Despite some emotional heavy-handedness, rushed character development, a handful of terrible lines of dialogue, and a little too much Foreign Policy 101, “Sticky Wicket” is a decent episode of television. It follows through on narrative and emotional beats brewing throughout the season, there are some mildly funny moments, and it’s an episode with plenty of action to boot. Plus, it features some halfway genuine introspection into the motives of at least one of its major characters, even if it’s executed entirely within the span of one episode. So far for The Brink, this is as good as it gets.
If my praise sounds half-hearted, it’s because “Sticky Wicket” tries to accomplish much of what The Brink should have been doing this entire season. I discussed last week The Brink’s issues with serialization, but what I didn’t bring up is its insistence on serializing the plot over character. The Brink is so obsessed with following through on every narrative strand that it pretty much forgot to develop any of its characters. The Brothers Benabib established Larsen, Talbot, and Zeke in its first episode by baldly laying out their personalities and motivations, and then decided to leave it at that and drop them in a farcical geopolitical crisis. Over the course of seven weeks, we have learned nothing new about any of them because the writers have declined to deepen them beyond their superficial traits. Yes, The Brink is technically a comedy, so maybe there’s little to no expectation for strong character development if it isn’t tied to a laugh, but for a series that’s so interested in serialization, the least they could do is get us to care about the characters more than the plot.
Nevertheless, writer Aasif Mandvi does his best to ratchet up the narrative tension as well as exploring the characters (well, character, really), and he mostly succeeds. He brings Larsen’s search for Raja to a head by faking a medical emergency and forcing his plane to land in Geneva. He catches up with Raja and convinces him to stage a coup and push Zaman out of power. But unfortunately it’s too late: When Larsen returns to Washington, he’s appalled to see that the President and Secretary Pierce have bombed Zaman’s house believing that he’s inside, except that it’s Raja who’s in the house after he forced the generals to arrest Zaman and take him away.
It’s a nice ending (it’s the only one so far that has really worked for me even slightly), but it’s not enough to save the entire Larsen subplot. Robbins’ charm has officially curdled and become a smug arrogance that’s harder and harder to stomach every week. The scene with him and Raja in the hotel is one of the worst of the series, featuring some “knowing” casual racism—Larsen calls Raja a “Paki,” and tells him how hard it was to get a Muslim into August National, but don’t worry, it’s cool because Raja calls Larsen out on his offensive language—and some barely-relevant history lessons about Reagan and the Iran hostage crisis. Also, it’s just absurd that the entire plot hinges on a hotel receptionist finding Larsen so charming and attractive that she gives up Raja’s location almost immediately after meeting. Oh yeah, she then later sleeps with him before he leaves Switzerland because apparently Larsen’s sexual charisma is strong enough to weaken any woman anywhere in the world.
As for the character work, Mandvi interrogates Talbot’s motives to help the seven schoolgirls in his subplot, and since it’s the only real attempt to explore a character’s psychology, it is by default the best subplot in an episode of The Brink so far. Mandvi takes some (unfortunately) necessary shortcuts to get to the final scene by playing up the friendship between Talbot and Rafiq (They smoke a joint together! They’re joking around!), as well as building up Talbot as a hero by negotiating a deal with the Chinese agricultural attaché to help smuggle the girls back into Pakistan. However, when Talbot receives a phone call from Larsen at the last minute ordering him to keep the girls in the embassy so Raja can take credit for releasing them, he’s finally squandered all of his good will with Rafiq and his sister.
The scene when Talbot and Rafiq argue about Talbot’s shady deal with Larsen is definitely heavy-handed and preachy, but it’s also possibly the only scene in the series to actually explore how decisions made by people in power can radically affect the lives of regular citizens on the ground. Rafiq knows that Talbot is only following Larsen’s orders to save his career, and he finally cuts through his bullshit about “humanity” and the “greater good” to explicitly lay out how Talbot’s decision will hurt the schoolgirls he swore to protect. “Are you trying to save their world?” Rafiq asks. “Because they are human beings whose lives are gonna be destroyed. Maybe you’re trying to save your world. The one where you get to go home and be a hero in fucking Connecticut.” Is the writing a little explicit and obvious? Yes. But it’s also the best scene in The Brink because it’s willing to knock one of its main characters down a peg and mildly demonstrate the cruel effects of American foreign policy. Talbot knows what he’s doing is wrong and yet doesn’t have the heart to let the girls go anyway, and Rafiq is disgusted with Talbot whom he assumed was on his side in spite of his buffoonish qualities. Both Jack Black and Mandvi play the scene quite well and convey their respective feelings of shame and betrayal quite well.
There’s also a Zeke and Glenn subplot about Zeke fighting the warlord’s son to the death. It’s mildly funny, relying on broad violence and the caricature stylings of Rob Brydon and Michelle Gomez, but it’s ultimately inconsequential. Interpol eventually picks up Zeke and Glenn and returns them to the Navy, as well as arresting the British couple for smuggling antiques. Thus ends Zeke and Glenn’s three-episode arc of being lost in Pakistan. There was much rejoicing.
Overall, “Sticky Wicket” is the best episode of The Brink simply because it’s the most engaging installment yet. In spite of its many flaws, the episode was never boring, and tried its best not just to keep the narrative train chugging along but to actually dig into its characters as well. Like I said earlier, “Sticky Wicket” mostly succeeds relative to what came before it, but it’s also frustrating because it unintentionally presents an alternative version of The Brink that focused on character instead of plot, that understood the best satires required three-dimensional characters capable of being villains in the guise of heroes rather than just heroes who sometimes do less-than-honorable things. Regardless, here’s hoping the series follows Mandvi’s lead in its final weeks as it heads towards nuclear winter, or most likely, a peaceful resolution.
- Classic Rock Song of the Week: “Can’t Find My Way Home” by Blind Faith
- The amount of suspended disbelief necessary to buy Larsen’s subplot is beyond comprehension. Apparently in the world of The Brink, a professional pilot employed by the U.S. government will look at a grown man peeing into a bottle of cranberry juice, assume it to be blood, and then make an emergency landing without any further investigation. I swear I’m not usually a stickler for believability, but come on.
- As usual, Eric Ladin has the funniest line of the week: “Do you think if I throw a bullet fast enough I could kill somebody?” Pablo Schreiber’s “Fuck no, man!” in response is pretty funny as well.
- For the record, Jack Black and Aasif Mandvi do have good chemistry together, and I sort of wish that The Brink was just the two of them getting into more funny stoned adventures.
- “What is he saying?” “Well, he’s very disenchanted with you!”
- “Let’s steal a laundry truck, a couple of uniforms, hide the girls in the laundry bins, and then just drive out the front gate.” “That only works if you’re escaping from a silent film.”
- “I tend to get a little verbose when I’m lit. That’s the first time it’s ever served me well.”