Just as we began to wonder where William (Andrew Rannells) disappeared to, he’s back and he brought the whole early college arc with him.
(Spoilers for the episode and the comic book follow)
As the animated series continues to restructure the comic book plots into a new — and generally better — sequence, one aspect of the change is the absence of Mark’s (Steven Yeun) best friend. He was unavoidable in the early issues of the comic. He was also a pest to a certain extent; although, we totally get why he would get so mad when anyone would try to shorten his name. But he represented the sense of normalcy Mark would soon lose. Then, when they got to college, his purpose changed as he morphed into the personification of something Mark forgot to deal with. He also continued to evolve into someone fairly different from the high school kid we met in the earlier issues.
So, it is definitely nice to see the TV series reflect all these facets in this week’s episode. He’s annoying one moment, absolutely courageous in the attack, empathic to Mark early on, and sympathetic when his concern for Rick drives him into the sewers. That’s a nice trick to pull in 40-ish minutes considering the years it took to do the same in the book.
Of course, one of the comic book’s best aspects the TV series replicates is the asides to long-term arcs, like Robot’s (Zachary Quinto) plans with the Mauler Brothers (Clancy Brown), so some of this may be part of that impulse. At the same time, though, William was not an aside in the book’s early going, but a core part of the cast through the first 40 issues or so. And so, his absence was felt once the animated series switched to the weekly release pattern. That said, we’re glad the producers and writing team sensed this might be an issue for fans and worked him into the episode with a lot of the material from the college days.
Besides Rick (Jonathan Groff), you also got both Reanimen attacks, Eve’s (Gillian Jacobs) decision to help out on the African continent — although, we’d still love some specificity as to where she resides — a version of Gary (if only for a moment), and a quick skip to Amber’s (Zazie Beetz) disappointment when Mark “runs” from the Reaniman in the Upstate U quad.
Although the program has established the teen characters as slightly younger than their comic book counterparts, keeping Upstate U as a location for most of these events is the right call. For one thing: Mark’s want for a more “normal life” is established here with clarity. After nearly being beaten to death, he would rather have a rich college experience with Amber than be Invincible. It totally tracks from a character perspective and, once you add voices to the characters, it is absolutely heartbreaking that Mark’s desire to keep people safe gets in the way of it.
Another aspect the show has deployed quite well is the sense that this is all too much to ask of a 17- or 18-year-old. It’s there in the comics, to be sure, but this episode offers it in a pressure cooker sort of way as Mark could rescue a lot of people and still maintain Amber’s sightline. But as Invincible’s job is to punch the danger and not necessarily save lives, he ends up looking callow to her; setting off another fascinating change to her character.
Instead of getting mad that he didn’t protect her (as in the comic), her beef now is that he didn’t continue to help others on the quad. As we keep saying, Amber is something of a default character in the comic and giving her more of a personality makes what happens between her and Mark sweeter in the good times and all the more tragic in the bad. See the way her heart breaks twice this episode. And though the temptation might be there to say, “Well, Mark can just tell her he’s Invincible,” book readers already know how that will play out.
And with the Amber we’ve seen on the show so far, we doubt “I’m Invincible” will work as well as it did in the comic.
But that leads us back to one of the more devastating themes throughout Amber’s time in the comic: you have to stick to your own. In terms of superheroes who can more readily empathize with the stresses they face, this may not seem so horrific. In fact, one can read Amber’s existence as a way to delay Mark and Eve’s relationship. In a TV series where Amber is better realized and Black, the notion that love can only exist among “your own” takes on a troubling dimension. Considering the way Invincible has remixed the theme and plots of the first 40 or so issues, it is possible it will take this theme in another direction — as it is, the notion of genetic purity is one the comic refutes constantly. At the same time, though, there is the very valid concern of imposing a superhero reality on Amber. She should be free to make the choice, of course, but will she find a different conclusion than the one the book set out for her?
Also interesting: we’re spending so much time with this relationship instead of the devastating meltdown Nolan (J.K. Simmons) and Debbie (Sandra Oh) are headed toward in their own relationship. Of course, that development feels more of the plot than theme, but the voice work and animation makes the crumbling of her trust all the more sad. Also, Nolan seeing it disintegrate changes the character of their relationship and bookreaders have to wonder how this will impact subsequent events.
Which is a very long way of saying this feels like the most assured episode of Invincible to date. It is very clear on its themes and where it wants to lead viewers. Like Mark, we’d love a day on campus with the most important person in our world, but we’re ready for the moment when every assumption about the world changes — a moment which seems more likely to happen during the season finale than any time else.
Invincible streams Fridays on Amazon.