If Wander Over Yonder was a more broadly-recognized show, I would put money down that the long game with Dominator would be a complete turn-off. This is the kind of thing that the echo chamber of the internet has doubled down on viciously, causing shows to crash and burn, despite otherwise producing decent to great work. We can look at the poor ratings of The Muppets, or that second season of The Legend of Korra, for direct examples (or any number of the post-Lost failures of network TV). To be clear, Wander Over Yonder has had some amazing, hilarious, and poignant episodes this season, but this Dominator thing is just hard to take for so long. And I have a high tolerance for “annoying things” in cartoons–I think Teen Titans Go has comic merit, for example (although I am admittedly losing patience with it). The tonal difference between “The Family Reunion” and “The Rival” exemplifies this. The former uses the Dominator concept tangentially, leading to an amazing, hilarious, and poignant episode. The latter is directly connected to Dominator, and it is decidedly not.
Sylvia gets sick and tired of running from Dominator, so she takes a “break,” retreating back to her homeworld with Wander in tow. The prospect of finally seeing where Sylvia comes from is just too tantalizing, and “The Family Reunion” doesn’t disappoint in the slightest. Immediately when we get to her planet, we see various Zbornaks carrying around rocks and junk, and while it’s not exactly clear why they’re doing this, it’s showcasing that these creatures are hardworking–a bit of early symbolic foreshadowing. Sylvia’s family is a take on the stereotypical “Boston family” set up, with three tough, semi-jerk brothers and an extremely tough, no-nonsense mother (think Diane’s family from Bojack Horseman). Bill/Phil/Gill greet Sylvia with warm, tough-love affection, but Sylvia’s mother is less than endearing.
The thrust of the episode is about figuring out why Sylvia’s mom is so seemingly bitter towards his daughter. The implication is that there was a falling out, based on Sylvia leaving without telling anyone. Frustrated by her mother’s cold shoulder and constant belittling tasks, Sylvia tries to take another “break,” her way of just running away–which, as implied early, isn’t exactly a trait of her species (except maybe for her brothers). This time, her mother catches her, which eventually leads to the truth: she’s not mad that Sylvia left. She’s mad that she came back. In a scene that has me tearing up even as I write this, we see that Dorothy has been collecting and framing all of Sylvia’s (and Wander’s) accomplishments against Hater. She was extremely proud of her, but not so much of her “break”–she knows her daughter, and she knows her nonsense excuse of a “break” is her just running away. Sure, she can stay her, her mom says, but she isn’t going to make it easy for her. It’s the direct, tough-love Sylvia needs to get her tail back in gear, and the full embrace of her family (instigated by Wander, because these Zbornaks weren’t going to hug each other on their own) is the emotional, cathartic bonus.
“The Rival” on the other hand is… I don’t want to say it’s terrible, but it is more frustrating. “The Family Reunion” used Dominator to segue into a story about family and Sylvia’s deeper motivations; this episode is more about finding what motivation is bringing Dominator and Emperor Awesome together. Is it a super-weapon, like Peepers thinks? Or are they dating, like Hater believes? Turns out, it’s both and neither, which is not only predictable, but boring as well. Obviously there’s no chance that someone as “cool” as Dominator would even hang out with an egotistical sleaze like Awesome, let alone date, so the only intriguing aspect would be a potential weapon collaboration. But we also pretty much know that Awesome isn’t exactly an arms-driven villain. The reveal that his “secret-weapon” is just him under a tarp flexing his muscles has a visual comedic sense to it, but it’s also a bland “of course” moment.
The only thing an episode like this has going for it is its potential animation versatility. Wander will never allow a poorly animated episode slip through its fingers, but ”The Rival” lacks any real pizzaz or pop. It has a lot of goofy visuals–Hater’s ship speaking as it was Hater himself, the brief Blair Witch-esque camera perspective when they send that one Watchdog onto Dominator’s ship–but there’s nothing particular of note. With no visuals to speak of and no character revealing/defining moments, “The Rival” runs through the motions at the service of the show’s most annoying long-term arc. It’s going to take one heck of a revelation to make Dominator interesting at this point; having a whole lot of stronger characters obsess over her is not going to cut it.
- The only reveal that I can think of that could be mildly surprising is if Wander himself had a direct or indirect hand in creating Dominator. That would be something, but it wouldn’t exactly re-contextualize what the season has done with her so far.
- A really nice subtle moment in “The Family Reunion”: when Sylvia changes the channel on the news report about Dominator, Dorothy huffs and really starts to boss her daughter around. You could tell that, early in the episode, Dorothy knew something was up when she sees Sylvia again–mother knows best and all that–but that moment only confirmed it for her.
- I loved Sylvia’s grandmother and her little “stay away from my purse” motion. A little bit of racism there, although it’s a bit odd the episode didn’t call her out on it.