At some point during “The Eye on the Skullship,” I screamed out, “Holy moly, is that Andy Daly!?” Well, I used a few more expletives, but you get the point. The thing that made me squeal in delight was not only realizing that was Andy Daly voicing Andy the Watchdog, but it was Andy Daly doing Forrest MacNeil voicing Andy the Watchdog. There are specifics in the dialogue that were quintessential MacNeil; close your eyes when Andy says “Today… is going to be… different,” and tell me you can’t see MacNeil saying the exact same thing. Yes, I am super-biased. Yes, very few kids will even be aware of the reference. But Wander Over Yonder’s second “wave” seems to be all about grand jokes, entire episodes where the writers/animators are doing their own thing because they can, while also telling really fun, hilarious stories. It works at the macro and the micro level, and it works so well that… well… who even cares about Dominator at this point? (I’m going to get into that in the Stray Observations a bit more.)

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But before we get into that, there’s “The Black Cube,” which isn’t a slouch of an episode either. Remember back in “The Battle Royale” when the Black Cube had that ring right in his grasp but he literally couldn’t grasp it? And we all laughed as he floated away sadly? Yeah, you jerk–the poor guy has been living in a crappy apartment for what looks to be a while now, and he can’t make rent and his girlfriend left him. So how do you feel now? Well, if you’re like me, you’re probably laughing even more. Continuing the self-aware, grand-joke direction, “The Black Cube” follows the infamous black cube’s failure all the way down the depressing black hole of his life, apparently, and it’s bleakly funny in just how it nails the details.

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Switching to a black/white color palette to reflect the mood of the episode is not only a great aesthetic choice, but it also it makes for some of the show’s best visuals. For a show with a delightfully wide use of colors, it’s remarkable that it could be so distinctive with monotone grays. Part of that is the background designs, using extra-exaggerated linework, versatile shading, and precise layouts to capture spatially the cube’s isolation. Distinct isolated shots in the cube’s loneliness contrast the cube’s attempts to maintain a positive attitude, with closer, collective visuals. It’s technically great stuff, and if I had the time I could spend a tone amount of time comparing how well the shots of this episode are composed. Just look at these three:

That above shot, though: I mean, how can you even contextualize feeling bad about a 3D-shape that’s about to kill himself? (The episode plays it safe but we all know what’s going on here.) I’ll tell you how. Wander Over Yonder, through Wander himself, is distinctly about positivity, about the importance and value of just possessing an optimistic viewpoint in the face of unadulterated bleakness. It’s a lesson Wander tries to push upon the cube, but it’s interesting that it actually works at first, but it’s the world and people around him that bring the cube back down. I would have liked to see Wander/Sylvia really confront the ugliness of the populace, a populace that was a little too universally mean and fell a little too easily into mob-cliches. As it stands, Sylvia’s weirdly-delivered speech wins over everyone a bit too easily, but it looks fantastic all the while, and the sentiment felt true. True enough to change the worldview back into color, and even though the cube isn’t in a better position than he was five minutes ago, he’s finally happy. I think. I hope. I’m sure.

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But back to “The Eye on the Skullship.” Cartoons showing “how things work” somehow are always amazing (Spongebob Squarepants’s “Krusty Krab Training Video” is a recent example). Yet for the show to use Andy Daly as the host for an underground “life on the Skullship” show is just brilliant. THIS is self-awareness done right–an episode that can stand on its own all the way through, but driven by a second layer of being “in the know.” And while admittedly it would be easy to go into all the ways the episode compares to Review, it’s also a perfect episode that expands on an idea that Wander Over Yonder often engages in–the morale of the Watchdogs, the idea of a huge assortment of clones having unique, specific feelings within the context of a maniacal leader and an intergalactic villain feud. (Besides, there’s no way that “Eye of the Skullship” could ever delve into the cosmically dark worldview of Forrest MacNeil’s hell.)

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The episode works because Andy is a well-meaning guy, who genuinely loves his fearless leader, and Daly gives Andy that a well-meaning optimism that even makes his cheesy Powerpoint slides endearing. All he wants to do is interview is idol, indirectly desiring his role in everything to be validated, or at least appreciated. It’s one thing to have Peeper’s constantly on his case, which he powers through blindly, but when Hater himself tears him down, it hurts, and we feel for him. After Hater knocks over that interview table and disappears, the episode holds on Andy’s disappointment for a full five seconds. That’s basically forever in cartoon time, allowing the audience to fully grasp his disappointment before the reveal that his dumb little show was beloved by the crew. Hater was an inspiration to the Watchdogs because it was about them. He made them feel special, which in turn makes him feel special, and really, that’s all he wanted.

The thematic connection here is about characters attempting to find their place, their happiness, in an oppressive environment. Happiness can come from the most simplistic or overlooked locations–whether it’s in a simple bit of empathy (“I’m sorry you had a bad day”) or in accepting validation not from “great men” but from the regular, everyday people around you. Even if there are forces out there that constantly harangue or don’t understand you, there’s always something or someone out there that will appreciate you.

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STRAY OBSERVATIONS:

  • Andy, doing more “MacNeil-isms”: “… and I won’t give up until I give yoooouuu… what you want!”; “Excuse me, fellow Watchdog! What refreshing and replenishing meal has been graciously given to you by our generous leader, Lord Hater?”; and, the most MacNeil-ist, MacNeil-ism of them all: a simple, sincere “Fascinating.”
  • Actually, late in the episode, when Andy begins a line with, “Fear not, viewers, though I can barely see or hear–” it all just clicked.
  • Somone suggested this in the comments a few weeks ago, and I thought it was crazy at the time, but the idea of Dominator being just this vague background evil force under which the other characters thrive is looking more and more likely. Still, at some point we’ll have to deal directly with her, so I’m still hoping we’ll see something beyond Wander forcing love and Hater’s romantic pining.
  • To continue last week’s comparison to The Amazing World of Gumball: both shows are aggressively pushing back at the kind of bitter, “raw” worldviews espoused by shows like Bojack Horseman and Rick & Morty (and, ironically, Review). And what keeps them from feeling pandering or cloying is in how they, too, engage in real emotional struggles but still manage to maintain a positive perspective. Wander would probably slap the crap out of anyone who told him, “Nobody exists on purpose, nobody belongs anywhere, everybody’s gonna die. Come watch TV.” (But seriously, screw that noise.)
  • “The Eye on the Skullship” is part of the show’s occasional glimpses into the Watchdogs as a unit, their morale and their place underneath Hater’s power. For a broad, excellence look at them as characters, there’s “The Gift 2: The Giftening,” but for a more nuanced, individual look at a Watchdog in particular, “The Little Guy,” with Aziz Ansari, is a must watch. It’s basically the tonal opposite of “The Eye on the Skullship.”
  • Also, this show can really pick its guest stars, huh?

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