‘The Venture Bros.’ Threw Chronology to the Wind in an Incredibly Ambitious, Non-Linear Episode
‘Structurally Sound’ is a recurring feature where each week a different structurally unusual, rule-breaking anomaly of an episode from a comedy series is examined.
“That’s it, work it out Thinkenstein…”
The Venture Bros. is sort of the television equivalent to a Dickens novel. It moves to the beat of its own drum, going down weird wormholes that expand the show’s universe while halting the story. The evolution of this world and the characters within it is unlike anything seen in most animated programs. With every methodical push that the series gives its characters, it becomes harder and harder to make out the edgy, albeit humble, Johnny Quest homage that the show began as. As the show has gone on to find its voice in the craziest ways and maturing past its modest start, it almost feels like a gateway show for Adult Swim, acting as an example of what was possible (Rick and Morty, for instance, surely wouldn’t be here without this stepping stone). The series even built up more of a fabled reputation by the huge gaps between seasons (the show is about to enter its sixth season but it began airing in 2003-2004; it’s the longest running Adult Swim program as a result), due to the classically hand drawn animation style that the show employs. Episodes are put on a more critical scale accordingly, with the show’s creators, Doc Hammer and Jackson Publick, being the harshest critics of their own work. It’s this sort of critical, tumultuous relationship that you can have with your own series that can lead to you pushing it to such extremes.
The Venture Bros. very much feels like it’s making up the rules as it goes along. This attitude inherently breeds experimentation, whether it comes in the form of the show focusing on bit characters, doing ambitious flashback epics, or crazy detours, however their fourth season premiere would see them pulling off one of their craziest experiments to date.
When “Blood of the Father, Heart of Steel” begins, it feels like something’s wrong. Random scenes seem to be playing out with no rhyme or reason to their placement. Venture Bros. is always a show where you need to pay a great deal of attention, but this episode conjures the feeling in a way that it never has before. Again, this is a series where there are usually huge breaks between seasons where there is already a lot of catch-up to do or the table being reset. Here though matters are made even more chaotic when the season begins as the audience has no idea when any of this is taking place. This premiere actually takes advantage of their lengthy between-season hiatuses, using them to enhance the confusion that they’re capitalizing on.
Roughly six months of time are being covered in the span of this episode, which is the most amount of time an episode has ever taken on before. You’re already out of sorts due to the larger scope of the entry, but then the way it goes about presenting it takes you out of your comfort zone even further.
Immediately we zip from a scene from the final moments of season three to one that is six months in the future involving Orpheus killing Nazis with magic, and then snapping back to six months prior with Brock recovering from surgery. After the fact, and through much dissection, I comfortably know when these scenes are taking place as well as the length of the time jumps between them, but it’s worth reiterating that in the episode you’re given no frame of reference. There’s no “Six Months Later” card to give you any extra context. You need to figure out that these scenes are not happening sequentially, with the brief reoccurring cipher of the CGC Rating being your only hint of a compass here.
Venture Bros. is a show that can incite a lot of whiplash due to its presentation style and ambition, but in this instance the episode is intentionally playing with you, re-ordering the chronology of events. You’re supposed to be all, “Nazis? Did I miss something here?” But rather than the episode trying to give you answers, it just barrels ahead with its structural format, trusting that you’ll eventually be able to figure all of this out by the end. In the meantime, have fun getting lost. The world of the Venture Bros. has seen drastic changes since the end of the third season, and as the status quo remains in flux and up for grabs, the episode wisely throws you into a world that is just as disorienting to us as this new one is for the characters. Granted, we’re confused for different reasons than they are, but it’s a beautiful way of effectively putting the audience in the same frame of mind that the characters are in.
The CGC Rating was touched upon earlier and what it is is essentially the gold standard for grading and valuing comics. The Certified Guaranty Company (CGC) establishes the standard in order to eliminate discrepancies in pricing, with their scale ranging from a 10.0 (Gem) to a 0.5 (Poor) in quality. The comic in question here is the prestigious Marvel Comics #1 that is being used as payment to Dr. Venture for his work. The comic begins in pristine condition at the earliest point in the timeline, but continues to get damaged and depreciate as the episode goes on. Accordingly, seeing these flashes of Marvel Comics #1’s dollar value and CGC rating tells you where you are in this story due to the comic’s condition at this point in time. Take a second to breathe all of that in, because it might be the craziest way to structure an episode of television that I have ever come across.
What’s even more impressive is that Marvel Comics #1 is split up into a handful of stories that introduce a number of comic book characters, such as The Human Torch, The Angel, The Sub-Mariner, Jungle Terror, The Masker Raider, Burning Rubber, and Ka-Zar. “Blood of the Father, Heart of Steel” then uses the framework of these characters from the comic as a way to segment and introduce people in this episode, like treating Brock’s “rebirth” as The Angel, or the explosion of Henchman 24 as The Human Torch. It’s another smart device that feels like a mystery when it first starts happening, but as the episode progresses all of this starts to click in place. Very brilliantly, this comic is also crucial to the episode’s plot, motivating this shift in structure rather than a deviation in style like this just being indulgent. The two work together in a symbiotic relationship between content and structure that is seldomly seen in television, let alone a cartoon. It’s also beyond satisfying to watch these disparate scenes end up coming together by the conclusion of the episode, with the chronology finally settling into place and “meeting itself.”
While a “trick” like this might be hard to clue in on, the episode also subtly incorporates the CGC Rating explanation into itself through the conduit of supernerd, Henchman 21, rather than forcing the answer upon you and pulling you out of the artifice to explain this construct. “Blood of the Father” expects a tremendous amount of trust from its audience, but all of the pieces are there to decode this, provided you stick it through. The episode might bend over backwards to try to justify such an elaborate narrative device, but it’s also an idea that just feels so thoroughly Venture Bros. and epicly nerdy. I can’t think of any other show where this idea would feel more appropriate, barring Big Bang Theory, but obviously this concept far exceeds their ambition.
This is all without even touching on the episode’s bonkers plot, which is full of possession, Nazis, the catalyst for 21’s badassery, the beginning of Sgt. Hatred’s run as bodyguard, and Brock’s new peripheral role within the show. A lot is going on even without the crazy structure to add to it. “Blood of the Father, Heart of Steel” is an episode that’s designed for re-watching the moment it’s over. It begs for deconstruction under this new lens that reveals itself by the end of the episode.
The Venture Bros. is never a show that’s lacking in ambition. but the series really hasn’t attempted something as polarizing and drastic as this since then. The effort and time that the construction of the episode was requiring might have broken Hammer and Publick, but surely this drive is still inside of them and will be unlocked again soon enough. It’s a breathtaking example of just what can be done with structure and how non-linear a story can be while still making sense, but also the zenith of these two perfectionists pushing themselves to the limit and seeing how unrestrained they can be.
Go Team Venture, indeed!