This week, Cliff gets Magic School Bus’ed into the Underground of Jane’s mind. He’s there to save her, but does Jane want his help?
Wow, this week was truly exceptional. Like the best Doom Patrol stories, it doesn’t give you all of the answers up front. Even by the end, there is so much that is left up to the audience to decipher. There are no easy solutions, but that also allows the actors to stretch their legs and the characters to grow in new and interesting ways.
One of the more interesting choices in this episode was its use of Brendan Fraser in the flesh as Cliff Steele. We’ve seen Cliff in flashbacks as a drunk and a blowhard, but this episode gave us and Fraser a bit more to chew on as we see him portraying a character somewhat in the middle of the two versions of Cliff.
To his credit, Fraser pulls out all the stops. He’s funny and sells the total confusion and “I don’t have time for this” tone of Cliff’s scenes. Physically, he moves like the Robotman version of Cliff. Fraser must have coordinated with normal Robotman suit actor Riley Shanahan, because it’s a startlingly close replication of the way Shanahan moves.
Aside from the comedy and the physicality, Brendan Fraser also sells the sadder moments of the episode, pleading with Jane without being overbearing. For all of Cliff’s immaturity, he’s learned to give Jane her space. Even if he’s still learning what happened to Jane in her past, he recognizes that she’s been through a trauma. He gives her the space she wants, even when he’s afraid of losing her.
Cliff’s body language around Jane has changed so much from the first batch of episodes. It’s a subtle change, but it’s very noticeable in this episode, especially in the moment when he explains to Penny Farthing why he won’t just pick Jane up and carry her kicking and screaming out of the Underground. There’s also a spectacular moment of acting from Frasier when Cliff first enters the Underground: water begins dripping on his head and hand. Fraser sells Cliff’s realization that he can actually feel it.
Speaking of Penny, the many personalities of Crazy Jane, including several we haven’t seen before, get a chance to shine in this week’s episode. Most notable among these is guest star Anna Lore’s turn as Penny Farthing. She’s vulnerable but optimistic, not nearly the terrified, stammering moppet we saw in the Unwritten Book two-parter. It seems that Cliff is capable of bringing the best out of Jane, no matter which part of her is with him (okay, except maybe Hammerhead).
The makeup and costuming used throughout this episode is some of the best that this series has seen. Each of Jane’s personalities are rendered in interesting ways that immediately tell you which one they are, even before a chyron appears on the screen to identify them (another nice touch). Much like Cliff knows Hammerhead from her signature attitude, we recognize personalities like Silver Tongue and Baby Doll the second they walk on screen.
Another notable makeup effect comes toward the end of the episode. Cliff’s rejection of the man that he was is symbolized by him pulling off his human skin. The effect is incredible, layering a Robotman face beneath Brendan Fraser’s torn visage. It’s incredibly convincing and haunting, without being gory. The lack of blood and viscera add to the dreamlike feel of the episode as a whole.
Even the episode’s structure feels like a dream, with Jane, Penny and Cliff making their way through Jane’s memories. This is accomplished through interesting lighting changes and jump cuts between sets. Cliff and Penny will go through a door and come out from a line of trees. These memories will occasionally take the form of scenes we’ve seen in previous episodes, but reframed in ways that expand upon how Jane views those moments, even occasionally showing us more of the scene than we saw previously. It’s disjointed in a way that feels right for the story that’s being told. The script is written like someone trying describe a nightmare to someone the next morning.
It must be stressed that this is Diane Guerrero’s episode. Even when she’s not on screen, she owns every frame of this story. Even the personalities that aren’t played by her are informed by her performances. Guerrero does a fantastic job as Driver 8 and Karen, but this episode soars when we are allowed to see her play Jane.
Whether it’s from her father or the Chief or the sanitarium, Jane is always running. There’s a fear to her in this episode that Jane has never really publicly displayed before. She’s finally confronting her trauma (literally, in a fantastic sequence that showcased some of the show’s best computer effects to date). While Jane is clearly terrified, Guerrero’s performance is utterly fearless, selling every gut-wrenching moment.
One of my little qualms with previous Doom Patrol episodes (including last week’s) is that the show’s multiple storylines occasionally compete with one another for screen time. This was one instance where the show was definitely strengthened by focusing the entire episode on Jane, Cliff, and the Underground. This also leaves an opening for a fun hint toward next week’s episode, which will show us what Rita and Vic got up to in the absence of their housemates. Speaking of which, join me next time, when we meet the fearsome Beard Hunter in “Hair Patrol!”