Photo: Courtesy of HBO Max/Photo Credit: Bob Mahoney / 201
While “Fun Size Patrol” really focused on these characters’ emotional states, and “Tyme Patrol” got back into what makes the show so fun, “Pain Patrol” is Doom Patrol leaning more into a place of horror than it usually does. Specifically one of body horror, courtesy of the sadistic Red Jack. Immediately answering the question of why butterflies swarmed Larry at the end of the previous episode — it’s really bad — Doom Patrol takes us back to London to introduce both Red Jack (in Jack the Ripper mode) and a young Niles, who was a right pickpocket, he was. (Imagine that last part in the British accent Doom Patrol keeps having its American actors use.) Red Jack feeds off the suffering of others, so naturally, Larry is a perfect choice.
That moment in London, combined with Niles’s experiments on the team, is why Red Jack believes that Niles would make a fine apprentice, one who could one day perfect his “prowess for pain.” It also provides a glimpse of how others see Niles, and that’s as a villain. That’s clearly not how Doom Patrol wants its audience to see him, though, as evidenced by things like how quickly he turns down Red Jack’s offer and how he made the “fool’s bargain” with Willoughby to make the team big again, even at the expense of his life. As he tells Red Jack, “I did what I had to do to protect someone I love.” It actually comes across as selfish every time he makes that excuse, but it is ultimately what he does not just for Dorothy but for the team, as well.
This isn’t just a love Niles has for the team, but one Jane has as well and tries to defend during her intervention in the Underground, and one we see Larry and Rita form through the episode’s flashbacks to 1966. In a sense, the flashbacks to when Larry and Rita first met aren’t necessary, because their best friend dynamic has felt so lived-in from the beginning of the series that it’s kind of easy to fill in the blanks for how they were able to get on so well and become what they are. But there are some moments throughout these flashbacks that stick out, like the fact that what first drew Larry to Rita’s work as an actress was that he could sense the pain underneath her smile, and it made him feel slightly less alone.
Essentially, before they even knew each other, they were already kindred spirits; and that particular connection is what allows Rita to save Larry later in the episode, and her to remind him that, together, neither of them are lost causes. (The big hug he gives Rita after the latter moment is also quite the tearjerker, if you’re into things like emotional vulnerability.) There’s also the small point that, for a character who constantly questions her own inner strength, Rita doesn’t look away when she sees Larry’s burned body for the first time, while Larry, unfortunately, does when he sees her “condition.” Again, there is not enough praise to heap on April Bowlby for her ever-surprising performance on this show, especially when paired with the tandem performance of Matt Bomer and Matthew Zuk.
The flashbacks also continue to make the argument that Rita has every reason to be the most upset with Niles, both as his first test subject and as the one who so strongly believed in him and encouraged Larry and then the others to trust him and his methods. Plus, while the recurring point in these flashbacks is that they should feel comfortable in their home, how is that even possible after learning that they live with a fraud who did this to them?
There is also a huge problem in the Underground when it comes to feeling comfortable at home. Jane doesn’t feel comfortable with her family of personalities, but they also don’t exactly feel comfortable with her — specifically with the facts that she’s prioritizing Dorothy over Kay and that she considers Niles and the team her family, when they consider Niles and the rest of them enablers when it comes to Jane’s addiction … which isn’t exactly incorrect, as they’re not the ones doing an intervention. But her addiction clearly goes beyond just the serum.
Just three episodes into the season, this intervention — or “performance improvement plan” — feels like a major turning point, with Jane fighting back against the other personalities to stake her claim as “the one,” as the true primary. The intervention starts off with discussion of the way things have been since Jane started depending on the serum, with her barely caring enough to lay down the law. But here, she does, and Diane Guerrero gets to bring back some of Jane’s fire. But it ultimately doesn’t matter, because as soon as Jane decides to go back to Doom Manor with Cliff, the other personalities make good on their ultimatum and lock her up.
Speaking of Cliff, while Larry had a relatively good interaction with his child after all these years in the previous episode, Cliff ends up trying to do the same as a result of Niles calling him an “angry husband” and an “angry father.” It doesn’t go as well, as he immediately unloads everything on Clara at the worst possible time — right before her baby shower — and then starts beating up the bus when the cops come. (The cops, at least, realize there’s nothing they can do. He’s a robot man and it’s his truck.) The whole decision to go to Florida to see Clara is a rash one, based on emotion and Cliff’s desire to get back some semblance of self-respect and his old life. But even though it goes miserably for him, just like Larry’s interaction with his living son, this is another refreshing beat where Doom Patrol gives the finger to comic book stories that make up excuses for why their heroes can’t tell anyone their secret identity or what really happened to them. Doom Patrol has no problem having its character reveal the truth, though it knows that doing so won’t always have the character’s desired reactions.
Also less desired, reaction-wise and possibly story-wise, is the Vic-Roni story in this episode. While the meet-cute and even the message about systemic injustice worked in “Tyme Patrol,” the weight of this romance is already too much, too soon. It’s one thing for it to exist in tandem with Vic learning to process his trauma; it’s another for it to replace that necessary story line. The plot does, however, allow Vic to be intimate with someone for the first time as Cyborg, and it also turns the tables on the experience Vic had last season when he attempted to do online dating. But the swiftness with which it gets this heavy is astounding.
With “Pain Patrol,” it now appears that this season will feature a number of possible solutions for Niles’s little mortality issue — solutions that will either slip from their grasp, like Dr. Tyme’s brain, or simply be too dark to truly consider, like Red Jack’s apprenticeship. Niles’s solution at the end of the episode is to create “Robotman 2.0,” but surely it can’t be that simple?
• Considering how important protecting Dorothy is, it seems strange that Niles would just leave her alone at home. But considering how powerful her imaginary friends are — even Herschel, the jokester — she ultimately ends up being safe. She does, however, accidentally break Danny the Brick in half, a blow that’s somewhat cushioned by the realization just moments before that Danny was also playing hide and seek with Dorothy and the rest of her friends. Again, the cutesiness of Dorothy is equalized by something as great as Danny.
• When Rita and Larry realize all the butterflies on display are Red Jack’s victims and smash all the glass to set them free? That’s catharsis.