MHAM: How ‘Doom Patrol’ Deconstructs Superhero Tropes to Explore Mental Illness

To say that Doom Patrol is a very weird show would be an understatement. Since its debut on DC Universe last year, the show has given us some of the strangest and most bizarre moments ever seen in the history of TV. There’s a talking giant cockroach named Ezekiel who can predict the end of the world; a group of Nazi scientists who turns a tourist into an Animal-Vegetable-Mineral Man; a bounty hunter with the ability to track down individuals by consuming their facial hair, and much more. Not to mention that the main cast doesn’t resemble the usual superhumans we’re used to seeing in other DC or Marvel installments.

However, underneath all of those idiosyncrasies, Doom Patrol tells a heartfelt human story about a group of individuals trying to find a place in a world that annihilates them. Though Doom Patrol is far from the first to tackle this concept, the DC series manages to set itself apart by straying away from the “good guy vs. bad guy” tropes to explore more compelling subjects rarely found in other comic book adaptations; mental health and the difficulties of forgiving oneself. The result is a show that is moving, sad, and human all at once.

We are introduced to this whimsical world by Niles Caulder (Timothy Dalton), also known as The Chief – a doctor who takes care of the Doom Patrol members within the safety of his mansion. The superheroes in question consist of Cliff Steele (Brendan Fraser/Riley Shanahan), a former NASCAR driver whose brain is transplanted into a robotic body after a tragic car accident; Rita Farr (April Bowlby), a former Hollywood star who gains the ability to alter her body into a blob after getting exposed to a toxic gas; Crazy Jane (Diane Guerrero), a young woman who develops 64 personalities as a result of childhood trauma; Larry Trainor (Matt Bomer/Matthew Zuk), a former Air Force pilot who has a negative energy being inside of him; and Victor Stone (Joivan Wade), a hopeful superhero with daddy issue.

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The show begins with supervillain Mr. Nobody (Alan Tudyk) kidnapping Niles, thus leaving his gang of misfit heroes no choice but to band together in order to save him. But instead of going the familiar route and focusing on the group’s attempt to defeat Mr. Nobody, the show chooses to highlight the personal journey that each character must face while dealing with everyday struggles and mental health issues.

Through a series of flashbacks, the show gives an insight into the burdens that each member of Doom Patrol has to shoulder. For Cliff, it is guilt. Before he became Robotman, Cliff was a  negligent husband and father. He cheated on his wife and never showed any affections toward his daughter. That is, until one day he decided to begin reconciling with his wife and be the father that he should’ve been all the time after realizing that he didn’t have anyone but them. But of course, it was too late. A car crash killed his wife and left Cliff bodiless – only his brain survived the accident. This guilt and regret eventually manifest into something bigger; depression and rage issues. Cliff tries to redeem himself by trying to be there for Jane in a way that he wasn’t for his daughter. Problem is, Jane has an issue of her own that she needs to resolve herself. And to have Cliff breathing down her neck every second is something that she doesn’t need at the moment.

In the show’s ninth episode ‘Jane Patrol’, we learn that when Jane was a child, she was sexually and physically abused by her own father. In order to cope with the trauma, Jane develops 64 personalities, allowing her to have a little sense of safety and comfort anytime the trauma resurfaces. Each of her personalities has a different power, and all of them exist in Jane’s subconscious known as the Underground. After a series of traumatic events Jane goes comatose and retreats into the underground. She wants to make sense of her pain by going to a well where Jane’s original self, Kay Challis, buries her trauma. But anytime one of Jane’s personalities visits the well, they never return. So when Cliff goes to chase Jane into the Underground against everyone’s wishes, he decides to make Jane realize that, yes, living with trauma is hard, but it doesn’t mean that she should let it win.

