Just when we all thought it was safe to go back in the swamp, DC Universe’s Swamp Thing returns with “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” Moving closer to the midway point of the series, the most surprising thing is how much Swamp Thing is still expanding as a show instead of narrowing down to one focal point. It’s now obvious that the creators had big plans for this corner of the DCU. Oh, what could have been.
Forgoing all that and diving right in, when we last left Marais, Dr. Abby Arcane (Crystal Reed) had figured out, with the help of the Swamp Thing (Derek Mears) itself, how to cure the infected. Susie (Elle Graham), Harlan (Leonardo Nam), and the rest of the town were saved when Abby took Swampy’s advice and stopped fighting the virus. Maria Sunderland (Virginia Madsen) had finally gotten some much deserved screen time in the best performance on the show to date. She stood up to Swamp Thing villain, husband Avery Sunderland (Will Patton), and told him he could keep his sneaky little fingers out of her family’s bank account. Speaking of Avery, he finally showed himself to be the true monster of Marais with the force of several golf club blows to the head of the town accountant threatening to go to Liz Tremayne (Maria Sten) of the local press.
“Darkness on the Edge of Town” picks up after the false resolution of the last episode. It was never going to be that simple. Once Pandora’s box has been opened, there really is no closing it. In Swamp Thing, placing that accelerant in the swamps of Marais was their Pandora’s box. All of last week’s accomplishments turned out to be just a temporary reprieve. The episode starts in true Southern Gothic fashion as Avery is dispatching the body of the accountant. He takes it to the edge of the swamp and sets it on fire, and for the first time Swamp Thing asks us to try and at least understand what drives Avery. It’s as simple as daddy didn’t love him enough? Okay, I’m starting to think that maybe Avery’e whole shtick about the swamp “taking his father” may be a lie to be revealed later.
One of the coolest things about Swamp Thing as a whole are the inventive ways that the show keeps scaring us. There’s been body horror, Southern Gothic atmosphere to spare, and a an eerie swamp that is shot in a fog-soaked manner reminiscent of the classic Hammer Horror films. Swamp Thing is essentially a horror lover’s dream. Just when I started to think the show had shown me all its different influences, “Darkness on the Edge of Town” notches up the extreme visceral violence to an entirely new level. Swamp Thing has now reached High Tension (2003) levels of extreme. Dishwasher Todd, who works at Liz Tremayne’s dad’s bar, gets attacked by the rot of the swamp. It’s a really great visual (is it a log or is it a monster?) that feels ripped straight from an old Abbott and Costello film.
The next day at Tremayne’s diner is no laughing matter though, as whatever scraped Todd in the swamp entered his blood stream. That’s a problem because whatever this infection from the swamp is causes someone to experience their worst fears, like a waking nightmare. In Todd’s case, he hallucinates that a dangerous snake wraps itself around his arm while washing dishes at work. To solve the problem that isn’t really happening, he hacks away at his arm with a butcher knife before finally plunging his appendage in the garbage disposal in the sink. Yikes! Excuse me Swamp Thing while I pick my jaw off of the gore-covered floor. It doesn’t stop there though. The episode gives just enough to catch your breath before plunging into another dangerous hallucination from another affected individual.
I’m starting to understand why some of the executives at Warners started to get a little uneasy about Swamp Thing even if they made the worst move possible in the way in which they cancelled the series. I really do get that not everyone is going to be impressed with hard R levels of violence, but no one shut down Titans or Doom Patrol. Both of those shows are very R rated, and at times very violent (especially Titans) but they aren’t horror. Many unfortunately still see the genre as a half step up from porn. This is easily seen when every time a horror film or series is received well by critics, it’s suddenly not a part of the horror genre anymore. Swamp Thing is unabashedly horror, and that’s why it was cancelled.
The supporting cast continues to shine in the fourth episode of Swamp Thing. Dr. Jason Woodrue (Kevin Durand) owns every scene that he’s in. Showing off his brain in the morgue with Abby Arcane, Durand’s performance as the odd, calculating scientist is a quietly terrifying highlight of the episode. The Swamp Thing gives Abby a tissue sample in hopes that she can figure out just what it/he is at the hospital. Dr. Woodrue notices the sample and realizes that it is something that the world has never seen before. Woodrue is a brilliant man but also a very dangerous one. He is the man that invented the accelerant. Abby doesn’t trust him but wants his knowledge. It seems that he doesn’t really get what working for Avery means, so maybe he’s not as evil as initially thought. Or maybe Abby just made a bargain with a completely different kind of devil.
