DC Universe’s Doom Patrol dives deep into the idea that all of its superpowered heroes’ true strengths are grounded in the traumas that made them social outcasts. For each of them, becoming extraordinary also meant accepting certain truths about themselves and being willing to let old parts of their lives go so they could move on to bigger, more complicated things.
Over the past couple of episodes of Doom Patrol’s first season, the team’s been coming into its own after the recent arrival of Cyborg, aka Victor Stone. Vic sees Robotman, Elasti-Woman, Crazy Jane, and Negative Man’s potential for greatness, though they themselves do not. With the arrival of the villainous Mr. Nobody and the Chief’s disappearance, the fledgling Doom Patrol has been thrust into situations like covering up an accident of their own making and tracking down a town that gets consumed by an interdimensional donkey. And each of the emergencies has given the team members opportunities to better understand one another.
In their own ways, at at their own time, each Doom Patroller has opened up about their lives in ways both large and small, but Negative Man, in particular, has been relatively guarded about speaking at length about his past and the nature of his abilities. In the most recent episode, “Puppet Patrol”, Doom Patrol continues to unpack secrets about Larry’s history, and the way the show goes about it adds a new layer of depth both to the show and to Negative Man’s character in a larger sense.
“Puppet Patrol” follows as the Doom Patrol makes its way to Paraguay where they believe they might be able to find the next clue leading to the Chief’s location. Though no one on the team except Cyborg is really all that game for the road trip, everyone begrudgingly agrees to go—and, in being forced to drive there in an RV for two weeks, the episode spends some time fleshing out personality dynamics at play.
When Robotman and one of Jane’s more aggressive personalities aren’t at one another’s throats, they actually get along quite well, with her seeing him as something of a goof to joke around with and him seeing her as a mentee of sorts, perhaps to take his mind off his daughter who believes him to be dead. Despite her airs of being above vigilante justice, Rita does respond well to Cyborg’s challenges of her true grit, though she’s loathe to admit it, and Cyborg really just wishes that everyone would quit fucking around and step up to the plate. Larry’s major conflict is with himself—specifically, the strange energy being residing within his body that’s shown itself to have a certain degree of rebelliousness and disdain for him.
When the being is outside of Larry’s body, it’s able to protect him and fight off whatever dangers they might be facing using its strange powers, but Larry himself becomes unconscious and vulnerable. More than that, though, the “Negative Spirit,” as Jane comes to call it, has a penchant for removing itself from Larry on purpose whenever he tries to do something that displeases it. Though Larry’s attempted to tersely reason with the Negative Spirit, it’s clear they’re at odds with one another, and as “Puppet Patrol” unfolds, this struggle takes on a new meaning.
The gang’s search brings them to the Fuchtopia estate where Nazi mad scientist Heinrich Von Fuchs offers people the chance to become metahumans for a significant cost. Under the guise of wanting to undergo Von Fuchs’ “Morden” procedure, Robotman, Jane, and Negative Man sit through a puppet show explaining how Von Fuchs accidentally created Mr. Nobody before being critically shot by the Chief in the past.
Knowing that the Chief might be somewhere nearby, the heroes split up to search Fuchtopia for signs of his whereabouts, and it’s here where “Puppet Patrol” begins to do some of its most interesting character work. While Jane and Robotman are busy fighting a blonde-haired, lederhosen-clad horde of hive mind Nazis, Negative Man stumbles across the machine that gave Mr. Nobody his abilities and, believing that it might be able to separate the Negative Spirit from him, he impulsively steps inside it and turns it on.
“Puppet Patrol” is also intercut with a number of flashbacks to Negative Man’s past when he was still just Larry Trainor, hotshot Air Force pilot with his heart set on being part of Project Mercury. For all of Larry’s professional success, his personal life is in a state of constant turmoil because he’s living a lie in the closet. Though Larry loves his wife Cheryl and their kids, his heart is with his fellow Airman John, who he can only be with in stolen moments on base, careful that the two of them are never found out.
Taken at face value, Doom Patrol’s spin on Larry’s character is equal parts progressive and played out. He’s gay, and that’s great, but his is yet another queer origin story rooted in tragedy and pain that culminates with him being unable to live his life the way he truly wants. But “Puppet Patrol” demonstrates that the show’s writers understand the perils of falling into that narrative trap, and does important work to give depth to Larry’s life in a way that gives his backstory emotional significance.
Rather than never really understanding what it is about their relationship that isn’t working, Cheryl confides in Larry after his fateful accident that she knows he’s gay. She’s always known, and the reason she’s leaving him isn’t that she wants to hurt him, it’s because she truly wants for both of them to be happy. For his part, John’s willing to stay by Larry’s side, even if it means doing it through the thick walls of lead necessary to keep Larry’s immense radiation from killing anyone he comes in contact with. After losing nearly everything, being with John is all Larry wants in the world but, in the same way that Cheryl understood that she deserved happiness, he understands the same about John, and that the two of them could never be together because of the accident’s effects on his body. And so, John leaves.
What Larry doesn’t understand, but “Puppet Patrol” strongly suggests, is that the Negative Spirit dwelling within him isn’t necessarily a foreign being the way he’s assumed it is, but perhaps a manifestation of all the parts of himself that he’s repressed. In DC’s comics, the specific nature of Negative Man’s powers has varied over the years, ranging from Larry having almost complete control over the Negative Spirit to it being an outright malevolent force that actively dislikes their relationship.
Doom Patrol seems to be preparing to split the difference as Larry goes on to grapple with his feelings and, one imagines, gradually continue to open up to the rest of the team. The more Larry lets go of what Jane calls his “OCD Alpha douche waffle” tendencies, the stronger his bond with the Negative Spirit is likely to become, and as that happens, Doom Patrol’s going to end up being that much more fascinating of a show.