Man, these space ants are a disorganized bunch. As BrainDead’s main threat (just a shade ahead of the hopelessly entrenched and shallowly partisan political system), the aliens continue to be maddeningly inconsistent it their methods. While it’s fine not to know exactly what the li’l critters’ long-term plans are, and while some of the individual setpieces showing how their brain-invasions are alternately effectively gruesome or wrenching, BrainDead continues to deploy its space ant army with little narrative coherence.
Last week, the ants made a concerted but ill-advised assault on Laurel, who simply stomped them and went on with her day. Tonight, they make a play for Gustav’s ears, only to be foiled by his ludicrously ingenious plastic-cups-and-packing-tape sleep headgear. (Although they do appear to have colonized Gustav’s poor cat). As I asked last week, do the ants just give up after one unsuccessful try at possessing such high-threat targets? Or, are Laurel and Gustav specifically targeted for their growing knowledge and suspicions of the invasion plans at all? For that matter, what’s the ant endgame in taking over the country’s political leaders, when it seems—Gustav and Laurel aside—they’re perfectly capable of swarming through all of Washington D.C.’s bedroom windows and turning people en masse while they sleep.
After three episodes, it’s becoming clear that BrainDead’s creators are far more adept at, and interested in, the show’s political satire than its sci-fi elements. Created by The Good Wife masterminds Robert King and Michelle King, the series is clearly more at home taking swings at the (slightly) exaggerated politicians and media types populating its world than in crafting a coherent Invasion Of The Body Snatchers-style sci-fi allegory. Tonight, Luke’s attempt to paint now be-bugged Democratic rival Ella as Mitt Romney-esque dog abuser, and Laurel’s contemptuous view of a would-be edgy late night host’s Brady Bunch and Gilligan’s Island-referencing tirade coexist uneasily with Laurel and Gustav’s run-ins with a creepily imposing FBI agent (Glenn Fleshler) or apartment-invading bugs, respectively. (Oh, and another messily exploded head, this time nearly broadcast on live television—only the 8-second delay prevents it.)
Tonally, BrainDead remains effective in isolation. Individual scenes tonight are solid. Laurel’s team-up with fellow bug hunter Gustav is immediately BrainDead’s greatest asset going forward, Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s wry sensibleness pairing nicely with Johnny Ray Gill’s bristling comic conviction that there are, indeed, secret forces arrayed against the American people. (Nikki M. James’ inquisitive doctor, Rochelle, makes an able third.) Gustav’s reconnaissance mission to Laurel’s office as Dr. Bob Bob (“Government is too big, don’t you think? Could you make it smaller? Thanks.”) and their subsequent clandestine fact-sharing meetings spark with slightly mismatched energy. Laurel’s freaked out but wary, while Gustav’s all too willing to think that he’s finally at the center of one of the many conspiracies he sees swirling around him. The fact that the show allows them to stumble along with half-correct but different interpretations of what the bugs are—and are up to—keeps their partnership alive. (Gill’s half-apologetic delivery makes Gustav’s theory about the exploding heads being caused by bug farts the biggest laugh of the episode.)
Tony Shalhoub continues to make a delicious, hammy meal of the possessed Red Wheatus’ machinations, and he makes Red’s newly-smug demeanor an irresistible salad of eccentric inflections and snake charmer conviction. And Paige Patterson keeps making Scarlett’s blank-eyed menace both formidable and funny, first pulling a creepy HAL 9000 by reading Luke’s lips through his office window, then confronting the suspicious Laurel with purring imperiousness. (“You’re outnumbered.” “By who?” “‘Whom.’ By the people you’re outnumbered by.”)
The closest BrainDead comes to truly embracing its sci-fi roots is when it allows the tragedy of the alien takeover to show through. Tonight, Nikiya Mathis makes the possessed (or is it half-possessed) Stacie’s struggle especially harrowing. Meeting for drinks (she has club soda) with her best friend, Stacie attempts to spout the same strident sound bites Scarlett did last week, but can’t keep from weeping at Laurel’s memory test about a boy who broke her heart. (“Why are you doing this?”) Laurel sees blood coming from Stacie’s ear, which Stacie attempts to pass off as a botched piercing before fleeing, stammering tearfully, “That’s just… blood. Ouch.” And then she’s gone.
But the show’s inability to integrate its two genres makes BrainDead’s satirical agenda pop like neon signs. Laurel, hearing Gustav’s theory that the bugs are some variant of the actual, skull-invading screwworm, asks, “Can it make people more… extreme?” Red’s newfound extremism brooks no compromise, quashing new chief of staff Gareth’s appeal for inclusion by tasking him with creating an “astroturf” grass-roots coalition called, ominously, “The One-Wayers.” Similarly, the changed Ella storms into a meeting of the Democrats to demand the party abandon its “attitude of appeasement,” while the taken-aback Luke complains, “This hyperbolic language hurts us.” But Luke and his power-player Dad practically dance a jig when they later come up with their “Ella’s a dog-killer” smear. (“It’s like watching two ghouls,” says the disgusted Laurel.)
If blunt, un-nuanced political extremism is what the bugs want (for reasons not yet revealed), they have so little resistance in the show’s pre-invasion Washington that all their brain-eating seems hardly necessary. It remains a structural weakness so far that the show’s outrage at real-world political insanity (a constant, insect-like chatter throughout each episode) renders the possessed barely distinguishable from those on the actual news. In contrast, the show’s vision of democracy done right remains the blossoming romance of ideological opposites Laurel and Gareth.
It’s slyly fitting that they appear to be drinking Old Fashioneds tonight in their half-date at the head-exploded chief of staff’s wake. Laurel and Gareth’s moony, flirty sparring is BrainDead’s boozy exemplar of old-school, real politics. (See the pilot’s repeated cliché that Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neal were drinking buddies.) BrainDead’s formula for a great America: deep affection without abandoning core beliefs, a willingness to work together in compromise for the common good, and a healthy dose of sexual tension. It’s tribute to Winstead and Aaron Tveit that they can generate some human warmth in their scenes together, even if, like a lot of BrainDead, their courtship is imperfectly incorporated into the whole. (It’s also fun that the proof that someone’s still human is in seeing him get nice and liquored up.)
There’s a lot to like about BrainDead, and it will be interesting to see if the ants’ (and the Kings’) grand scheme can make what’s now a bit of a mess into something more formidable going forward.
- However, we won’t be going forward with it, as this marks the end of The A.V. Club’s coverage of BrainDead. As ever, it’s been both an honor and a lot of fun. If you want to use the comments to continue the as-ever spirited discussion about the show, that’d be an honor, too.
- Jonathan Coulton’s “previously on” recap songs remain delightfully witty—and informative!
- Gill’s Gustav knows all about CAT scans and Melanesian choirs. “I read a lot,” he explains.
- More BrainDead on politics: “Republicans want something, Democrats automatically don’t”; “The town has changed—it’s toxic now”; “How the Democrats love a circular firing squad.”
- Luke: “I hate when women cry.” Laurel: “There’s a way to fix that.”
- “I did a marijuana study here a few years ago. It went… badly.”