There’s a lot of devils running around in Marais. No sooner has Abby got Susie Coyle up and feeling better, does Maria Sunderland sink her claws into the child as a potential replacement for her dead one. It’s amazing what rich people can get away with, and it’s all on display in Swamp Thing. Small towns that rely on one economy like Marais operate in a fucked-up kind of modern day serfdom with a fat cat at the top lording over the peasants below. It sounds barbaric and it is, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening in the real world today. Swamp Thing is great at capturing all the secrets of a small town. One would think the smaller the town, the fewer the secrets. In a lot of ways, that’s true, but in small towns just like Marais, the secrets can be deadly.
The infection that Todd brought back with him to Tremayne’s is a huge problem for Marais, an even bigger one than the initial infection. The virus enters the bloodstream with a simple scratch from the infected and in just a little time their worst nightmares come to life. Liz’s father relives a terrifying scene where he thinks masked intruders are re-entering the bar to kill his mother all over again, just like when he was a boy. Sheriff Cable (Jennifer Beals) stops him only to be scratched in the process and have a public meltdown as she hallucinates that she sees her son Deputy Matt Cable (Wade Henderson) knifed down in public. The swamp has had enough of people’s bullshit and is, as Swamp Thing put it last week, fighting back. It seems that they’re doing so by any means necessary.
The hallucination-causing virus makes for a really fun episode because it really expands on the types of horrors that Swamp Thing can pull off while also showing what drives a lot of the characters that populate the town of Marais. “Darkness on the Edge of Town” finally puts Swamp Thing and Abby Arcane together. This is a pattern that’s starting to emerge that isn’t my favorite element of the show. There’s that beautiful moment in the trailers that really showcases the love aspect of Abby and the creature in a Beauty and the Beast fashion, but we haven’t really seen too much of that yet. The Swamp Thing is almost becoming a background character on his own show, which is one of the only complaints that I’ve had. If every week, whenever shit hits the fan all Abby has to do is run back out to the swamp and voila! it solves whatever problem she has, maybe 10 episode is all that’s needed.
There’s still the side story of Madame Xanadu (Jeryl Prescott) and the Blue Devil (Ian Ziering), but it’s just hard for me to imagine at the pace Swamp Thing is going, and with the halfway mark next week, that this storyline is going to get its proper due. But if Swamp Thing has managed to do one thing, it is consistently surprise me with its originality and daring. It isn’t perfect and some of the cracks in the seams are starting to show. Abby actually goes twice in one episode to the Swamp Thing to be saved and this, as previously mentioned, just feels like lazy writing. The show is called Swamp Thing, so let’s give the thing in the swamp more to do.
The end segment sees Abby hallucinating, infected by the disease, before Swampy finds her and takes it from her. The interesting part is her hallucination. It doesn’t seem to add up to anything we know about her thus far. We know that she was involved in the death of Shawna Sunderland and run out of town at the age of 18, but her fear was of a faceless man in black dragging her through the woods. His voice was distorted, but I’d be willing to bet that will also be revealed to be Avery Sunderland. Remember, all roads lead to Avery Sunderland or I drink swamp water in six weeks!
It seems as if some scenes are being cut though in Swamp Thing, as after Maria Sunderland’s big breakout last week against Avery, they act as if nothing happened. I even checked again to see if I had missed something, but no. It’s never brought up that she refused him money and an entire new plot is set up for Maria as she and Avery literally purchase the little girl. Her father is already dead, but Avery makes sure that she is brought to his house from the hospital. Maybe this is his way of making Maria happy again so she will give him the money he wants, but the way they acted kind of felt disconnected from last week. They felt more like a united front than ever before. It worked in the episode but ignored the events from last week.
As Swamp Thing reaches a forced halfway mark, it still continues to be an inventive and terrifying show full of surprises. My only worry is that with the studio’s hasty decision to abort (and shorten by three episodes) the series, many of the secrets of Marais will stay buried in the swamp.