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The Venture Bros. Reviews: “Red Means Stop” (season 6, episode 8)

March 22nd, 2016 | Posted by Philip J Reed in review | television

The Venture Bros., "Red Means Stop"

Another season down, and while I wouldn’t call this experiment a failure, I look forward to a much more traditional season to follow. It was ambitious, but I don’t know that the ambition really came to anything.

I’ve been down on season six as a whole, and I know that. But it’s mainly because the one-long-story device meant that things were elevated to “important” status which wouldn’t have been otherwise. When you’re watching everything unfold over a (relatively) unbroken period of time, you’re going to see a lot of stuff happening just because the camera is already there. In a standard half-hour show you’ll only see things for good reason; there’s not time to dawdle. Here we saw entire plots — or what seemed to be plots — come to nothing, presumably just because we were hanging around while they happened.

For instance, the Science Now conference. We were led to believe Dr. Venture’s reveal of a new invention was of prime importance to him…but by the end of the season the conference doesn’t even happen. There’s Dean attending school…which led to nothing apart from the fact that we can now type “There’s Dean attending school.” Hank’s courtship of Sirena fared much better, but still hasn’t led anywhere. It’s been all setup. Largely good setup…but setup all the same.

The new characters were almost uniformly a bust. Of the mess of them introduced in “Hostile Makeover,” only Warriana made an impact. (More on her later). And one-off villains like Harangutan and Think Tank were almost daring in how thinly they were drawn. Wide Wale was probably the worst and most confusing of the bunch, as I still have no fucking idea what he’s doing.

He’s this season’s big bad…except that he isn’t, and he’s just kind of wading around, hoping Jackson or Doc figure out something for him to do. But we’ve had a whole season to figure it out and we still don’t know why he was driving a wedge between The Monarchs, or to what end, why he cared about arching (and then not arching) Dr. Venture, whether the murder of his brother plays into this, or…anything, really. The show went out of his way to establish him as an important character, and then did literally nothing with him. If season seven opened with him falling out a window to his death, I can’t imagine it’d register as any kind of loss.

The disappointing new characters are made more disappointing by the established characters we don’t get to see. No Orpheus, no Triad, no Impossibles, no Molotov…these are rich characters that, to varying degrees, we care about. To say we can’t cycle in new characters would be insane, especially as we have Red Death, Warriana, and, to a lesser extent, Sirena to prove that Jackson and Doc can still give us great new creations on a near-regular basis. It’s just that most of the new creations weren’t great, and the absence of other characters we love is too clearly felt.

Having said all of that, “Red Means Stop” was a lot of fun. And it was pretty good. Between this, “Maybe No Go,” “It Happening One Night,” and “A Party for Tarzan,” I’d say half of the season was solid.

The problem comes from the fact that the format — the lack of a proper structure, and, in many cases, the complete lack of payoff — hamstrung the rest of the episodes, and I really hope we’re done forcing everything in a single narrative that doesn’t actually go anywhere. Keep the Ventures in New York; I’m okay with that. But please return to a format more suited to weekly installments.

Okay, have I bitched enough about a show I love?

Good. Let’s get into the good stuff season six did, which, fortunately, ties pretty tightly into what “Red Means Stop” does.

For starters, I think the season absolutely nailed Gary’s emotional journey. Like so much else it lacked a resolution, but unlike so much else it brought us to a very intriguing place, and I’m very excited to see what the show does with it.

While it was his idea to pull this whole Blue Morpho stunt in the first place — a fact The Monarch reminds him of this week, for maximum needling — he’s gotten gradually more implicated in these deaths, against his own wishes. He started by accidentally killing somebody (importantly, it happened in the service of actual good, as he rescued Billy) and moved on to deliberate, premeditated murder.

…at least, that’s what The Monarch expected of him last week. Kidnap The Wandering Spider, take him out to the Pine Barrens, force him to place a call that would establish The Monarch’s alibi…and then execute him. Gary wasn’t happy about this…and he may not have even killed the guy. We saw him burying something, but it could have just been The Wandering Spider’s gadgetry. Gary likely found a way to do his boss’s bidding — and take a supervillain out of the game — without getting blood on his hands.

