There’s a moment in the latest episode of Doom Patrol where a character exposits, “There is no reality. There is only perception.”
This, in big bolded letters, in the theme to Doom Patrol. The characters who form the team — Cliff Steele, Larry Trainor, Rita Farr, and Crazy Jane — all have problems with perception, the way they see not only themselves, but others. From Cliff’s fragmented memory gradually returning to him and showing just how bad a husband and father he was (even as he refuses to admit that he sees Jane as a surrogate daughter) to Larry refusing to admit that what he did to his wife and lover was wrong to Rita trying to put her foot down and admit that she’s not a hero (despite what her actions betray) to Jane’s perceptions being literally filtered through 64 different personalities.
And then in comes Victor Stone, Cyborg, a bona fide superhero, but even he has perception issues when it turns out that his memories might not be as real as he thinks. “There is no reality. There is only perception.”
Of course, the person who says that is Mother Archon, a woman who raised her son, Elliot, to be read by the Cult of the Unwritten Book and summon the Decreator in order to end the world. But that doesn’t make her wrong, per se.
This theme is further reinforced by Willoughy Kipling (played to perfection by Mark Sheppard) telling Cyborg about the Niles Caulder he knows. According to Cyborg, Niles would never sacrifice anyone, even to save the world. According to Kipling, well, Niles is a man who would make hard choices and live with the guilt. “It sounds to me like we know two very different Niles Caulders,” Kipling snarks, because he knows, just like Mother Archon, that perception is different than reality.
In one of the episode’s best scenes, Mother Archon changes Cliff and Jane’s perceptions. First, she shows them how they see themselves: Cliff sees himself as human, while Jane sees a myriad of broken mirrors, each with a separate personality. Then, she shows them how they see each other: Jane sees Cliff as covered in blood, while Cliff sees Jane as his daughter Clara.
And then Mother Archon has them see what they actually are: Cliff is a merely a brain and Jane is still a five-year-old girl named Kay, scared and alone. But are these simply more perceptions? Perhaps how they see themselves deep down? Or is Mother Archon showing them her perceptions? After all, she sees the world as something that needs to be erased, so to her, everyone that makes up the world is broken and needs to be erased as well.
The danger of Doom Patrol is that the surrealism of the series hides a deep and abiding heart and a very intriguing message about self-hate and seeing the best and worst of people. Like Rita puts it, “This world is a beautiful, horrible place.” Beautiful and horrible at the same time. It all depends on where you look.