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Television

The Negative Spirit and Larry Trainor’s Contrasting Lives

Keegan explores the relationship between Larry Trainor and the negative Spirit from Doom Patrol!

Doom Patrol is an incredibly multifaceted show, and therefore the characters are naturally complex as well. The show carries an overall theme of fragmented identity; this can be seen literally with Jane and the Underground, but also in Cliff’s struggle to adjust to his new robotic life and in the way Vic embraced the Cyborg identity to honor his mother. Every character in this show has been through horrible accidents that caused these separations, but most of them held fragmented lives even before becoming what they are now. So much can be written on each character’s relationship with their new lives — even for the secondary and minor characters — but for now, I want to focus on what I personally find to be the most interesting example of contrasting existences: Larry Trainor.

Larry is a particularly fascinating character because not only does he struggle with his own identity, he’s also the host to a mysterious energy being that he’s incapable of verbally communicating with. While he’s dealing with the aftermath of his own life before the accident, he’s also unintentionally psychologically torturing the Negative Spirit with his own self-hatred that, due to their bond, it is forced to feel, though he doesn’t realize this until they’ve been merged for six decades.

Doom Patrol (Season one, episode 13, ”Flex Patrol”) / Source: HBO Max

The Negative Spirit, at first, seems to harbor resentment towards him for this — which is admittedly understandable if you attempt to view things from its perspective. But it is also, as stated by Niles Caulder himself, extremely sensitive and powerful, and it senses the work Larry needs to do to find self-acceptance. When the show starts, they’ve been merged since 1961, and they had made absolutely no progress toward communication in all of those decades. And while we watch Larry slowly begin to understand the Negative Spirit, we are also watching Larry slowly begin to understand — and accept — himself just as he is.

Let’s rewind a bit. Larry grew up as a gay individual in the 1930s-1940s. At a very young age, he overheard his parents calling him a queer in a derogatory manner. Seemingly after this, he began to force himself into a falsified heterosexual lifestyle, as he states that he met his wife Sheryl in high school and they were “high school sweethearts”. When we see Larry in flashbacks of his accident, it’s 1961, and if we assume he’s 95 in the present day (as Mr. Nobody stated), then he would’ve been around 34-35 at the time of the accident. This means he was with Sheryl for at least fifteen years, and at some point during that time had two children with her. Also at some point during those fifteen years, he met John Bowers, his mechanic, and began an affair with him. He was in love with John but had to keep it a secret in order to maintain the appearance of being heterosexual because the repercussions of being gay in this era were disastrous. It’s heartbreaking; he hid in shame for so many years, refusing to even acknowledge the idea that he was gay during his talks with John.

Doom Patrol (Season one, episode 11, ”Frances Patrol”) / Source: HBO Max

The night before his accident, Larry finds out that John had put in for a discharge and was going to leave. He asked Larry to come with him, and a fight began. This was the culmination of three decades of hiding and ignoring — he was going to have to make a choice. Stay with John, the one he truly loved, and accept himself, or stay with Sheryl and live the rest of his life trying to suppress his real identity. The Negative Spirit saved him in a way that goes beyond simply prolonging his life; it saved him from himself. It saved him from having to choose.

In the first half of season one, Larry was at odds with it. It kept trying to prod him to acknowledge his sexuality by forcing Larry to view videos where Niles talked about John and even connecting his dreams to John’s dreams. Still, however, Larry refused to open up. This being shares everything with Larry — it experiences every memory, thought, and emotion he has. There is nothing he can hide from it, but at first, he was certainly determined to try.

In “Therapy Patrol” the Negative Spirit put Larry in a dream sequence later revealed to be a connected mindscape with a dying John Bowers. In this sequence, he finally admitted his fears out loud to himself, to John, and the Spirit. “You have no idea how hard it was living this way. The lies, the fear, the threat of losing everything if anyone so much as questioned my sexuality.” And John says what everyone — the audience, the Spirit controlling the dream, and perhaps even Larry in his subconscious — is thinking: “You have no idea how long I wanted to hear those words… I wanted you to admit it to yourself.”

After this occurs, Larry is finally able to tell his friends that he’s gay. He even states that he’s sick of torturing himself and finally acknowledges the fact that his relationship with the Spirit was one of cyclical pain and self-loathing. This is the new Larry blossoming — small steps toward acceptance. Steps he would have never taken if the Spirit hadn’t pushed him.

Doom Patrol (Season one, episode 07, ”Therapy Patrol”) / Source: HBO Max

Four episodes later, we find Larry in another dream with John at a secluded motel. They sleep together, and the Spirit inexplicably ends the dream after Larry admits out loud that he was in love with John. He begs it to take him back to the dream, but the Spirit sends him into a different one: a gay bar, where he meets John and asks him if they can leave. He’s still scared, even in a dream, to be seen. Even in a world where it’s just them, Larry is terrified. John tells Larry to take a chance, and when Larry wakes up, he finds that the Spirit had covered his bedroom in sticky notes that formed one word: ERIE. Where he would later find John.

The reunion of John Bowers and Larry Trainor is an incredibly touching one. Larry realizes that while he remained stuck in the past, constantly suffering through memories, John moved on and fell in love with someone else. He sees pictures of them in John’s home; they looked happy together. Peaceful. It’s something Larry could have, too, if he wanted it, and John points this out when he tells Larry to move on from him. And just as John begins to pass away, and the era of Larry’s life filled with repression and discomfort begins to close now that he’s made peace with John, Larry looks down at his chest and tells John that there’s “something inside of him” that he isn’t friends with but that he definitely has a connection to. He walks away from John’s home with his hand over his glowing chest, thanking the Spirit for its help — something he once implied he couldn’t do (“I’m supposed to thank you?” in “Donkey Patrol”). 

After this, his relationship with the Negative Spirit and with himself changes drastically. He tries to sacrifice himself for the Negative Spirit’s freedom, though it chooses Larry over its home and returns to his body. Upon moving out after learning that Niles was the reason for his accident, he spent a lot of time trying to balance the ability to let it fly free with the reality that an extended separation of them would mean his death and excitedly tells Rita that they made it twenty seconds apart before he passed out. He puts his full trust in the Negative Spirit, and in turn, the Negative Spirit dedicates itself to helping him continually heal, even from the one thing he’s still repressing: his family.

Doom Patrol (Season one, episode 11, ”Frances Patrol”) / Source: HBO Max

It shows him his son’s death in the premiere of season two, angering Larry, who says he “left all that long ago”. He goes to the funeral and meets his other son, Paul, who recognizes him by his voice. Later, when he’s alone with Paul, he’s finally, finally able to do something that months ago would have terrified him beyond comprehension: he tells Paul that he’s gay.

This moment is obviously an extremely pivotal point in Larry’s character growth, showing that he has completely made peace with himself and his sexuality. And in a way, this can be seen as another merging — this time of both lives Larry lived. His life of repression and lies merging with his true self and his comfort. His fear transforming into hope. His fragmented identity blurring into one.

Without the Negative Spirit’s presence in his life, he would have never made it to this point. The Negative Spirit is indeed a somewhat indecipherable character since none of the main characters can hear it, and often acts impulsively, but it’s obvious that it cares for Larry and that it wants him to be the best version of himself that he can be, no matter what it takes. It saved Larry in every sense of the word. Hopefully, he will eventually realize this.

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