The Venture Bros.:
The Ten Best Episodes So Far
Starting June 1: the third season of the best original series Adult Swim has yet given us. What started life as a vague parody of the kind of optimistic adventure-fiction of old became, almost immediately, a show about something deeper: about human interaction, about unrealized potential, about the universal desires for both power and connection. Noise to Signal will be providing you with weekly episode reviews throughout the course of season three, and I hope this look back at my picks for the the ten strongest episodes will get you excited as well.
10) The Trial of The Monarch
Considering just how different one episode of The Venture Bros. can be from any other (in terms of style, mood, emotion, even structure) it's tough to single any one out as "atypical." And, yet, I think this episode might just qualify. If only because...well...where are the Ventures? They're there, alright, in the courtroom, but all they're really doing is listening to The Monarch defend himself against charges of murdering a police officer. Dr. Venture isn't in any danger--he's just making smartass remarks. And even Brock, for maybe the first time in his life, opts out of physical conflict. The Ventures are there, alright, and their presence is certainly felt, but this is by no means their story.
In fact, it's the story of three characters who would come to dictate the emotional thrust of season two--The Monarch, Dr. Girlfriend, and Phantom Limb. The Monarch may be on the verge of going to prison for a crime he didn't commit, but it's clear that his real concern is that he's lost Dr. Girlfriend...a brilliant emotional move on the part of Publick and Hammer, as it's very affecting how vehemently The Monarch denies himself this awareness, hoping, certainly, that he will be able to will himself into a more stable state of mind without her.
As we now know, he will eventually win her back, but at the time this episode aired--with its decidedly uncertain conclusion--there was no such assurance. It was very easy to believe that The Monarch's self-conscious reaction to Dr. Girlfriend's sexual history had driven her away forever, into the arms--or lack thereof--of a more collected supervillain. Yes, this is the episode with which the writers seemed to realize where it was that their characters were headed all along--and they deserve the greatest of commendations for not resisting those developments for the sake of maintaining status quo. They let their characters become human, and we love them for it.
9) Powerless in the Face of Death
There was a lot of debate in the time between seasons one and two about how the many plot-twists of Spider-Skull Island would be addressed. Of course, there was also the possibility that they would not be addressed at all--that we'd start off with everything okay again, perhaps a quick disclaimer to explain away what happened in the meantime. Fortunately Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer chose instead to demonstrate the great deal of respect they have for their show and for their characters by devoting their entire season premiere to addressing--if not necessarily resolving--every one of those twists in turn.
It's also a very emotional episode, but, ironically, not for what should have been the obvious reason. Hank and Dean Venture were both killed at the end of season one, and though some masterful misdirection at the beginning of Powerless implies that Dr. Venture is having a sort of nervous breakdown over it, the only one who actually ends up caring about their death is Dr. Orpheus, who blames himself and spends the episode in a kind of emotional crisis of his own.
No, the emotion comes in stranger, less-anticipated places. It comes from Dr. Girlfriend glimpsed frowning through a window, it comes from two former henchmen recognizing each other by voice at a support group, it comes from Billy Quizboy finally having somebody willing to return his high-five, and--most of all--it comes from King Gorilla sacrificing himself for The Monarch when he realizes how much he must have loved Dr. Girlfriend. His advice ("Find her. Get her back. And when you do, you love her and you never let go.") forms the crux of the entire season to come. It's a lovely moment that is sucessful and memorable precisely because of its own absurdity.
Also of note is just how important it is to Publick and Hammer that we accept the resolution of the Hank and Dean problem: Dr. Venture simply clones them. Lest the audience dismiss this as a cheap way to get them back into the story the entire second half of this episode is dotted with an extended conversation between Venture and Orpheus about why, exactly, this shouldn't render the "new" Hank and Dean any less real than the ones killed in season one. Do you have to accept Dr. Venture's reasoning? No, you don't. But behind Dr. Venture there are two writers who care very much about keeping the audience on board, and even if you don't particularly like the resolution, it's very difficult to reject it, simply because you can hear the voices of the writers so clearly, and you know that they're bringing things together in exactly the way that's correct for the universe they've created.
