Even if you’ve read the handy caption, you’re probably still thinking to yourself, “What the hell is going on in that gif up there?” The answer: Doom Patrol. Which is to say, “a lot.” It’s a winding, intricate puzzle box of a story involving drag queens, the apocalypse, and Chumbawamba that Doom Patrol manages to tell in a way that’s legitimately astounding.
Doom Patrol is a difficult series to talk about casually because of the pace at which it builds out its strange world of melting movie stars and late-in-life gay, radioactive mummies. Just as you begin becoming comfortable with each episode’s narrative curios, Doom Patrol pushes forward, confident that if you weren’t keeping up with things, you’d make the time to go back and refresh your memory.
In the episodes after Jane, Cliff, Rita, Larry, and Victor sat down and had a much-needed group session where they opened up about their psychological demons, Doom Patrol became exponentially weirder and more high-concept as it turned its heroes upside down and gave them all a good jostling to see what shook loose. New characters like reality warper Flex Mentallo (Devan Chandler Long) and Danny, a sentient, teleporting, genderqueer street brought intriguing whimsy to Doom Patrol that provided an excellently sharp contrast to the show’s moments of emotional levity.
When Jane learned the truth about the original Doom Patrol and what Niles Caulder had planned for her, she was devastated because it forced her to accept the possibility that she’s never going to be “cured” of her dissociative identity disorder and the cavalcade of personalities with different metahuman powers that came with it. With every puzzle piece of Jane’s past that Doom Patrol’s carefully revealed, a fuller picture of her emotional trauma and the impact that it’s had on her came into focus in the form of the Underground, the labyrinthine mental space where each of Jane’s alters wander through a collection of their shared dreams and nightmares. Even after accepting that the Negative Spirit is now a crucial part of him, Larry still grappled with the accumulated weight of decades of depression and self-loathing that all stemmed from his former life in the closet and his fateful “accident.”
Rita, who constantly has to focus in order to literally keep herself from turning into a puddle of flesh, never really has a solid idea of who she is because she spent her entire life pretending to be someone else. All the while she’s been running from a horrible darkness in her past that causes her to hate herself. Out of all the Doom Patrol’s members, Cliff’s always been the most relatively well-adjusted and in touch with his feelings, but knowing that his daughter survived the car crash that killed her mother and turned him into a brain in a can holds him back from fully being able to accept his new life as Robotman.
Cyborg, the newest person on the team, believes he doesn’t fit in with the other Doom Patrollers, in large part because he’s a world-famous hero who wants to get things done by the book. But with each of his attempts at whipping the team into shape, he was forced to address his increasingly justified concerns that the very same biotech that saved his life and gave him his abilities was in the process of erasing his remaining humanity.
By bringing each of Doom Patrol’s heroes together, Niles Caulder inadvertently ended up ensuring that the world wouldn’t meet its imminent prophesied end, but he also put them in a position to learn truths about themselves (and one another) that they never could have on their own. Since then, Doom Patrol has used the team’s hunt for Niles to further flesh out its already expansive world and set the stage for the show’s heroes to become the cohesive unit they’re known to be in DC’s comics. After believing they’d all found some peace with their respective places in life, the Doom Patrol was horrified to learn that, unbeknownst to any of them, Niles was in fact directly responsible for the events in their lives which led them to become empowered or permanently disfigured in one way or another.
“Ezekiel Patrol” is Doom Patrol in its purest, most satisfyingly ridiculous form, because the episode rightfully presumes that if you’ve stuck around this long, you’re more than game for whatever kind of batshit nonsense comes to light as the team finally has its epic showdown against Mr. Nobody.
Throughout the season, Mr. Nobody has demonstrated his curious omniscience by piping in to narrate certain events as they happen, and recapping each episode for the audience from the comfort of the stark, blindingly-white dimension where he seems to draw his power. Having exposed Niles’ secret and humiliated him in front of the only people he cares about, Mr. Nobody parts ways with his nemesis and the Patrollers split up to make a go at living something close to “normal” lives again away from their former mentor. Rita works as a teacher and lives platonically with Larry, who plays happy homemaker for them both, Jane’s roughing it on the streets as Cliff watches her from afar to make sure she’s safe, and Cyborg’s taken up his solo hero work again. Depressed as they all are, they’re also beginning to move on, until it occurs to Mr. Nobody that he’s forgotten one last part of Niles’ life that he’d love to ruin before calling it a day.
