Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Venture Bros.: “SPHINX Rising”

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As Sgt. Hatred says, it’s hard growing up. Especially when you’re growing up in a world that keeps trying to recapture the awesomeness of being ten years-old. One of the reasons Doc “Rusty” Venture has managed to remain a sympathetic figure for all these years, in spite of his selfishness, delusions of grandeur, and occasional acts of scientific manslaughter, is that he’s in an impossible situation. The child of an arrogant super-scientist with a massive case of manifest destiny, Rusty grew up in a world where his primary reason for existence was to fit into his father’s overpowering ego, doomed to spend his frustrated adolescence struggling to achieve a standard that in no way suited him. At first, it was easy to laugh at how little Doc seemed to belong in the super-hero/super-villain crowd, how his clumsy attempts at maintaining Dad’s legacy always seemed to backfire in horrible ways, and how weak and deluded he was in a crisis. But the longer the show has run, the clearer it’s become that this is more the fault of the role thrust upon him than any serious deficiency in his character. Sure, he’s not a square-jawed Doc Savage knock-off, but who is? What’s sad, really (in a way that makes the series that much funnier), is when you think about what he might have done with his life if he hadn’t had to spend so much time trying to be someone he wasn’t.

“Sphinx Rising” isn’t about Doctor Venture, but it is about growing up, and Rusty represents a kind of cautionary tale for people like Dean, Hank, and Gary. Early in the episode, Doc looks outside and sees the Monarch’s cocoon hovering overhead. He tells Hank, “I’m getting real tired of the ex-henchman being a better bodyguard than the ex-villain I hired.” Then, almost to himself, “It’s so depressing when you say it out loud.” There’s always a chance Doc might finally push himself to try something new, but for the most part, he’s stuck in the rut his father made for him, settling into the role of irritated but begrudging sufferer of the lunacy that surrounds him. For all his complaints, he stays where he is because he can’t think of anything else to do. But others have a chance to get out. If this season is, as I’m starting to believe, about Dean figuring out what kind of adult he wants to be, he’s not the only one struggling to figure out his place in the world. Poor Gary has been abandoned by his new friends in the empty halls of S.P.H.I.N.X. (okay, I’m just going to call it “SPHINX” from now own, because I’m a lazy bastard). He's determined to be a hero, and clearly equipped with the necessary tools to make a go of the job, but still not quite sure of what his mission parameters are. In the cold open, he inadvertently busts up an O.S.I. sting operation and accidentally kills an eight year old boy. Sure the boy was a bad guy named Short Division who smoked two packs a day and tended to kill henchmen who displeased him, but that’s not something you want to put on your resume.

This week’s half hour is a great example of how satisfying the show can be when the script (this time by Doc Hammer) manages to pull all its crazy plot threads into one single, strong conclusion. As ever, there’s a lot going on: The Monarch, after failing in his latest attempt on the Venture compound (acid-magnets!), goes undercover with Dr. Mrs. The Monarch as a pair of beaver inspectors (The Monarch has a limited supply of civilian clothes; the “Beaver Inspector” shirt comes from his bachelor party); Hatred tries to bond with Dean; and, in the closest the episode has to a central plot, Gary decides to pull in some new recruits to the SPHINX team, to try and give himself the patina of legitimacy after the shame of his last run in with the O.S.I. crew. (Brock took away his crossbow.) Unfortunately, the only people who respond to his ad are former members of SPHINX from back when the group was actually evil, and not just a front for outcast O.S.I. members looking to redeem themselves. So things take a turn for the villainous.

