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The Venture Bros.: The Invisible Hand of Fate

There's something very strange about this third episode of season three. First of all, the title that appeared in initial listings was Billy Quizboy and the Invisible Hand. Since then it's been adjusted to the correct--but far less interesting--The Invisible Hand of Fate. Also, the commercials Adult Swim has been airing for this episode don't even seem to treat it as a comedy. This is the only time I've known Adult Swim to play something so straight without ironically undercutting itself at some point in the promo. To borrow from another current campaign, why so serious?

Pete White and Billy Quizboy

Certainly The Invisible Hand of Fate (God, I wish they'd stuck with the original title...) is an episode that will not be easily forgotten. The entire episode is both an exploration of backstory and a complete standalone piece...a balance not easy to achieve, and certainly not one that this show has managed nearly so well before.

Shadowman 9, this season's premiere, was indeed an excellent work of fiction, but it was essentially meaningless to anybody who has not been following the characters of The Monarch and Dr. Girlfriend. The Invisible Hand of Fate, by comparison, works just fine without foreknowledge of any kind. Sure, there are lots of little moments that won't mean as much (Myra's raging to stay with her newborn children, Hunter's feminine choice of disguise), but the story itself holds up just fine--probably because the two main characters are ones we really didn't know much about to begin with.

Very little of this episode takes place in the present tense. In fact, only the pre- and post-credits sequences do, which means that the entire episode proper is one long, self-contained flashback. Typically The Venture Bros. takes great pains to keep its present day action moving along as it illuminates the past. Not so, in this case. Here the past is the only thing that matters. Jackson Publick has a story he would like to tell us, and he doesn't want us getting distracted by anything that might be going on around us.

It's tough to know where to begin with this episode. As far as its importance to other episodes goes, then, obviously, we should talk about Billy Quizboy's role in creating the villain Phantom Limb--but I find it difficult to concentrate on anything but the real heart of the episode: his relationship with Pete White.

Initially the episode plays as a sort of cross-country buddy-film. Pete and Billy meet on the set of Quizboys, the youth trivia program from which Billy Whalen eventually takes his name. Billy and Pete must already have some arrangement in place, because Billy only appears young due to his diminutive stature and ends up sweeping every episode...but when Pete rigs the game (without Billy's knowledge) to keep the "boy genius" on top, the bubble bursts, and the two are thrust out of the professional quiz-show world, penniless and disgraced.

Billy, Hunter and Brock

But...they've got each other. And the two take to the road, earning money in the world of seedy, underground trivia competitions in the hopes that, at the end of their journey, the young Dr. Venture will take them on board at Venture Industries. What develops between them is a tender relationship in which Billy remains eternally optimistic and Pete becomes more than a little motherly toward his tiny charge. (We've had The Great Gatsby in the season premiere, The Bible in episode two, and now shades of Of Mice and Men. Been doing some reading, lately, have we?)

As in all buddy-movies, however, things fall apart. Dr. Venture isn't interested in them, and one of the trivia challenges Pete enters Billy in turns out to be a dog-fight, resulting in Billy losing an eye, a hand, and an awful lot of blood. Fortunately one Colonel Gathers is there to offer the boy a second chance.

I should say that, on the whole, this episode is slightly short on laughs. However, since it spends so much time on developing a few of the show's most interesting (and mysterious) characters, and since it does it so well, I don't even mind. I get the feeling Publick was aware that this episode was drifting a little too deeply into dramatic territory, because every so often he breaks into an out-and-out comic set-piece that exists only to generate laughs (the hilarious O.S.I. commercial, Gathers and Brock playing My Cows, "The Nozzle"). It's no wonder Adult Swim didn't advertise this episode as a comedy--it plays as one only in the loosest sense of the word.

And yet it is very funny, but it's funny in that sort of misplaced, uneasy way that leaves you uncertain of just how sorry you're supposed to be feeling for these characters. It's funny because you're watching a show about an albino, a severe hydrocephalic, a cross-dressing secret agent and an invisible-limbed supervillain...and yet they're all humanized so successfully that by the time the ending sequence rolls around (with what must be the most genuinely lovely acoustic passage that I've ever heard in a cartoon show), you'll have tears in your eyes. It's that perfect. The image of a pantsless, unshaven Pete White poring over a yellowed magazine commemorating the end of his glory days is one of the most touching this show has ever had. Look at the way he clutches Billy to his chest--Billy, who has been returned to him in a dufflebag...eyeless, handless, memory wiped clean. The two of them have been struck lower than they could ever have imagined before...

...and yet they've got each other. The flowers bloom on a cactus.

Billy Quizboy creates Phantom Limb

By this point there's no longer any doubt...The Venture Bros. is becoming a soap opera. But as this episode proves, genre is never as important as quality.

