Remember that time you and your sibling had that falling out? Chances are, if you have a close relationship, you probably managed to work it out. You might not have gotten your brother/sister to see your side of things, but you still found ways to tolerate, forgive and ultimately enjoy each other’s company again. Love conquers all, and unconditional familial love is a very special, powerful type of love, right? Yeah, tell that to David Xanatos.
The episode opens with the most cheerful of settings: a dreary back alley with the homeless. A young woman says she “isn’t like them” and this is just a mild setback, implying she’s probably some musician or actress who ran away from home to New York and fell flat on her face. A creepy old British man in a trenchcoat, the likes of which always happen to hang out in dark alleys, escorts her away with a job offer as a “temporary assistant.”
Already, this episode is different. I’m exaggerating a bit on creepiness factor—it doesn’t play that bad, to be honest—but this type of opening is pulled out of Batman far more than Gargoyles as we’ve come to know it. Outside of “Temptation”, we haven’t seen much of the seedy underbelly of Manhattan; there are good guys and bad guys, but the first season skidded over the people in need that aren’t yuppie couples or shopkeeps. It’s the kind of scene that would open a horror movie.
And like any good horror movie, we’re also introduced to our plucky female protagonist, who delivers the best worst joke imaginable: “You know what the zen master said to the hot dog vendor? ‘Make me one with everything!'”
She’s visiting Derek, who’s doing backflips in a plane, like ya do.
Like Elisa has the tendency to do with her brother, she chastises him for missing dinner and blames it all on his job with Xanatos. She still tries to hearken back to the “lead your own life” mantra, but is so passive-aggressive about it that it only makes Derek all the more annoyed. “Xanatos isn’t the reincarnation of Snidely Whiplash,” he says.
They also do a little “cross your heart and hope to die” thing, which isn’t Checkov’s gun or anything. But it’s cute, and shows that, even though they both think the other is a crazy blockhead, they still have a close relationship.
Meanwhile, The Gargoyles wake up and stones fall on people. Nothing to see here, folks.
It doesn’t take long to get to the meat of the episode, though, don’t worry. In fact, from here on out things happen and we power through to the end. It’s about the quickest the momentum has started in an episode, and it’s much appreciated. Especially given how the way the momentum starts is a cat-bat-lady beast breaking out of a dimly-lit facility and tearing through a bunch of angry scientists.
It’s already plenty apparent what’s going on here, if you’ve seen any sci-fi. But thus far in the series, we’ve been introduced to our villains in obvious ways. There have been bait-and-switches here and there for Xanatos and Demona, but for the most part the villains-of-the-week make their entrances as bad guys out to do bad, or ambiguous guys used as tools to do bad. There’s a whole extra story thread happening here that, as of yet, has nothing to do with The Gargoyles. It’s both intriguing, and a little disconcerting.
Meanwhile, Brooklyn and Broadway are gliding around the city when they spot a winged shadow in an alley. They think it might be Demona, to which Brooklyn has a bit of brief crazy rage, a nice moment for of continuity for him. To their surprise, it’s not her, but a gargoyle-like creature they’ve never seen.
They try to talk to her, but she freaks out at the sight of these scary monsters. Brooklyn is immediately enamored, because he’s a suave bachelor who digs chicks who are scared of him. A couple of big vans (with sirens?!) pull up, and a handful of mercenaries spill out. “Tranq them all, let the doc sort them out!” one yells, which is hilarious.
If you recognize the voice (the versatile Kath Soucie) from earlier, you can probably put together who this cat lady is and what’s going on. What’s unexpected is how throwing in actual gargoyle monsters subverts the horror movie cliches. Suddenly the victim is running back to the people she’s escaping from, which is both funny and freaky at the same time. Brooklyn gets hit with a tranq before he can rescue/kidnap her, so Broadway gets them out of there while cat lady is dragged away.
They report back to the clan, and Brooklyn reveals that he is totally infatuated. Because the true test of love is whether or not she’ll tell you to your face that you’re a hideous monster, right bro?
