Before we dive in, let’s take a moment to talk about episode titles. Michelle and Robert King are fond of playing tricks with their naming schemes, as previously witnessed on The Good Wife. Although I’ve been shortening the BrainDead titles in these recaps, the full titles are, to put it mildly, verbose. Take this week’s episode, “Goring Oxes: How You Can Survive the War on Government Through Five Easy Steps.” I’m stumped as to what these unconventional titles are all about, so please feel free to share your theories.
As with the first two episodes of BrainDead, the alien ants are the most entertaining part of “Goring Oxes,” so let’s start there. Laurel meets Gustav, the chess-playing conspiracy theorist who saw his friend’s brain explode in a park. Gustav tracks her down at a constituent meeting after she leaves a comment on a website he created, and he’s delightful right off the bat. The show isn’t having nearly enough fun with the possibilities for a free-wheeling conspiracy theorist, which seems frustratingly lazy, but Johnny Ray Gill is charismatic enough to let that slide for now.
So, Gustav breaks down what he knows about the biology of the ants — and to Laurel’s credit, when he casually announces, “Bugs are eating people’s brains,” her response amounts to, “Tell me more,” not, “Go away.” I like that in a woman. He explains that they’re screwworms (don’t Google it, even though Laurel does), and they take away people’s memories and cognitive abilities. She asks whether they could make a person’s political views more extreme, and he says yes, if “that part” of their brain was destroyed. Then, Guvtav explains that people can be “brought back” if you get them to remember who they really are. His best explanation for why some brains explode isn’t exactly convincing — “Not many people know this, but bugs fart” — but, hey, he’s still in the research phase.
Together with Rochelle, the doctor whose father’s head exploded in the first episode, the three of them form a little ant-avenger squad. (The anti-ants, as it were.) The best scene of the episode comes when Gustav decides to smoke out any ants that might be in or near his apartment, so he can bring one to Rochelle to study. He accomplishes this by covering his apartment in insect bait and traps, blaring the Cars’ “You Might Think,” and duct-taping red Solo cups around his head to make his ears uninhabitable. It’s the show’s first exceptionally strong scene of visual humor, deliciously balanced out by the fact that the ants wind up this close to Gustav’s ears. He’s safe for now, but unfortunately, his cat isn’t. (Sidebar: I hope the Cars do something really fun with the residual money they’re banking from this series.)
While Gustav’s on ant patrol, Laurel takes his “invoke the memories” strategy and meets up with her friend Stacey, who was attacked at the end of last week’s episode. Stacey blurts out inaccurate liberal talking points, laughs too hard at the mindless anti-conservative comedian playing on a TV at the bar, and finally blurts out, distraught, “Trump could be president!” And Laurel, in all sincerity and without irony, responds, “Yes, Stacey, but you still have to live!”
I’ll admit it: I don’t get how I’m supposed to feel in this scene. Is it supposed to be funny? Am I supposed to learn a valuable lesson about not letting political ideas get in the way of life? Am I being encouraged to be less panicked about the possibility of a Trump presidency? I know this episode was written months ago, maybe before Trump was even the presumptive nominee, certainly before Brexit and the global realization that unthinkable electoral results can happen. But it doesn’t feel funny or cautionary or fresh, and I’m not sure what to make of it. Neither does Stacey, who breaks down a little bit when she finally hears the memories Laurel wants her to recall, then leaves the bar with cerebral fluid leaking from her ears.
As I said last week, it’s hard to watch a TV series that cackles at the audacity of pretend politicians, mugging at their antics as if to ask, “Can you believe this?” while real-life politicians filibuster Senate hearings and hold sit-ins on the floor of the House. Normally, I don’t think it’s productive (or all that fair) to worry about the realism of TV shows; I’ve never thought to stop watching Grey’s Anatomy because all the interns look well-rested. But BrainDead doesn’t want to take place in some separate, fantasy world. It wants to take place in ours, using our politicians and our landmarks. It’s impossible not to compare the political theater of BrainDead to the political theater of Congress, and it’s unfortunate that the show’s offering comes up lacking. The political side of the storytelling needs something to elevate it in the coming episodes.
With that out of the way, let’s get down to the rest of the episode: Zach Grenier is back as Laurel and Luke’s father! (It’s delightful to see him, as always.) Senator Pollock’s brain gets eaten, but the ants make her strident, not placid, and send her into the caucus gunning for Luke’s seat, wondering why the Democrats always have to be “the party of adults.” Fair question! She conspires with Luke’s assistant, Scarlett, to leak the news of Luke and Scarlett’s affair, discrediting him. This makes me wonder why Scarlett and Senator Pollock worked together to bring down Luke. Do the ants ingrain a biological imperative for mayhem when they eat your brain? Do they make people conniving? At the very least, there’s an edict to make more zombies: Scarlet is the one who sends infested cherry blossoms to Senator Pollock at the top of the episode, and she tries to give Luke some, too.
Then Laurel, who has already amassed an impressive amount of I Work for a Senator blazers, gets all the lady senators to forgive Luke by telling a story about a time she helped him in the snow when they were children. It is so condescending, I can barely even mention it. (Speaking of things I can barely mention, Laurel and Gareth share an extremely awkward kiss.)
By the end of the episode, the FBI arrive to question Laurel about her connection to the head explosions. It seems that Anthony’s brain has been ant-munched, but when Luke comes to save Laurel, he says that Anthony was the one who called to alert him to Laurel’s interrogation. Maybe Anthony is faking? I’m guessing we’ll learn more about that next week. Or maybe we’ll just watch Gustav’s cat take over the world.