The Venture Bros.: The Lepidopterists
The promise of Tears of a Sea Cow is made good this week in The Lepidopterists, an episode centering entirely upon The Monarch’s first aggressive assault against Jonas Venture Jr. Meanwhile, Rusty and the boys are…uh…nowhere to be found.
And you know what? I don’t miss them.
Season three has turned out to be…well, something nobody really could have predicted. It’s no longer a question of whether or not it’s “better” than season two (or season one…), it’s a question of how different it is. At the same time the size of the Venture universe is expanded, relationships are changing, histories are being unraveled, and secrets are being revealed. And, in the best episodes, the characters we’ve already come to know are being gorgeously, perfectly, refreshingly enriched.
The Lepidopterists is one of these episodes. It takes everything we already know about the characters and opens the door just a little more widely for us. It’s not interested in grand revelations; it’s interested in exploring the depths (and, to some extent, limits) of the world in which these kinds of things happen. You wake up in the morning and there’s an enormous flying pinecone pointing a lightning cannon at your robot. No wonder Garfield hates Mondays.
What we have here is a very smart episode that manages to question the reality of these events even as it reinforces them. Not an easy balance to maintain, but if anyone can do it it’s Doc Hammer. And so here we are, with yet another strong candidate for Best Episode of Season Three.
The idea is that The Monarch, forbidden from arching Dr. Venture, manages to get himself assigned to the next best thing: arching Venture’s brother, Jonas Jr. What he doesn’t seem to realize is that Jonas Jr. has more-advanced technology, a more capable team, and—to be blunt—a much stronger chance of knocking The Monarch into oblivion.
From the very first scene of the episode it’s clear that The Monarch is in over his head. The cocoon is mortally damaged before the opening credits even begin. The presumed outcome is clear, and the tension is increased when he decides to follow Jonas Jr. back to Spider-Skull Island, despite the level-headed protests of Dr. Girlfriend. (Anybody who saw last year’s The Darjeeling Limited will recognize The Monarch’s recurring wide-eyed “Do you trust me?”) Basically, we expect him to be killed. Especially when two mysterious “Lepidopterists” turn up to speak with Jonas Jr., offering their assistance—and Brock’s—in destroying The Monarch once and for all.
Not since I Know Why the Caged Bird Kills has accelerating tension been handled so well. And yet—and yet!—The Monarch triumphs, turning in what has to be his cleverest plan to date. Dr. Girlfriend is no doubt surprised by the outcome. Hell, even the henchmen are surprised by the outcome. A solid half-hour of buildup toward what should have been The Monarch’s demise was actually working toward revealing one of the best twists of any Venture episode.
But let’s backtrack a little bit, because the tension isn’t all The Monarch’s. We are introduced to a new character…Henchman 1. He is assigned to infiltrate Spider-Skull Island with Henchmen 21 and 24, the favorites of both the fans and the writers. It’s obvious to 21 and 24 (and it is made obvious to us) that Henchman 1 is not going to come back alive. Why? Well, he’s not a recurring character. He’s the third member of a duo. It’s just a question, as far as the other henchmen are concerned, of how he is going to die.
(Is this a moment of meta-awareness? Well, yeah, obviously. But 21 and 24 aren’t breaking the fourth wall here, because they grew up watching all of the adventure shows that The Venture Bros. is satirizing. They may be demonstrating knowledge of the formula of The Venture Bros., but they are only aware of it indirectly. They’re living a real life that they came to understand better through cartoons.)
And yet, perhaps because we know that J.J. is more capable than Rusty in just about every way, we—as viewers—are reluctant to trust them. Sure, 21 and 24 may not have died yet, but this is a new nemesis. This is a new location. The stakes are higher and the likelihood of survival not yet established. Henchman 1 is prepared—he knows his mission, carries all of his equipment. He’s more aware of what’s going on around him. A henchman death is being signposted…but who is it going to be? Henchman 1 is even given a name…it’s Scott Hall. Henchman 1 assumes that this will make him less expendable in the grand scheme of things; Henchman 21 realizes it’s just going to make his death that much more pathetic.
Eventually Henchman 1 (alas, poor Scott…) meets his death at the hands of Brock Samson, in a scene that ramps up the adrenaline for both halves of the plot. The Monarch is about to attack J.J. in his crippled cocoon and Brock is about to decide how many henchmen make it home alive. It’s a beautiful scene with gorgeous animation (Brock catching the bola and tossing it back in one fluid motion is just a breathtaking moment) and some truly excellent music by J.G. Thirlwell. (Thirlwell’s recurring battle theme for J.J. was another standout. He’s really been writing some killer stuff this season.)
So what did we end up with? Well, we ended up with a great episode with a strong enough narrative pull that we didn’t really need as many laughs as we got. We really were spoiled with this one. The Lepidopterists were great characters that hearkened back to the crisp-talking no-nonsense film noir heroes of yore, Henchman 1 was an excellent one-off whose all-too-brief plot arc is going to be very rewarding to revisit on DVD, and we got to see Jonas Jr., another minor character, raised up and explored without any real distraction from the main cast. (That’s three episodes this season that dealt with secondary characters while barely giving the main characters a glance.)
Also, we got to see that The Monarch isn’t quite as stupid as he seems. You know how you always run faster if the person you’re trying to outrace is much speedier than you are? That’s probably the same case with The Monarch. His plots were always so easily outwitted because…well…they were plots against Rusty Venture. How intelligent would they have to be? Here the quality of his rival is stepped-up, and so, in response, The Monarch’s cunning seems to find itself a higher gear.
Observation: What is The Venture Bros. telling us about ourselves when we end up feeling good over the triumph of the bad guy?
Observation 2: Isn’t the portrayal of Ned refreshing? His retardation is used for laughs, yes, but it’s up to us whether or not we find it funny. What really matters is that he’s treated like a human being by the other characters in the show. He may not be painted in heroic colors, but he doesn’t need to be. It’s enough that the Pirate Captain cares for him. It’s enough that J.J. makes him part of the team. And it’s enough that Brock gives him a hug and a pat on the head. None of that is done for laughs. It’s a very progressive portrayal.
Observation 3: Henchman 1 had a red belt-buckle, while all of the other henchmen had yellow. I took this to be a reference to the red-shirt guys from Star Trek. Also, I’ve never seen Star Trek. But I know red-shirt guys die. I’m a good writer.
Observation 4: I knew this episode would focus on The Monarch simply because…well, I was familiar with the term “lepidopterist.” I wouldn’t brag about that, but writing this review I discovered that my spellcheck doesn’t recognize the term at all. Sometimes it feels good to be smarter than a computer.