Broadway pulls out a “Gen-U-Tech” bracelet that fell off the cat lady, which Elisa identifies as a hi-tech and expensive tracker. You know, one that loosely fits on the hand of the escaping creature and has the company logo proudly displayed to mark the secret illegal experiments.
Elisa identifies Gen-U-Tech as a Xanatos-funded company, which we aaaallllll know they’re going to investigate and prod Xanatos about. Meanwhile, Xanatos gets a call about his funds being used to hire mercenaries. Derek overhears and joins him on this little venture to investigate, since pilot/bodyguard is what he was hired to do in the first place. I have to admit, I quite like Derek in this episode, even more than usual. He’s level-headed, he’s committed to doing his job, and it seems like he does it pretty darn well. Xanatos also seems like an okay dude, so again, it really feels like Derek is in the right with all the Snidely Whiplash stuff.
They meet Dr. Sevarius, the creepy British man from earlier, at Gen-U-Tech. In case we hadn’t figured it out before, it becomes obvious that this is Tim-fucking-Curry, and suddenly the intrigue is all the higher. Xanatos asks for a breakdown of what Sevarius was being funded to do for plot exposition purposes, and thus we learn this episode’s plot: he was tasked with making a homemade gargoyle from scratch.
So, one thing I really really like with “Metamorphosis” is the science. I mean—okay, let me back up, because this is still Disney Comic Book Science. Gene splicing is pretty much the catch-all for “science-y biology stuff”, but there’s still clearly a decent amount of thought put into how this could be feasible in the Gargoyles world.
Jungle cat ferocity plus a bat’s ability to fly. The explanation of gargoyles storing solar energy during their stone sleep. The ingenious use of electric eels’ “electroreceptors” in place of it. This is really cool stuff! It’s 90s technobabble at its finest, but Gargoyles has the obvious advantage of being a children’s fantasy show. It doesn’t really need to try to make sense half the time, but that it does anyway ought to garner quite a lot of respect. It’s a little more level than average comic book science—no gamma or cosmic radiation or whatever—just things that already exist and theories that are common knowledge, and it’s used vaguely enough that you can buy it. This is a very smart episode of the show, not just because of these details, but also for the character details and reactions we see unfold. Particularly when Sevarius reveals his babies…
It dawns on Xanatos very quickly that there’s no way creatures could be grown from scratch so quickly, and he deduces that they were made from humans. Sevarius confirms that they were human test subjects injected with a mutagenic formula, which rightfully pisses Derek off (who’s been surprisingly content with this thus far.)
“I was fooling myself, I know Sevarius has a bad reputation,” Xanatos says. This scene is good. Xanatos is straight-up noble for the first time in the history of the series, and in the context of this scene alone, it could be argued that Derek’s goodness has rubbed off on him. Xanatos has every intention of going down with Sevarius. We’ll get to the validity of all this later on, but for the time being, Sevarius up and shoots Derek with a dart full of mutagen, which is actually a solid shocker. It’s inevitable, and is exactly where this was all leading, but the sudden twist is well-done.
Meanwhile, The Gargoyles are breaking into Gen-U-Tech to find their cat friend. In addition to the well-written scene before, this entire sequence following is also very engaging. Again, everyone is just smart. Goliath goes in with a plan (well, supposedly, he says.) Lex notices the wires to the alarm.
But they’re using they’re heads and not just bursting in, which is a far cry from their siege back in “Awakening, Part Four.” Or really any episode in the first season for that matter. Lex even uses a computer to help them get in, which shows just how much his technological ability has evolved as of late.
I also like how Goliath uses a combination of blunt force and his claws to get through the glass of the cat-lady’s prison, too. Again, there’s a lot of detail in this episode that makes everyone look good.
Of course, cat lady is kind of obnoxious and sounds the alarm, because she can’t see how these TOTAL STUDS are into her.
The “villain origin story” part of this becomes clear when we check back in with Derek, who’s in the midst of his obviously painful and not-really-that-attractive transformation. The Gargoyles bust in to threaten Xanatos, totally ignoring the medical procedure happening in front of their faces, and in the midst of the chaos the antidote is shattered.