One by one, the Doom Patrol all begin hearing a bad rendition of Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping” playing on a loop in their heads, and the music grows stronger as they converge on Caulder’s manor. He explains to them that Mr. Nobody’s kidnapped Danny the Street and trapped them in a painting sitting in his living room. As much as the Doom Patrol like Danny, they’ve got no desire to work with Niles because of what he did to each of them, but he attempts to explain his actions by opening up about his deepest, darkest secret. All of the monstrous things Niles has ever done to the Doom Patrol, he did out of love, not for them, but for his daughter Dorothy Spinner, a powerful metahuman whose powers have more devastating potential than any other on record (she’s also been hidden away in Danny’s town). Niles knew that the day would come when he would die and no one would be left to watch over Dorothy, protect her from the world, and protect the world from her, and so he set out to create immortal beings who would be able to take up his responsibilities after his passing.
A lesser show might have taken Niles’ moment of honesty and turned it into a heartfelt vehicle for the whole team’s reconciliation, but Doom Patrol instead lets its characters respond in a way that feels organic and right for them. As far as they’re concerned, daughter or no, Niles is still a grade-A piece of shit for what he did, but Danny’s another innocent victim caught in his web who doesn’t deserve being hurt. And so, the team pulls a Blue’s Clues and jumps into the painting, where they find a ravaged, but not broken Danny, being besieged by gargantuan versions of Admiral Whiskers, a vengeful rat who once snuck into Cliff’s mechanical body to wreak havoc on him, and Ezekiel, a sentient cockroach who is also a religious zealot.
Though the Doom Patrol assumed they would have to fight Mr. Nobody to save the day, it quickly becomes clear he’s just as trapped in the painting as they are and the pestilent monsters are being energized by someone other than him. The source of the chaos that’s destroying Danny is actually Dorothy and her power to manifest whatever she imagines, but because she can’t control her abilities and is nowhere to be seen, there’s no obvious way to stop Whiskers and Ezekiel.
A huge chunk of Rita’s character development this season has involved her learning to be at peace with the whole of herself, flaws and all, and in doing so, she’s become much, much better at reading other people—a skill she puts to excellent use here. Rita knows that while Mr. Nobody might not have the juice to tear himself out of whatever pocket dimension they’ve all become stuck in, his fourth wall-breaking powers of narration still have some degree of influence, and she appeals to his narcissism to trick him into telling the convoluted story of how the Doom Patrol ends up winning.
One by one, each of Doom Patrol’s heroes and Danny (now reduced to a single, sentient brick) end up inside Ezekiel, where they’re certain his cockroach flesh will protect them from a massive blast of interdimensional radiation Larry unleashes from his body that rips open a tear in space, allowing for all of them to escape the painting unharmed. Cliff, who gets eaten by Admiral Whiskers first, is only able to get inside of Ezekiel when Mr. Nobody describes the rodent and the roach suddenly realizing their desperate sexual desire for one another and, as the two beasts furiously make out, Cliff’s able to jump from the rat’s mouth into the roach’s.
It’s disgusting. It’s great. It’s the kind of nonsense that makes Doom Patrol comics fantastic, and that more live-action adaptations should feel bold enough to play around with.
When three or more maladjusted people with superhuman abilities spend an entire season of television saving the world from itself, it’s only a matter of time before the music goes soft, the action slows down, and one of the characters sheepishly (but earnestly) acknowledges that they’ve all become a “family.” Doom Patrol’s premise naturally leads to you seeing Cliff, Jane, Niles, Larry, Victor, and Rita as the emotional support network for one another that they all badly need. But the series never lets you forget that healing from trauma doesn’t mean fully erasing it, no matter how many people you have in your corner. The Doom Patrol are all united in their tragic circumstances and the psychological burdens they must bear, knowing that the only people in the world who truly understand what they’ve been through could all have lived different, happier lives had Niles never set his sights on them.
When you pull back and look at the place Doom Patrol leaves its characters, it’s kind of bleak, to be honest. Everyone, save for Larry, is covered in cockroach guts and have ended up shrunken down to smaller than a roach’s height, something they’re sure to have some difficulty rectifying going forward. But you know that they are going to move forward and keep fighting the good fight because frankly, there isn’t much else to do when the world falls apart on a weekly basis.
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