One of the byproducts of DC Universe’s Swamp Thing leaning very heavily into its horror elements is the way the series bypasses the nonstop, brightly-lit action you’d associate with a comic book show. Instead, you get a slow burn of a story that’s broken up by random bursts of alarming darkness that sneak up on you.
While the mysterious swamp of Marais, Louisiana is teeming with all manner of otherworldly monstrosities that Swamp Thing’s titular hero crosses paths with, the show is really more about how the town itself has become a kind of catalyst for the evil lurking in the swamp to become even more dangerous. Marais was a haunted, dangerous place long before Abby Arcane (Crystal Reed) and Alec Holland (Andy Bean) made their way there to investigate the mutagenic disease emanating from the swamp’s waters.
But their presence in the town disrupts the carefully-constructed pretense of normalcy everyone living there has worked so hard to maintain. Separate from the swamp, there’s a festering rot in Marais threatening to infect everything it touches as it spreads, and it’s part of what’s causing the exacerbated danger in the swamp.
Rather than drawing out Alec’s transformation into Swamp Thing, Swamp Thing got right to the point in the final moments of its first episode after Alec suffered a seemingly fatal gunshot and plunged into the swamp’s waters just as his boat exploded. While Alec’s human body definitely died, it was also embraced by the living swamp in its final moments and Alec’s consciousness was...well, it hasn’t exactly been explained, just yet.
Swamp Thing makes his proper on-screen debut in the season’s second episode as the Marais police launch an investigation into Alec’s recent death, and Abby tries to make sense of the strange truth she knows about what’s been happening in the swamp, which no one but Alec ever believed. Alec’s disappearance is concerning to a number of people, yes, but the fact that people in Marais continue to fall in with a sickness that sends them into fits and makes them vomit green ooze keeps everyone’s focus elsewhere. People are on edge because despite the CDC’s best efforts, they can’t seem to contain the disease, and whatever it is that causing people to get sick only seems to grow worse.
For Abby herself, this means she ends up spending her time split between trying to figure out what’s become of Alec and using every interaction she has with a new sick patient as an opportunity to figure out what’s happening in the swamp. But for Swamp Thing’s cast of supporting characters like socialites Maria (Virginia Madsen) and Avery Sunderland (Will Patton) and biogeneticist Jason Woodrue (Kevin Durand), the show’s focus has been more personal.
In different ways, the Sunderlands and Woodrue all embody a kind of “villain” for Abby and Alec to fight against in their battle to save the swamp, but Swamp Thing introduces them all with more than understandable motivations which make you understand that things really are a matter of perspective. Maria bears a deep, abiding hatred for Abby because of Abby’s involvement in her daughter (and Abby’s best friend) Shawna’s accidental death when they were teenagers. Her anger is so intense it blinds Maria from the fact that rage makes her vulnerable to the mystical evil permeating Marais.
As Maria’s poured all of her energy into letting Abby know how much she hates her, the swamp has seemingly set its sights on Maria and begun taking advantage of her grief with visions of Shawna’s ghost. Shawna’s first spectral appearance in the present left it unclear whether she was actually a disembodied spirit, a trick of the swamp, or some blend of the two, and the answer has yet to be properly explained. What or whoever this Shawna is, she knows things about both Maria and Abby that only Shawna could have and she uses her information to torment the women as best as she can.
With Abby, Shawna’s ghost is adversarial, but with Maria, she appeals to the woman’s maternal instincts and plays on her insecurities about her husband’s infidelity. Avery’s a corrupt man who’s done wrong by his wife, but his story’s complicated by the fact that at least some of his wrongdoing was impacted by Shawna’s death, which drove Maria to have a kind of breakdown. In moments between Avery and Maria, Swamp Thing takes the time to emphasize just how profoundly Shawna’s death devastated them both and played a part in the dissolution of their marriage. Maria drew in on herself, but Avery continued to extend himself outwardly, not just with an extramarital affair—with an apparently crooked sheriff Lucilla Cable (Jennifer Beals) who straight-up kills a man who threatens her son Matt (Henderson Wade)—but through years of freewheeling “philanthropy” to Marais’ citizens that he didn’t actually have the funds to afford.
Avery is the closest thing Swamp Thing has to a traditional villain—that is to say, someone directly responsible for all the messed up shit going on in the show. Real estate developers like Avery can only do so much to swampland, which is why a real estate developer in a comic book show would think that a plan to drain the swamp by genetically enhancing its trees to become more absorbent would work. Avery knows that the experiments he’s pushing Woodrue to continue with are almost certain to cause incalculable amounts of damage to the swamp and Marais at large before any good can come of them, but he’s compelled by his desire to maintain his status as an Important Man About Town. It would be more than a stretch to call Avery a sympathetic character, but there are moments when you can almost admire the way he wants to support Marais.
Much of his grandstanding is just a way for him to stroke his ego in the public eye, but there are a number of people throughout the town who honestly could use the kinds of financial assistance he can offer them. But Avery isn’t the successful tycoon he’s made himself out to be and whatever philanthropic inclinations he has are eclipsed by his single-minded desire to keep up appearances, no matter the cost. When Woodrue alerts Avery of Swamp Thing’s presence in the land, the two concoct a plan to capture the creature in hopes of studying and, ideally, capitalizing on its genetic structure, and that specific dynamic is really a crystallization of Swamp Thing’s larger story this far.