But Sevarius can just make another one, right?
So, it’s not really surprising to say this is a massive turning point here. People have died on this show before—lots of them, actually. But, insensitive as it is to say, it’s easier to kill off a big group of people like the original gargoyle clan and not feel it sink in your gut. They aren’t specific persons; they were a group, a personality-less amalgam that gets shattered offscreen. And all those bad guys getting thrown off cliffs? Whatever. I mean who hasn’t in Disney cartoons, right? But Sevarius is kicked into a tank, falls into a pile of glass and is electrocuted in-full onscreen. To death. This isn’t anywhere near as chilling as when Elisa was shot (nothing really ever will be on this show), but holy shit! The animation in this episode kind of sucks, and it’s silly that he seems to purposefully grab the eel that kills him, but even with those things holding it back? It’s still frightening.
And then it sets in that Derek is now out of options. This show is cynical, it always has been. But there’s a difference between the grandiose cynicism that followed Goliath’s relentless journey, and just totally shitty and unfair luck for Derek. At least Goliath knew he was involved in some intense stuff and was in the middle of a war. Derek is oblivious half the time, and when he’s not he gets royally screwed over just because he happens to be there. And he only happens to be there because he’s a decent pilot and his sister is friends with some superheroes. It’s the ultimate nightmare for a superhero’s friend or family to suffer because of their superheroing, but with Derek we have a unique position of seeing it all from his perspective. And from his perspective…the universe is just mad at him, apparently.
We find out that the (now kind of really annoying) cat lady is Maggie Reed from Ohio. “I need a cure! I’m not a monster!” she says to the attractive monsters who’ve been super nice to her. Though, they’re also really snarly all the time, so that definitely has something to do with her freak-out.
Naturally, Maggie runs away the second they turn to stone, which they all pretty much expected. Goliath swears he’ll confront Xanatos now that they know for sure he was involved in the consent-less mutation, “Even if it means confronting Xanatos at his castle.” Because…that’s been a problem before?
Maggie returns to Xanatos and the cat people, who test out their wings per Xanatos’s permission. Derek is now in full-cat form, and immediately takes on sort of a leadership role to this group of ragtag genetic misfits.
The Gargoyles arrive, and a fight breaks out immediately, thanks to Derek’s (pretty justified) anger towards him. Maggie, meanwhile, thinks they want her to stay a monster, which is why she fights back even though they’ve been nothing but nice. Also, it turns out they can shoot electricity from their hands, because why not?
Elisa arrives to help The Gargoyles, assuring the cat people that Goliath would never intentionally hurt anyone. Derek doesn’t immediately reveal his identity, instead asking her to call him “Talon”, which…yeah, sorry, it’s totally out of character and totally stupid. I’m not even giving this a pass for it being a cartoon. That name is stupid, and that Derek decides to suddenly pull it out now is stupid. GRANTED, I do see a sort of purposeful symbolism, where this represents Derek embracing his new form as a cat-warrior on a revenge kick. I don’t mind that idea, and giving himself a silly name would be justified for that. But now’s not the time. He hasn’t crossed into acceptance yet.
Anyway, Elisa, who’s really awesome in this scenario for being the only peacemaker, pleads that she just wants to help. “Promise?” Talon says. “Cross my heart,” Elisa responds. “And hope to–” “Derek?!”
I loooooove this. Love. The cross your heart thing is silly and was shoehorned in earlier, yeah. I wish there’d been a smoother way to reveal Derek’s identity. But the way this is executed is perfect. The voice-acting in this entire episode is phenomenal, and since Derek’s introduction Salli Richardson-Whitfield and Rocky Carroll have played off one-another impeccably well. Carroll himself steals the show this week, even moreso than legendary scene-stealer Tim Curry. His transformation from Derek to the gruffer Talon is subtle but effective, and he has a hell of a time with Derek’s transformation. That makes it all the more tragic, too, because Carroll makes him such an instantly likeable character.