The return of some old baddies looking for one last score before they die (SPHINX recruits have cyanide chips implanted in their heads, and they’ve all got less than a year to live) is a fine premise for an adventure story, and the confluence of that return with Gary’s frustration makes for some great jokes and excellent character work. Because while he’s older, and he’s seen a bit more of the world, Gary is in just as much a state of flux as Dean, smart enough to realize the old routines aren’t cutting it anymore, but without a clear idea of where to go next. Latching onto the SPHINX warehouse and trying to pick up where Brock and the others left off isn’t a terrible idea, but he’s going about it all wrong, going rogue and falling back into roughly the same recruitment strategy that he and 24 used back in the show’s second season. The bit where he talks Hatred through the Monarch’s attack strategy is a solid comedy routine, but it also demonstrates Gary’s knowledge base: he has a skill set, and he has it down cold, but he approaches problems the same way his old boss did (well, he’s a little more clever about it). There’s hope, though. While the episode ends with O.S.I. taking down the briefly reformed SPHINX, and Hatred and Dean blowing up SPHINX headquarters, Brock seems to have taken a shine to Gary—the guy’s a loose cannon (which Brock surely appreciates), but his heart is in the right place (which Brock probably also appreciates). Maybe Gary will make a go of this good guy thing after all.

As for the folks on the Venture compound, well, Hatred is still trying to make things work. The character’s shift into a kind of endlessly disappointed optimism makes him a decent foil for Doc and the others, and his heart-to-heart with Dean (in which Hatred mistakes a hand injury—was this from working on H.E.L.P.eR.?—as evidence of Dean being a cutter) is sweet in its way. Hank is just as blindly enthusiastic as ever, this time joining up with Gary’s recruitment drive as the sole new member of SPHINX who isn’t out to do evil; he winds up in the Countess’s old suit, a skin-tight, sexy little number with boobs and everything. It’s a weird gag that works largely because of Hank’s undimmed enthusiasm for just about everything, and also because it serves as a quick but effective tweak on “male gaze.” There’s a shot late in the story that’s leering at the armor’s ass, and it’s the sort of standard butt angle you get in a lot of shows with women in skin-tight costumes (if you’ve ever played Mass Effect 2, you’ll remember seeing a lot of that side of Miranda). Only this time, it’s not some sexy lady but a teenage guy lounging about, and that realization forces the viewer to think about the composition of the shot in a way they might not have otherwise.

The main point being, for a show that doesn’t have the deepest female cast, The Venture Bros does a good job of simultaneously embracing and critiquing a particular male mindset, both in regards to how that mindset views women, and just its general take on life. In a way, this goes back to the whole idea about needing to learn how to transcend the patterns that have been laid out in front of you. Dean’s sullenness may play into standard teenage mopery, but he has good reasons to be resentful (the confrontation between him and Doc about the cloning has to come eventually, right?), and he’s a good-natured kid at heart; his growing self-awareness and dissatisfaction seem like reasons to hope he might strive for something better. It’s comforting to have a single perspective on the world, to inherit and cling to one way of viewing everything and defend that way as passionately and vehemently as you can. Even if the philosophy you’ve been given requires a certain portion of self-loathing, it’s easier to stay with the familiar. But sooner or later, if you want to grow up, you have to learn to look elsewhere.


Stray observations:

  • It’s funny how weird it is to hear Dr. Mrs. The Monarch’s voice coming out of a dude.
  • “Ahh! That’s so Raven!” -Shore Leave, venting his frustration at Gary
  • Venture and Hatred thinking Hank was going out with a woman named Destiny is pretty great. They debate appropriate girl names for Hank: “Pammy! The boy’s not ready for a damn Pammy!” And then Hatred talks to Gary after Hank chooses “Destiny” as his character name, and things get weird. “Hank’s an adult. He’s ready to enter Destiny.”
  • Speaking of, Gary’s reaction to Hank’s name choice: “That’s more of a girl from Rock Of Love’s name, but whatever.”
  • Tim Meadows did the voice for one of the returning SPHINX members, which was fun.
  • As always, the writers do a great job at sketching in back-story. The quick scene of the former SPHINX commander huddling in his car, stalking his ex (who used to wear the armor Hank goes traipsing around in) is even funnier in retrospect.
  • While visiting the Venture compound in disguise, the Monarch snags a photo of him and Rusty playing together as kids. He doesn’t remember this ever happening. Dun dun DUNNNNNN.
  • Brock gives Gary back his crossbow. Aw.