For some, chaos and uncertainty can be compelling motivators for creativity. James Gunn wrote Peacemaker during the initial lockdown at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, not just to have some sort of artistic release but to find a place to put all the anxiety and frustration we’ve felt during these last two years to proper use. Looking from the vantage of the season-one finale, it’s safe to say that Peacemaker has been a successful eight-episode experiment for Gunn and HBO Max (more Suicide Squad spin-offs are on the way). But more than that, it’s been a thrilling showcase for Gunn to flex his powers as a storyteller. This being his first television outing, Gunn has adapted to the format with a strong understanding of how a series lives and dies compared to film. Put in terms Christopher Smith might understand, one’s a shower, the other, a grower. Peacemaker is a grower.
It’s no surprise, then, that from the surprisingly sweet starfish-laden insanity of The Suicide Squad came this anti-hero hangout show. There’s more space for Gunn to play with theme and character, and another opportunity to collaborate with John Cena, who has absolutely thrived as the lead in this series. Plus there’s that COVID angst to grapple with, another element to toss into the show’s rampaging thresher of trust, betrayal, familial strife, dick and fart jokes, pet love, and hair metal adulation. This week, Gunn’s ennui took on a surprising form: The series’ villains, the Butterflies, have been secretly trying to save our planet because they believe we are incapable of doing it on our own. Are they right? It’s a rough argument to make and the answers don’t come easily, but something’s got to give in this last stretch of Peacemaker. To quote the Bard: It’s Cow or never.
On top of Christopher’s considerable daddy issues, Peacemaker is also a show about getting our collective shit together before it’s too late. The Butterflies fled their dying world and found Earth, a planet with air and water to sustain them and a population seemingly hellbent on letting its own apocalypse happen sooner than it should. Song/Goff breaks it down for Chris: “[You have ignored] science in favor of populist leaders who tell you that the floods and the fires and the disease are unrelated to your own actions, valuing profit over survival, treating minor inconveniences as assaults on your freedom,” she says. “So we made a vow to do anything we could to change your future.”
That word—“vow”—sends Chris spiraling back to that one terrible day when his brother died and he decided to devote his life to something bigger than himself. “Please, God!” young Chris begs (Quinn Bennett has been remarkable as the boy who would be Peacemaker, by the way). “I’ll do whatever you want me to do… for peace!” Saving the planet from itself would seem to fit Chris’ mission, at least his father’s fascist version of it, but it would mean shunting his and our responsibilities over to the Butterflies. Also, it would doom his newfound friends to Butterfly control.
“Please. Fulfill your calling,” Song/Goff continues. “Be the Peacemaker. Join us in saving your planet.” The goose-stepping Chris of The Suicide Squad—the Chris who killed Rick Flag because it was “the right thing to do” for his country—might have bought that line. Luckily the Chris of today has done some growing up.
Chris’ journey in this series has often seemed greater than its destination. There was always going to be a reckoning with the Butterfly threat somewhere down the road, but Peacemaker’s penchant for vulgarity, ad-lib yuks, and startlingly moving piano sessions has kept the show grounded so that we can better understand the hard-assed mercenaries known on Harcourt’s phone as the 11th Street Kids. The sci-fi superhero stuff is the lure, the character work is the hook. Yet, in a brilliant sleight-of-hand, Gunn converges both into a cohesive denouement that remains true to the show’s themes and gives each player in this sordid melodrama a semblance of closure. (Even Economos finally, emotionally, cops to the fact that he dyes his beard. Growth!)
The season finale of Peacemaker is a barn burner. Sonic booms, the Peacemaker’s mighty shield, and a mammoth Cow evisceration (courtesy of Leota’s impromptu Human Torpedo maneuver) puts “It’s Cow Or Never” over the top in terms of Peacemaker’s belligerent showmanship, punctuated this week by a lively reprise of Wig Wam’s “Do You Really Wanna Taste It?” Headshots, dismemberment, decapitations, and fleeing Butterflies going squish, this week’s showdown is a corker—and it culminates in a glorious moment of self-actualization for Leota, who responds to Economos’ doubts about her storming the ranch with Harcourt and Vigilante down for the count with heroic zeal: “I’m made for this shit.”
Amanda Waller just might regret letting her daughter loose in her secret world of aliens and superheroes, but that’s a story beat for another season. “It’s Cow Or Never” isn’t interested in playing the teasing game that’s long been de rigueur for other genre fare. It doesn’t bother with future character reveals, plot details, or other intrusive post-credits nonsense that underscores the fact that there will, in fact, be a second season of Peacemaker. While there is a major-league battery of DC Universe cameos towards the end of the episode (which certainly boasts one of the series’ biggest laughs), it’s all in the spirit of maintaining Gunn’s irreverent, Garth Ennis-esque approach to superherodom.
Peacemaker is and has always been about personal growth—for Chris, for Leota, for us. “Did I just kill the world?” Peacemaker asks Leota. “Maybe,” she says, “or maybe you just gave us a chance to make our own choices instead of our bug overlords.” For the first time in both their lives, they have control over what happens next. It’s a good feeling to find your inner strength, but it’s important to understand that it’s a fleeting thing. Maybe that’s why Auggie Smith pops up in Chris’ head for that final shot; it’s Gunn’s personal coda, and a reminder that even though you’re always striving to better yourself—not just for your own personal happiness and health, but for the happiness and health of those around you—there’s always room for improvement. You’re always going to struggle with your demons.
- Leota: “I’m getting so many moral judgments from people who regularly kill people.”
- Chris’ helmet collection includes: “Underwater World,” which helps you breathe underwater; “Scabies For All,” which can give everybody scabies in a one-mile radius (save for the person wearing the helmet, natch); “Anti-Gravity” allows you to float (“Aimlessly?” Harcourt asks, which is ridiculous—of course Chris keeps a tiny hand fan on hand to guide him); “Sonic Boom,” which has three to four booms per charge; and “Human Torpedo,” where you aim your head at whatever you want to destroy, and then… let nature take its course. (It’s just a prototype, as Leota find out later on.)
- According to Peacemaker, Green Arrow goes to Brony conventions dressed as the back-end of Sparkle. (He does have the time and money to do so, so the jury’s out on that.) Economos can confirm that at least the rumor exists outside of Chris’ sphere of internet influence.
- Best bon mot of the entire series comes from Harcourt: “Eat my dick, Schwarze-never.”
- Economos infiltrates the barn disguised as a Charlton County Police officer. (Hey! John got his own action figure variant.) But why is his uniform wet? Peacemaker washed it in the creek: “One of the things us warriors seldom talk about is how often people shit themselves when they die. It’s a touch of gray in the white cloud of kicking ass.”
- The final standoff at the Coverdale Ranch provides a logical, fittingly un-Marvel response to Captain America’s famous chucking of his vibranium shield: Peacemaker uses the shield’s edges to pop heads off, and in one particularly slick moment he tosses it in the air, fires his Desert Eagle at it, and sends the pointy end hurtling at his intended target. Dang.
- “Thank you for feeding me and talking to me and showing me kindness.” Can we just bask in the awesomeness that’s been Annie Chang, who pulled double duty as both Sophie Song and the Goff Butterfly?
- Peacemaker season one is over! It has been a privilege to recap this series for you, group, thanks for reading and thanks for sharing the experience with me. What did you think about the series as a whole? Where do you suppose season two of Peacemaker will go? Where was Batman hiding when the Justice League showed up? Sound off one last time in the comments below.