In one of its best episodes yet, Swamp Thing reminds us that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. This was a fantastic episode, but to properly dive into its best aspects, I have to warn you of slight spoilers ahead!
This episode is all about the bargains we make to keep ourselves safe. Woodrue, normally so headstrong and cocky, constantly bends to Sunderland’s demands in the hopes of continuing his research, even at the cost of his (admittedly dubious) morals. The Cables have entered into a vicious cycle of killing and lying to protect one another. And of course, in the most obvious example, Daniel Cassidy made a literal mystical deal in the hopes of becoming something better than he was.
What I didn’t expect was to see the return of Macon Blair as the Phantom Stranger, as well as his role being the one who gave Danny his “big break.” In a nice touch, the Stranger is clean-shaven and much more put-together, wearing an outfit that closer matches his attire from the comics. He mentions that he’s got several projects on his plate (perhaps preparing for a Crisis of some kind?), so it seems that he’s been really plugging away at those for the last several years. The difference between his delivery here and in his conversation with Alec last week are really interesting.
Here, he’s a little less tired, a little more spry and confident. The knowing sadness isn’t quite there. He seems to have a deeper belief in what he’s doing, suggesting something has transpired in the last eight years or so that has left the Stranger shaken. It’s an incredible, yet subtle, difference in Blair’s performance that was much appreciated. The costume and hair for these sequences sold it further.
On the less existential and more exciting side of things, this episode opened with maybe the best action sequence the show has seen so far. While the makeup and special effects have been impressive throughout, we haven’t seen Swampy really contend with enemies for a while. Seeing him unleash on the two hunters hired by Woodrue and Sunderland was a trip. The sequence was quick and mean, but really inventive, showing the short distance between Alec and pure rage. The makeup effects on the hunter who gets his face full of splinters is horrific, which goes a long way toward showing Abby that Alec is losing touch with who he was.
Speaking of Jason Woodrue, Kevin Durand may be the MVP of this episode. It’s such an interesting role for an actor who tends to play more obviously intimidating characters, like his turn as Gabriel in Legion. He’s gone full-on mad scientist in this episode and it looks like he’s having a total blast playing these notes, which in turn makes him a delight to watch. He’s twitchy and weasel-like, with a kind of awful glee toward the chaos he’s created. His faint smile and excited wide eyes when confronted by Danny toward the episode’s end are chilling.
This is a man who doesn’t look at his test subjects as people, which is a trope we’ve seen plenty of times in science fiction and horror. Here, though, it’s a much more realistic portrayal of that lack of regard for human life. There’s something so plausible about this Dr. Woodrue, which makes him so much creepier and so much more interesting. Through his goggle-eyed, inquisitive expressions, you can almost see the sick cogs turning in his head.
This was easily my favorite episode since the pilot. All of the various subplots moved forward organically and with a sense of urgency, while the mythology growing on the edges of the main story was fleshed out even further. We even got more of Swamp Thing himself in this episode, following him through some beautifully-shot sequences of soul-searching and occasional rampaging.
The episode’s final moments are somber and beautifully acted by both Crystal Reed and Derek Mears. It appears that we may be seeing this show’s take on one of the classic milestones in Alec and Abby’s relationship from the comics, next time, so meet me back here in a week for “Brilliant Disguise.”
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