Playing Politics: Living Life in the Shadow of the Budget Showdown – A Critique
Danny Pino as Luke, Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Laurel.
The most delightful aspect of BrainDead’s second episode is the “previously on” segment, which isn’t spoken, but sung. Showrunners Michelle and Robert King have always treated music as an integral part of their work — The Good Wife’s jaunty classical score was essentially a recurring character — but this takes it to the next level.
Perhaps more importantly, the sequence clues us into how we should watch the show. The song’s silliness prepares us to watch the episode itself, which emphasizes the comic side of the show’s classification as a comic-thriller. And the segment works on a practical level, too: The lyrics refreshed my memory of last week’s events far more clearly and effectively than a montage ever could. Maybe it’s just the Glee fan in me (don’t judge), but I really enjoyed it.
BrainDead’s second episode is also exciting because it effectively leverages the fact that we know something Laurel doesn’t. It’s ants! Brain-eating ants! Beware the ants at all costs! After the pilot, I worried that this would make the show feel dull, since there can be a certain drudgery in watching someone try to solve a mystery you’ve already figured out. Instead, “Playing Politics” uses our knowledge against Laurel’s ignorance to build suspense. We get to be in “No! Look out! Don’t go in there!” mode, which is part of what makes watching horror so much fun. This dynamic starts at the very top of the episode, when a train of the alien ants — should we be calling them alients? — makes its way into Laurel’s apartment, and she tries to stop them with a can of insect spray and the soles of her shoes.
Meanwhile, the government shutdown rages on. The show tries to humanize this political quagmire by introducing us to a little girl named Annie, who has cancer and wants to visit 20 national monuments in 20 days as a fundraising measure. (I have some pretty intense follow-up questions about the nature of this mission, but it seems weird to interrogate the choices of a young cancer patient. Even an imaginary one.) Although Annie is adorable, I’m still not quite sold on the way BrainDead tells political stories. I watched close to 12 hours of the gun-control filibuster last week, and while it’s not fair to compare BrainDead to the genuine high-stakes drama of real life, I still find myself doing so. Put another way: The show’s writing is smart, but it’s certainly not The West Wing.
And so, Laurel’s quest to figure out why a senator was convinced to switch parties and put the Democrats in the minority feels a tiny bit tedious. That said, it’s a little satisfying to watch Tony Shaloub’s Senator Wheatus, in his new zombie state, cackling about how he (ahem) shut down “Shutdown Annie” by planting rumors that her father taught university classes that claimed Abraham Lincoln was gay. And yet, Danny’s hammy political advice to Laurel in the wake of all that feels far too heavy-handed. “They’re sharks! You gotta stay awake, sis! They’ll kill us if they can.” Accurate? Probably. But still over the top. And when Laurel finally sneaks Shutdown Annie into the Lincoln Memorial late at night, Annie’s wise-beyond-her-years schtick feels too precocious. I’ll give the political aspect of the show a bit more time to hit its stride, but for now, I’m not sold.
As all of this unfolds, Gareth invites Laurel to “tax prom,” a party thrown by tax lobbyists. Two quibbles with this: If tax prom is real, I demand to know why my invitation has gone missing, lo these many years; additionally, I can’t hear Gareth’s name without thinking about Jason Bateman’s Arrested Development alter ego, Chareth Cutestory.
Nevertheless, I appreciate what their “date” generates: Laurel points out that she and Gareth (and, by extension, all Democrats and Republicans) don’t really talk. They just wait patiently for opportunities to contradict one another. It also gives us an opportunity to appreciate, once again, how dated the Kings’ taste can be. Laurel and Gareth’s big dance is to “This Is How We Do It,” a song that was released in 1995. Do they think it’s a hit? Was it meant to be a golden oldie? These are the important questions BrainDead forces us to consider!
Speaking of Laurel’s romantic life, I’m a little uncomfortable with her status as an object of male affection so far. Yes, Mary Elizabeth Winstead is a bombshell, but the combination of Laurel’s sexy prom dress and the two eager suitors (an FBI agent also develops a thing for her) makes me feel a little uncomfortable. I can’t tell if that’s a legitimate concern or a hypersensitivity on my part, so I’ll just keep an eye on it for now.
On to the ants! The first drip of brain goop comes far earlier in this week’s episode, as a chess wiz named Gustav watches his opponent’s brain begin to ooze out mid-game. The guy’s head stays intact long enough for him to make it to an MRI machine, but it explodes midway through the scan. (At least there’s enough time for the squeamish to look away before it goes down? Welcome to BrainDead, where the easily skeeved out have to take our victories when we can.) Gustav is a bit of a genius, so he immediately begins investigating the exodus of his friend’s cerebral cortex and finds an ant embedded in it.
As Gustav investigates, the fabulous Nikki M. James turns up as a woman named Rochelle Daudier. Rochelle attends Laurel’s constituent meetings, but not because she lives in Luke’s senatorial district — she’s the daughter of the scientist whose brain exploded in the ambulance last week, and as a doctor, she’s not buying the official explanation of his death. Rochelle shares her concerns with the aforementioned FBI agent, and he promises to look into it.
The biggest question I have at this point: Why do the ants cause some brains to explode, and why do they turn other people into zombies?
Apart from that, I can’t tell whether the horror side of BrainDead is condensed to make room for the political story line, or whether the political stuff is so tedious that it simply feels that way. It doesn’t feel ideal either way, especially when the mystery of the exploding brains is as compelling as it is. After I watched this episode, the final scene stuck with me the most: Laurel at her laptop, doing an internet search for “exploding heads in D.C..” Props for specificity, girl. As she scrolls past theories on that maple-syrup smell in New York and the Kennedy curse, all the way down to Gustav’s video about what happened to his friend, you can see her slipping down the rabbit hole. That’s where I want to follow her.