Villain Decay: “Upgrade”

” They are formidable opponents.–Goliath, on The Pack


Written by: Adam Gilad
Original Air Date: November 9, 1995
Introduces: The Pack 2.0
Timeline placement: November 15 – November 16; December 14, 1995 – December 15
TMNT episode I could make a forced comparison to: N/A

The beats:

  • After an attempted bank robbery is foiled by the gargoyles, the various member of the Pack bicker about  how far they’ve fallen and whose fault it is when they’re approached by Coyote 2.0, who offers them ways to up their game courtesy of Xanatos Enterprises.
  • Goliath, injured during the battle with The Pack, decides that it is time to seriously think about picking a successor to lead the clan should he ever die.  He, however, is not quite sure which member of The Trio is most qualified to bear that burden.
  • Several months later, the Manhattan Clan, minus The Trio, is sent to the site of another disturbance by The Pack.  However, the criminal group is not what it once was: thanks to Xanatos’ upgrades, they have almost literally new people: Wolf is now a human/wolf mutate; Hyena and Jackal are cyborgs; Dingo now fights with spiffy new battle armor and a new sense of disgust towards his teammates; Coyote now has a new shell.  Thanks to this new firepower, The Pack defeats the clan without much trouble.
  • In accordance to a previous agreement stating that leadership of The Pack would go to whomever defeated the largest gargoyle, Coyote declares himself the group’s grand poobah, a motion seconded by a smitten Hyena and objected to by Wolf and Jackal.  Although not at all thrilled with either choice, Dingo casts his tie-breaking vote for Coyote, settling the matter for the moment.
  • The three members of The Trio, after a night spent stopping crime as part of their own competition, return to an empty Clock Tower.  They  spot a message from Fox–disguised as a TV spot for public transportation–that tells them more or less what the situation is and where they can find The Pack.
  • Inside a train car storage facility, The Pack is putting the finishing touches on their plan to get the rest of the gargoyles: after placing a tracking collar on Bronx, they’ll wait until the gargoyle beast returns to the lair and follow him there.  Unbeknownst to them, however, The Trio is already at the station.
  • Aware of their tactical disadvantage, Brooklyn comes up with a plan to rescue their captured clanspeople.  Using himself as bait, the gargoyle draws several of the Pack outdoors and causes a distraction that allows Lexington and Broadway to sneak in and free the others.
  • The clan, now at full strength, battles and defeats the Pack, leaving its defeated members (sans the totaled Coyote) for the police to find.
  • Back at the lair, Goliath explains to the clan just why he’s been so hesitant in choosing a second: he thought it would drive a wedge between the members of the The Trio.  Now convinced that that will not be the case, he is free to announce that he wants Brooklyn to serve as his second.  While flattered, Brooklyn explains that he is also nervous about the idea of replacing Goliath, and tells his leader that he hopes that he won’t have to replace him anytime soon.
  • As all this happens, Xanatos and Fox play chess, relishing the mental challenge dealing with an equal offers.

Continuity Notes:

  • The Pack last appeared in “Leader of The Pack“, the season 2 premiere.
  • When making his pitch to The Pack, Coyote makes reference to several past Xanatos Enterprises
    “products”: Xanatos’ battle armor, Sevarius’ mutates, and Coyote himself.
  • This episode features the second time the various members of the Pack have been arrested.

I suppose we owe it to Batman: TAS, but Gargoyles can claim a fair share of credit, too.  Before them, the standard villain for animation, in my experience tended to follow the Shredder/Cobra Commander mold: while they were funny and amusing, they were utterly incapable of backing up their claim that they should be feared.  I mean, how can you fear this?

(Which isn’t to say that someone can’t be both whiny and scary.  Whininess, when combined with actual power, is terrifying.  Just ask liberals living in states under Republican control, or the people living under the rule of that asshole currently sitting on the Iron Throne .)

Villain decay is the term given to the process whereby a recurring villain is presented or is perceived as being less threatening the more times they are defeated or stopped.  Common in ongoing stories, it requires particular craft to avoid or to make work, and Gargoyles was one of the first western animated series to regularly do so.  Thanks to things like their patented Xanatos tags and their villains’ tendencies to have plan within plans, baddies like Demona were able to be defeated or thwarted multiple times without consequently feeling emasculated.

Which isn’t to say all villains were immune; in fact, The Pack  in particular proved especially prone to this phenomenon.  And it makes sense: given that their motives so far have been limited to killing characters more important than themselves, it eventually became rather impossible for them to back up their claim that they’re the biggest, bestest badasses to ever strap on animal-themed costumes.  Given Gargoyles’ desire to continue using the characters, it thus made sense for both the episode and the characters to confront that fact.  And while I’m not sure the episode succeeds in regaining their lost cred–they’re still defeated handily in the end–it does manage something just as important: it establishes The Packed as a simply fucked up collection of weirdos, to the point that, were I Xanatos, the mere fact that they’ve accepted the offer to become cyborg / mutants would have immediately disqualified them.

