Swamp Thing Gets Surreal and Spooky in “Drive All Night”

DC Universe’s Swamp Thing reached its midpoint with one of its strongest episodes yet. “Drive All Night” continues the show’s winning streak of blending different elements of the horror genre that the series has already done expertly throughout its first four episodes. Thus far on Swamp Thing we have been treated to a copious amount of Southern Gothic atmosphere mixed with a heavy dose of body horror reminiscent of genre classics like The Thing (1982). The many secrets of Marais, Louisiana keep expanding each episode, showcasing new and frightening ways to terrify the audience. “Drive All Night” ventures further into the realm of Southern Gothic and places a heavy emphasis on the presence of ghosts. Executive producer James Wan’s influence can be felt in this episode the most and the show continues to surprise and feel satisfying despite the knowledge that it was cut short before its time.

The opening sequence in Swamp Thing‘s “Drive All Night” is as cinematic as anything on prestige television. It’s expertly shot and evokes James Wan’s Conjuring films in style. “Drive All Night” begins in the Sunderland home as Maria is on the phone with Avery discussing how happy she is now that Susie Coyle (Elle Graham) has come home to stay with them. Just to refresh the memory, last week little Susie was plucked from the hospital after being saved by Abby Arcane (Crystal Reed) and secretly sold to the Sunderlands. How the hell could they possibly get away with that? Rich people can pretty much do whatever the hell they want, especially big fish in small ponds like the Sunderlands. Maria (Virginia Madsen) is clearly not well, but Avery (Will Patton) needs her family’s money to continue to fund Dr. Woodrue’s (Kevin Durand) mysterious operations in Avery’s laboratory.

On one end of the phone, Maria is confronted with a poltergeist that is attempting to convince her that she is her dead daughter Shawna (Given Sharp). I have serious doubts as her main goal seems to be simply to lure Maria in the swamp. There’s a lot of monsters to be found in Swamp Thing as we’ve seen at length, but it’s hard to not see Maria Sunderland as both a victim and a monster. She has suffered mental abuse at the hands of her insane husband Avery for decades, lost a daughter whose ghost never really left her (real or imagined), and has slipped in and out of alcoholism in the years since. The sequence of little Susie being possessed by some warped version of Shawna is absolutely terrifying and as good as anything haunted house-related in recent memory.

On the other end of the line, Avery is wrapping his grip tighter around Sheriff Cable (Jennifer Beals), who we learn has always been in love with him despite herself. She’s another grey character who is perhaps a villain, but more a villain of circumstance than anything else. The colors are all dark reds and shadows as they wait for Avery to get off the phone with Maria to have secret sex in a seedy motel. It’s very reminiscent of the Coen brothers’ first feature, the neo-noir classic Blood Simple (1986). The scene also helped clear up some plot hole worries from the past couple of weeks. Avery is such a sneaky scumbag that he purchased Susie for his wife in order for her to open back up to him as a wife, and as a bank account.

Avery has bit off more than he can chew on a few fronts. They do say that eventually every dog has his day and it seems like slowly but surely Avery is losing his long-standing grip on the town of Marais. Sleeping with Sheriff Cable, who obviously has a deep love for the man, only seems like it can backfire down the road. If there’s one thing Lucille Cable is, it’s smart, calculating and ruthless. A little love-struck or not with Avery’s rekindled love interest, if he crosses her or son Matt in any way, I’d say that all bets are off the table. Also, Liz Tremayne isn’t letting a little show of intimidation scare her, as she basically tells Avery right to his face that his days are numbered. Bold yet wrong move? Obviously. Later, as Liz is leaving the guard two masked men attack her by her car. Daniel/Blue Devil (Ian Ziering) steps in, but is rewarded for his chivalry with a crowbar to the back of the head.

Back in the swamp, Swamp Thing (Derek Mears) learns more about his past as Alec Holland (Andy Bean) and is visited by a strange specter. In one of the show’s best scenes, Macon Blair (Blue Sunshine) guest stars as a sort of guide for Swamp Thing to process all of the ghosts that are haunting him in the swamp. In a wonderful, spooky nod to Blue Velvet (1986), Blair’s specter arrives in a small boat listening to Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams.”  Swamp Thing only gets more esoteric from there as Macon Blair delivers an episode-stealing performance as an entity of some supernatural form that helps Swamp Thingunderstand his powers and the true nature of the swamp. It’s a really great sequence that can now add Lynchian nods to Swamp Thing‘s ever-growing bag of influences.

