A lot of **Spoilers** here for… everything really. The TV series, the comic, even for the films of M. Night Shayamalan (whose superhero movies tend to have several elements familiar to Doom Patrol readers).
The original comics Beard Hunter story was a one-issue side-story during the Morrsion/Case run. It was a break between larger story arcs and was little more than an absurdist parody of gun toting macho killer characters such as the Punisher. So it was surprising to see that the TV show would be using this inconsequential character for an episode. We quickly understand this will be one where the show takes a basic idea from the comic and runs with it, rather than directly adapting a comic story line, as in “Jane Patrol.”
In both comic and show Ernest Franklin is a pathetic man-child still living with (and constantly arguing with) his mother. But while the comic version is an obsessive bodybuilder and gun fanatic, the TV incarnation is a pudgy, sweatsuit wearing slob who seems to do little more than sit on his couch and watch TV — that is, when he’s not on the job for a client such as the Bureau of Normalcy. Beards to this Hunter are not just a psychotic fixation, but the key to a metahuman ability: the power to absorb and track the essence of anyone whose facial hair he consumes. Not the weirdest superpower we ever see in the world of Doom Patrol. Odd as it seems at first, this Beard Hunter is ideal for the mission of tracking down Niles Caulder.
At the end of last episode, we were shown that something had been going on at the mansion while Cliff and Jane were in the Underground. Now we see just what that was. This is a clever way of dealing with the problem most superhero team stories have of just too many characters around at once. Previously Flit abruptly teleporting people away has been the main mechanism for this, so it’s nice to see some variation. With Cliff, Jane, and Larry all effectively unconscious, it is up to Vic and Rita to hold the fort.
Vic and Rita are an interesting if volatile team. Vic is the actual superhero, while Rita, regardless of her metahuman abilities, is mostly an ordinary person wanting to do good, but frustrated by “how,” especially when dealing with crazy situation such as the Beard Hunter. Neither can quite handle Ernest, particularly since he has another powerful skill: people underestimate him. After gaining both The Chief’s and Vic’s essences and knowledge, he has them at his psychological mercy. As others have, Beard Hunter insists neither Vic nor Rita know what kind of person the Chief really is – and he also seems to know secrets about Vic, things Vic himself many not be consciously aware of, perhaps because of software blocks. This triggers another problem: Vic’s onboard A.I. “Grid” recognizes how big a threat Beard Hunter is and begins to take control of Vic’s cybernetics. The show has been slowly hinting at the dangers of Grid, but as I mentioned in an earlier post, comic readers would have been worried ever since Grid was first mentioned, knowing that it ultimately gains self-awareness and becomes Cyborg’s “evil-twin.” Hard to say if the show will go that far, or if Grid is just part of the secret protocols that Cliff father has hidden inside him. Given the recent concern over The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter making a painting showing Cyborg killing the rest of the team, Vic is a little quick to say he can handle whatever is going on with his systems.
It’s not clear exactly how much information Beard Hunter has gained about The Chief, which is an important question as the bulk of this episode is not AboutVic, Rita, and Ernest, but an extended flashback of The Chief’s — from 1913! There’s no way to avoid the fact that Caulder has some secret for extending his life. This isn’t a big surprise, since his comic book origin involves him being coerced by General Immortus into finding a way to live forever. Caulder we discover was once a member of an organization called the Bureau of Oddities. A lot gets communicated just by glimpsing the emblem of this Bureau: a crest with two crossed keys, identical to what we have seen of the Bureau of Normalcy’s emblem, save that it has replaced one key with a sword. While seeking a cryptid in the northern reaches of Canada, Caulder and his partner, like investigators in a H.P. Lovecraft story, discover more than they are prepared to handle. Injured and alone after a wolf attack, Caulder glimpses an antlered entity, and faints – something else very characteristic of a Lovecraft character. The creature isn’t named, but it looks much like contemporary fantasy artists depict the Wendigo of northern legends and folklore (it also resembles a phantasmal snow monster from My Greatest Adventure #81, an issue of theDoom Patrol comic from 1963).
On waking, Caulder finds himself in the care of A humanoid cave creature. It isn’t clear at first if she considers him a captive, a companion, a pet, or a food source. Though they have no shared language, over time Caulder and Oyewah, as her name appears to be, begin to understand each other, and Caulder finds clues suggesting that she is an ageless being from an early civilization. She also has a bond with the Wendigo, which is summoned by her call. Alone and dependent on each other, the relationship between Caulder and Oyewah slowly grows into love. As Oyewah appears to have lived for maybe tens of thousands of years, does she share with Caulder the secret of prolonged life? And does the Chief then eventually share it with his Doom Patrol?
