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Community Recap: Can’t We All Just Get Along?

COMMUNITY -- "Introduction to Finality" Episode 321 -- Pictured: Danny Pudi as Abed -- (Photo by: Lewis Jacobs/NBC)

I’m extremely thankful last night’s triple-whammy of awes-Chang-ness wasn’t the end of the series, because the final two minutes of “Introduction to Finality” showed a whole lot of promise. Jeff aced his Biology final and was able to remain at Greendale for a little while longer. Pierce and Shirley finally opened their restaurant. Chang spied on City College, peeking at its plans to take out Greendale. Star-Burns read a book called The Science of Death-Faking and Leonard reviewed potato chips with a muscular, shirtless African-American guy mysteriously in the background. But most important, Abed put away his Dreamatorium, allowing space, it seemed, for Troy to move back in and possibly have a proper bedroom. (But then, secretly, he entered a makeshift cardboard Dreamatorium and lost himself.)

There are ways for the characters on Community to change, but Dan Harmon never wanted things to change too much. There’s comfort in the familiar, and as much as he enjoyed sending these seven friends out of orbit during the show’s third season — either by their own choice or by circumstance — they couldn’t escape the inexplicable draw of the study group. And that was a beautiful thing.

I enjoyed watching these final three episodes as a unit, because on a week-to-week basis, I often forget that Community is capable of pathos, whimsy, sobriety, and wit, all within a ten-minute span. It just so happens that those ten minutes sometimes overlap between two episodes, and I have to wait until the following week to, say, experience the levity that comes after watching Abed talk to his felt-goateed evil version in the Dreamatorium.

So in the interest of getting right to it, let’s start with “Digital Estate Planning” — an episode I would imagine some people might not have liked, as it was essentially a throwaway story having nothing to do with the events of previous weeks. For all I knew, the Greendale Seven were still enrolled at the university at the time, and this episode was meant to air during the second season right after Pierce’s father rode his ivory wig up to heaven. I do know this as far as the timeline was concerned: It was made some time after Super Mario World.

Regardless, I loved it. Honestly, the entire episode could have just been the eight-bit avatars walking through the game as Troy jumped up and down and Gus Fring (a.k.a. the meth-inator) talked every so often, and I still would have loved it.

Here’s the cursory, honestly unimportant backstory as to how we got to that point: Pierce’s father left a video will of sorts in the form of a game, requiring Pierce and seven of his friends (LeVar Burton was unavailable) to create avatars and track down Pierce’s inheritance. This was set up by Gilbert Lawson, Mr. Hawthorne’s assistant, who also strapped himself in to play Journey to the Center of Hawkthorne first as their guide, then as their enemy. And whenever a player died, they were sent to the digital version of the study room to regroup.

The sound effects were straight out of Super Mario World, but the game was Metroid-meets-Zelda 2: Link’s Awakening. It was a rigid side-scroller where the character interactions, particularly Abed and his “bride”-to-be Hilda, consisted of a line or two. There was a little magic and a few weapons, stolen by Annie and Shirley after accidentally murdering the blacksmith. And the final bad guy — Mr. Hawthorne himself — was nothing but a disembodied floating head, the “Mother Brain” as it were.

It was a hell of a lot of fun watching these eight-bit characters interact with a digital world that was seemingly created around them; and minor details were carried over from the real world. For example, when Britta used her smarts to create a strength potion, it malfunctioned — a fact Gilbert learned firsthand when he stole it and drank it. And digital Abed was enamored with Hilda because all of her dialogue options were readily available, leaving no room for surprise and allowing him total control over how they spoke to one another. In short, it was a pleasant place to hang out for 22 minutes.

And it had to be almost all of the 22 minutes. The chairs were rigged so that if anyone got up, their spot in the game was forfeit; they were trapped until somebody won. Plus, it was revealed later in the episode that Gilbert was actually Pierce’s half-brother, and his claim to the Hawthorne treasure was one born out of a desperate attempt to please the father who likely never loved him. The stakes sounded incredibly high at the beginning, but of course this was a video game, so in the end Mr. Hawthorne was destroyed by an army of baby Abeds shouting “cool cool cool.” It wasn’t necessarily anticlimactic, just a non-starter if you honed in on the plot. But I was too enamored with the episode’s visual style to care.

