Did I miss something, or did we just watch an entire episode of BrainDead that didn’t explicitly reference space bugs at all? It’s entirely possible that I missed something while I was taking notes, but even if I did, the bugs certainly weren’t at the forefront of “Taking on Water.” Even worse, Gustav was nowhere to be seen, which was the most tragic aspect of the hour.
The absence of the bugs is a bold choice, I suppose. Maybe it’s the show’s way of building toward a storyline that ends with “The bugs were never the problem! It was our flawed two-party political system all along!” I won’t be surprised if that’s where the show ultimately plans to take us (and yes, I’ll be annoyed), but standing on its own, “Taking on Water” is another example of BrainDead’s uncertainty about the type of show it wants to be.
On top of that, this episode isn’t exactly action-packed. It picks up where last week’s ended: with Red and Ella insinuating to the press that they’d received a confidential CIA briefing, which told them there was cause for war with Syria. In response, someone — spoiler: the senator who oversaw those hearings — leaks that the briefing said that there was no cause for war. Immediately, Luke and Laurel become the most likely leak suspects, a special prosecutor named Lawrence Boch is appointed, and an intensive investigation begins.
The trouble with “Taking on Water” — or any episode that investigates some sort of leak on any show — is that you’re listening to characters ask and answer the same close-ended questions, again and again. Did you leak the story? Do you know who did leak it? It’s almost impossible to make a conversation like that interesting for 30 seconds, and here BrainDead is, trying to build an entire episode around it. Underscoring scenes with suspenseful classical music can only accomplish so much.
The leak investigation plods along until finally, Red sits down with Lawrence and they argue about the direction of the proceedings. It includes some of Red’s finest doublespeak, including the exchange: “You know that for a fact?” “You know that for not a fact?” Ultimately, Red gets angry, then super casually pulls a pistol out of his desk and shoots Lawrence. It’s sudden, and raises the stakes of what the space bugs are willing to do to achieve their goals. Of course, Lawrence leaves behind a huge splatter of brain matter on the wall and, of course, Red prances over, runs his finger across it, pops a little bit into his mouth, and then saves the rest in the office fridge to eat later. He even has the intern help him wrap up Lawrence’s body and chuck it into a dumpster. Politics!
Meanwhile, Luke, Laurel, and Gareth are trying to figure out what’s happening behind a locked door that Rachelle discovered in the Capitol last week. Laurel uses her moxie and Luke tries to use his senatorial clout, but it’s Gareth who ultimately manages to edge his way into the closed-off offices … by turning off their Wi-Fi access. (The motivational speech he gives an IT employee to enlist him as a co-conspirator is a high point of the episode.) Once he’s behind the locked doors, he takes a few surreptitious photographs, noting a doomsday clock counting down to September 12, as well as a lot of blueprints. Later, he and Luke figure out that those are plans to build internment camps for Syrians.
In further investigatory news, Red hires his “favorite African-American person,” Ashley Cook, to delve into Luke and Laurel’s pasts. (Ashley is played by Tracie Thoms, who should be on all television programs from now to eternity.) This is confusing, because “Taking on Water” is predicated on Red’s willingness to lie to the press, and last week’s episode demonstrated how adept he is at creating evidence out of nothing. Why not just make up a rumor and run with it? If you’re 38 days away from the doomsday scenario on the clock in your secret war room, why not focus on that?
The answer, of course, is that making up a rumor and focusing on the war effort wouldn’t give Laurel and Gareth an episode-long joint storyline. Normally, I’m all for that! I don’t want my respect for Aaron Tveit and Mary Elizabeth Winstead to get lost in these frequently frustrated grumblings about BrainDead. Their performances reliably elevate the show, and they have great chemistry. But it’s hard to get onboard with this week’s story for their characters, even though it starts off quite promisingly, with Gareth fingering Laurel in a planetarium. (I’m all for onscreen, quickie public sex that’s not a hand job.) Things drop off precipitously after Gareth starts getting files of information about Laurel’s past from the investigator. First, he’s informed that she slept with a college professor, got pregnant, and then had an abortion — a sequence that Laurel says is only 33 percent true. Then, he learns that Laurel has slept with 24 men since starting college, and we’re supposed to believe that he’s weirded out about that. Laurel’s what, 32 years old? That averages out to a little less than two men a year.
So Gareth, the guy who’s cool with one-night stands, who’s comfortable enough with weird salami and chocolate sex, and who fingered Laurel in a damn planetarium, is apparently weirded out about this? It gets even weirder when he learns Laurel once had sex with Michael Moore at Sundance. He’s immediately, physically repulsed. I’m no Michael Moore fan, but it’s needlessly cruel to insinuate that he’s so repulsive that Gareth would dry heave just thinking about Laurel having sex with him. Mary Elizabeth Winstead suggested that he was in on the joke, so there’s that, at least.
Laurel didn’t sleep with Michael Moore, but she pretends that she did to prove some point to Gareth about how he’s being a tool. After demanding that he “make her understand” and asking whether she’s even seen Fahrenheit 9/11, Laurel kicks him out. “I’ll call you,” he says. “No. Don’t. You handled this poorly.” I hate to say it, but the same could be said for this episode.