First airdate: 27 March, 2005
Written by Brad Copeland
Directed by Peter Lauer
“Sword of Destiny”, we need to point out right away, was the 17th episode produced in the second season of Arrested Development, but it was the 15th aired, and it is the 15th on the DVDs and streaming services. In terms of the series’ overarching narrative, it fits in neither of those spots: the most glaring continuity error (this episode wraps up the “Tobias as Mrs. Featherbottom” plot, which comes back in the next episode) would be fixed by pushing it to the 16th slot, but there are other, smaller problems that pretty much can’t be corrected. This is the probably inevitable side effect of “Sword of Destiny” being the episode that bore the brunt of the scramble to fix the show when Fox informed the production team that they’d be cut down from a full season, rather late in the game. As Michael puts it, in the first lines of dialogue of the episode (following the narrator’s introduction:
“You initially told us to design and build 22 homes. Now you’re saying 18. That’s doesn’t give us enough capital to complete the job. And we’ve already got the blueprints drawn up and everything.”
To which the narrator somewhat nervously adds, “Well, that part wasn’t true. But they would have”.
It’s a perfect kick-off to what will be, unquestionably, the most self-referential episode the show had done up to that point, and maybe just a little bit of ass-covering (or is it a Barbra-Streisand-in-Prince-of-Tides ass-masking pantsuit?), because even without taking the season arc into account, “Sword of Destiny” is, honestly, a bit of a messy episode, and while it’s probably not fair to blame everything on a rushed production schedule, panic probably does account for some things; the shockingly lousy audio dubbing in the first act, one hopes, because something AD never is, is shoddily-crafted.
About that self-reference: besides the fact that the entire structure of the episode is about a controlling perfectionist trying to figure out a way to rescue his business now that he doesn’t have the resources he was counting on, there are little jokes about the Family Guy ads that Fox insisted on splashing onscreen during the episodes as they aired (the first time the show provides a joke that not only requires you to have watched every previous episode in order to get the humor, but to have been watching during the show’s initial airing, which conveniently, I had just started doing around this time. There’d be a whole episode of such gags in Season 3), and about the show’s fight over its name with the hip hop group Arrested Development in the reference to a magic DVD called Use Your Illusion, which had to be re-titled because there was an album by that name (back-up choice: Use Your Illusion II. Oops…). Among all the usual call-back jokes, of course (out of many, here’s one I just noticed for the first time: Dan Castellaneta’s Dr. Stein is named Frank, that’s fairly obvious; but that makes at least the third distinct Frankenstein reference in Season 2). One wonders if this aggressively insular writing was a way of retrenching, the show protecting itself in a layer of inscrutable irony and self-congratulation.
All that being said, “Sword of Destiny” isn’t memorable chiefly because of its behind-the-scenes troubles, but because it’s a damn funny episode: the scene between Michael and a rapidly bleeding-out Gob would be worth the 22 minutes all by its lonesome, crammed as it is with a tremendous joke on pretty much every line. And if that’s the highlight of the episode, it’s only because of how awesomely well-written it is; it would be the highlight of just about any episode it was stuck in, Michael/Gob scenes customarily being among the sharpest in the show’s toolkit. There’s plenty else to choose from: Tobias and Lindsay in the first scene, Buster’s glee at playing magician, and of course the resultant magic shows – Gob’s gaudy Europe-scored performances being as consistently reliable as any AD running gag ever was. I’m even fond of the divisive Tony Wonder: Ben Stiller’s performance is typically cited as being one of the weaker one-offs in the show’s run, and while I can the logic behind that – especially given the quality of so much of the guest acting in this series – I think that his bullying bravado is a great fit for the frankly shitty magician he’s playing, whose biggest act of razzle-dazzle is convincing people (especially the star-struck Gob) to pay attention to him. He’s a cocksure dick, and that comes through in Stiller’s acting more than something less hammy would have.
There are, to be sure, distinct problems with the episode, most notably George Sr’s pointedly bin Laden-esque video from the attic, which feels more like a desperate attempt to do something with a subplot that was at no point one of the strongest parts of the second season, and got progressively weaker near the end. It’s disappointing light on Lucille, for my tastes, and not nearly enough is given to Michael Cera with what feels like it ought to be a top-notch George-Michael plotline (I’m guessing and nothing else, but I bet that “George-Michael learns to drive” was going to be a much bigger part of one of the four episodes lost to Fox’s new orders). It’s probably, overall, the weakest episode in the final third of the season, but that’s really only a sign of just how much energy Arrested Development had to burn yet.
(Foreshadowing alert! I’d never noticed before that George Sr. wants Tobias to be his mole at the Bluth Company, which doesn’t set anything up, but echoes with a third-season episode that I hold very near to my heart. Wanted to point it out, even though for the sake of spoilers, I have generally stayed away from talking about foreshadowing).