(Note: This post contains spoilers for the Season 7 finale of “The Venture Bros.”)
“The Venture Bros.” has changed quite a bit over seven seasons and 15 years, but nowhere is that more clear than in the story of its title characters, brothers Hank and Dean. And in season finale, “The Saphrax Protocol, “their relationship took a turn that hints at what could turn into the show’s most tragic story to date: The Venture Bros. as arch enemies.
It became clear midway through Season 7 that, while Hank and Dean didn’t get as much screen time as they might have in previous seasons, the emotional heart of the series was with them. Finally, the Venture brothers are being allowed to grow up. But with growing up comes the ability of Dean and Hank to hurt each other.
In the penultimate episode of the season, “The Forecast Manufacturer,” Dean committed a huge act of betrayal: He slept with Sarina (Cristin Milioti), Hank’s girlfriend. And when Hank caught Dean and Sarina in the act, he had a stroke from the shock, and went into a coma. So he remains as the episode begins, stuck in a heavily metaphorical comatose dream influenced by a combination of “Barbarella” and “The Empire Strikes Back,” while Dean keeps a vigil for him at his hospital bed.
For Dean, Hank’s near-death is a huge wakeup call, and so it is that he spends the episode explaining to his comatose brother all the ways he has been terrible to him over the years. There’s a lot he confesses to, but the main thing is that Dean admits he’s worried and depressed about the distance that’s grown between them — distance Dean reveals he was as much responsible for as Hank was. That led him to sleep with Serina in hopes of breaking her and Hank up. Dean even confesses he’s jealous that Hank is the kind of person who feels no shame walking around in public wearing a “Batman” mask.
Hank, meanwhile, realizes during his comatose dream that he has been avoiding even the beginnings of adulthood, by becoming obsessed with his girlfriend and living a kind of fantasy world in real life to avoid it. This wakes Hank up from his coma, ironically just as Dean has fallen asleep in the hospital. Dean wakes up to learn Hank checked himself out, and in the episode’s final moments, Dean scrambles outside looking desperately for Hank, but to no avail.
In voice over narration that, by the way, totally parodies the end of “Darkman,” Hank disappears into a crowd, proclaiming his intent to go find himself, to finally grow up. As he walks into the distance, he turns around for one last look back, this time covering his face… with that “Batman” mask.
Throughout the season, Hank (Christopher McCulloch) and Dean (Michael Sinterniklaas) took serious, if tentative, steps into adulthood, although the distance they covered wasn’t equal. They’ve both been exposed to countless dangers since childhood, and as young adults have reacted in dramatically different ways.
Hank, still content to indulge in childlike bouts of make-believe, is more or less at home in the weird world of costumed villains and killer spies in which the Ventures live. The madness of it all rolls off his back when he isn’t actively trying to take part, which to his disappointment he’s constantly forbidden from doing. Worse, he knows he’s clearly not his father’s favorite, knowledge that has depressed and alienated him.
Dean, meanwhile, has some unwanted knowledge of his own that Hank doesn’t. For instance, of his father, Rusty Venture’s ill-advised dalliance with the underage president of the Rusty Venture fan club, which resulted in the secret birth of Hank and Dean’s half-brother, actually Hank’s friend Dermot. Dean also knows the horrifying truth about himself: he and Hank are actually clones, activated after their originals were killed, with all the originals’ backed-up memories uploaded into their brains. and what’s worse, they’re the 14th such clones — they’re actually at least three years (at least) older than they think they are, because of lengthy gaps between clone activations. And by this point in his life, he’s very much over all of it.
And that’s not including the fact that Rusty has ignored both brothers’ natures: Hank, who craves the approval and companionship of his father, but is rejected as unworthy; and Dean, who wants no part of his father’s life or the family business at all, and whose objections are ignored.
In the end, the brothers are now separated, not only by an emotional gulf, but by a physical one.
So what does this distance mean for Season 8? Their drama stems from their attempts to avoid the choices set for them by their father. And it’s very easy to see how those attempts will lead them down that exact path, by becoming each other’s opposite.
Hank seems very intent on living the superhero life he’s always envisioned for himself — he’s even wearing a Batman Halloween mask in his final appearance in Season 7. He could easily become a “protagonist,” to use the official terminology for “Hero” of the Guild of Calamitous Intent.
Could Dean, meanwhile, become Hank’s antagonist? In a lot of ways, Dean already has. And that’s not accounting for their father, Rusty, who has never been able to pull himself free of the superhero life his father Jonas (Paul Boocock) created for him. And despite his complaints, Rusty has been pushing Dean into that life, just as Jonas pushed Rusty into it. The ruts are well-worn, and they’re also all Dean and Hank have ever known.
To see Dean and Hank stuck forever on the hamster wheel of “costumed aggression,” constantly angry at and jealous of each other for the rest of their lives, would be fitting with the show’s hilarious but often difficult looks toxic masculinity, parenthood, failure, and whether people can change for the better. It’d certainly make for some great comedy to see Hank’s idea of Batman face off against Dean’s idea of, say, Lex Luthor. And considering the show has teased that there might be a new set of Venture brothers to fulfill the title of the show, contrasting that conflict with this new one would be a great touch.
But that, really, would be the most tragic part of a show that’s often already pretty tragic. With the story of Hank and Dean, “The Venture Bros.” is exploring coming of age through its particularly warped lens, but it’s pitting the Ventures against history, inertia, and trauma. The big question of Season 8 isn’t whether Rusty and the Monarch are brothers, or what will become of the Guild of Calamitous Intent. It’s whether Hank and Dean can become men, what men they’ll become, and whether they’ll be able to stop hurting each other along the way.