There are few things on television more satisfying than a great episode of The Venture Bros. For the second week in a row, we got one.
I really love how thoroughly season six is making me feel like an ass for ever doubting it. In fact, “A Party for Tarzan” makes me wish I voiced one of my earlier concerns…and that’s significant, because I only wish I voiced it so that I could look more like an ass.
See, last week gave me plenty to talk about, and I ended up removing a tangential complaint from that review before publishing. Here was the complaint: the one-long-story approach of the sixth season meant that we couldn’t get a format breaker.
What’s a format breaker? Well, that’d be something like “Escape to the House of Mummies, Part II.” Or the jolting, abrupt chronological shifts of “Blood of the Father, Heart of Steel.” Or the longform detective fantasy of “Everybody Comes to Hank’s.” Or…erm…this very episode.
With one big plot to tell across eight episodes, each of which seems to pick up directly from the end of the last, I didn’t see how we’d break format, and that was disappointing for two reasons. Firstly, because the format breaker is a great injection of variety into a show you believe you understand. Episodes like that are often remembered, after all, for their novelty if for nothing else. They stand out, and they make you pay attention. They’re telling stories that are so important, they redefine the very experience of watching the show. It’s a bit of narrative trickery that elevates — cheaply or not — the material contained within. It makes it feel like an event.
But, secondly: not getting a format breaker would be disappointing simply because The Venture Bros. is so. Damned. Good at them. Look at my examples above. Toss in “The Trail of the Monarch,” “Shadowman 9: In the Cradle of Destiny,” “The Invisible Hand of Fate,” “The Lepidopterists”…and, man, it sure does look like you’re compiling a list of the best things the show’s ever done, doesn’t it?
The one thing I figured season six could do to break format was give us an episode full of tiny stories in which Dr. Venture indirectly disposed of a parade of antagonists…with a little help (seen or unseen) from The Blue Morpho. It’d be a way of thinning out the web of arches and sub-arches within a compressed timeframe, allow for a quick joke or two with each, give us the big, important moment that should stick in our minds, and then move on. A sort of condensed season in one episode. Don’t worry if you think that’s a lousy idea; I’m in no danger of being invited to write for the show.
Instead, and with unexpected placement just before the season ends, we got “A Party for Tarzan.” And holy cow, I think I’m in love.
Granted, it worked its way immediately into my heart with a flashback of Gary (Fisher!) getting kidnapped on his trip to Washington, D.C., the third and clearest piece of that puzzle. Just about any time the show hurls us back in time, I know it’s with good reason. (See also: the original Blue Morpho stuff, and the abbreviated reign of Turnbuckle’s terror in this very episode.)
That flashback ended, but we found a new narrator. Now we follow Dr. Girlfriend’s thoughts. Later we’ll follow her husband’s. And Dr. Venture’s. And they all crisscross and weave a story that’s neither very complex nor all that important. The shifting narrators and jazzy interludes give the episode a weight that it might not deserve, but which it still absolutely earns…culminating in a brilliant cross-section of fragmented narration as the bullet sails toward Dr. Venture’s heart.
We know he won’t die. He’s our main character. He won’t die. We learn in the episode that the Blue Morpho’s suit is lined with Kevlar. He won’t die. The trigger is pulled. He won’t die. We follow the path of the bullet. He won’t die. We watch him fall lifeless to the ground. He won’t die.
We know he will not die.
…and yet, it matters.
It matters because the episode promised us that this story matters. It matters because the disparate perspectives twist together toward this moment, drawing our attention artfully along with them. It matters because in a season that seemed to go nowhere this story went somewhere.
And once we get there, we know he won’t die…but we feel connected to the moment.
And the episode toys with us. The Monarch narrates the brief aftermath of Venture’s death (a sequence that reminded me of Phantom Limb’s excellent, shocking monologue at the start of “Bright Lights, Dean City”) just long enough that we start to wonder.
The episode pulls back, as it must, but it doesn’t feel cheap. It feels like a joyous end to a playful installment of a truly great show…an installment that flirted with death, and even pulled the trigger, but found itself alive after all, refreshed, buoyed by a big band tune and swept forward, for another week at least, along the greater story that is life.
My god what a fucking great episode.
