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BrainDead: Season 1, Episodes 12 and 13, "Talking Points ... " and "The End ..."

Colin McGuire

As BrainDead says so long for the summer, it reaches its highest point yet.


Airtime: Sundays, 10pm
Cast: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Tony Shalhoub, Aaron Tveit, Danny Pino
Subtitle: Season 1, Episodes 12 and 13 - "Talking Points Toward a Wholistic View of Activism in Government: Can the Top Rebel?" and "The End of All We Hold Dear: What Happens When Democracies Fail: A Brief Synopsis"
Network: CBS
Air date: 2016-09-11

"It's about bugs."

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is Luke Healy (Danny Pino) summing up BrainDead about as succinctly as anyone possibly could. The final two episodes of the season (series?), "Talking Points Toward a Wholistic View of Activism in Government: Can the Top Rebel?" and "The End of All We Hold Dear: What Happens When Democracies Fail: A Brief Synopsis", somewhat surprisingly gave us resolution on everything, and that resolution pointed directly back to the series synopsis.

It's. About. Bugs.

Yet, despite how up and down these 13 episodes were -- and despite how infuriating the week-by-week presentation of this series could be -- it turns out that a television show about alien ants taking over the American political system by infiltrating brains can actually work, and it can actually thrive as an entertaining, mildly funny, occasionally surprising satire. We know this because of how neatly this story wraps up. Perhaps more importantly, we know this because, all in all, there isn't much to complain about when it comes to BrainDead's presumed swan song.

Red (Tony Shalhoub) is aching after last week's Showdown With the Queen. He can hardly formulate sentences, and his weakness is loosening the grip the ants have on the political process. Ella (Jan Maxwell) realizes this and goes in for the kill, literally, but she can’t work out the mechanics of her gun, a joke about liberals and fire arms ensues, the scenario shifts quickly, Red does the deed himself, and Ella's Gigantic Flying Ant migrates over to the Republican Senator’s brain. The result? Ella's gone, but at least Red is back to full strength.

This leads to Red bullying his way back onto the Senate floor to pass his budget. Luke (Danny Pino) then stages a sit-in and inspires pretty much everybody. Among "everybody" is his sister Laurel (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who receives word that her documentary project now has funding, and it's about high time to split town, head back into the movie world and leave all this mess behind. Not so fast, she concludes, because she sees her brother actually stand up for something and it gets all those Fight the Good Fight juices bubbling.

In the midst of all this, Laurel discovers that … wait for it … shame draws ants out of people’s heads. Because, well, remember that Snickers you stole from that gas station when you were 14 years old? Yeah, the ants ain't down with that. She concludes as much while making her dad Dean (Zach Grenier) feel like all types of shit after showing him a video she filmed from eons ago regarding his absence from one her childhood birthday parties. The ants retreat from his brain once they start feeling all the feelz (with a "z") and now, we've unlocked The Code to Beat the Ants.

Why? Because, among the other revelations we discover in these final two hours is the fact that Red's constant dismissal of Laurel as "Lana" … well, it actually isn't a humor gag; rather, it was the name of the guy’s first love, who, naturally, he had deported years ago. She looks like Laurel, we find out, and dude's still not over it. Laurel then gets A Showdown in his office to draw the Big Bug out of Red's ear by reminding him of the guilt … er, shame … he continues to feel regarding his first love. And it works (!) only to have Red's latest Intern Du Jour mistakenly walk into Red’s office and mindlessly squash the Big Bug into smithereens (!!).

Oh, yeah. And within all this mess, Gareth (Aaron Tveit) saves Laurel as Red attempts to shoot her and the gun ultimately ends up … shooting Red in the butt. Because if you really want to bring an elephant down, shoot its ass!


Anyway, the bugs then swarm out from everywhere to descend upon their fallen leader only to promptly die. The world is saved. Luke lands a Big Shot job on Wall Street. Laurel and Gareth live happily ever after in love. And Gustav (Johnny Ray Gill) -- who, in revelation No. 49, turns out to be working for the NSA the entire time -- and Rochelle (Nikki M. James) realize that those proposed internment camps we've been wondering about? Nope. They aren't internment camps at all. Instead, they are essentially greenhouses built with the explicit purpose of growing cherry blossoms (because yes, even alien ants have a problem with moderation, just like us regular humans), and the dynamic duo concludes that if they kill DC's cherry blossoms, they can kill the bugs.

It's all zany, and it's all fun, and it's all charming and it's all exactly how BrainDead’s first season should've ended. It also, weirdly, now kind of allows the entire thing to make sense. Yes, this is a season that had its share of pacing problems, but what it appeared to lack in direction, it has now made up for in self-awareness. Perhaps the problem all along was any wayward attempt to pigeonhole this thing into a clear and natural genre (I say sheepishly).

