The Venture Bros.: The Invisible Hand of Fate
There's something very strange about this third episode of season three. First of all, the title that appeared in initial listings was Billy Quizboy and the Invisible Hand. Since then it's been adjusted to the correct--but far less interesting--The Invisible Hand of Fate. Also, the commercials Adult Swim has been airing for this episode don't even seem to treat it as a comedy. This is the only time I've known Adult Swim to play something so straight without ironically undercutting itself at some point in the promo. To borrow from another current campaign, why so serious?
Certainly The Invisible Hand of Fate (God, I wish they'd stuck with the original title...) is an episode that will not be easily forgotten. The entire episode is both an exploration of backstory and a complete standalone piece...a balance not easy to achieve, and certainly not one that this show has managed nearly so well before.
Shadowman 9, this season's premiere, was indeed an excellent work of fiction, but it was essentially meaningless to anybody who has not been following the characters of The Monarch and Dr. Girlfriend. The Invisible Hand of Fate, by comparison, works just fine without foreknowledge of any kind. Sure, there are lots of little moments that won't mean as much (Myra's raging to stay with her newborn children, Hunter's feminine choice of disguise), but the story itself holds up just fine--probably because the two main characters are ones we really didn't know much about to begin with.
Very little of this episode takes place in the present tense. In fact, only the pre- and post-credits sequences do, which means that the entire episode proper is one long, self-contained flashback. Typically The Venture Bros. takes great pains to keep its present day action moving along as it illuminates the past. Not so, in this case. Here the past is the only thing that matters. Jackson Publick has a story he would like to tell us, and he doesn't want us getting distracted by anything that might be going on around us.
It's tough to know where to begin with this episode. As far as its importance to other episodes goes, then, obviously, we should talk about Billy Quizboy's role in creating the villain Phantom Limb--but I find it difficult to concentrate on anything but the real heart of the episode: his relationship with Pete White.
Initially the episode plays as a sort of cross-country buddy-film. Pete and Billy meet on the set of Quizboys, the youth trivia program from which Billy Whalen eventually takes his name. Billy and Pete must already have some arrangement in place, because Billy only appears young due to his diminutive stature and ends up sweeping every episode...but when Pete rigs the game (without Billy's knowledge) to keep the "boy genius" on top, the bubble bursts, and the two are thrust out of the professional quiz-show world, penniless and disgraced.
But...they've got each other. And the two take to the road, earning money in the world of seedy, underground trivia competitions in the hopes that, at the end of their journey, the young Dr. Venture will take them on board at Venture Industries. What develops between them is a tender relationship in which Billy remains eternally optimistic and Pete becomes more than a little motherly toward his tiny charge. (We've had The Great Gatsby in the season premiere, The Bible in episode two, and now shades of Of Mice and Men. Been doing some reading, lately, have we?)
As in all buddy-movies, however, things fall apart. Dr. Venture isn't interested in them, and one of the trivia challenges Pete enters Billy in turns out to be a dog-fight, resulting in Billy losing an eye, a hand, and an awful lot of blood. Fortunately one Colonel Gathers is there to offer the boy a second chance.
I should say that, on the whole, this episode is slightly short on laughs. However, since it spends so much time on developing a few of the show's most interesting (and mysterious) characters, and since it does it so well, I don't even mind. I get the feeling Publick was aware that this episode was drifting a little too deeply into dramatic territory, because every so often he breaks into an out-and-out comic set-piece that exists only to generate laughs (the hilarious O.S.I. commercial, Gathers and Brock playing My Cows, "The Nozzle"). It's no wonder Adult Swim didn't advertise this episode as a comedy--it plays as one only in the loosest sense of the word.
And yet it is very funny, but it's funny in that sort of misplaced, uneasy way that leaves you uncertain of just how sorry you're supposed to be feeling for these characters. It's funny because you're watching a show about an albino, a severe hydrocephalic, a cross-dressing secret agent and an invisible-limbed supervillain...and yet they're all humanized so successfully that by the time the ending sequence rolls around (with what must be the most genuinely lovely acoustic passage that I've ever heard in a cartoon show), you'll have tears in your eyes. It's that perfect. The image of a pantsless, unshaven Pete White poring over a yellowed magazine commemorating the end of his glory days is one of the most touching this show has ever had. Look at the way he clutches Billy to his chest--Billy, who has been returned to him in a dufflebag...eyeless, handless, memory wiped clean. The two of them have been struck lower than they could ever have imagined before...
...and yet they've got each other. The flowers bloom on a cactus.
By this point there's no longer any doubt...The Venture Bros. is becoming a soap opera. But as this episode proves, genre is never as important as quality.
Maybe I'm slightly biased; I've wanted a Billy Quizboy episode ever since season one. But you know what? That only means I would have been more disappointed with any mishandling when it finally arrived. I had my bar set firmly sky-high.
And Jackson Publick managed to impress me anyway with one of the finest scripts he's ever turned in for the show.
This is one of those episodes I'll be turning to over and over again on DVD. And not because it's Billy...but because it's brilliant.