever she would say COLONEL BUD MANSTRONG LISTEN TO YOUR MOTHER he would get that out to lunch/mind controlled look on his face.

  2. rfd says:

    Brock also never said he fought in ‘Nam. Super secret after-the-fact spy stuff!

  3. craigjclark says:

    The Manchurian Candidate stuff was great, especially since the original film is chock full of Lincoln imagery. (In his commentary track, John Frankenheimer mentions that they associated Lincoln with Senator Iselin as much as they could, even putting him in a Lincoln costume for the party scene.)

    And the beginning of this episode couldn’t help but remind me of “Ghosts of the Sargasso” since that episode also opens with a scene of a pilot unable to stop a spacecraft from crashing. This time, however, instead of landing in the water, it hits desert. A nice contrast.

  4. mr_noy says:

    As usual, you have managed to wax eloquently over what could easily be dismissed as just another silly show. As for your questions regarding the presence of the microchip, that left me scratching my head as well.

    If the conspiracy plot does indeed mirror that of The Manchurian Candidate than it would have been planned with utmost precision, yet the story leads me to believe that this was more a case of opportunism. The conspiracy leaves me with a lot of questions but if this is just a stand-alone episode we may never know for sure what really happened.

    • Were I better writer, there would be no confusion…but alas…

      There was no conspiracy. Lincoln simply watched The Manchurian Candidate too many times and, witnessing the exchanges between a very controlling, politically ambitious mother and her henpecked, loyal goofball of a son, assumed the worst–his suspicions confirmed by the blinking presence of a mysterious microchip at the base of Manstrong’s skull.

      In fact, the chip and Mrs. Manstrong were unrelated–the former was basically Gargantua-1 schrapnel that couldn’t be removed. So she’s basically just the bitchy widow of a Senator trying to get her suddenly famous son to take advantage of a political opportunity.

      • mr_noy says:

        That would explain why Lincoln didn’t get his wings in the end. Without an actual conspiracy to thwart his heroism was rendered moot. Or as Todd put it, he “saves the wrong man and for the wrong reason”

        Ahh, the bitter-sweetness of Quixotic heroism.

        Thanks for the clarification, and for such an outstanding (and yes, well written) show.

        • Anonymous says:


          why did Lincoln have to wait over 100 years to earn his wings, in the first place? what opportunties did he miss, over all those presidencies, to help?