From the first episode of Doom Patrol’s second season, the strangest superhero show on TV turns its already inward-facing gaze to the specifics of legacy. The show’s no stranger to introspection or even intraspection (where one or more of the Patrol goes inside another’s psyche, Magic School Bus-style), but over the course of the season’s first three episodes, the personal progress of its heroes is hindered and complicated by family that both threatens doom and offers salvation.
The most apparent parent is Niles Caulder AKA The Chief (Timothy Dalton). His daughter Dorothy Spinner (Abigail Shapiro) is the major new character among the oddball, R-rated superhero squad, after making her debut in the first season finale. A driving force behind the season—just as she was during her part of Grant Morrison’s run on the comic—her psychic potential, foreboding power, and emotional consequence form the keystone in a seasonal arch built from resonant voussoirs and, at least at first, held together by the existential fear driving its selfish superhero parenthood.
Dorothy’s dad is responsible for ruining a lot of lives. Particularly, those of Patrollers Robotman (Brendan Fraser), Negative Man (Matt Bomer), Elasti-Woman (April Bowlby), and Crazy Jane (Diane Guerrero). None of them have good track records with either their parents or offspring, but few can claim Caulder’s sins. He’s sacrificed many in pursuit of immortality—or at least enough of an enhanced lifespan for some protectors to outlive Dorothy. “When backed into a corner, I will do anything for my daughter,” Caulder growls.
Dorothy’s not just his flesh-and-blood, but an incredibly powerful metahuman with the ability to bring her imagination to life. Think Stranger Than Fiction meets the toxic warped desires of Persona 5. Since she’s still young—perhaps trapped there by another of Caulder’s machinations—she has little control over her mental creations. “They only come out when I’m sad or scared or happy,” she explains. That means danger. Like a kid with a gun, she’s a threat to herself and those around her. So Caulder has a paternalistic drive to contain, quash, and take “father knows best” to its super-science extremes. Doom Patrol showrunner Jeremy Carver has said that, “At the end of the day, [Dorothy] is the rationale of everything that happened to our team.”
But rationalization and results are two different animals. Regret and trauma crash through the generations this season, following in the footsteps of Watchmen’s similarly superheroic trip through Ancestry.com. Negative Man attends the funeral of one of his elderly sons, where he confronts the other after a lifetime away. He was absent, walking away from his family in the wake of his violent transformation and scarring his sons with an unanswerable obsession. This self-absorption is matched by Robotman, who goes on a confrontational road trip (after a troubling flashback featuring his own cruel dad and pregnant wife) for a similarly selfish standoff with his daughter, Clara. He then proceeds to make everything about him.
“This—all this—it wasn’t my fault!” Robotman screams to himself about his lifelong absence and current mechanicality. He’s on a bus, ruining his daughter’s baby shower. “You’re right, it wasn’t,” Jane replies. “But this? This is.”
Though the first to pinpoint the way forward, Jane has her own complex relationship with lineage. Her abusive father became Season 1’s freaky giant puzzle monster; a flashback sees her mother take her to a tub-dunking, snake-handling Christian cleansing. In the present, Jane’s increasing drug problem is compromising the purpose of her multiple personalities: protect the inner child Kay. That ego-adjacent sense of duty to be better than her parents gnaws at her through symbols, setting, and small pieces of eye acting.
The show’s superhero self-care (a major topic in Season 1) shifts generations in order to show the essential failure of their previous reckonings. Experimenting on these now-superpowered souls may not have led to the key to eternal life, but it certainly screwed them all up to an equalized rock bottom. Few think beyond their own pain and, when they seem to, they’re really only seeing others as extensions of themselves. Dorothy captures the promise and danger of this struggle, offering up both its loving potential and a compellingly thematic antagonistic force.
As seen in the bloody season premiere, Dorothy has an overactive imagination that’d put Hieronymus Bosch to shame. But the worst thing to crawl out of her head, The Candlemaker, isn’t canonically her creation. Rather, it’s an Egregore—a sentient concept born of collective thought—manifested from the fear of armageddon. He is humanity’s frothing, wild-eyed, animal drive against extinction. Of course, in a season focused on parenthood, the snuffing out of one’s line is the ultimate threat. And, in a season where Dorothy needs to be a scary yet ultimately innocent figure, the true villain of it all should be adult weakness.
Yet, Dorothy still needs to be a convincing sweetie so that those around her see how nice it is NOT to screw up a kid. This is why Shapiro’s gentle and precise performance—all peppy British accent and Ron Howard How the Grinch Stole Christmas Whoville prosthetics—is key. She has to be extra lovable (and she is, thanks to Shapiro’s overwhelmingly polite and affecting gestures and deliveries) because of the burden she carries. She isn’t just the looming threat of the season—its ticking time bomb of imaginative destruction—but its central argument for raising kids who are better than you.
A child being the literal harbinger of her parent’s mortality is a little on-the-nose—Caulder’s magically-enhanced longevity needs to be traded to grow Dorothy and the Patrol back from their Honey, I Shrunk the Kids misadventure—but this is the mortality of humankind itself: a persistent, existential dread of the meaninglessness and historical erasure of the self, served up by a guy with a bunch of candles on his head and a knack for murder. But overcoming any of Niles’ nihilism, looking beyond the self, is Doom Patrol’s way to fulfillment for its messed-up oddballs.
The way forward for these traumatized metahumans, now that they’ve spent a season taking personal inventory, is through examining their impact on others and making amends—and not just to make themselves feel better. “Sometimes, when you make a very big mistake, you have to do more than apologize,” Caulder tells his daughter. “You have to try to fix it.”
Even though The Chief is a real wad, as Robotman and others reiterate in more colorful terms, he is attempting to do right by a daughter who—because he abandoned her pregnant mother in the mountains—spent time as a sideshow exhibit. Dorothy is centered as the end-all-be-all MacGuffin of the season; with her every move auguring both The Candlemaker’s approach and The Chief’s death, the rest of the Patrol is driven to consider their own legacies and purposes. Who do they fight for, who are they getting better for, and—at the end of the day—who will they leave behind? The absurd images the surreal series loves suggest catharsis is coming.
The rats that Robotman spent his shrunken time walloping end up revealing a mother and brood. The mom eats the runt, freaking everyone out considerably, but still earns apologetic treatment from Robotman, an imperfect parent himself. Gory bursts of butterfly wings out of heroes’ backs symbolize coming transformation—particularly important considering Negative Man’s comic life cycle. Warping a son into a conspiracy theorist; bursting back into a daughter’s life as a brain in a robot; giving a daughter over to a fucked-up faith healer—they’re all still better than biting the head off of a kid, and set up the show’s heroes for another round of breakthroughs.
This is a show where a climactic action scene involved a kaiju-sized rat and cockroach makeout, so don’t expect to see Cyborg blast The Candlemaker with a laser. Doom Patrol, perhaps the superhero show farthest from the idea that real problems can be solved by a powerful punch, takes the scenic route to personal health. Its uniquely therapeutic text expands beyond the personal so that its characters can (hopefully) follow suit. As all the problems of these warped superhero families come to a head, the Doom Patrol’s archnemesis continues to be closer to one faced by Tony Soprano than Superman.
New episodes of Doom Patrol premiere weekly on Thursdays on HBO Max.
Jacob Oller is a film and TV critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Hollywood Reporter, Vanity Fair, Interview Magazine, Playboy, SYFY WIRE, Forbes, them, and other publications. He lives in Chicago with his two cats and a never-ending to-do list of things to watch. He likes them (the cats and the list) most of the time. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.
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