None of these influences feel forced or nostalgia-driven solely for the sake of experiencing nostalgia. Swamp Thing  has a very specific tone and vision that, despite the positive reviews from fans and critics, is most likely what caused it to go down in flames six days after the pilot’s premiere. “Drive All Night” keeps rolling forward and expanding and also proving some of my past predictions wrong. If Daniel/Blue Devil’s story arc is getting short-changed as I initially predicted, it certainly hasn’t happened yet. The new Swamp Thing derives its title from a key sequence in the episode that solely revolves around Daniel.

Blasting down the two-lane road that is leading toward the Marais town limit, Daniel suddenly comes to a screeching halt in the middle of the street. That turns out to be a really smart move on his part as apparently whatever he thinks he’s done to break the spell keeping him trapped in Marais doesn’t work (as his flaming right arm will attest) the moment he tries to step past the city line. I’m also happy to report that I was wrong about Madame Xanadu’s (Jeryl Prescott) story going nowhere as she joins the action front and center this episode. It’s not only her fault that Shawna (or whatever that ghost is) is possessing Susie and pulling Maria psychologically toward the swamp, but it turns out that Abby Arcane has a very complicated past involving her mentally ill mother who sought out Xanadu’s mystical advice rather than going to see an actual doctor.

Remember last week when for a brief moment it seemed that maybe Drs. Abby Arcane and Jason Woodrue could actually work together for a while? Well, all that’s gone out the window as soon as he realizes that the plant specimen Abby took from Swamp Thing is evidence of an actual living being. He hires a local to take him out to Holland’s lab and discovers enough evidence to convince him that there is indeed a plant-human hybrid living in the swamp of Marais. His calm demeanor from the last episode and seen before with his sick wife is entirely gone as he switches to complete research-driven-mad-scientist mode. When he finally tracks down Avery at the end of “Drive All Night,” he sets up what is surely to be where Swamp Thing is ultimately headed: an attempt by Avery and Woodrue to capture and study Swamp Thing himself.

Macon Blair’s helpful spirit shows Swamp Thing that the trees and the green connect everything in the swamp, and that green runs through him as well. The Swamp Thing is essentially the green made flesh. The ghosts and voices that were terrifying and confusing him were actually the memories of 1,000-year-old trees and voices of long-gone inhabitants telling their stories. Through this mechanism, Swamp Thing goes back in time and finally shows the death of Shawna Sunderland. In a twist of fate, Abby actually did not kill Shawna. She had just convinced herself that she did. The evil in the swamp, the rot, carried Shawna away after Abby pushed her off the Smith Bridge in Marais just before high school graduation. It was a stupid thing to do, but Shawna was about to jump anyway and it wasn’t a long way down. Hopefully, this realization can allow Abby Arcane some peace going forward remembering she isn’t responsible for Shawna’s death.

Jennifer Beals as Sheriff Cable continues to be a formidable presence on Swamp Thing. She goes out to meet a local named Remy who was working the docks the night that Alec Holland was murdered on the lake. Remy seriously misjudges when he thinks he can mess with her just because she’s got a calm Southern vibe and a pretty smile. If it wasn’t clear before “Drive All Night” it’s clear after Lucille gets the drop on Remy and fills him with more bullet holes than Bonnie and Clyde: nobody threatens her son. Poor Remy.

But wait. In bigger news, was he telling the truth that Matt Cable (Henderson Wade) was actually the still-unknown shooter of Alec Holland? And was that actual confirmation that the murder was carried out on Avery’s orders? It certainly appears so but Remy didn’t get to stick around long enough to really expound much on the issue.

The climax of the episode is where it always should be: in the murky swamps surrounding Marais. In a repeat of Shawna’s death, Maria is lured into the water by the specter of her daughter (or is it?) and then dragged under in one of the best jump scenes in a body of water this side of the original Friday the 13th (1980). Thankfully, Swamp Thing is there to save the day and Maria is spared from a watery grave.

“Drive All Night” continued the excellent streak that Swamp Thing has been on since its debut. It’s really a shame that the show only has five more weeks, but 10 hours of Swamp Thing is better than none at all in my book. There are rumors that the show may be saved by another network or streaming service, that the executives at Warner Brothers have been so taken aback with the positive critical and audience response that they are planning to revisit the property as a DCEU film. While that’s certainly an exciting prospect I would never pass up, it doesn’t seem like the correct reaction or anything I want to focus on now.

The series continues to deliver thrills, chills, scares, and excitement one hour a week. All things must pass, and with Swamp Thing, that’s unfortunately all too soon. We’re only halfway there though and the mysteries of the swamp just keep deepening, calling us back for more.

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Written by steve wandling

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