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Swamp Thing Episode 4: “Darkness on the Edge of Town” Review

“The plants, the trees … I think they’re talking to me.”

While last week partially dealt with a reanimated corpse hunting down Swamp Thing, this episode gave us our first full-on “monster of the week” type of story. Something old and evil is infecting the people of Marais and causing them to relive their worst fears. Meanwhile, Avery Sunderland is trying to put on his best face with both his wife and his community, to mixed results.

Right off the bat, this episode lets viewers know it’s not messing around. We begin with a body being burned, then teeth falling from trees, and then finally the show’s most violent sequence yet (and considering this season has show us a dude getting ripped limb from limb, that’s saying something).

The horror imagery in this episode is in full swing. This one goes beyond the gross-out body horror of the first few episodes and veers right into literal nightmare visuals. The sequence over the kitchen sink (I won’t spoil it for you, don’t worry) is the first time I’ve actually had to look away from the screen while watching this episode.

The various visions sprinkled throughout the episode really got under my skin in ways the previous episodes haven’t. That’s not to say the previous installments weren’t effective, as I’ve gone on record as being genuinely unsettled by this series on more than one occasion. However, the way these nightmare scenes were shot and the way in which the cast members perfectly sold their abject terror made these moments feel far more real than even the incredible practical-effect autopsy scene from the pilot episode. If you don’t gasp at some of these scenes (again, the kitchen scene especially), then you have a much stronger constitution than I do.

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I really enjoyed seeing more of “detective mode” Abby in this episode. Seeing her out in the swamp with a big ole’ flashlight and poking at corpses, I couldn’t help but feel like Dana Scully would be proud. Tonally, this show is the closest to old-school X-Files the anything has gotten in quite a while, including (sadly) the last few seasons of The X-Files. There’s a fantastic mystery building behind why the swamp is behaving the way it is, which runs parallel with Alec trying to understand what is happening to him.

Between the warnings from the swamp and the questions surrounding Daniel Cassidy’s past, it all genuinely feels like it’s building to something important. I know I said I would try to leave it out of these reviews, but I genuinely hope the series’ shortened run doesn’t neuter the answers we’re seeking too badly.

We also get to see much more of Avery Sunderland in this episode and I take back every last optimistic thing I said about him during the pilot episode review. This show has taken the brilliant tactic of showing us a very different kind of evil with Avery. In the comics, he was always a bit of mustache-twirling capitalist, putting progress and profit ahead of morals. This version of Avery Sunderland does the same thing, but in a much more realistic way.

Make no mistake, this man is evil. He’s opportunistic and greedy, putting his own interests ahead of everything else, even as he pretends to do it for the greater good. In this way, Avery Sunderland is perhaps the most real version of evil we’ve ever seen in a comic book adaptation. He’s not trying to take over the world, he’s just a small, desperate trying to keep a hold on his pond, regardless of what he has to do to in the pursuit of that goal. Will Patton plays him with all the smarmy smoothness of a snake. He’s a wolf pretending to be a “good ol’ boy” and it’s an incredible performance.

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On the less exciting side of things, it is a little disheartening to note just how much of a supporting player the title character appears to be in his own show. Every moment Swamp Thing is on the screen is a triumph in special effects makeup and costume design. Derek Mears’ performance continues to be somber and reflective, with hints of sadness and confusion in his face. The fact that Mears can be so expressive through all of that makeup is a testament to how perfectly cast he was and how well the makeup has been executed.

However, we see so little of him and when we do get a scene with him, he’s mostly moping or giving Abby cryptic expository lines of dialogue. It makes sense in that his transformation is still relatively fresh, but it’s kind of a bummer that he’s not taking more of an active role in the proceedings. We’re lucky that Crystal Reed continues to shine in her role as the determined and haunted Abigail Arcane.

While Swampy wasn’t always the focus in Alan Moore’s classic run, which developed the town around him much in the same way this show has, he did have a bit more agency than here. In this show, he seems mostly to be there to give Abby a last-minute save after she’s done all the legwork of solving a case, or putting the pieces of this week’s mystery together. It’s another sign that this show and its writers expected to have more time to stretch its legs and enjoy a slow burn of discovery.

All in all, though, “Darkness on the Edge of Town” was a well-made and eerie installment of the series. Hopefully we get a few more answers in the coming episode, “Drive All Night,” because I’m starting to get a sinking feeling regarding the pacing of the series.

Swamp Thing Episode 4: “Darkness on the Edge of Town” Review
Is it good?
The pacing has slowed a bit with the last few episodes, but this is still a very effective horror drama with new mysteries lurking around every bend in the river.
The nightmare sequences are brutal and shot with a ton of style
Derek Mears' portrayal of Swamp Thing is beautifully sad, perfect for the monster than once was a man
The characterization and portrayal of Avery Sunderland has given us one hell of a villain
The effects continue to dazzle, with practical and computer images blending almost seamlessly
The slow burn pacing of the series is starting to become an issue, since everyone involved clearly thought they'd have more time to tell the story they wanted
Swamp Thing feels like a supporting character in his own show
7.5
Good
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