The Guardians of the Galaxy cartoon took a brief hiatus before making it’s return this weekend, and I’m glad it did. It made me have at least an extra week of thinking this show had really turned a corner. Then “The Backstabbers” happened, and at least it had an appropriate title for how I felt?
Spoilers ahead, of course.
The plot of this week’s episode saw Gamora stage an elaborate plan to convince Korath and Nebula that she had betrayed the Guardians and was returning to the fold to become Thanos’ new general in the wake of Ronan’s death—in order to set Korath and Nebula against each other and sow dissent in Thanos’ ranks. The real plot however was “everyone is suddenly the biggest idiot on the planet, because the plot says so”. Part of the Guardian’s charm, I’ve argued before, is their sort of ability to be goofballs that wing their heroic adventures. But this was straight up artificially manufactured stupidity to create lazy drama, and it sucked.
From the get go—where an intercepted Nova Corps transmission “reveals” that Gamora is in contention to become Thanos’ new general—any actual characterisation of the Guardians is tossed out of the window in order to force the “oh no, this team can’t trust each other” story into a place it doesn’t belong (the Guardians already had that story, and it was the film. They moved on from it, and don’t need it again). No one stops and thinks about anything, as the team gang up on Gamora and instantly assume she’s turned heel, and don’t let up until the last possible moment. Not even Gamora gives up the pretence or decides to drop a hint, instead letting everything amble along for the sake of deriving some fake drama as Star-Lord, loveable goof that he is, still holds onto the hope that Gamora hasn’t betrayed them.
Even then, he’s played as about as stupid as he can be in this episode, constantly being a dick to his teammates as a reminder that he can’t really be trusted with a secret (Gamora does trust Groot with the secret of her plan, but even he doesn’t say anything until about two-thirds through the story, instead of solving the drama from pretty much the moment it began. Imagine what a better story this could’ve been!). In the end, the Guardian’s stupidity sees Korath and Nebula escape with not just a copy of Star-Lord’s map to the Cosmic Seed’s location, but also Ronan’s universal hammer. You know it’s bad when even the protagonists of the series end an episode with the acknowledgement of how stupid that everything just happened was.
None of this felt true to any of these characters, whether as an evolution of the steadily growing confidence the series’ writers have had in developing these characters for the show, or to their portrayals in the film (something that, by and large, the show has tried to stick to for better or worse). It was a plot that didn’t fit this team or this show, and instead the show was smooshed around it to try and make it work. It just ended up almost breaking the whole thing. And after the last couple of episodes where the show has been working to the strengths of this setup and these heroes, watching it play out as disastrously as “The Backstabbers” did was truly depressing.
Not everything was bad about this episode though. The final action sequence, which saw Nebula and Korath’s ships go toe-to-toe with each other as the Guardians got caught in the crossfire, was surprisingly solid considering the general low quality of Marvel Animation’s output. It wasn’t the most spectacular sequence in the world, but it was fun and evocative of some great action moments—like the Knowhere chase in the Guardians of the Galaxy movie—from the films, and filled with its own sort of wacky craziness (including a pretty spectacular moment where Drax hurls the Universal Weapon through space at Nebula’s ship like a frisbee, tearing it to pieces in the process) that it alleviated some of the sour notes left by the episode itself. It was a moment of joyful dumbness that tried to balance out the actual dumbness of the episode.
“The Backstabbers” was a genuinely disappointing episode of Guardians of the Galaxy. There have been worse episodes in the short run so far, sure, but they were before the series had began to pull itself up and deliver a fun, breezy romp of a sci-fi cartoon. For it to so quickly fall back on such a terribly thought-out and characterised episode is really the first time I’ve been left upset at the series, rather than longing for its improvement. The show has already shown that it can be so much better than this.
Let’s hope this is an unfortunate blip, rather than a sign of things to come.