In the end, Pierce demonstrated empathy by letting Gilbert take the treasure, Abed stole Hilda away on a flash drive, and the gang left the little experiment with only the memory of “Troy and Abed shooting lava!” singing through their heads. Then, in “The First Chang Dynasty,” it was quickly back to the main story.

There’s an old rule of improv comedy that I’m going to paraphrase: Do something once, and it’s out there; do it twice, and it’s a coincidence; three times, and it’s a pattern. And so on. Basically, it’s saying that you can turn anything into a joke as long as you follow the ol’ rule of three; the thing you’re doing doesn’t even have to necessarily be comedic. In a scene, you might mispronounce a word, which comes off as a mistake. But as long as your scene partners also mispronounce the word, your mistake suddenly seems brilliant. At least, after enough times.

I say this because one of the things I loved about “The First Chang Dynasty” was how it subtly subverted my expectations even before it started. See, season one ended with a paintball episode. So did season two. Had Dan Harmon chosen to end season three with one, he might have felt compelled to do it every season. So I was totally expecting this season to end with yet another cool paintball episode. (“This one is going to be a Hunger Games parody,” I said to myself while reading the first book of the series.) But it didn’t come. And I liked the show even more for not doing it.

Instead, we got a nearly pitch-perfect parody of Ocean’s Eleven — a grand heist taking place in the claustrophobic Greendale hallways, which made the whole thing more exciting/ridiculous. It was time to free the real dean from the clutches of the evil Chang, made even more menacing by the back-mumps that refused to be acknowledged as a legitimate medical condition. The gang would take out the dean-o-ganger/Moby impersonator and end Benjamin Franklin Chang’s rule in one fell swoop. Cops would sing operas about it for years to come.

It went down like this: Shirley infiltrated the Chang-stravaganza, taking special care not to disturb VIP guests the Budweiser frogs. She flooded the bathroom so the guards had no choice but to call the plumbers, and in walked Troy and Abed as Barry and Rod, speaking as Brooklyn-y as my Chicago-raised grandmother thinks Brooklyn people sound. I assume I’m missing a reference with the Barry and Rod names, so if I am, please correct me in the most angry way possible. Anyways, while this was going on, Jeff and Britta would show up as Ricky Nightshade, Rock & Roll Magician, and his … sidekick (this was after Britta Facebook-flirted with the head of security) and steal the key to the dean’s cell from around Chang’s neck. Annie would free him, Chang would realize something was up and confront the dean, only to find the dopple-deaner.

The heist itself subtly included a bunch of heist tropes. When Murray from the Air Conditioning Repair Annex (played by the formidable Dan Bakkedahl) described the location of the basement key, the camera showed it around Chang’s neck, but Troy had to ask for clarification — because of course he couldn’t see what we were seeing. Later, the group explained to Chang that they allowed him to understand their plan, but that was all a part of the plan. Later, after Chang captured the group (because his plan was to let them think he thought he knew their plan but didn’t know their real plan) and they escaped, Troy and Abed headed to the storeroom to disarm the fireworks Chang had rigged to go off as he ended his keytar solo. (He’d be safe, he explained, because fire doesn’t go through doors. “It’s not a ghost.”) They had to cut a wire, but which one? “There’s only one,” Troy pointed out. Also the dean’s code name was “the pixie.” That’s not a heist trope. I just thought it was funny.

Chang found himself relegated to the air vents at City College, and Troy, sadly, found himself relegated to the air vents inside Greendale’s campus. See, while they were trapped in the basement, he made a silent deal with the Air Conditioning Repair Annex: In exchange for their help, he would join their school, requiring him to leave his friends and move in to the AC dorms full-time. And it was a deal not easily broken. “Wherever there is air, we have eyes,” Murray warned Troy, which is also a promising premise for a Mega Man reboot — Air Man level from Mega Man 2 only.

Thus we began the final episode of season three, again thankfully not the final episode of the series. It was the end of the summer, and Jeff was stressing over his biology final just as Shirley and Pierce were ready to sign the lease on their brand new sandwich shop. And though we didn’t see it, Abed had been having a really hard time losing his best friend, and was now seeking the help of a trained psychologist. Wait, I mean Britta, which is better than nothing. Wait, maybe not.