8) Assassinanny 911
As Brock is the strong, silent type, he's probably revealed less about his past than any of the other main characters; he never seems to discuss himself, and so the only times we get any real insight into him are through flashbacks (as here and in Past Tense) or when we are offered a fleeting glimpse into his dreams.
What a delight it is, then, that so much of this episode revolves around him for a change, both in his present day mindset and in the flashbacks that explain two major, shaping relationships in his life: with Molotov Cocktease, a rival mercenary with whom brutality becomes simple (yet unfulfilled) foreplay, and with Col. Hunter Gathers, Brock's early mentor. Both Cocktease and Gathers are brilliant, well-handled characters that are used sparingly (Cocktease has had only three appearances to date, and Gathers a mere two), and to great effect.
And speaking of great effect, this episode simply cannot be discussed without taking into account Hank's emotional journey, as he experiences his first feelings of romantic attraction...and, soon afterward, the first crushing of his heart. Hank is so confused by what he feels for Molotov that he ends up attacking his father in a fit of jealousy...an act of violence beautifully in synch with Brock's own impending murder of his old mentor. And, probably tellingly, this might be the only episode of the show that does end on any kind of joke; it ends on Hank, alone at his window, looking down on Molotov as she drives away. A sublimely tender moment, and one that the writers were respectful enough not to undercut for the sake of a laugh.
7) Ghosts of the Sargasso
You really can't write a modern-day undoing of Jonny Quest or Scooby Doo without devoting at least one full episode to the concept of fake Ghost Pirates, but while the subject matter is predictable, the execution here is flawless. In fact, the familiarity of the topic allows Publick and Hammer to spend less time setting up plot, and more time making us laugh.
Maybe that's what I like so much about this episode; it's probably the out-and-out funniest of them all, and the pirate captain manages to be one hell of an endearing villain. After all, he didn't mean to cause any harm, and he even attempts to rescue Hank and Dean from the real ghost that turns up later on...he just wanted to play by the rules. The Ghost Pirate Rules.
Highlights of this episode are just too plentiful to itemize, but practically everything about it is a delight. Not only did it bring a truly classic character into the Venture fold, not only did it give Hank a real shot at heroism, and not only did it provide us with easily the most disturbing method of assault Brock ever unleashed on another living creature...but it brought the main story to a close with the most appropriate line yet uttered in the Venture universe: "Well, we could have done that."
6) Tag Sale -- You're It!
I'm pretty sure Ice Station -- Impossible! was the first episode of The Venture Bros. that I saw, but it was Tag Sale that I saw next, and that's the episode that made me realize just how much potential this show had.
This episode gives us a perfect Venture mix of the mundane and the extraordinary, what with the largest collection of supervillains we've seen yet turning out for Dr. Venture's yard sale. And though he may be peddling bargain laser death rays, the villains seem more interested in record albums, kitchenware, and, in one case, a Santa Claus windsock.
What really elevates this episode to "can't miss" status, though, is the way it highlights the manic nature of The Monarch's relationship with Dr. Girlfriend. From bickering playfulness to mutual depression, we find a relationship that is on anything but solid ground. A brief, but immediately striking, appearance by Phantom Limb is all it takes to remind Dr. Girlfriend that she might be able to do better, a possibility she'll explore in full by the end of the season.
Also, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the delightful-in-every-way scene in which one of The Monarch's henchmen fulfills a lifelong dream by purchasing a second-hand light saber. Sure, it turns out to be a dud, but have you ever seen a henchman so satisfied in all your life?
5) Return to Spider-Skull Island
Return to Spider-Skull Island is the episode that made me realize that The Venture Bros. was exactly what I was looking for in an American program. It's the first episode to really turn around, take a look at everything that's come before, and make some grand suggestions about where it might go next. And considering this show's status as an Adult Swim original, I'm sure it caught a lot of viewers off guard. Here was an episode, after all, that was suddenly bringing past events (such as Dr. Venture's recurring dream and The Monarch's incarceration) to the fore again for elaboration...not a common occurrence in shows such as Aqua Teen Hunger Force or Sealab 2021 which make a point of not taking their own logic or history seriously.
