Groot is a mystery. The only person who understands him is Rocket, as both a translator and a friend to the overgrown tree, but he never understood Groot’s true nature. It would have been easy to keep Groot as a hulking beast who main function is being woodenly charming and ridiculously powerful. But “Can’t Fight This Seedling” gives Groot a clear, long-term goal, and the episode utilizes a bit of subtlety to explore that. With that kind of narrative focus, along with establishing clearer dynamics and character roles (as well as a slight improvement in the animation), Guardians of the Galaxy may have found its footing. The dynamics aren’t deep, but they’re grounded, with just the right amount of comic shade that gives the characters some verve. I’m cautiously optimistic.

The writers start the episode with a bit of subversion–subversion we’ve seen before, but subversion that’s plenty welcome. After landing on a random planet to find the next crystal, the Guardians run into some natives who look like talking goats, who seem to worship the crystal. It looks like there’s going to be a typical “infiltrate the natives” plot, with fake disguises, sneaky negotiations, and perhaps a “pretend so-and-so is a god!” plot, but it all ends with a goofy exchange of a small torch and the crystal. Turns out the natives didn’t give a crap about the crystal, and the so-called useless torch is actually instrumental in keeping nearby rock monsters at bay. That kind of clever subversion may go over a lot of kids’ heads, but it’s great to basically see that story cliche pretty much tossed aside. Hell, once they get the crystal and fight off the rock monsters, the episode should be over.

Not for the Guardians. The natives celebrate their assistance by throwing a giant feast, and the crew just has stupid fun, and it’s nice, easy-going moment for the team (more shows really need scenes of characters partying–I especially loved Gamora besting one of the natives in log-rolling). Everyone is enjoying themselves except Groot, who is strangely moody. Everybody thinks it’s because of Peter’s constant snide comments towards him, which is definitely part of that, but that’s just terrible icing on top of Groot’s original feelings, portrayed with surprising nuance as he observes the free, thriving woodlands around him. Shockingly, no one says, “Groot is sad because the woods remind him of his missing species.” The writers allow the audience to figure it out for themselves, which means the writers may be learning.

I both love and hate the show’s take on Peter’s belligerence towards Groot, though. This isn’t necessarily the writers’ fault, as it’s kind of a general perspective that a lot of writers tend to have. Peter’s snarky comments and dismissal of Groot are all awful (given that Peter’s particularly tacky lines about the trees being his family prompted Groot’s depressive spell), especially in the “come on, it’s just a joke!” variety. Peter is a goofball with a bro-dude attitude, which is a slightly different take on Chris Pratt’s character, and his dramatic turn comes when he falls into the glowing liquid ball within Groot and learns he’s carrying essentially the life force to bring back his people–a story beat that is told pretty well. But why did it take such traumatic revel for Peter to come to this conclusion and (theoretically) treat Groot better? Why couldn’t Peter learn to treat Groot better because, you know, he’s a living thing? There’s an uncomfortable layer here suggesting that a person’s worth is predicated on his or her relevance instead of their inherent humanity, relatively speaking. (It reminds me of Rain Man, which also had Tom Cruise coming to understand Dustin Hoffman’s character after “proving” himself counting cards.) And I know that’s sort of a rant, but it’s sort of a pet peeve that there has to be a dramatic reason for a character to not treat another person like shit, you know? Peter doesn’t even apologize.

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That being said, given what does occur, it’s a tense, fairly entertaining episode with the kind of comedy, tension, and drama that Guardians definitely needs. Groot’s fungal infection and growth is handled surprisingly well, and there’s some nifty, creepy visuals when Quill and Rocket explore Groot’s insides. Gamora and Drax basically are the show’s muscle, which is a stronger character choice than “sibling rivals,” and once again, the Quill/Rocket banter remains to be the strongest part. The animation is a step up, with some dynamic action sequences, including some genuinely cool “Drax fights a GODDAMN MISSILE” visuals, but it’s still out of sync with the writing. During the fight with giant Groot, Peter shoots Groot’s ankle with his element gun, freezing it and causing him to fall down, but this makes no logical sense (the ice isn’t even on his ankle during the falling scene). Peter says this worked against the rock monsters from an earlier fight scene, but in watching that scene, Peter doesn’t do anything! There’s clearly a scene that was cut from that battle: Peter alludes to doing something really cool in it, but it never appears on screen. Guardians of the Galaxy is clearly working on a tight budget, but that doesn’t excuse blatant mistakes like that. With a bit of clever storyboarding and stronger character choices, this show could be a fun watch. But right now, I guess you could say its having some growing pains.

STRAY OBSERVATIONS:

  • Rocket, strangely enough, is the most “human” character here, with his constant defenses of Groot and his slightly defensive response to Peter at the end of the episode (about being able to directly understand Groot). I’m glad they’re pushing Rocket beyond being the mascot role but disappointed they can’t give the other characters more layers as well.
  • I’m not sure what to think about Titus quite yet, but I sort of love they’re making him go to extremes so early. Making him the butt of the Guardians’ antics would get old fast; turning him into a loose cannon who’s willing to murder millions for success is a hell of a lot more interesting.
  • The animation is better but not great–I don’t know how anyone allowed that Groot-shrinking scene to air. What makes this baffling is that they handled his growth pretty well, focusing on tight close-ups of various body parts growing, so why they didn’t do that during his down-sizing is a mystery.

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