But, hey, “Red Means Stop” twists again. Uncomfortable with murder, Gary’s instead been kidnapping villains and keeping them locked away in the Morpho Cave. A much more humane way of eliminating their competition…

…except that it isn’t. The Saw homages were…well, I’ll be honest here: I liked the episode as a whole, but the Saw homages were little more than Saw homages. I didn’t see much of an interesting spin on them, even if I loved the fact that Gary unwittingly became a Jigsaw figure. He didn’t mean to hurt anybody. At all. He meant to keep them locked away, yes, but he thought he was keeping them fed and safe. His intention was to not kill them, and he ended up creating for them a much more harrowing, awful, torturous end than a straight murder would have been. In attempting to be a good guy, he became a worse guy.

The Venture Bros. has been fairly cruel to its characters before, but never — to my knowledge — had it gone quite that far into hopeless darkness. It’s impressive that so much Saw made it into The Venture Bros. without being significantly softened…but it’s still just Saw, with the worst things happening off camera.

But, man…that look on Gary’s face at the end…when he realizes not only that he’s killed again, but that he did the worst thing imaginable to people he never intended to hurt…

It reminded me of that incredible moment in “Return to Malice,” when he’s explaining to Hank and Dean why he’s on the warpath. He describes the circumstances surrounding the unforgivable murder of 24, only to realize in the process of speaking the words that he is responsible. He is the reason 24 died.

His face falls. His narration stops. He never meant any harm…but he caused harm. He’s been affected by that realization ever since.

And now he has more, worse unnecessary death on his conscience.

I don’t know where his character is going next. But he’s on a journey, and it’s potentially a great one. Does this push him over the edge, or make him shrink back? I honestly have no idea. Does anyone out there have any predictions?

Also, out of curiosity: do we think The Wandering Spider was in that room? I’d just imagined the guy walking home in the moonlight, glad to be alive, unseen during the conclusion of “A Party for Tarzan,” escaping into a second chance at life while we watched Dr. Venture escape into his own. But now I wonder if Gary tossed him in there instead, only for the guy to be partially devoured by an insane Maestrowave.

The sheer (suggested) violence and brutality of those scenes was interesting. This is a show that usually softens its blows with comedy, but there was no redeeming punchline for those poor villains…just the reveal that the craziest of them was dealt the longest chain. Death happens on this show, but rarely has a character’s end been so ruthlessly awful. So, yes, I liked the Saw stuff, even though I really wish it was more than just Saw stuff.

Speaking of “Just _____ Stuff,” Red Death repeating Liam Neeson’s Taken monologue word for word (as far as I could tell, anyway) was pretty disappointing. Once again, it was just “Here’s what happened elsewhere” with no interesting spin. That’s a shame, because, man, you’ve heard that speech often enough that you really need something extra to justify another reprise.

Instead it’s just Red Death repeating something he heard in a movie, I guess. And then Gary identifies it for us, which means these characters have seen Taken and we can’t really fall back on this being a fun coincidence.

It’s disappointing, because Doc Hammer is a strong enough writer that he could have given us a speech like that one which was more true to the character and the situation than one lifted wholesale from somebody else’s work. (Compare this to Hank’s Bull Durham speech in “It Happening One Night.” That had a recognizable origin as well as Venture-specific execution.)

Instead we have The Monarch and Gary terrified by a speech that’s been repeated so often it’s no longer terrifying. Give us something better than that. Jackson and Doc (as both writers and performers) are better than that. Clancy Brown as Red Death was terrifying, so it’s crazy to me that they didn’t believe in him or the situation enough to give him — and themselves — something original to work with.

There was a lot to love here, though, not the least of which being returns from Hunter and Shore Leave. (I fucking love Shore Leave.) The Guild / OSI teamup was great without being especially eventful, and it was sad to see both organizations turning their backs on former member Hatred so flatly. It was a good kind of sadness…the kind only a show like this, with such long and complicated interlocking histories for its characters can pull off. And we got to see Snoopy again, which was nice. (I fucking love Snoopy.)

Wrapping the whole thing up — this dangerous encounter with a truly dangerous villain — by having a few bad guys sit around and talk about their feelings gave this away as a Doc Hammer episode in the best possible way. It was a great ending, and while it lacked the punch of Gary’s arc, The Monarch is left in a really interesting place as well. Red Death doesn’t tell him to chill the fuck out and live life for a while…he tells him to burn Venture to the ground and crush his skull. And then chill the fuck out and live life for a while.

Red Death has found peace. Not as a villain, but as a human being. (If…that’s…what he is…) He’s been freed from genuine hatred and obsession simply because he killed what he hated and obsessed over. Now he can divide his professional life from his personal life…and everybody’s happier for it. He has a loving family, a great home, and can arch one night a year. For a horrifying demonic soul-stealing beast, he’s got his shit together.