Like the gargoyles, The Pack’s story has been one about searching for a purpose.  The villains’ arc, however, goes in reverse, as they progressively lose themselves the longer the story goes.  Here, they’ve lost their leader, their reputation, their confidence; they steal banks in order to try and remember what they were, and by the time Coyote makes its offer, they’re already lost. Once upon a time, they may have grown satisfied with a ticket out of the country.  Now, they’re giving away any chance for normality for something that in the end, does not allow them to overcome the problems that led to their continued defeats.  No wonder Dingo’s disgusted.  Granted, he’s just as lost as the rest of them.  He just decides that he has a better chance if he just stays still, which is what you’re always told to do, when you’re lost.  Although, personally, the point could have been made without the anvils: almost every line of dialogue Harry Monmouth utters has to do with his utter disgust, which makes him come off as a character-shaped mouthpiece.

Then there’s the Trio,  as they determine whether each possesses the capacity for leadership.  While not all succeed, they have, in the end, learned something about themselves, which is many ways the opposite of what the Pack have done.  This–increased knowledge about what one can and cannot do–is a true upgrade.

That said, as much as I like Brooklyn, Lexington, and Broadway as individuals–which is to say, I like them most of the time–I have to admit that I’ve never liked episodes focused on The Trio, and this is no exception.  For some reason, the writers tended to use these episodes to make the characters compete against each other, in a way that tended to highlight their worst qualities, and emphasized how they don’t really have established internal dynamics aside from competition.

To illustrate, let’s go back to The Pack.  I can, without much trouble, tell you how each member feels about each of the others, and know that interactions between, say, Hyena and Jackal are going to be different from those between Wolf and Dingo.   I cannot say the same for the members of the Trio, who tend to coalesce into a samey, interchangeable mass when they’re together.  Despite being more prominent that our favorite canine-themed baddies, I still feel there was lots of space for episodes about Lexington and Brooklyn, Brooklyn and Broadway, Broadway and Lexington, or episodes where the three complemented each other instead of clashing or fading into the background.  We never really got them.  Thus, I can’t help but feel conflicted when the group is more or less dissolved by the time “Clan-Building” ends–Broadway is being all schmoopy with Angela;  Brooklyn is suddenly older, married, and with children; Lexington has business and a love interest to look forward to .  On one hand, The Trio as a unit wasn’t terribly interesting–certainly less so than the new dynamics that the arc creates.  On the other hand, the group’s death feels premature–there were still lots of stories to tell.

Random Thoughts:

  • This episode is an important one in the gargoyles’ journey, since it marks the first time where they start thinking long term about their existence in New York, and the idea that planning for the years ahead, since it’s possible that they might not, in fact, all get killed in the near future, may be a good idea.
  • After “Leader of the Pack” took the trouble to show how The Pack was broken out of prison, it’s a bit eyebrow-raising when the same doesn’t happen here.  While showing it may have been a tad repetitive, the fact that it doesn’t even get a canon-in-training mention on the official timeline makes me want to speculate.  I suppose the simplest answer is that the police simply didn’t have the resources available to hold them after arresting them–this version of New York does not have Norman Osbourne to build prisons for them–but some word on this would be nice.
  • I have thoughts on Fox and Xanatos’ game of chess, but those eventually got large enough to merit their own post.  Watch this space.
  • On that note, I wonder what Fox and Xanatos were actually doing while things were going down.  The framing device of them playing chess is, I’ve always assumed, just that, and not meant to be reflective of what they were actually doing at the time.

5 Responses to Villain Decay: “Upgrade”

  1. Chip Coffin says:

    The Pack was never arrested after their last appearance. Why would they need to be broken out of prison when they weren’t in prison to begin with?

  2. Ian says:

    Welcome to the blog, Chip Coffin. I have to ask you to clarify what you mean by “last appearance”: if you’re talking about their appearance in “Grief” (their last chronological appearance as a group, not counting their off-panel appearance at the end of “Clan-Building”) then you’d be correct. However, if we’re talking about “Upgrade”, I’m unsure what one is meant to conclude from the scene where Morgan and his partner run into the bound Pack if not that they were then taken into police custody. Surely they wouldn’t let wanted fugitives just go.

  3. Chip Coffin says:

    I meant in their appearance before this one. I misunderstood the phrasing. However, didn’t Wolf say that Xanatos helped them skip the country in “Grief”?

  4. Ian says:

    Ah, I see what you’re saying now, and how the way I wrote it is misleading. Sorry about that.

    I haven’t watched “Grief” recently, and have no plans to get to it before it’s place on the review queue arrives, so I can’t say anything regarding it except that if we’re speaking specifically about “leaving the country” that’s almost certainly the case, given that they’re with Coyote when we next see them. It’s the steps in between that I’m curious about. Did Xanatos play a hand in their actual escape from police, or did they do it on their own? Did the equipment to hold them actually ever exist, or were The Pack pretty much in control of the situation l after the gargoyles left? Did somebody actually try and prosecute them for the crimes committed after their upgrade? Did an enterprising defense attorney try to argue that the law no longer applied to Wolf, Jackal, and Hyena because they were no longer human? Did the prosecutor then go on to argue the definition of “cyborg”? There’s a super-interesting story here, the sort I’d like to see explored. : )

  5. Pingback: Women at Work: “Walkabout” | Monsters of New York

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