“A Party for Tarzan” really does just feel happy to be alive. There’s got to be a certain thrill for Jackson and Doc inherent in the fact that this parody of Jonny Quest is wrapping up a sixth season in a new city, with its original characters grown and evolved almost beyond recognition, genre pastiches having long given way to extended character meditations, a dense universe of backstories, histories, agendas…
Look at how far the show has come, how beautiful it looks now, the kinds of actors they can attract to voice one-off characters, the literal world of possibilities stretching out ahead…
Life is pretty great, isn’t it? One day it will have to end…but today was not that day. You wake up started and sticky, but you can get right back on your feet and walk away.
Is there any reason to be happier than that?
I have more that I want to say about the season as a whole, but I might as well wait until next week, so instead I’ll work through a few lingering thoughts and questions.
For starters…does anyone else find it odd that Phantom Limb was forgiven so quickly and welcomed right back into the fold of The Guild? And aside from a single note of concern (unless I’m forgetting about another) The Monarch isn’t even too concerned about the guy spending so much time with his wife. As much as I love that character, I don’t know if this season has any idea what to do with him, and Jackson and Doc are just sticking him on the Council because he’s one of very few recurring villains who survived the massacre in “All This and Gargantua-2.”
Speaking of surviving villains: please never, ever kill Dr. Z. In fact, if The Venture Bros. must end, give us a Dr. Z. spinoff. Words cannot express how much I love that guy.
Speaking of “surviving” villains: how’s everyone handling Gary’s feelings of guilt? It was a bit uncomfortable to watch him this week while The Wandering Spider begged for his life. (I mean that in no way as a criticism…it was appropriately weighty, and effectively dark.) Do we think he let The Wandering Spider survive? If so…will that go anywhere narratively? It’s not like he was tasked with taking out a familiar face…
Gary’s arc is an interesting one this season, and I definitely was not expecting it. Commenter / Battleaxe regular Casey said a few weeks back that he didn’t really understand why Gary signed back up with The Monarch at the end of season five…and I think that’s a valid question, especially considering how hard season four worked to provide him with a fresh direction and a sense of personal ambition. Sure, season five crushed those things several times over, but that doesn’t mean the return feels natural.
Here, though, with Gary fretting over the lives that he’s taken — and his boss pressuring him into taking more, this week for the sole purpose of keeping up appearances — I think we’re experiencing another great arc for the character…even if it’s one that required a bit of inelegance up front.
Some folks elsewhere have mentioned that Gary’s taken lives before and it never bothered him — the therapist in “Self-Medication” and Short Division in “SPHINX Rising” come instantly to mind — but there are dozens of reasons that one death might hit harder, and in a very different way, from another. Remember, even super killguy Brock faced this crisis himself in “Viva Los Muertos.”
I don’t know. Maybe it’s a cheat. It doesn’t feel that way to me…but if it feels that way to you, I suggest you push through anyway and let yourself take the ride, because The Monarch losing his own murder machine has some serious story possibilities…and Gary being put through the emotional wringer yet again could lead us absolutely anywhere.
Gary’s such a great character to kick off the Goodfellas-style narration, too. The Venture Bros. is populated entirely by normal people living abnormal lives…the stuff that comic-obsessed dreams are made of. Gary may have been kidnapped, but he also got his wish. As far back as he can remember…
And, okay, I liked this episode and all, but what the fuck is Wide Wale doing? What’s his angle? He was dying for arching rights to Dr. Venture, but then subbed them out to other villains. Those are getting rubbed out, which gives him a reason to finally take action, but all he wants to do is have someone else snipe the guy, I guess. And a few episodes ago he was investing a lot of time and energy in working Dr. Girlfriend and The Monarch against each other, but to what end? None of those manipulations had anything to do with The Blue Morpho, nor are they tied in any way to the attempted assassination here.
It just seems…odd. Every season so far has a secondary antagonist (one: Underbheit; two: Phantom Limb; three: Sgt. Hatred; four: Monstroso; five: Augustus St. Cloud; six: Wide Wale) with The Monarch being the main thorn in Dr. Venture’s side, but with this one, I have absolutely no idea what’s meant to be happening, or why he’s even involved with what I do know is happening.
Yes, we have one more episode, but so far…fuck this guy.
Anyway, hooray! I got to end a review of a great episode on a really sour note. Go me! I made myself mad!
Well, as long as I am upset, let me just say that if Doc and Jackson don’t make the end credits song available to us they’re the most horrible human beings who ever lived.
Thanks for reading, everyone. I have absolutely no idea what will happen in the next (and last) episode of season six, but for the first time I’m excited by that prospect rather than worried. Good on you, “A Party for Tarzan.”