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'Swamp Thing' 1.09 Review: The Anatomy Lesson

'Swamp Thing' takes on an iconic comic book issue and proves its brilliance.

Swamp Thing lays on a dissection table surrounded by masked men
(Image: © The CW)

Our Verdict

This might just be the best episode of the entire season.

For

  • 🌱An eerie supernatural tone that feels like it could carry an entirely new season.
  • 🌱Crystal Reed and Maria Sten deserve a mystery solving spin-off.
  • 🌱The autopsy features some practical effects you won't believe.
  • 🌱Kevin Durand would be the dream season two big bad.
  • 🌱Derek Mears is the only plant elemental creature who might make you cry.
  • 🌱A trippy philosophical exploration of existence and what makes us human.

Against

  • 🌱Can't believe there's only one episode left. Please renew Swamp Thing.

This post contains spoilers for Swamp Thing
Check out our last review here

"I am thinking about the old man. I am thinking about the cracking of his joints as he runs. I am thinking of the terror in his ancient, atrophied heart." - Jason Woodrue, Swamp Thing Vol 2, #21

In 1984, a young British writer called Alan Moore was given an unenviable task. He had to take the reins of Swamp Thing, a horror comic about a plant elemental creature which had been resurrected due to the 1982 Wes Craven movie based on the original series. Moore had no interest in the monster as he existed, a man transformed into a monster. So in his first ever issue, he killed the titular character in a hail of gunfire. In his second issue, Saga of the Swamp Thing #21 "The Anatomy Lesson," Moore reinvented the heroic beast in an entirely new fashion, retroactively revealing that Swamp Thing is not truly Alec Holland but instead a plant-based organism who absorbed the memories of the dead man after he was killed in the swamp. 

Throughout this season, the influence of Alan Moore, Steve Bissette, and John Totleben's groundbreaking Swamp Thing run has been clear, but none more so than in this episode. Though it's not a direct translation, it is an impressive example of how you can take a truly great piece of sequential storytelling and translate it to the screen. The biggest change, of course, is the centering of Abby Arcane (Crystal Reed), something that the series has excelled at from the outset. So even though Jason Woodrue (Kevin Durand) and Swampy are at the core of this episode--just like they were in the comics, with the former dissecting the latter--we begin with Abby and Liz (Maria Sten) on the trail of Jason Woodrue and hopefully Swamp Thing. Their search starts at his home, where they find the other Dr. Woodrue, his wife Caroline (Selena Anduze). In a tragic bit of dramatic irony, we already know what they discover: Jason's wife has late stage Alzheimer's disease, which is the drive behind his desperation to dissect Swamp Thing, hoping to use Swampy's regenerative powers to find a cure. 

Their journey is interspersed with the titular dissection as Jason does an autopsy on what he thinks is the dead body of the man once known as Alec Holland. Lit in eerie greens and brought to life with wonderful practical effects, Durand shines as the scientist driven mad by love. Once Swamp Thing wakes up and the dissection continues on a living, breathing creature, this episode becomes a truly special exercise in horror TV. As Woodrue pulls each of Alec's organs out, he reveals the truth: there is nothing human left in Swamp Thing. Or perhaps there never was. Instead, it is as if the plant creature has willed organs, lumps of greenery and chloroplasts imitating a human body. See, Swamp Thing isn't a man at all. As Woodrue so cruelly puts it, "You're a plant that thinks it's a man." This is a key tenet of contemporary Swamp Thing lore . It's ultra tragic here as we've seen Alec become the monster and joined his journey to heal, but now the truth is revealed. The plant creature has just absorbed the memories of Alec, even the memories of having working organs and a human body, but he was never truly Alec at all. 

Swamp Thing isn't the only one who's having a revelation about who they truly are, though. Daniel Cassidy (Ian Ziering) is being plagued by nightmares of Abby and Liz's death. It seems like they might be something more when he's visited by the Phantom Stranger (Macon Blair), who explains that what he saw was a vision of a possible future. It's been hinted at all season that the Stranger tricked Daniel into making a deal with the Devil when he took on the role as the heroic Blue Devil in an action movie years before, and that's confirmed here. See, after being experimented on by Woodrue, now Danny has superpowers and the Stranger expects him to put on the Blue Devil suit to save the day. 

It looks like Abby and Liz might need that help as they locate Jason's pop up Conclave lab. Strange plant life begins to bloom, leading them to Alec. Abby recognizes it as the Green trying to help its new protector. The girls end up hiding in the same storage room that we saw them leave and ultimately die outside of in Daniel's vision. But Abby is far from a damsel in distress and cuts the power, leaving the soldiers vulnerable to the Blue Devil's attack. It's incredibly cool to finally see this iconic deepcut DC hero come to the screen. And in the few moments where we get to see his horned mask, it's even cooler. Luckily, Daniel manages to disarm the armed guards, allowing Abby and Liz to escape and continue their mission, but not before they see the strange glowing blue creature, adding another monster to call Marais home. 

Abby and Liz find Alec and help him escape. In one of the most aesthetically pleasing moments of the series so far, we see Swamp Thing laid open on the dissection table. As Abby touches his hand, his wounds begin to knit together, his organs--or at least the ghosts of organs--begin to regrow. This is a beautiful, quiet, and powerful scene that manages to be moving without words. It's most sad because it proves that Woodrue's ramblings were not just that of a madman but were likely true, and it's something Swamp Thing realizes. After thanking Abby for coming for him, Swampy rushes back to the swamp, desperate to find some proof that what Woodrue was saying wasn't true. He wants to prove that he is Alec Holland and not some imagined version of a man grown from grief. 

Elsewhere in Marais, there are other love stories coming to tragic ends too. Jason Woodrue discovers his wife has overdosed on her medication just as he believes he has found a cure for her degenerative disease. Avery Sunderland (Will Patton) pops up just quickly enough to have Maria (Virginia Madsen) put into an asylum as revenge for her plot to kill him. While neither of those relationships were particularly healthy, it's a seriously dark turn that sets up an incredibly tragic finale for everyone in Marias, Alec and Abby included.  

For Abby and Alec, their truth is tied up to a secret in the depths of the swamp. As Abby waits, Swamp Thing emerges with the skeleton of Alec Holland in his arms, cradled like a lover in his arms. It's concrete proof that Swamp Thing was never really the man that Abby called a friend. His body is not one infected by the swamp and transformed but an entirely new creation, one formed from the memories and mind of the man when mixed with the elemental magic of the swamp. It's a cold, hard wakeup call for Abby, who cries over the skeleton as Swamp Thing declares, "Alec Holland is dead." What does this mean for our heroine? And for the love that she clearly shares with Swamp Thing? With only one more episode left this season, there are plenty of loose ends to tie up. But for now we'll just be crying into our drink as we think about Mears giving an award-worthy performance from under a practical suit that most superhero movies could only dream of.