In case you hadn't already heard, the fourth season of Venture Bros. is split into two halves. Tonight's episode, "Ghosts," marks the end of the first half; half two should be airing in the spring. It's tempting to think of "Ghosts" as a finale of sorts, and it sort of is, but so far this season hasn't been hugely concerned with long stories or huge set-pieces. Which leaves us hanging, a little. Nothing is exactly resolved, but there aren't any huge cliffhangers, and there's no game-changing, death-of-the-clones moment. Instead, we some much missed Brock action, a little unfriendly competition between Guild members, the explanation of the mystery of 24, and the skinny on S.P.H.I.N.X. Basically, lots of house-cleaning, and definite potential for next year.
I dug it. I mean, what's not to dig? The Sgt. Hatred jokes were few and actually funny (although having someone fall for the Nigerian prince scam is a little too close to "Generic Internet Humor #243"), and the plotting was sharp without being overly hectic. It's great to have Brock back, and he managed to provide a some surprisingly satisfying emotional beats. By this point in a show's run, some of the hard edges have been sanded down, if only because longevity means a greater investment in recurring characters, which creates a certain reluctance to have those characters be miserable and humiliated all the time. Venture has settled into a nice groove of mocking its leads while maintaining a certain base level of affection; this has actually been with the show since the first season (it's one of the reasons it's lasted as long as it has, and one of things that sets it apart from so much of the rest of the Adult Swim line-up). But things seem even more laid-back than usual this year—even Sgt. Hatred is vulnerable and shown trying to better himself—and I wonder how much that has to do with Brock being out of the picture for so long.
Think about it: he's always been the most competent character, and by contrasting him against everyone else, the rest of the show's losers and misfits can't really compete. It's easier to forgive Rusty's casual mis-use of his sons, the Monarch's quest for vengeance, Hatred's inclinations, when those things all exist in a relative vacuum. With Brock back, there's a brief question of whether or not that contrast will re-assert itself. I'm not sure the show needs its edge honed, but the dynamic has shifted, and having Brock sitting there in the kitchen eating cereal was a reminder of just how different the status quo has been of late. What's even more interesting is that Brock himself has gotten a little weirder—first teaming up with S.P.H.I.N.X. (who it turns out are responsible for taking care of bad guys who don't join the Guild), and then even working with 21 at the end to take down Monstroso. It's uncertain if he's now back in with the regular mix for the next half of the season, but I hope he is, and I'm really excited how that pans out. There's no base level of reality anymore, so what's next?
All that aside, while this wasn't the funniest ep of the half-season, it had some smart gags. Just having 21 and 24 bantering again was great. (Favorite moment was the perfume gag, when 21 helps 24 win a bet with the ghosts of President Woodrow Wilson and the dead hench from, gah, I can't remember the season now.) Poor Billy gets his memory-wiped again, and when Hank and Dean walk into the S.P.H.I.N.X. headquarters, Rusty's hearty, "Did I ever tell you about your mother? Or that you're both clones?" was the best laugh of the night. And I love that that there were actually a few times that really were sweet or heartfelt, goofiness and all, like when Brock shows his frustration at being out of contact with the boys for so long, or when he and 21 have a team-up against Monstroso, the Kingpin-parody villain who messes with the Monarch's plans and threatens the Venture compound. Plus, that final button—I mean, I didn't tear up or anything, but in about a minute of screen-time, we were reminded at just how ridiculously, absurdly sincere this show can be.
Most regular series go on a brief hiatus in December, to make way for the various holiday specials before January kicks in, so despite the sightly-longer-than-four-week-gap, it's probably best to think of "Ghosts" as just another hiatus ep, nothing explosive, but with a handful of money-shot moments to hold us over. Last thought till spring then: we first see Brock and Shoreleave busting into a lab to take out an evil scientist who's perfecting the stink bomb. To get inside, Brock tosses a rope and starts climbing, and when Shoreleave points out the nearby ladder, Brock says, "Oh yeah, that's a lot of fun." We always say this is a show about failure, and it is, but it's just as much a show about how the death traps and the costumes and the super science aren't a distraction from life—they're kind of the point.
- The stink bomb thread made for a nice recurring gag.
- "How much do you want for that watch of yours? Ours is way too creepy."
- Turns out evil S.P.H.I.N.X. was wiped out in the Pyramid Wars of '87.