This episode's "looking backward" aspect serves an important purpose here as well, because it's making the promise that, should the show return for a second season (and there was no guarantee that it would), it would actually answer the questions it was raising--it would not dismiss them. It was a way of telling the audience that the show intended to take itself seriously. Even the Dylan-esque dirge that accompanies the deaths of Hank and Dean has decidedly sincere lyrics. A lesser show would have resorted to parody...The Venture Bros. knew it was more appropriate to go with tribute.
Considering the amount of devastation wrought by the end of this episode--The Monarch still in prison, Dr. Girlfriend with Phantom Limb, Dr. Venture with a deformed younger twin, Brock without his mullet (oh, yeah, and the title characters shot to death on the side of the road)--we were all hoping we wouldn't be disappointed by what would obviously be a very different season two.
And we weren't. Nobody was.
4) I Know Why the Caged Bird Kills
Containing perhaps the strongest segment of The Monarch's arc in season two, this episode is a real nail-biter. Everything about it is couched in mystery, and the tension never begins to dissipate until the final moments. It may well be one of those episodes that is willing to sacrifice comedy for the sake of story, but what's so bad about that? It's what sets The Venture Bros. apart from so many of its peers, after all.
And there sure is an awful lot of story here. The funniest moments come with the episode-long odd-couple pairing of Dr. Venture and Dr. Orpheus, but it's easy to overlook when there's so much else of significance occurring alongside it. First and foremost, the boys are kidnapped by a woman who claims to be their mother. Now, honestly, no matter what else happens in this episode, a situation like that is bound to receive top billing. Consider, then, the very gutsy act of including a secondary mystery--one that potentially could have ended up eclipsed by the Mommy Venture story--and keeping it eventful and suspenseful enough that it almost threatens to derail the main plot.
I'm speaking of course of the arrival of Dr. Henry Killenger, who turns up in The Monarch's cocoon and immediately installs himself as Number Two. The mumbling diplomat threatens to undo everything toward which The Monarch has been working and, yet, only Henchman #21 is aware enough to do anything about it.
The story twists and turns more often than should strictly be comfortable, but you get so caught up in what's happening that you appreciate how full the episode is rather than become distracted by it. And in the end we still may not know for certain whether or not Myra is the boys' mother (I personally suspect she is), but somehow that doesn't matter, because Killenger, far from being the foe he presented himself to be, was acting only as an agent to restore the love between The Monarch and Dr. Girlfriend. Sure, they wouldn't be married until Showdown at Cremation Creek, but this is the real moment of triumph, and what we'd been waiting for since way, way back in The Trial of The Monarch. And it's great to have her back.
3) Victor. Echo. November.
Take the Venture brothers, put them on a double date with Triana and Kim. Set The Monarch up with an internet girlfriend to make Dr. Girlfriend jealous. Give us three conflicting origins for Phantom Limb. Put the idea into Dr. Venture's mind that The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas is a porno. Then strip Brock naked and have him sing Move This to a dying Guild operative. Mix well, and top it off with the single funniest appearance yet by Master Billy Quizboy.
This episode is just adorably perfect. Everything fits together wonderfully, from the sweet (the boys' first date) to the serious (the most serious attempt on Dr. Venture's life yet), and peppered throughout you have excellent little character moments, particularly between The Monarch and Phantom Limb, both of whom love the same woman--but the conflict comes from the difference in their standing in the matter: The Monarch is on the losing end, and his desperation shows. He may have mellowed a bit over the course of the past few episodes, as he starts to re-adapt to life without Dr. Girlfriend, but a careful viewer knows that this is external only...on the inside he's in as much pain as ever. No other character could ever reveal so much about his interior desolation with a line like, "Steak fries. Always...soggy."
It's a painful thing to witness, and it's one of the better episodes for reinforcing the idea that The Monarch, from an audience standpoint, is no longer a villain. He might be immoral, he might be selfish, and, yes, he might even want all of the main characters dead. But it is with him that our strongest sympathies lie...a fact reinforced by Phantom Limb being the one who orders the hit on the Venture family, and not The Monarch. The Monarch was always a comic presence with no real capacity for harm. Phantom Limb, on the other hand, is a genuine danger. Brock knows it. The Monarch knows it. We know it.