It’s even worse when he electrocutes Elisa by accident. It’s a lot of typical “I’m a monster!” fare, don’t get me wrong. But the introduction of Derek in “My Brother’s Keeper” provided enough emotional foundation that it resonates when Elisa loses the one human she was closest to.
Look at that face! Again, I’m pretty mad at how lame the artwork and animation is this week, but they nail it when they need to. We don’t get any resolution either; Derek/Talon lets out a Goliath-esque yell, and the mutants take off. Brooklyn is hit hard by the rejection of Maggie. Elisa declares war on Xanatos. Shit has gotten real. The stakes on this show have always been markedly high, but we’re really getting a level of emotional stakes that hadn’t been achieved yet. We know these characters now, and they aren’t just getting pissed off at broad moral incongruities or swearing revenge on mean villains. They’re having their hearts ripped out.
And then? Sevarius shows up in Xanatos’s office, having shed what was apparently old-man make-up the whole time.
So…yeah. Apparently the show pulled a Prestige before that movie existed, as Sevarius has been living this old, decrepit man persona for…well…a long time, right? It was during this entire process, also in public, maybe even longer. I mean, it shows that he must be some kind of sociopath to be willing to do that just for…well…a weirdly unnecessary Xanatos Gambit. They forced the subjects to escape so The Gargoyles would attack and cause Derek to turn into a monster so he’d have an enemy. Since Derek is convinced that only Xanatos can save him, it’ll keep him right where Xanatos wants him. Yeah.
I normally like these bait-and-switches for Xanatos, and we all dig Xanatos Gambits. But at a certain point, there’s a limit to how deviously complex the plan can to be, and this one is particularly screwy for how unnecessary the Sevarius disguise or Derek angle is. That said, there’s a brilliance to just how much sense it makes—why that Gen-U-Tech bracelet was so obvious, why Xanatos was suddenly so noble, why Sevarius purposefully grabbed an electric eel, how Xanatos could have skimmed over Sevarius’s deeds despite being a total micromanager. There was a lot of thought put into the crafting of this episode, and that’s one of the reasons it’s so good. It’s smart.
But the downside is that this plan also negates some of the kafkaesque horror of the story by complicating it, which is a shame. I’m not just saying that because of the titular metamorphosis; it’s surreal, bad things happening to good people for no good reason, with no logical way out. Everyone is smart and even rational, and yet everyone still makes the wrong decision. It’s horrible, but it’s also beautiful in just how well this tragic tale is spun. This might be the darkest story the show has thrown out, which is saying a lot considering how the opening episodes went. The body horror is presented better than in “Reawakening”, and the idea of losing consent to what happens to your body is adult fear #1.
The episode ends with everyone depressed and Elisa sobbing. And guess what?
She’s alone. Remember last season? It’s not a coincidence. Elisa is the odd human woman out. As much as they might be a clan right now, Elisa is still different. The Gargoyles are brothers, they understand each other, and they’re inherently there for one another. But when they turn to stone, where is Elisa left? She’s in a corner, crying in a pile of hay, which can’t be that comfortable. She was responsible for driving her confidante away and putting him in this position, and there’s nothing she can do but declare war on the most invincible man in the world. The only sliver of hope left lies in the existence of two sociopaths, and no one even knows one of them still exists. As cynical as season one was, this episode is hopelessness, through and through.
If I were to make a list of episodes to show someone who’s never seen Gargoyles, “Metamorphosis” would definitely be on the list. It’s not a perfect episode by any standards—I’d say “best episode” still belongs to “Awakening, Part Five” right now—but it’s a great representation of how dark it can get, and how it does that darkness well. The only things really holding it back are the weak animation team and the extent to which Xanatos’s gambit complicates what the episode tries to do. But ultimately, that’s nothing compared to the pit this episode leaves in your stomach. I can’t say anyone likes feeling that way, but that the show can hook us in so completely on an emotional level is a testament to how much it’s grown. There’s not a lot of poetic depth or moral undertones flowing through here, but it’s cleverly put together, and certainly makes you feel. Even if the feeling it gives is pretty hopeless.
Next time: I really want to make a Mass Effect reference. (“Legion”)