Plus, once again, Dan Harmon pulled the wool over my eyes. I’m not quite sure what I was expecting for the final episode, though I’m sure it was something riffing on something. Instead, “Introduction to Finality” was just a sweet ol’ entry into the traditional Community canon, with enough excitement and pathos to make it one of the finest episodes this season.

From the beginning, the characters couldn’t be further from each other, in proximity and in spirit. Shirley and Pierce were feuding over who would put their name on the lease; they each had a 50 percent share of the company, and while it ultimately didn’t really matter, it’s the kind of thing that can get under a person’s skin. Britta arrived at the Dreamatorium ready to help Abed, but found herself faced with Evil Abed, from the alternate timeline. Not knowing what to do with his misplaced aggression over losing his friend, he retreated to this alternate persona who had an answer not unlike the Joker from The Dark Knight or Tyler Durden from Fight Club: If Abed (ahem, Lame Abed) couldn’t have his way, Evil Abed would ensure the system would collapse. Meanwhile, Troy withered away at the AC Annex, unable to focus but still the most gifted kid in his class.

Over the span of the episode, “Introduction to Finality” brought everyone together, united by another rousing speech given by none other than Jeff Winger, and no other location than a “courtroom.” (Even as a disgraced lawyer, Jeff sure does find himself in a whole lot of law-talking places.) In the battle of Shirley vs. Pierce, Jeff was asked to represent Shirley while Pierce secured Alan Connor (Rob Corddry), the guy who ratted Jeff out to his old firm. Evil Abed, hell-bent on turning this timeline into the terrible one, set about disrupting the normal Greendale way of life, bone saw in hand to cut off Jeff’s arm — eventually finding himself in the courtroom too, at first with too-short a power cord. The dean oversaw the proceedings, until he came out as “blind justice” and couldn’t oversee anything.

Troy spent most of the episode doing his own thing, but he was planting the seeds for his eventual return to the group. Noticing Troy slacking in class, Vice-Dean Laybourne pulled him aside and told him he was the subject of an ancient prophecy who would one day be the repairman who would repair man. Then he was killed by Murray, who attempted to take the vice-deanship for himself in a ceremony involving a crown and a mysterious fifth wind that wasn’t one of the four directions. To stop Murray from taking control, Troy had to challenge him in the “sun chamber,” side-by-side glass boxes pumped full of hot air, with only a broken AC unit as salvation. The Air Conditioning Repair Annex is my Pan’s Labyrinth.

Triumph in “Introduction to Finality” came with little effort, implying these characters had been capable of greatness the entire time. Troy barely had to try to fix his air conditioning unit, and even fixed Murray’s to prevent needless death. Jeff won the case by simply asking if Pierce knew any jokes, after which he effectively alienated every person in the room. Even Jeff’s big speech, extolling the virtues of helping each other, flows so naturally it felt like he’d been saving it up a long time (or at least since the last time he gave a similar speech). The episode celebrated just how far these characters have come, and gave them a sweet reunion when they finally found themselves all together in its final moments.

One of the most telling lines from “Introduction to Finality” was delivered by Evil Abed to Britta. “Healthy sounds more exciting than boring,” he said in an attempt to drain her of any remaining good will. It speaks to a mental state that’s forever restless, one that needs constant reassurance that everything is going to be okay so long as you reach some arbitrary psychological goal. Problem is, humans are completely incapable of soothing themselves, which leads to the mental gymnastics of the obsessives, the workaholics, the perfectionists, and the willingly ignorant. The lesson of season three was a simple one, but an important one: Let’s all do a better job of reaching out to one another. Big problems seem a whole lot simpler when you’re solving them with others.

Perhaps that was the struggle Dan Harmon had with Community this season. Perhaps it happened every season. Whatever the case, his ability to reflect the anxiety of high-functioning adults is a triumph, and I hate to think what kind of show Community might become were he to leave next season. I mean, the writers are all extremely talented, and will probably be able to churn out the sorts of viscerally enjoyable episodes like “Digital Estate Planning.” But Harmon’s a legitimate crazy person, and he’s reaching out to all of us fellow crazy people, and I love him for trying.

Or perhaps the tentative news of Harmon leaving was all the dean’s rave-induced fever dream. We’ll never know. I didn't get Inception!

Photo: Lewis Jacobs/NBC