Last week, Doc Venture (along with Billy and Pete) invented a teleportation device that could revolutionize the world, and the Monarch and Gary somehow managed to steal it. This week, that—doesn’t come up at all. Which isn’t a problem! “The Terminus Moderate” is an excellent episode, one of the best of the season so far, and it was only after the half hour was over that I even remembered the teleportation discs were in play. I mention them here to illustrate a point, one which I still struggle with even after all these years reviewing the series.
There are two basic approaches to serialization on television. You can go all in, and have each week incrementally move forward a season-long arc; or you can tell self-contained stories that reference past history and offer permanent change, but which don’t always build towards anything or mean much more beyond themselves. Think of it as the difference between, say, how Breaking Bad and Mad Men went about it. The former was more or less a straight line; the latter meandered and wandered into cul-de-sacs. Both approaches are entirely valid; what matters is that writers pick the one that fits the material best. Which is why Walter White’s march towards damnation was like a freight train to hell, and Don Draper and co’s adventures in malaise and cultural ennui was like a photo album you find in the attic—loaded with history and rich with emotional nuance, but not necessarily full of narrative momentum.
I’m over-simplifying, as I so often do (when Mad Men did decide to build momentum, it was pretty amazing; and Breaking Bad often did meander, especially in season 4), but what I’m getting at here is that part of my brain insists on reading Venture Bros. as a show in the Breaking Bad vein, largely because it has to do with superheroes and supervillains and various other pulp absurdities. For the longest time, I kept expecting all the hints and portents the show would throw out over the course of a season to mean something, for there to be some massive, thrilling climax that would throw everything into sharp focus. But while the show has had its share of big episodes, it’s fundamentally a collection of short stories about a bunch of lunatics who dress up in silly costumes and squabble with each other. It’s a Mad Men kind of show, ultimately, one where the journey always matters more than the destination.
“The Terminus Moderate” is an excellent case in point. It uses ongoing storylines—the Guild’s continued struggle to rebuild itself in a post-Sovereign world, the Peril Partnership’s efforts to blackmail them, Rusty wanting to get laid—mostly as a backdrop for a funny, and often surprisingly sweet, glimpse at the private lives of a select group of super villains. The premise is also a terrific example of how the show’s comic book universe makes certain kinds of story possible. In order to make the ruling body of the Guild finally official (without having to deal with any of that Council of 13 nonsense), Dr. Mrs. the Monarch and the others have to agree to put their arching days permanently behind them. As a final statement of purpose, each one is instructured to perform one last act of supervillainy against a figure from their past. It’s contrived as hell, but in way that’s entirely plausible. These goofballs lead lives built on contrivance. It’s a feature, not a bug.
The arches that follow run the gamut from one-off jokes to some unexpectedly poignant, if still very funny, reunions. The fact that the episode managed to wring laughs out of Radical Left (a character I had by and large forgotten existed) was impressive enough; he has to arch his other half (Right Wing), and they play a game of Clue. It’s very cute, and, apart from Red Death, all the archings in the episode fall firmly in the “good-natured tomfoolery” camp. Red Mantle/Dragoon spends the whole half hour too scared to actually open their envelope (although they make a pretty good case for taking on Al from Home Improvement), and when they finally take the plunge, they find out all they’ve managed to outlive all their old enemies. There’s no one left to arch. (It’s also possible that the folks who arranged the match ups realized that Red Mantle/Dragoon wasn’t actually up for any real combat, and acted accordingly.)
The only real menace is, as mentioned, Red Death, which makes sense; out of everyone in the Guild, he’s the only legitimately scary presence, and the fact that he takes out his bottomless fury on Blind Rage, an asshole with Daredevil powers we’ve never seen before this episode, feels like a nice balance between threatening and not-so-threatening-it-becomes-unpleasant. Phantom Limb has a literal dick-measuring contest with Hunter Gathers (Limb wins), and Dr. Z visits the rest home where Johnny is staying. It’s all very silly, managing to be endearing and human without ever becoming maudlin or forced, and if nothing here is particularly dramatic, it shouldn’t be.
Dr. Mrs. the Monarch also gets a final arch, and it’s here where the Guild story comes closest to tying into the episode’s other main plot: Rusty getting a date with a “black widow.” It’s a hilarious idea, and the character’s self-awareness works very well. And really, it’s hard to fault his logic. Doc is in the unfortunate position of being able to recognize his failings without being quite smart or determined enough to change any of them, and his fantasy of going out with a beautiful woman who will take him to heaven before sending him to Hell is something it’s not hard to relate to. The “practice” scenario is really just a variation on Brock’s efforts to prep Billy and Pete on their new arching, but it does have the bonus of Dean pretending to be the widow (which is funny and weird), and is, like the rest of the episode, hilarious. It’s just nice to see everyone working together for a common goal, y’know?
Besides, I’m not convinced his date is a black widow. Teresa Didae may have a history full of dead husbands, but she also once fought crime under the name Novia—and her arch was, what a coincidence, Dr. Mrs. the Monarch in her Lady Au Pair disguise. Dr. Mrs. gets Gary to dress up like one of the Moppets, and the three have a tearful confrontation as Teresa is heading up to the Venture penthouse for her date. Dr. Mrs. breaks down, she and Teresa hug, and Dr. Mrs. gets the lady’s wallet, thus keeping everything from getting too sappy. We don’t find out if Teresa is really going to try and kill Rusty (he’s so hopped up on anti-venoms and various other death-defying drugs that he passes out mid-date); we also don’t find out if Dr. Mrs. is going to agree to put arching behind her, given that it would mean never being able to work with her husband again. But mystery is good for the blood, and it makes sure this episode goes out on a high note.
- Night Dick makes an appearance, giving Rusty the rundown on Teresa’s activities.
- We only get a couple of flashbacks, but they are excellent: I especially liked the slight change in the animation Dr. Z remembered one of his old fights.
- “I don’t want to be laughed at, denied, or even feel like the pathetic man I clearly am.” -Rusty, laying it all out on the line
- Gary has Dr. Mrs. cut his ponytail off. Goodbye, wet look.