The question is…will The Monarch get his shit together the same way?

Season six wasn’t great. It pains me to say that, but it’s true. The experiment dealt this stretch of episodes more handicaps than opportunities, but, on the whole, I think it made good on the opportunities it did have.

But, damn, I’m really looking forward to a more traditional season seven.

For now, just a few stray observations and talking points:

Warriana is great. Period. I love her character, and she’s yet another addition to The Venture Bros.‘ commitment to creating strong, well-rounded females. (They peaked with Dr. Girlfriend, but, man, any show would peak with Dr. Girlfriend. And I don’t think they’ve whiffed on any of them outside of Dr. Quymn.) She’s a great foil to Brock in a way similar to — yet distinct from — Molotov, and part of me is very excited by the prospect of the latter resurfacing in Brock’s life…now that he has a healthier relationship with the former. What an incredible conflict that could be.

Also, I’m pretty disappointed that Brock’s propensity for distraction didn’t come into play. It’s happened enough that I thought it was intentional, but the last few episodes just sort of ignored it entirely. (Granted, the guy was barely in last week’s.) I still wonder if that’s building toward some kind of payoff, or if it’s just an accident of the writing.

“Red Means Stop” also gave us a fun addition to the roster of Venture legacy titles: Scamp. Prior to this season I think we only had Captain Sunshine and Wonderboy being identities that are passed down through the generations. More recently, of course, we added Blue Morpho and Kano to that mix. Now we have Scamp. And it’s kind of adorable (in…y’know…a tragic way) that even dogs in this world have legacy titles. God knows how many Scooby-Doos Shaggy and the gang went through…

And, man, Action Man is a fucking dick, isn’t he? Not that we couldn’t have concluded that earlier, but…man. Prior to the whole grenade flashback and discussion of him killing a baby — he claims it was a werewolf…or at least an ocelot — I would have been hard pressed to decide who was worse for young Rusty to hang around with: him or Colonel Gentleman. Now I think it’s Action Man by a mile. Colonel Gentleman is no prince, but I think he’s out of his mind in a much less destructive way. Kind of makes you wonder why he made him Hank’s godfather.

Finally, we can piece together a little more about the fate of The Monarch’s father: evidently Jonas was busted up about his death, so it’s less likely that he killed the guy himself. Reanimating him as Vendata could even have been an act of supreme grief rather than hubris.

You know, that whole character’s development is pretty interesting, as first he was just a silhouette on the Council of 13. Later Jackson and Doc needed a face for him, so they retconned him into Vendata. Now we’re learning more about The Monarch’s father, so we again reimagine him as The Blue Morpho. By no means am I complaining, mainly because the revisions of the character have been handled so smoothly and intriguingly, but I find it interesting how much effective mileage they’ve gotten from somebody who literally began as a shape.

Oh wait, finally for real this time: Dr. Venture remembers Kano as his father’s mute bodyguard. In “O.R.B.” we learned that Kano’s silence was penance for taking from this world “a great man.” At the time we and Brock concluded he meant Jonas Sr. But now we know for sure that he was mute when Rusty was still a boy. Whose life did he take? Was it the original Blue Morpho?

Lots of questions, fewer answers, in true Venture Bros. tradition. In the same tradition, we now wait.

And wait.

And wait…

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4 Responses

  • Casey says:

    If I may give my take on the *ahem* Taken speech which was *ahem* taken word-for-word. I’ve never seen the movie, so it didn’t bother me on that level. But I can see this as part and parcel of Red Death’s character. He’s set boundaries on his destructive tendencies–he found meaning in killing his nemesis, and while he still is able to find expression of his self through being a villain, he now finds just as much meaning in being a human. Having a wife, having a child, consuming media like the rest of us and taking meaning from that, too. The Monarch tries to find meaning in a hate that, for all he knows, comes from nowhere.

  • Holy Sock says:

    I gotta see how it all wraps up in that future finale/premiere before I can adequately asses whether or not the Blue Morpho storyline was a success. Obviously Wide Wale will be the focus of that.

    I don’t think it’s fair to say that this experiment in storytelling was a failure until we see how it concludes.

    What Season 6 does demonstrate is a failure in actual television production which goes back to their mishandling of Season 5. But that’s sort of a meta conversation about how the show is delivered rather than the merits of this storyline. It’s certainly a recipe to leave fans disappointed that they’ll have to wait x amount of years before seeing what happens next.