Was it funny? Sometimes, and most certainly as the final handful of episodes unfolded, I will argue to the death that BrainDead found a really solid comedic stride.

Was it horror(ish)? I guess so, but with an emphasis on the "ish". As I pointed out only a handful of weeks ago, the series worked best when it played with paranoia rather than parasites.

Was it satirical? It was, but that value was marred by the show's inability to find a groove for the first half of the season. Once it got comfortable, the satirization felt more natural.

Was it political? Not nearly as much as I thought it would be; in fact, it took a minute to get used to the notion that Very Serious Politics was not going to be a priority in this series.

So, then, what was it? Well, it was an unapologetic comment on one of the most contentious eras in modern American politics that was shown through the veil of skepticism and absurdity, two vehicles by which the actual political system is delivered in the year 2016. And you know what? It was entertaining, too. Maybe not all the time. And maybe it wasn't without flaws. But damn it. If you can't laugh at a disgruntled Red Wheatus mutter, "We shall not be moved, my ass", then what can you laugh at?

Really. What can you laugh at?

Making matters even more intriguing is the final episode’s final shot: a new brand of bug buzzing around New York City. Will the series be back? It’s doubtful (more on that below). But could it be back? It could, and you'd be lying if you said the prospect of that didn't excite you at least a little, tiny bit.

Because even if it's always been about the bugs, there’s something strangely absorbing about the notion that this is a story with an ending that doesn't have to be resolute. Plus, with an entire season behind it to work out the … well … bugs (sorry; had to), who’s to say BrainDead can't successfully come back with a little more "brains" and a little less "dead"?

Not I.

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And about it coming back … check out what Robert King told HitFix when asked how things were looking for a season two: "I don't think good". Yikes.

Other interesting nuggets from Emily Rome's interview? Gustav was supposed be killed off at some point (how dare you?!), Rochelle wasn't supposed to be a series regular (that would've hurt), writing the character of Red can be equated to writing the character of Carrie Preston's Elsbeth Tascioni on The Good Wife, the Kings wanted Laurel to dance to "I Will Survive" instead of "I Think I Love You" to get the ants of her head earlier in the season, but the song was too expensive, and if the show would continue, the plan would be to take it to Wall Street in season two, Silicon Valley in season three, and then Hollywood in season four. Now, tell me that doesn't make you raise your eyebrow in hope that this series gets renewed.

I was really hoping we'd see The Cars make a cameo at some point, weren't you?

A straw poll on possible season two songs for the New Bugs to rally around: .38 Special’s "Hold On Loosely". The Outfield's "Your Love". Eric Carmen's "Make Me Lose Control". Don Henley's "Dirty Laundry". All voting shall be done in the comments section or by emailing [email protected] or [email protected]

For someone who took an entire season to warm to those musical recaps, I loved, loved, loved Jonathan Coulton's appearance in the final two episodes. Gustav telling him to stop playing made all the sense in the world. Again: there's so much value in being as self-aware as this series proved to be during the latter half of the season. If there's a second run, I'd be willing to bet it'll be awfully, awfully good.

So, so glad to see Laurel and Gareth live happily ever after. The touch regarding how many each character thinks the "normal" amount of children should be was laugh-out-loud funny. Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Tveit had real chemistry as that romance unfolded, and it was a joy to root for them and see them develop as a unit. This series has also made me an official bona fide fan of Aaron Tveit and I feel … shame (see what I did there?!?) … that I was unfamiliar with his work prior to all this.

I'm not breaking any ground by saying as much, and God knows it's been written a zillion times throughout the summer, but was there anyone having anymore fun on television than the fun Tony Shalhoub was having on television throughout the past three months? He -- along with Johnny Ray Gill -- made this show watchable at times when its watchable-ness was in serious doubt.

Of course that knife fight happened the way it happened. Of course.

Not sure how much I buy into Gustav as an NSA agent, though I could definitely buy into a Gustav/Rochelle romance.

As I said about The Good Wife, I feel it's worth noting how thankful I am to PopMatters for allowing me a platform to spew some nonsense in the form of the written word regarding this television series over the summer. To anyone who stuck with this series throughout the ups and downs of the first season: hats off to you. I hope you found things to value in both the series and perhaps even these silly reviews. Here's hoping the heads at CBS somehow find it in their cold hearts to give BrainDead another chance. The potential is there for this to be something more than just a footnote on Tony Shalhoub's IMDB page. Honestly. Truly. Madly. Deeply. The potential is there.


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