DC’s ‘Doom Patrol’ is the rare superhero show that understands trauma
Superhero stories have taught us that surviving the worst circumstances can be powerfully transformative, like Tony Stark building the first Iron Man suit or Bruce Wayne becoming Batman. But the reality is not so glorious. There’s nothing noble about living with trauma. Usually, it’s messy and painful and littered with regressions and false steps.
Doom Patrol is a show all about the parts that aren’t so easily squared away. The titular superhero team may have remarkable abilities, but their unruly powers came at extreme cost. For each of them, their mutations are a result of a life-altering incident that irrevocably altered their life.
They’ve been brought together over the span of decades by Dr. Niles Caulder (Timothy Dalton), dubbed “The Chief,” who saves them in one way or another, and brings them to stay in his mansion. He gives them a safe space surrounded by others as fragile as they are so they can regain their sense of self.
When he’s captured by Mr. Nobody (Alan Tudyk) at the start of the season, the group is forced to move from fragile co-existence to co-dependence, throwing them into disarray as they contemplate facing the outside world without The Chief’s guidance and support.
During the team’s first excursion away from the mansion, Larry (Matt Bomer), wrapped in bandages head-to-toe to hide his burned skin, anxiously stares out from the safety of the team’s bus. He hadn’t left the mansion in years, and going out into society was never his strong suit to begin with. He gathers his courage and makes a move.
It’s a process I’m very familiar with.
When I was a teenager, I was bullied to the point of becoming suicidal. Starting as a friend’s boyfriend, my bully tore through my social circle in a violent haze of entitlement and adolescent rage over the course of a year, with me one of his main victims. I’d miss school because he was waiting outside my mom’s apartment to attack me. He’d send menacing texts and turn any interaction into an attempt at coercion. I’m still not sure why I became one of his foremost targets. I think a lack of self-esteem just made me easy prey. He knew he could, so he did.
Doom Patrol is a superhero show that understands that the longest, greatest battles we face are against ourselves.
Most of the Doom Patrol’s squad are products of questionable decisions, unfair choices and some astonishingly bad luck. Cliff’s (Brendan Fraser) adultery tore his family apart, the fateful crash that made him a brain in a robot suit tragically occurring as he and his wife were starting to reconcile. Rita (April Bowlby) may have been hard-nosed and manipulative, but she was playing by the patriarchal rules of classic Hollywood. Larry was living a double-life because being a successful Air Force pilot and queer were incompatible with each other in the 1960s.
Traumatic events can leave us wishing we’d done things differently, blaming ourselves within warped perceptions of who we even are anymore. There isn’t always a better choice, and victims are not to blame for the behavior of abusers. I wasn’t the nicest person, I’d a selfish streak not unlike Rita’s, but that doesn’t make what happened right or excuse the friends that sat idly by. “Ah, lads, be friends,” one quipped after I was told to kill myself. They probably didn’t think he was being serious, but I knew he was, and I have their indifference as mentally ingrained as anything my bully did.
He assaulted me twice – once punching me to the ground outside the local girl’s high-school when I lost my temper with him, and again at a Blink-182 concert three years later. Finding me in the audience, he blamed me for him ending up in prison and elbowed me twice in the face so hard it broke the skin. I still have the scar.
I’d considered fighting back that second time. I decided against it in the moment because I figured if I let him do what he was going to do he’d stop. I’ve seen him twice in the nine years since then, and despite him shouting to make sure I saw him, he hasn’t laid another finger on me.
What makes the Doom Patrol remarkable is that, when we first meet them, they’re people similarly downtrodden. They’re broken and beaten down, taking life day by day with as little discomfort as possible, trying to get used to these weird powers they’ve been cursed with. Existence has become its own kind of morose punishment for who they were.
Their triumph — their heroism — is in the slow march towards accepting that what they’ve become doesn’t lessen who they are and deciding to face their demons, and Mr. Nobody, regardless of the outcome. If it all goes wrong, well at least they tried, and did so on their terms.
Nowadays, I’ve become used to the tinge of fear when I leave the house. Most times I shrug it off, like Larry leaving that bus. But some days are like Jane (Diane Guerrero) defiantly screaming at the massive internal projection of her abusive father in “Jane Patrol.” Others, I’m too exhausted to bother. Doom Patrol is a superhero show that understands that the longest, greatest battles we face are against ourselves.
Our disparate protagonists resist connection because solitude is comfortable when living with this kind of anguish. Vulnerability might lead to people wanting to talk about it, like Cliff does to Jane after seeing the underground, and that means risking more manipulation and heartache. But being alone eventually becomes a cage from which you watch the rest of the world with only your pain for company.
I feel Jane’s level of discomfort, though not quite with the same animosity. This piece, in itself, is an exercise in rebutting my own secrecy and making what happened to me known. Silence only favors the oppressive, and I am tired of keeping myself down.
“I assure you there are many monsters in this world, and none of them, not a one, is you,” Dr. Caulder tells Cliff in the opening episode. Perhaps Doom Patrol‘s most heroic accomplishment is making one believe that that just might be true.