Swamp Thing’s very premise leads to a classic story about how nature, hungry for vengeance against humanity, begins to terrorize a town as payback, but the series has deftly downplayed that trope and made it part of the show’s backdrop more than its central focus. There have been more than a few moments where Swamp Thing veered into objectively supernatural territory, like its subplots following seer Madame Xanadu (Jeryl Prescott) and actor Daniel Cassidy (Ian Ziering) who’s dealing with a magical curse that binds him to Marais and causes his skin to burn whenever he tries to leave the city’s limits. But the show’s built on a grounded kind of humanity that anchors the show’s fantasy elements. Interestingly, actor Derek Mears’ Swamp Thing spends a considerable amount of time interacting with Abby, and not just running away from her in fear that she might discover the monster he’s become. There’s some of that, sure, but once Abby’s realized that Swamp Thing and Alec are the same, they quickly come to see one another as allies in their fight to bring balance back to the swamp.
What’s surprising is how frankly human Mears is as Swamp Thing—human here meaning, you never quite get the sense that Swamp Thing has fully let go of his humanity in the exact same way as the character did in DC’s comics. There, Alec Holland’s consciousness is transferred into the swamp itself where he’s able to construct what’s essentially a plant golem that people perceive as being Swamp Thing’s body. Here, it’s less clear whether Swamp Thing is actually Alec transformed or something metaphysical, and Mears brings that to his performance by portraying the character as being more human than plant-as-human. Thankfully, the Green, one of the most conceptual and important parts of Swamp Thing’s lore, has been carried over into the show.
In the season’s fifth episode “Drive All Night,” Swamp Thing encounters a phantom-like man in the swamp played by Macon Blair who begins to explain the exact nature of the elemental being’s newly discovered perception of the world. As a result of his being taken in by the swamp, Alec has a psychic, emotional, and potentially spiritual connection to the Green, the gestalt life-force that exists between all plant life. Swamp Thing’s connection to the Green is what gives him the power to summon plants, but it also gives him a keen understanding of what is plaguing Marais. The imbalance that’s harming the swamp isn’t just a manmade disaster, it’s one that exists within the swamp’s mystical roots where the Green lives. While people like Avery have assumed that the swamp is a resource bounding with untapped potential for them to capitalize on, what they haven’t understood is that the menacing presence gestating in the swamp has designs on them.
Even though Alec/Swamp Thing is connected to the swamp, there are still things about it, like the cancerous darkness growing in certain parts, that he knows nothing about other than the fact that they’re dangerous. Abby’s held tightly to what she knows about the world of epidemiology to keep things in perspective as her partnership with Swamp Thing forces her to accept that there are things about the natural world that can’t be explained.
Swamp Thing’s sixth episode “The Price You Pay” closed on a very interesting note as Swamp Thing spontaneously manifested a flower that began to spore from his body while speaking with Abby, much to her alarm. Before Abby could express her dismay at having been spored, she was shocked to realize that Swamp Thing had apparently reverted back into his human form, and it seemed as if the show was very awkwardly getting around to the two of them hooking up. However, Swamp Thing’s most recent episode, “Brilliant Disguise,” makes it clear that’s not the case quite yet.
What Swamp Thing’s surprise flower actually does is allow Abby to perceive Alec the way he still sees himself, even though he is still physically Swamp Thing. It’s a nifty trick that helps Alec better explain the supernatural nature of the swamp as he takes her on a curious adventure into its depths, where she’s hoping to collect samples specifically from dead zones where the darkness resides. What’s odd about “Brilliant Disguise” is how it plays around with some of the imagery of Alan Moore’s infamous Swamp Thing #34, where Abby and Swamp Thing get it on with the help of some psychoactive fruit he plucks from his body. Instead of a sweet potato, here, Abby bites into a plum Swamp Thing grows, and over the course of the episode, she gains firsthand experience of the Green in a more analytic way. It’s never explained how long Swamp Thing’s flower spores work on Abby, but she spends the bulk of the episode seeing him as Alec as they journey through the swamp and he explains how he feels as if he’s gradually coming to understand his new purpose in life.
Whether Abby really grasps that Alec is on the verge of leaving his humanity behind is unclear as the episode shifts gears when the rot from the swamp attacks them both, forcing Alec to hit pause on his spore powers and retreat with Abby to safety. It’s only through using his powers in Swamp Thing form that Alec’s able to save her, but not before she manages to steal an awkward kiss from him just before the effects of the spores wear off.
Between Abby’s scientific approach to unpacking the swamp’s mysteries and Swamp Thing’s metahuman link to it, the pair have begun to grasp the full shape and scale of the formless, but nonetheless lethal presence in the swamp. The “rot” Swamp Thing refers to isn’t just the natural process of decay, it’s a sentient, malevolent force that can and will destroy whatever it can wrap itself around, and Swamp Thing is the only thing with the abilities to fight it.
Swamp Thing’s all but settled on that being his new calling, one that will likely pull him away from worldly distractions like romantic encounters with Abby for the rest of his life. But all of that ridiculously-meaningful eye contact and fruit eating in the swamp suggests that by the time Swamp Thing’s first and only season comes to a close, its two heroes might just end up following in their comics counterparts’ example, getting a room, and tripping balls together in the biblical sense.
For more, make sure you’re following us on our new Instagram @io9dotcom.