If “Sticky Wicket” was The Brink’s “the shit hits the fan” episode, then “Who’s Grover Cleveland?” is the “fallout from the shit hitting the fan” episode. It features a lot of intense discussions about Big Ideas, “tense” sequences involving fractured allegiances, some unnecessary nonsense about drug dealing in order to keep a family together (no, it’s not what you think, but I wish it was), and it’s all…fine. That’s as much enthusiasm I can muster for The Brink at this point. “Who’s Grover Cleveland?” didn’t bore me, nor did it frustrate me; it contained some clever lines, a few chuckle-worthy moments, and a Tim Robbins performance that didn’t make me groan, but that’s about it. It’s certainly one of the better episodes of The Brink, but the series’ foundational problems taint even its best moments at this point. It’s simply fine.
So, what happened this week? After the President ordered the bombing of Zaman’s house, unintentionally killing Raja, the Situation Room is deciding what to do next. Larsen is furious and tries to stop the President from making rash decisions that will have negative consequences for an entire generation, like the U.S. government is wont to do, but unfortunately his pleas fall on deaf ears, especially when Zaman tries to launch a nuclear missile at Tel Aviv (don’t worry, it detonated underground, only causing a seismic shock). Once the President decides to launch Operation Infinite Wisdom (do you get it?), a.k.a. “the biggest show of American air power since North Vietnam,” Larsen snaps and sucker punches Pierce in the Situation Room, costing him his job, but in the process invigorating his can-do spirit, as he decides to go full rogue and work in secret to stop the impending nuclear winter.
Though I’ve had my issues with Larsen subplots in the past few weeks, this one was the best one in a while, mostly because “exasperatedly angry” Tim Robbins is much more compelling and funny than “smugly angry” Tim Robbins. Writer Wes Jones pits Robbins against a bunch of chickenhawk straw men (and women), which would be frustrating if The Brink was actually diving deep into geopolitical satire, but since all it’s trying to do is muster up some overblown farce, it actually works fairly well. In fact, it features The Brink’s best stabs at “satire,” especially in the episode’s beginning, when all the President’s advisors are spouting fragments of Bush Doctrine rhetoric to justify their actions (“Even knowing we were going to miss, I would still recommend we do the strike again!”) or even when they’re speaking illogical gibberish that unfortunately makes sense in light of the last fifteen years of American foreign policy, like “It’s an unknown known, but we’re working on it becoming a known unknown!” Yes, there’s that God-awful pep talk that Walter’s assistant gives him, calling him the “smartest man [she] knows” and all but explains away his predilection for Asian hookers who pretend to kill him as “survivor’s guilt,” but I’m willing to write that off as the cost of doing business with a show like The Brink.
Meanwhile, Talbot is still trying to clean up the mess he’s made with the seven Pakistani schoolgirls. Rafiq and his sister are still furious with him, even though Talbot believes in Larsen’s plan. Unfortunately, when they discover Raja has been killed and the U.S. government is evacuating the embassy, Ambassador Kittredge tries to whisk Fareeda and the seven schoolgirls to a U.S. Army bass in Afghanistan via chopper, much to the dismay of Rafiq. Trying to get back into good graces with his friend, Talbot bribes the pilots to drop Fareeda and the schoolgirls at Rafiq’s uncle’s cabin under the guise of a technical malfunction, and when the Ambassador’s men refuse to let Rafiq on the helicopter, Talbot loudly proclaims that if they plan to leave Rafiq behind then they will have to leave him behind too. Naturally, Kittredge leaves them both behind, so the two try to find their way back to the secret Chinese tunnel only to be captured by Zaman’s military forces that have taken over the abandoned embassy.
Aasif Mandvi and Jack Black’s playful chemistry mostly saves this halfway decent, occasionally humdrum Talbot subplot. Even when the writing doesn’t always serve them well—especially in the episode’s beginning, when Wes Jones dumps about a minute of Foreign Policy 101 on our heads just so we’re informed—their banter has a pleasant, Ping-pong rhythm to it that broaches but never enters screwball territory. Director Michael Lehmann really tries to sell the “last chopper out of Saigon” parallels in the scenes outside the embassy (to mostly eye-rolling effect), but at least there’s an attempt to create tension in these scenes, even if it’s baldly manufactured. Plus, it features John Larroquette spouting delusional nonsense about the Bible and the Apocalypse for, like, three scenes! That has to count for something.
There’s also Zeke and Glenn’s plot, about which the less said the better, frankly. I completely forgot there was this whole relationship drama back on the aircraft carrier that had to be tied up, not to mention the two of them giving away free drugs because none of their fellow soldiers have any cash; but don’t worry, Glenn stole the Boner Man artifact from the British couple in the Pakistani desert, so everything’s going to be allllllllllll right. I liked it much better when those two were out flying stoned or making dumb jokes in the desert.
If there’s any one problem that affects “Who’s Grover Cleveland?” it’s The Brink’s insistence that the script valorize its three protagonists as heroes just because they’re the protagonists. I’ve already mentioned Walter’s assistant’s pep talk, but there’s also the brief moment when Fareeda says to her father that she misjudged Talbot after he saved her life with just the right amount of awe in her eyes. These are small scenes in the grand scheme of things, but what they symbolize is that The Brink’s writers have a blinkered perspective on their own characters. It’s silly to expect that to change this late in the season, but it’s what ultimately hinders The Brink from having any sort of depth beyond a few telegraphed scenes (like the Talbot plot last week). But maybe expecting depth from a show that features a brawl in the Situation Room alongside painfully earnest, thuddingly obvious criticisms of the United States’ actions overseas is foolish to begin with.
- Classic Rock Song of the Week: “Sunshine of Your Love” by Cream
- Should we have a countdown until Fareeda eventually hooks up with Talbot? How far into the season finale?
- Speaking of underserved female characters, Maribeth Monroe is a great actress who deserves a better role than making Tim Robbins feel better when he’s frustrated.
- I’ll say that Mandvi is never better than when he’s furious. I cracked up at his response when the soldier told him to apply for asylum at the nearest embassy: “ARE YOU A FUCKING COMEDIAN? LOOK AT THE EMBASSY!”
- “And the angels descended and carried us to our hereafter.” “Is that the Bible?” “No, that’s just me talking.”
- “We don’t need you to solve our waxy eye problems. We need you to get out of our country and leave us alone.”
- The funniest scene of the episode by far is Larsen’s disheartened yet inspired speech to the youth hockey team about their future, mostly because it’s prefaced by the most incredulous, “Are you fucking kidding me?” at their mere presence no more than twenty feet away from where they’re planning nuclear war. It’s reprinted in full below.
- “Hey kids. Just want you to know your future is in the hands of a bunch of impotent war-loving maniacs. Gather around. You kids need to start a goddamn revolution. And I don’t mean this Occupy Wall Street bullshit, with their human microphone and their jazz hands. I mean the real deal, where people are actually terrified to leave their homes. You need to arm yourself! Fuck the ballot! Time for bullets! Burn it all down, I say!”