Maybe I'm slightly biased; I've wanted a Billy Quizboy episode ever since season one. But you know what? That only means I would have been more disappointed with any mishandling when it finally arrived. I had my bar set firmly sky-high.

And Jackson Publick managed to impress me anyway with one of the finest scripts he's ever turned in for the show.

This is one of those episodes I'll be turning to over and over again on DVD. And not because it's Billy...but because it's brilliant.

5 Stars

About this entry


Yes, this was the best episode of the Venture Bros. yet. So very touching and moving it made me fall in love with the show. Again!

By Ron Bonham
June 14, 2008 @ 10:42 pm

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Easily the best ep of Season 3 so far. Sure, we've only had three episodes, but it's going to be tough to beat. I thought it was a bit short on the funny too, but unlike last week's episode, the humor in this one was spot-on each time. It never lagged, and I couldn't wait for the commercial break to end. (There's just something about watching it on my TV- it feels wrong seeing it on the computer.)

I have to agree yet again with the literary allusions. We'll have to see what they get up to in the next one.

By Cyn
June 16, 2008 @ 6:20 am

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>Yes, this was the best episode of the Venture Bros. yet.

I actually may agree with you...but something about that feels wrong, since it contains so little Venture! Without any question, though, this is going to be making a lot of "best of" lists I believe. And rightly so.

>Sure, we've only had three episodes, but it's going to be tough to beat.

Definitely agreed. I had a hard time believing season three could top season two by any noticeable distance, but I'm gladly being proven wrong already.

>it feels wrong seeing it on the computer.

To be honest, I agree. The trouble this season was that for episode one, I was having cable troubles, and so had to watch it online. Episode two: I was on vacation when it premiered, so I watched it online instead. And now, episode three...well, it was a Billy Quizboy episode, and I was not strong enough to resist watching that one as soon as possible.

I'm HOPING that next week I can watch them as they're intended to be seen. Because as good as this one was online, it looked about ten thousand times better on the television. (And damned if that ending isn't the most moving sequence the show has had yet...)

Also, have you seen the t-shirt for this week?


By Phil
June 16, 2008 @ 7:16 am

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OK, i'm catching up on ALL your reviews now, Dear Phil, and (maybe sadly) what I really find the most charming is your progression of "yes" on this one....

It's like a little developing Master Billy Quizboy orgasm of sorts....

bold...bold italic....bold CAPS! the period rather than excl. point is brilliant.

sorry; my wife's a graphic designer and i just...notice these things... :) it's call 'hierarchy" i'm told... :)

By Nate
June 25, 2008 @ 4:22 am

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"in turns out to be a dog-fight, resulting in Billy losing an eye, a hand, and an awful lot of blood."

he loses his eye later in the episode actually. (when phantom limb loses his creepy little limbs)

Also, having a bit of trouble seeing where you get The Great Gatsby in the first episode? The Biblical references were pretty vague in the 2nd episode - also more shakesperian than anything else. And this episode - of mice and men? eesh again pretty vague. The boys have always written scripts that have these larger tropes that can be related to many great novels, i think you're a bit off in attributing these 3 episodes to specific novels.

+ one note: Hunter's comment "I wanted to be born with big glorious breasts!"
single-handedly the best line in season 3. no doubt.

By h
June 25, 2008 @ 9:42 am

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>It's like a little developing Master Billy Quizboy orgasm of sorts....

Maybe that should have been written on the t-shirt for the week.

>it's call 'hierarchy" i'm told... :)

And now I know, too. These reviews are more educational than I'd have guessed!

>he loses his eye later in the episode actually.

That's his replacement eye. By that point it's artificial and has a camera in it...check the conversation in the car with Brock and Hunter.

>The Biblical references were pretty vague in the 2nd episode - also more shakesperian than anything else.

I'd be interested how you saw Shakespeare as being more prevalent than The Bible. Shakespeare was quoted in the closing soliloquy, but three major Biblical events were referenced specifically, with the climax of the episode resting entirely upon one of them!

>i think you're a bit off in attributing these 3 episodes to specific novels.

The phrase "shades of" does not imply that I'm attributing any episode to a novel. :-P

By Phil
June 25, 2008 @ 1:31 pm

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Phil - I was thinking Bible, too, tho' your Gatsby reference caught me off guard (admittedly, my 11th grade English teacher's approach to F. Scott 's Great American Novel was less than inspired...)

but please, continue your "overactive" metanalysis of TVB... I'm reminded of the time I broke up with a girl in college - we'd just finished the Shawshank Redemption and I was raving about the Biblical themes, the symbolic escape/rebirth, the rain/baptism etc etc etc. She said, "Oh, you know, it's just a fun story. I think you're reading into it too much."