    Also, I gotta disagree that the serialised nature of the Blue Morpho plot automatically added a false weight to other “plots” – which weren’t really plots. I guess this is very subjective, though, so it’s hard to argue against. I can just say that not once did it cross my mind that the Science Now conference would play any sort of importance outside that one episode. I was actually surprised that they had a little PR disaster follow up in the next episode. But even then it didn’t feel any more than the latest Doc hijinks that’s been a staple of the show since the beginning.

    As far as actual failures of storytelling this season I think Brock’s return was completely glossed over. It and Hatred leaving wasn’t acknowledged by any of our core cast outside one line from Hank. It was a bit of a letdown since they did a lot of character groundwork in Seasons past. I think the premiere really needed an extra half hour to give “the Ventures in New York” a bit more attention.

    There was a bit less of Doc dealing with his newfound wealth than I would have liked – I think him waking up to JJ’s hologram might be a season highlight – but I got more of a fill in those last three episodes to keep me satiated.

    As far as new characters were concerned I thought Stars and Garters was going to play a bigger role but otherwise I wasn’t particularly disappointed. The one-off villains were fun, memorable additions that made their point and didn’t outstay their welcome. The only character from Old Venture I think was missed was Dermott. Although I want more Triad I don’t think their appearance was necessary but Dermott’s thread was dropped completely after “Momma’s Boys” last Season and he’s felt more abandoned than any of the other no-shows – which I think are reasonably absent.

    Also, in regards to Wide Wale, I feel that perhaps this is a problem inherent to episodic storytelling. The audience places greater emphasis on elements than intended. Similarly to how people would get wrapped up in the supernatural elements of True Detective week-after-week.

    The drive of this season is the Blue Morpho – not Wide Wale. Whatever his ulterior motives are I think that’s more for the sharped eyed viewer to mull on rather than a failure in storytelling. His subtle looks with Copycat, goading DMTM to shoot Rusty are sort of hints. As Jackson said in an interview they thought only the most keen viewers would figure out the Dr. Dugong link. But, alas, the internet knows all! I personally would have liked to see how he reacted to his sub-arches being killed and would liked a little follow up to his plan to intimidate Dr. Venture into paying protection money (although maybe stealing what he thought were priceless relics satiated him now that I think about it) – but that was more immediate.

    In retrospect I think Wide Wale was appropriately underplayed. They didn’t tease us with a big hook early on and suddenly drop him. His greater significance to the plot is subtler.

    As far as this episode was concerned the Saw stuff was great! It was nice to use a familiar pop-culture horror setting to facilitate some fun character interaction. I personally think it was used to great effect – particularly in a show where you think you’ve sort of figured it out, ya know?

    The Taken reference was a bit odd, yeah. But more bemusing, really. It’s almost become the rotating Exorcist head in terms of pop-culture references. But, upon rewatch, I think Clancy Brown sells it – even if it lacks any original Venture twist. I think the were-baby conversation was the only part of this episode that really fell flat for me.

    Also, Phineas Phage as Helper is one of the funniest things this show’s done.

    In terms of Gary’s arc I’m not so sure if there will be a meaningful resolution. I think there’s a good chance the Wandering Spider will come back and blow this thing wide open. Or, like in Miller’s Crossing, Gary will actually be compelled to kill him to save their skins.

  • Jonnic says:

    My entire opinion on the season as a whole & this episode as a season finale:
    IT’S NOT DONE YET.
    That simple.
    How would you rank S5 on its own vs S5 PLUS Gargantua 2?
    That’s how the season was meant to be just like watching S5 without the Halloween special is also incomplete.
    I think you get my point.
    Also no love for Battleaxe? Freaking loved her. (And she survived! Rewatching last week in preparation for this week I saw her all bandaged up in her bar.)
    Another point I’d like to make is this season is meant to be a fresh start. Season 1 2.0. So a lot of intro paying off in future seasons. Really shuffling everyone’s lives around.
    Still I’ve enjoyed following your reviews this season & look forward to your take on the S6 finale & the season as a complete whole arc.

  • RaikoLives says:

    I really liked this episode and I was really disappointed at the same time. Hard to be angry or sad at a show that’s pretty consistently good like this, especially when it’s for “not giving me what I expected/wanted”, but at the same time it didn’t give me what I wanted or expected, so it was more than a little off-putting.

    Two Clancy Brown performances over one weekend, though, so I can’t be too sad.

    There’s not much more I can add. It was great as Part 8 of ____ (however many more parts we get), but it leaves us hanging.



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