I am going to quickly discuss the storyline of this episode before going deeper into its comic book sources. Many twists and spoilers for this episode, and for the comics it is based on, so take that into account.
With Vic captured by the Bureau of Normalcy, the team has two big questions. Do they trust Vic’s father Silas Stone? More uncomfortably, are they actually ready for a real superhero “mission,” the kind of thing most costumed adventurers do on a daily basis? The answer to both of those may turn out to be “yes… sort of.” None of these people are over their various issues and traumas, but they have progressed to a point where, for now at least, they can put personal troubles on the backburner to work together for a greater good.
The plot of this episode would be nothing special for most adventure stories. Even the central twist, Dr. Stone pretending to betray the team in order for them to infiltrate the Ant Farm, is hardly a big surprise in the genre. It’s a game played with the audience, since the only reason we are left suspecting the betrayal could be real is that the editing just didn’t show the gambit being planned. If the concealed knowledge was important it would be a cheat. As is it is just part of amplifying experience of the cunning plan.
It was fun to see classic bits from the original Doom Patrol comics. Robot-man frequently was troubled by villains with giant magnets and the trick of Elasti-Girl hiding inside his metal body was used several times. The Bureau must not know very much about Crazy Jane, given the minimal efforts they put into neutralizing her. Fully unleashed, she could bring the whole facility down into rubble if she wanted to.
The hijinks of their caper are contrasted with what is going on with Vic. His distrust of his father’s motives is no joke and the whole plan hits its fatal flaw here. Vic’s condition becomes very disturbing; he seems to be undergoing a real schizophrenic episode, unable to control his thoughts, stuck in obsessive compulsions, hallucinating, and hearing evil voices telling him to do bad things. None of the team were prepared for just how bad things had gotten for him. The threat of Grid is looking like a red herring (particularly for comic readers), with Mr. Nobody being what’s really behind Vic’s recent difficulties. Mr. Nobody’s power again manifests as the ability to effect story, as if the entire introduction of a “Do we trust Dr. Stone” subplot was inserted by him into the narrative, and into our own perceptions as viewers of the show. That would be a very Grant Morrison element, the meta-narrative of our experience of the show as itself, part of the show.
The Morrison/Case comics created some very unique, memorable characters. Over the course of the comic they did develop and reveal some increasing complexity, particularly in their relations with each other. They did not though, change in significant ways. The Morrison/Case comic was mostly a platform for ideas and an offbeat takes on a superhero universe where strangeness and imagination were the driving narrative forces. The TV series, for all its bizarre images, situations, and donkeys, is character focused. We are following these damaged people whose “metahuman” abilities are exterior manifestations of their internal issues. The crazy ideas and surreal villains and even overarching story plots are secondary.
So when the show starts to reach into the depths of the Morrison/Case comic, but only wets its finger tips, I’m not sure how valid it is to critique it for holding back. The show isn’t trying to exactly recreate the comic and trying too hard to do so could get in the way of what it is doing. That being said, while I enjoyed a lot in this episode, I came away disappointed, and left wondering if they it could have gone deeper without sacrificing the focus on character. Being so close to the source material, I feel it acutely when they miss the mark, fail to follow through, or seem satisfied with the superficial. It can be a roller coaster. At the end of “Frances Patrol” I nearly jumped out of my chair when the Normalcy Agent said “Look at my elbow” but a few minutes later felt let down that the idea was put to such a mundane purpose. I felt a little like I was the one who was sent to the Tearoom of Despair.
From what we’d been shown of the Bureau of Normalcy, I didn’t expect our decent into the Ant Farm to be the existential nightmare of the comics. I was concerned that we would get something similar to Season One of True Detective. There the creators simply lifted names from Robert W. Chambers horror stories and used “The King in Yellow” and “Carcosa” to fancy up their script, stealing some of the resonance those names have, without actually sincerely addressing or building on Chambers’ work. Doom Patrol TV doesn’t get that exploitive, but does make only light use of one of the core story arcs of the Morrison/Case comic run.