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Of course, in the end, it’s all up for Jane to decide which choice is best for her, and neither we nor Cliff should judge whatever choice she makes. But at that moment, Cliff’s presence is a sign for Jane that there’s someone out there who still cares for her and whom she can trust with all her heart. Doom Patrol understands that the path to recovering oneself from trauma is difficult and messy. But through Jane and Cliff, the show makes us aware that it’s not a road that we should take alone, and that there’s always someone who we can always talk to. 

Cliff and Jane’s dynamic mirrors the complicated relationship between Victor and his father Silas (Phil Morris). At first, there seems to be nothing wrong with their relationship. Victor is a good son, and Silas seems to always help Victor going through his transformation as Cyborg. But it’s later revealed that Victor assumed that the explosion that killed his mother happened because of him, and has been harbouring guilt ever since. Much like how Cliff tries to redeem himself by taking care of Jane, Victor attempts to resolve his guilt by always saying yes to his father. However, Silas begins to weaponize Victor’s guilt for his own gain, which soon becomes detrimental to Victor’s health. Victor’s journey throughout the season is about him finally breaking off the toxic relationship he has with his father, and the show underscores that journey in a powerful way.

Through how often Victor keeps questioning his self-worth and reality, Doom Patrol shows us how unhealthy relationships can affect our mental health, and even damage our worldview and confidence. The show also reminds us that it’s important to end a relationship that has gone toxic for the sake of our well-being. The process may be hurtful, and the aftermath will no doubt leave a big scar, but by ending it, we can finally free ourselves from all the damages, and thus begin to have a much healthier life.

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Larry’s struggle comes from self-loathing and buried regret. Before gaining his power —or more like a curse— Larry lived a double life; one as a straight male with a wife and children at home, and the other one as a closeted gay man with a secret lover named John (Kyle Clements). The negative being inside of him is not just a power, but also a metaphor of the internalized homophobia that has since grown into something bigger and unhealthier. Throughout the season, Larry is challenged to make peace with himself, and to start forgiving himself for everything that has happened in his past. He may not initially realize how important it is to stop resisting the negative being inside of him, and to an extent his sexuality too, for his own mental health. But once he begins to accept the negative spirit and his sexuality, Larry allows himself to heal from all the pain caused by the loneliness and depression he has to face for a very long time. Larry’s heartbreaking struggle of coming to terms with his queerness will for sure resonate with a lot of people who’ve been experiencing the same thing as him. The show knows that to feel lonely with no one to talk to is not a good feeling, and oftentimes can also affect our own well-being. And as demonstrated by Larry, Doom Patrol also shows us that once we embrace our place and identity in a greater community, we can allow ourselves to find happiness again and live a better life.

What Rita’s suffering may not always take center stage, but it doesn’t make it any less meaningful. As mentioned earlier, Rita was a Hollywood star before joining Doom Patrol, though her previous life wasn’t exactly all that glamourous. Later, it’s revealed that in order to survive Hollywood, not only did Rita have to present a version of herself that was a facade, she also had to contribute to the sexual exploitation of young Hollywood stars – something that she has since manifested into guilt. Rita is too ashamed to admit her sin, and instead chooses to bottle everything up. Like how Larry’s power is a metaphor for his struggle, Rita’s ability to transform into a giant blob is also a reflection of the real image that she’s been hiding underneath the image that she presents to the world But this power is not something that she can always control, at least until she finally starts to admit her faults and communicate her problem to the other members of Doom Patrol — a journey that clearly is far from easy, but once it’s achieved, it can be very transformative.As illustrated by the personal journeys that the characters take, Doom Patrol shows us that trauma isn’t something that we can always escape from, but it is something that we need to make peace with. Doom Patrol, in the end, has gone beyond what comic book adaptations can achieve. It reminds us that even though forgiving ourselves and accepting our pain are oftentimes difficult and messy, it’s an important step if we want to begin the healing process. And while doing so, the show also wants us to know that no matter how struggling we are, that we’re not alone. There’s always someone out there like Cliff, Jane, Rita, Larry, and Victor, that we can always count on.

Header image courtesy of Warner Bros