Um, yeah, maybe if it had been written by a 12 year old, but we KNOW that when Stephen King has a character squeeze through a long narrow passage, explode out into a new world/life covered in goo and slime and then celebrate that experience by submerging in clean water and being rinsed by the rain...well, it's almost like he's beating you over the head with it! I concluded that she was a moron and I could do better. There's only been 3 dates, so no big loss....

obviously we know the literary creds of JP and DH, sooooo....

By Nate
June 26, 2008 @ 3:36 pm

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>your Gatsby reference caught me off guard

I thought it was a pretty clear similarity, if not necessarily intentional. (Fortunately someone DID comment on the Shadowman 9 review to support the theory, which gives me room to believe I wasn't entirely out of line with it...)

I might be mistaken, though, if people are questioning it, so I'll just spend a little time drawing my connections, and, obviously, everybody is willing to accept or dismiss them as they see fit.

The basic impetus for Malcolm to become The Monarch is very similar to Gatz's impetus for becoming Jay Gatsby. In each case the man in question has transformative aspirations in the sense of an entirely new and separate identity (illustrated by Malcolm's butterfly costume as a child and by Gatz's journal), but neither of them act on it until they fall for a woman that they feel only their new identity can successfully woo. (Daisy for Gatz, and Sheila, obviously, for Malcolm.) Both Gatz and Malcolm are convinced that they are without sufficient social standing to make any kind of impression on the women whatsoever...and, sadly, that seemed to be absolutely correct in both cases.

So it's basically just the concept of a fantastic alternate identity that one assumes for the sole purpose of winning love...but it's also a process that decimates and disposes of their previous identity. (Also, there's probably a lot you could do with Gatsby/The Monarch stealing Daisy/Sheila away from Tom/Phantom Limb as a knock-on effect of the transformation.)

Obviously I'm not claiming that Shadowman 9 is "The Venture Bros. in The Great Gatsby." But it's an interesting thematic parallel, and a valid one, even if unintentional.

On the subject of The Great Gatsby, but otherwise completely irrelevent, I've never, ever been able to picture the character of Tom Buchanan looking or sounding any differently than Jay Sherman's boss in The Critic.

>She said, "Oh, you know, it's just a fun story. I think you're reading into it too much."

I absolutely hate hearing things like this from people, because it implies that reading into something means I'm having less fun, or missing out on the fun entirely. For me, interpretation enhances the enjoyment I get out of something hundredfold. Especially if I can come back to that same thing years later and find something new to latch onto that I didn't notice the first time. Themes are fun to explore. I think it's just a matter of being trained differently. Somebody with experience in the arts is likely to get a huge kick out of pulling a television show apart to get an idea of why it works...where as somebody with experience only as a viewer might be perfectly content to just sit back and enjoy the laughs for a half hour.

Neither is wrong...but it is frustrating to have somebody suggest that your method of enjoyment might be the less satisfying one.

>I concluded that she was a moron and I could do better.

Every chapter of my autobiography might end with that very line.

By Phil Reed
June 26, 2008 @ 5:43 pm

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hmmm. on continued reflection:

My first thought w/ Gatsby is the billboard for the optometrist ...symbolizing the all seeing eyes of God via Dr TJ Eckleberg (what that the name on the board?). But wait! Venture Bros has an all-seeing Dr....Henry Killenger! *bum bum bummmm*

um, except of course HK interFERES w/ the lives therein whereas Fitzgerald's god figure was perhaps observant but unable or unwilling to take action. So never mind. Maybe Eckleberg is better repped by the Guild...

maybe i should quit while I'm ahead. oh, and to avoid posting on another thread... Tag Sale was totally MY first Venture as well! it just said, "funny...weird...intelligent...absurd...intriguing characters." i've had a hard time converting others tho'...

By Nate
June 27, 2008 @ 2:24 am

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I caught this episode again a few nights ago…Cartoon Network showed the repeat. Two things:

1) This really is an excellent, excellent episode. If anything it was even better seeing it again. Probably the best episode ever.

2) I was wrong in the review…there is ONE scene other than the pre- and post-credits sequences that takes place in present day. It’s when Pete shows up at the Venture compound after the commercial break.

I only noticed this because he asks to see Brock, who—in the flashbacks—doesn’t work there yet. The reason I didn’t notice before, I guess, is that Pete doesn’t look all that different between the two time periods, unlike the other characters in the episode (Brock, Venture, Billy and obviously Phantom Limb all change significantly in their designs). So, oh well. I made a booboo.

They probably should have made it slightly more clear, though. An unconscious Billy in the sidecar of the moped would have helped. But, regardless, it’s a brilliant episode, and I still say that closing sequence is the most beautiful thing they’ve ever done.

Phil Reed's picture

By Phil Reed
September 01, 2008 @ 3:56 pm

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