The end of the world is coming and the only person who can help the Doom Patrol save the young man who may be the key to everything is that hard-drinking, chain-smoking British sorcerer…
No, the other one. Willoughby Kipling.
In the ’80s, Willoughby Kipling was originally introduced in Grant Morrison’s run on Doom Patrol when DC Comics insisted that John Constantine was too grounded of a character to fit in with the Patrol’s wacky antics. This week, Doom Patrol may have accomplished the impossible: in telling a story starring a John Constantine placeholder (through a loose adaptation of Kipling’s first comic appearance), the show may have actually pulled off the best live-action Hellblazer story.
There’s a trap that many writers may fall into when introducing magical story elements. Just like in dealing with high-concept science fiction, there can be an over-reliance on the “it’s magic, just go with it” excuse. In the hands of a weak storyteller, any magical story runs the risk of using spells as a crutch or a shortcut. While this does happen at least once in this episode, writers Marcus Dalzine and Chris Dingess find really fun ways of utilizing Kipling’s mysticism in several different forms.
Mark Sheppard absolutely steals the show this week with his portrayal of Willoughby Kipling. He’s entirely believable as a guy who has seen entirely too much and made too many hard decisions. He drinks to forget, even as he knows he has to stay in the fight for as long as he can. He’ll throw an innocent to the dogs for the greater good, but he’s not just a user; in fact, he’s more than willing to step up, flaming sword in hand, when the real battle begins.
The confusing nature of Willoughby’s abilities is nicely lampshaded by the team’s reactions to him. Whether he’s dipping rosaries in sriracha or reciting “Love Me Do” backwards, it’s fun to see how mystified the Patrol are by him. Likewise, Willoughby’s genuine frustration with not understanding how each team member “works” is a clever way of showing the divide between magic and science.
Crazy spells included, one thing that feels so refreshing about Doom Patrol is the show’s willingness to trust in the intelligence of its audience. The series rarely attempts to hold viewers’ hands when it comes to introducing new concepts or relying on established information. When Cliff and Hammerhead arrive in Spain, Cliff makes sure to thank Flit, Jane’s teleporting personality. There’s nothing more frustrating than when a genre show forgets a character’s abilities for the sake of plot convenience. I don’t know how many times during the last few seasons of Heroes that I yelled, “you can heal/teleport/throw fireballs, dummy” at my television screen. This show builds on what came before in a natural way.
Much in the same way that we have our own quirks and routines, These characters are used to the way they are, so they treat their abilities as “business as usual.” It’s a small touch, but one that made me very happy as a viewer. In a world as bonkers as the one this show inhabits, details are an important part of holding things together. It shows a great deal of care on the part of the writers.
In this week’s outing, it was a relief to have Willoughby taking the lead, because Cyborg is starting to get on my nerves. This is not at all the fault of Joivan Wade, who imbues Vic Stone with an authentic sense of responsibility and heroism. The problem is that Vic has spent the last few episodes just kind of being a jerk, punching down on a group of misfits who already feel beat down by life and the world outside.
The intention seems to be for Vic to be a buzzkill, but also a motivating factor. The execution has just kind of made Vic into a stick in the mud. You may disagree, but I genuinely hope Cyborg learns to loosen up a bit. There were flashes of that in the episode’s big fight scene, with Vic happily blowing up waves of monsters (with the Sonic Cannon!), and the show (and character) could definitely use a little more of that to balance out the do-gooder vibe. If he could just lay off of Rita a little bit, maybe that would go a long way.
Speaking of Rita, April Bowlby is another real bright spot in this week’s episode. All Rita wants to do is live her life without feeling like a freakshow, but the insane circumstances of life in the Caulder mansion keep forcing her hand. In the episode’s strongest scene, she convinces Elliot, the target of the evil cultists, not to take his own life. She’s tender and understanding, but firm with him, especially when she yells at him to pull himself together so they can save him (and the world).
“This world is a beautiful, horrible place,” she tells him. “It’s spectacular.” When Rita finally uses the elastic powers her comic book counterpart is known for, it feels like a moment that the show has truly earned.
On the lesser side of things, the introduction of fantasy elements did lead to a couple of goofy effects. In the reverse of what I expected, however, the CGI was pretty solid in this outing. Kipling’s flaming sword looked badass, the Sonic Cannon was well-realized and different enough from the version seen in the Justice League film to stand on its own; even the Baphomet, as ludicrous as it was, looked fine in a fever dream kinda way.
The weakest effect here was in the appearance of the Hoodmen, the otherworldly enforcers of the Cult of the Unwritten Book, who looked like they were wearing Halloween masks with absolutely no flexibility. They kind of took me out of the episode when they appeared. This is especially a shame when you consider how cool the other underlings of the cult, the Little Sisters and the Dry Bachelors, appeared. I know the characters are there in an attempt to be true to the source material, but the Hoodmen could have been substituted with one of those other superior creature designs and the episode likely would have been better for it.
Silly goblin masks and killjoy Cyborg aside, this was an extremely fun episode, filled with the kind of laugh-out-loud dialogue and touching emotional moments this show is so good at balancing. As wild as it was, things look like they’re going to get even wilder next week, so join me back here when I dive into the hilariously-titled “Paw Patrol!”