This incident of Caulder’s life is, as far as I know, entirely a creation of the show. I’ve read a lot of Doom Patrol comics, particularly the original series and the Morrison/Case run, but not every issue ever published. What is Oyewah? I would call her human, but not Homo sapiens. Is she a Neanderthal, Denisovan, or some other now extinct relative of ours? For a comic reader, it is hard not to think of a very different character: Dorothy Spinner. Dorothy first appeared in the Paul Kupperberg issues of the comic before Morrison/Case, but became a major character during their run, and in the Rachel Pollack stories afterward. There are not a lot details about her but is seems she is a mutant, born with a simian appearance as well as vast psychic powers. Back when I was first reading the comic I assumed she was meant to be a Neanderthal (though these comics were written before it was discovered that most Homo sapiens have some Neanderthal dna). Besides her appearance, Dorothy has the metahuman power to, essentially, cause her childhood imaginary friends to become real. Rather like when we see Oyewah conjure up the Wendigo. There’s a lot yet to learn about what is going on here, but it is hard not to think there is some inspiration for Oyewah in Dorothy, even if the show has completely revised and reconceived that inspiration into something different, as they have with The Chief’s background as a whole.
After living with Oyewah for some years, and learning to be a survivor and a hunter, Caulder is found by his former associate Allistier, who not only had survived the wolf attack, but returned to civilization, and was part of the transformation of the Bureau of Oddities into the Bureau of Normalcy. Realizing the dangers of this new Bureau discovering Oyewah and her secrets, Caulder murders Allistier, and destroys his own journal of what he has learned and experienced. In the century after returning from the wilderness himself, Caulder has protected this knowledge.
I had a question at this point. Point of view is something I try to pay attention to in narratives, so if all this is such a secret, if Caulder himself destroyed records, how do we, the audience, get to know this? Who is telling this story? The answer is Nobody. The whole flashback is revealed as Mr. Nobody browsing through the captive Chief’s memories. What we haven’t been shown, Oyewah’s immortality, the nature of the Wendigo, where exactly those events took place, etc., are all the things The Chief is still keeping hidden, even to the narrative power of Mr. Nobody. Offers of freedom and threats to the rest of the Doom Patrol and not enough to shake loose whatever specifics Mr. Nobody is after. The Chief is usually portrayed as secretive in his various comic interpretations, not telling even the Patrol everything about his background. He also frequently has contacts and allies in government, sometimes official, sometimes not. Morrison and Case took this to the extreme, making The Chief ultimately a super villain, responsible for the very accidents that created the team. Note that this storyline was in 1992, well before M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable in 2000. More that a few elements in Shyamalan’s superhero movies are rather familiar to Doom Patrol readers…
I mentioned the original Beard Hunter comic was a one-off story, telling of that version of Ernest being hired to assassinate The Chief. While the specific events of its story are very different, their narrative functions have a lot in common. When tracked down in a grocery store, Caulder manages not only to evade his armed pursuer, but to improvise effective and deadly traps. Both in this comic and the TV episode we are shown that The Chief is not just a genius scientist helpless in a wheelchair, but is quick thinking, resourceful — and ruthless.
That was only one of the many things we learn about Niles Caulder in this episode, It is a very well written example of showing rather than telling. A bookish scholar becomes someone who can survive in harsh conditions and is willing to commit cold blooded murder. The way Oyewah protects and shelters Caulder while keeping him in some ways ignorant and dependent looks much like how The Chief has handled, helped, but not fully trusted the people he has brought under his care. Also those people, however much he does care for them, are not his highest priority. There are secrets he values more than them. Is that the hidden truth about who Niles Caulder really is that Willoughby Kipling referred to? As Ernest does as well, after consuming The Chief’s beard hair. One wonders how much the Beard Hunter did learn. Could he have discovered the things that Mr. Nobody is seeking? Or did he only learn as much as we did by watching the flashback sequence?
Whatever Ernest learned, somebody thought it was too much. It is unclear who was responsible for the Escher-like staircase that the Beard Hunter finds when pursuing his psychic trace on Caulder. The decoy manikin of Caulder suggests somebody who knows about and can circumvent Ernest’s metahuman powers. It all seems Mr. Nobody’s style, accept for the sudden appearance of the Wendigo. Was this a fail safe trap set up in advance by The Chief? Or is Oyewah an active force amidst the various factions at play here..?