Of course, there's another side to Phantom Limb that this episode highlights as well--his dull, bureaucratic side. And it's here that The Monarch just might have the edge. Whatever his other failings might have been, I'm sure Dr. Girlfriend could never say that life with The Monarch was dull.
2) Are You There, God? It's Me, Dean.
There's just something about the way this episode fits its various disparate elements together that really elevates it above so many others. It's essentially "about" a case of acute testicular torsion, as suffered by Dean just as The Monarch is about to kill the Venture family, but what really helps it work is the way it spotlights the "rules" of supervillainy without ever really identifying them.
The Monarch, after all, is forced to abandon his execution of Brock and the Ventures when Dean cries out for medical attention. It's a kind of loophole ostensibly designed to keep the infirm out of the clutches of supervillains. In other words, these villainous schemes are only "fair" if the victim is theoretically healthy enough to escape. It's a clever second layer to the classic tale of heroes and villains, and it puts a lot of other events into perspective as well. It's also why, in Hate Floats for example, we are immediately made uneasy when participants are not playing by the rules; it means the outcome is less clear, and it means survival is no longer assured.
The subplot of the episode involves The Monarch's birthday, which is shown to be...well...pretty depressing. Brock's gift to him turns out to be an all-out assault on his headquarters and henchmen, and, all at once, we're reminded that it's all one big game. Sure, people may get killed along the way, but that's why we refer to henchmen by number rather than name. The Monarch himself even calls them pawns, and normally-bloodthirsty Brock is notably restrained when facing the man himself. It's as though neither side, though they certainly do tire of each other periodically, really has a desire to bring the game to a close.
It's a classic episode that benefits greatly from appearances by Pete White and Master Billy Quizboy, who perform Dean's operation, and also from how utterly adorable Hank is in his henchman costume. So much is handled so well in this episode, and the Scrotal Safety Commission PSI at the end is just icing on the cake. "Don't be a jackass," indeed.
1) Hate Floats
Here it is...probably the single best half-hour of television The Venture Bros. has given us so far. Hate Floats is a perfect mix of hilarious set-pieces, great dialogue, tense action and emotional development. In fact, it's this episode, rather than the season premiere, that really got the show back on track; The Monarch returns to his cocoon, the henchmen suit up (to an a capella version of Mars, Bringer of War that'll slay you every time) and Hank and Dean Venture awake to celebrate their birthday (though we all know it's a rebirth day). The characters may not be exactly as we left them, but we at least now have some idea of where the story is going.
All of which makes it sound like Hate Floats is just a necessary step that connects last season's tragedies to this season's developments...and maybe, while writing it, Publick and Hammer kept this unwelcome possibility in mind, because they certainly do seem to pull out all of the stops in giving us an episode that contains so many (so, so many) perfect moments along the way. The henchmen suiting up, the recruitment of street-thugs to round out The Monarch's numbers, Dean being fitted for his speed-suit, Dr. Girlfriend explaining her decision to stay with Phantom Limb, Brock teaming up with a nemesis to rescue his family, an impromptu game of the Dozens between The Monarch and Dr. Venture (complete with Henchman #24 hooting support) and, of course, Henchman #21's "armory" of superhero collectibles.
It also shows us that season two was going to be a bit more concerned than season one was with who these characters really are beneath their costumes and makeup...the henchmen are rounded out, Phantom Limb is revealed to be the most dangerous force in the show simply through the respect he earns from Brock, and The Monarch becomes probably the most humanly realistic of all of the characters as he breaks down in a shopping mall in front of Dr. Girlfriend and, when he realizes that she isn't coming back, panics and refuses to let her go. It's a worryingly perfect depiction of his desperation to have her back...it's the marrying of the realistic with the absurd, a theme further represented by inner-city menaces filling the roles of anonymous henchmen (again, with very realistic consequences).
Hate Floats has everything that makes The Venture Bros. great. If it stands as anything, it's as a shining assurance that a complete alteration of the show's direction doesn't necessarily mean a change in quality. It's the characters that matter, after all, and with all the strange pairings this episode makes use of (The Monarch and Dr. Venture, Brock and Phantom Limb, Dr. Girlfriend and the boys, the henchman and the thugs), we realize that the writers know them better than we ever could have guessed.