The show describes the Ant Farm as Area 51 crossed with Dante’s Inferno. That gets across the point of what the episode will be giving us. In the Morison/Case comic this is as close as words can come to describing it:
The Ant Farm, as described and depicted by Grant Morrison and Richard Case would require a David Lynch-like distortion of reality, a place where waking and nightmare, horror and irony, comedy and insanity all are loosed from their boundaries.
The dark joke of the equivalent of the Bureau of Normalcy in the comics (which never has a specific name; it’s just a branch of the US Government) is that they themselves are strange, quirky, and far, far from Normal. The comic doesn’t mention Area 51, but the idea of a Military-Industrial-Occult Complex is at the heart of the horrible truths at work. What is being envoked has deeper roots in paranormal folklore, particularly the legends of Flight 19, the Navy training mission where 5 planes supposedly vanished in the Bermuda Triangle.
A significant change to the Ant Farm is that it’s meant to exist beneath the Pentagon. There is a whole era of 60’s counter culture reality bending that the show isn’t even trying tap into. You’d have to build up to informing today’s audience about facts such as the 1967 attempt by the Yippies to levitate the Pentagon through the power of LSD to explain everything that is going on here. That is one many elements from the Morrison/Case story have not been introduced at all. There are no Men from N.O.W.H.E.R.E or the project to weaponize the dead through the unsettling power of the fairy tales of Lucy Clifford. Nor any hint of the deepest secret of what is bound under by the Pentagon’s geometry, powering the Ant Farm.
While the cybernetic “Operators” in the Art Farm are one thing depicted exactly as Richard Case’s drew them, it is another example of at first feeling “That’s cool!” but then being disappointed after realizing that the physical resemblance was as far as things were going. In Morrison’s story, these unsettling figures are the Operators, as in “Operators are standing by!” The vague, yet always present, faceless ones at the phone banks ready to claim our money, our time, our souls, for whatever treasures the advertisers are dangling before us.
Many readers of comics today know only abstractly, if at all, that comic books used to be filled with advertising. Not ads for other comics, upcoming movies, Nikes, etc, but physical fitness gimmicks, pyramids schemes, and cheap toys and gadgets. “X-ray specs” to “see through clothing” are the most remembered, but there were many more. These toys and tricks were mostly grossly exaggerated in capabilities, if not outright frauds. The thought lingered though: what is they were real? What if such powers could be obtained by filling in a coupon or making a call to those Operators? What Morrison and Case did in their Doom Patrol comics was present a world where these powers were real – and had fallen into the hands of the Wrong Side.
Through much of Grant Morrison’s comics there is theme of the idea made real and what that means for the world we live in. “The atomic bomb and Superman both started out as ideas. Why did we make on real and not the other?”
(This is all connected to the coming introduction of Flex Mentallo into the series and we’ll just have to see what the show does with him).
The episode does give plenty of weird details for the Bureau: the Operators, General Wampus and his Big Macs, and the Butts of course (something that felt like it could have come from the current incarnation of the Doom Patrol, written by Gerald Way). These elements often remain superficial and, as with “look at my elbow” mostly grounded in reality. We have the return of Darren Jones in this episode. His story of stabbing his wife is from the comic, but there is used as a feature of the insanely surreal world, blind to its own quirks, that Jones had built for himself, not the deranged bloody deed of a psychopath.
Could the show have drawn deeper from the comic? As was common throughout the Morrison/Case run, the background for the Ant Farm storyline was introduced slowly over many issues, through cryptic one-page interludes. This can be a useful technique as it refreshes a storyline in the reader’s mind and builds up an ever increasing sense of suspense. It is a slow, incremental process that takes months. Time a short TV series doesn’t have.
Doom Patrol TV is already juggling multiple plot lines. Each character has been their own puzzle, with mysteries for us as viewers and to the characters to themselves. From the first episode there is the ongoing mystery of The Chief and Mr. Nobody, their past relationship, and why The Chief was kidnapped in the first place. With all that going on, I can understand there being limits on how much plot and world building can be crammed into this character focused story. It is still a bit amazing that a show this offbeat and as deeply connected to Doom Patrol lore exists at all.