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‘Red Means Stop’ is a frustrating conclusion to a frustrating season of television. It introduces a monstrously enjoyable new character in Clancy Brown’s Red Death, a sort of perverse apotheosis for the show’s ideas about the impossibility of separating work and fantasy from personal life, and meanders through several conversations with the potential to pay off in future chaos, but otherwise it remains stubbornly devoid of tension and uninterested in its characters. It’s an episode centered on an elaborate sting without even the faintest stab at real stakes or a resolution, a random collage of scenes alongside a largely samey outing for Gary and the Monarch and a lackluster Saw gag.
The episode doesn’t even try to hide the fact that it’s spinning its wheels. Dr. Mrs. the Monarch swears revenge on the Blue Morpho for what feels like the third time, Rusty shares another monstrous anecdote about his childhood which the show studiously avoids investigating in favor of embarking on Colonel Gentleman accusing Action Man of having murdered a baby. There’s nothing binding it all together, nothing at stake for any of the players, and precious little on deck for season 7. After eight episodes, all that The Venture Bros has to show for itself is that it feels much more like a sitcom than ever before.
Clancy Brown, Mr. Krabbs himself, is a national treasure, and Red Death is by far the episode’s strongest element. His deep, growling voice glides effortlessly from “engaged and insightful older friend” to “man who owns a warehouse full of meat hooks and rusty chains” without a hitch. Red Death really has mastered the challenge of juggling work and daily life, and watching Gary and the Monarch work themselves into a tizzy over his peerless villainy and his idyllic home life is equal parts sad and funny. “Rules help us hate,” he counsels the Monarch sagely, patting the younger man’s shoulder with genial affection after dragging him out of a burning metal hiding hole.
The gem of wisdom at the heart of Red Death’s advice is a direct address to the show’s growing problem with stasis. In order for the Monarch, “The Man who Hates Dr. Venture,” to progress in life, he has to kill his nemesis and move on. That’s the kind of thing the series has been tacking away from for years now, an energy sorely lacking from a perfectly okay season finale that loses nothing by risking nothing.