Any episode that starts with the funeral of a villainous clown has its head in the right place. And any episode in which the punchline of the dead clown’s fiendish riddle is a corpse popping out of a coffin with the answer pinned to its chest is clearly operating in the world of The Venture Bros., where even death can’t stop the comic book tomfoolery. After last week’s focus on the Venture compound, “Bot Seeks Bot” shifts its attention to Brock Samson and the O.S.I.’s efforts to track down the identities of the mysterious council of thirteen that, along with the Sovereign, runs the Guild Of Calamitous Intent. As with the season’s earlier Brock-centric half hour, this one shows the O.S.I. more determined than ever to stop the Guild in its tracks, right down to a willingness to put an innocent robot in harms ways. There’s a plot about a cybernetic blind date, a dead Guild member, a villainous night club (well, okay, it’s a night club full of villains, I’m not sure the club itself is villainous per se), and a giant falling disco ball. And as ever, there’s an amount of detail that walks the fine line between giving us all the cake we want, and giving us so much cake we start puking over everything.
The script does a good job of constantly pulling us forward with new twists, shifting between different characters without ever feeling like anyone is really undersold. That may be the most impressive achievement of this season; while it would be great to get a slowed down, single-focus storyline at some point (given that there’s only one episode left in the season, that “some point” is not going to happen this year), no one feels short-changed or painfully under-used. Well, okay, we could’ve used more Morpheus. And if we’re being completely honest, at eight episodes, this season is going to leave a lot of itches unscratched no matter how well Publick and Hammer keep various plates spinning. Eight episodes (nine if you count the Halloween special) is basically enough time to remind us why we loved all these characters, and then to make sure we miss them when they’re gone. The only real hope at this point is that we won’t have to wait another two years to see what happens next.
But then, The Venture Bros. has always been good at leaving its audience wanting more. It’s built into the design of the show; while there are adventures, and there are arcs and conspiracies and grand conflicts, most of what would be the important stuff on any other series often happens in the background, or between episodes, and there’s a continual sense of rising action building towards a something that never quite arrives. This can be frustrating, especially when an especially effective villain wanders on screen, only to disappear for two years before wandering on for another five minute cameo without any word of explanation. Yet it also speaks to one of the core themes of the show. All the stuff going on, all the battles between the Guild and O.S.I., the intrigue, the undercover work, the fights between the Monarch and Rusty, all of this is fun and often thrilling, but none of it really matters. It’s something Brock might’ve been catching on to when he learned Molotov Cocktease was a double agent—loyalties shift, agencies swap sides, everyone puts on a costume and shoots at each other, but the real impact comes from the smaller, more personal moments. The rest of the nonsense is going to keep going no matter what. But actual connections, and family, and loyalty? That’s what counts.
Which isn’t to say the nonsense can’t be blast to watch. Much of “Bot Seeks Bot” is a chance to get a closer look at the inner workings of the Guild, where, despite the Sovereign’s angry protestations, everybody basically just hangs out with everybody else, swapping stories of the good old days and driving around town in a souped up hearse roadster. (If you didn’t make the Whacky Races connection, the characters make sure to point it out themselves.) Brock and his team set up the villainous (but lonely) Vendata on a date with a friendly civilian ‘bot in the guise of the evil Galacticon. In order to welcome a new member to their fold, the half of the supposedly anonymous Council (who all apparently meet in the same building) go out together for a night on the town. These two plot collide when Vendata and the fake Galacticon both realize they don’t eat food, which makes a date at a normal restaurant a pointless ordeal; instead, they head to a secret villain nightspot, much to the chagrin of Brock and the rest of Galacticon’s protection detail (which includes John Hodgman, or rather, a character voiced by Hodgman). Meanwhile the roving gang of Council bad guys are also heading for the club, which, I think, is called “Don Hell,” named for the villain who runs the place.
I’m not completely sure about that name, even though I replayed it five or six times. I also didn’t recognize the civilian robot that Brock asked to help with the mission, even though I’m guessing I was supposed to. You can chalk that up to my failings as a reviewer, and I wouldn’t argue, but I do think that part of the appeal of the show is that constant feeling of not quite getting every bit and piece of what’s happening on screen. Some shows sacrifice emotional immediacy for complexity of plot, but that rarely happens on The Venture Bros; rare exceptions aside, it’s always easy to connect to the characters we’re supposed to connect to, and follow their story, even if some of the references take a bit more digging. And that’s cool. There’s a distinct pleasure in not catching everything the first time, in watching a crowded scene stuffed to the roof with characters, all of whom have at least a name and a premise, many of whom have a back-story to boot, and knowing that when you come back to that scene later, you’re going to catch something you missed the first time. The density creates a stronger illusion of reality, as though what you’re watching wasn’t actually designed to communicate anything to you, but rather exists for its own sake, and you’re just stumbling in at the end.
Stripped of its mythology elements, the story is—okay, it’s not “simple,” but it’s not Gravity’s Rainbow, either. Vendata and Galacticon show up at the club; the Council members make fun of Vendata; Brock and Shore Leave bust into storage space at the Venture Compound to grab some of the villain costumes Brock collected in his time as Venture bodyguard, so they can sneak into the club in disguise; and Rusty, seeing Brock, gets it into his head that they’re going to a party, and decides to tag along. Well, follow along, anyway, and he ropes in Billy Quizboy for the trip. While the real Galacticon shows up at the club, giving Brock and Shore Leave a few suspenseful moments, the actual crisis in the episode comes from Rusty wandering into a hive of scum and villainy, all of whom are eager to indulge in some classic bad guy theatrics with the former boy adventurer. It’s funny to see him immediately caught, despite Billy’s attempts to dummy up (heh), and there’s something oddly touching about Brock’s refusal to just let him die, despite what Shore Leave keeps saying about “the mission.” Just as it’s weirdly satisfying for the Monarch to show up and “save” Rusty before he and Billy are dipped in a barrel of acid, only for Shore Leave’s rescue attempt to backfire horribly, ending the episode with a giant disco ball dropping directly on the doc’s head.
As cliffhangers go, that’s solid; we’ll have to wait till next week to find out just how serious a catastrophe that is, and whether or not the show is willing to kill off one of its main characters. (Arguably even its main character.) I’m hoping no, as I can’t imagine Venture Bros. without James Urbaniak’s dulcet tones, but I have faith. It’ll all make sense eventually, even if it doesn’t.
- So, Dr. Mrs. the Monarch has been asked to join the Council, eh? (Presumably to fill the slot left vacant after Brock beats the crap out of Vendata.) That could be interesting. It looks like Phantom Limb and Professor Impossible’s team of even guys has some sort of spy camera on the interview room, so they’re still around.
- Vendata used to be Venturion, a robot built by Jonas Venture; he got “fired” when he attempted to strangle Rusty. (Brock: “Been there.”)
- Head Shot is a dick. Just putting that out there. (Also, Brock is apparently hooking up with Amber, which is about a flat zero on the surprise-o-meter.)
- After Brock tears into Vendata, the dying cyborg mutters, “Where is my wife. I think the plane is going down.” In case you needed any more reminders that Jonas Venture is a tool.
- The debate between Dr. Mrs. The Monarch and that, um, other bad guy (I DON’T KNOW THESE NAMES, OKAY) over who gets to kill Rusty is fun. It’s also a reminder that, at hurt, no matter how evil these people get, they really are just a bunch of frustrated adolescents at heart; if you don’t believe me, try spending a day at a Magic: The Gathering tournament.