I’ll say this much: BrainDead has completely changed the way I look at ants. I’ve been in Arizona for the past week on vacation, and I’ve spent much of that time sitting on the back porch, getting leery every time an ant marches up to see what I’m doing. That may sound like a tangential observation, but it’s a testament to the show’s early work. With relatively scaled-back visual effects (at least compared to zombie shows like The Walking Dead), BrainDead has created a properly evocative menace.
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of this week’s episode is Megan Hilty’s expanded role — she’s spent the first few episodes behind a news desk on one of the many cable networks whose chatter underscores the show. This week, she’s out from behind the desk, sleeping with Gareth, and featuring the “grassroots” organization that Gareth created for Senator Wheatus on her show. (More on that shortly.) I’m hoping there’s much more ahead for Hilty — she was only in a handful of scenes in this episode — but it’s nice to see her step into the forefront a bit, especially since I was beginning to wonder why BrainDead was paying her to hang around in the background.
Meanwhile, the zombified have gotten even more volatile. Within the first two minutes of “Wake Up Grassroots,” we run the full gamut from apoplectic news anchors to internet comments (seeing “YOU CANT MAKE UP YOUR OWN FACTS YOU FAT REPUBLICAN IDIOT” scroll across my screen was oddly satisfying) to neighbors bashing into one another’s cars out of sheer frustration. The invasion has taken a decidedly scary turn, something Laurel experiences firsthand after a constituent gets furious with Laurel for not being furious at the whole world like him. He starts following Laurel around after a late-night meeting because Luke approved cuts to the National Endowment of the Arts budget. He frantically beseeches her to think of All Things Considered and Tavis Smiley and Sesame Street and Masterpiece Theater, and it would be charming were he not brandishing a butcher knife at her throughout his tirade. The fact that the knife was a pledge-drive perk from PBS’s The Splendid Table does not reassure Laurel, nor should it, but it’s all very funny nonetheless.
Just as we’d all feared at the close of the previous episode, Gustav’s cat has been infected by the ants, so Gustav and Laurel bring it to Rochelle for an exam. She’s delightfully exasperated: “Yep, cat CAT scan. I’m so glad I went to medical school,” yet again proving that the chemistry between these three is one of the best things BrainDead has going. The CAT scan reveals that half of the cat’s brain is completely missing, and Gustav points out that any person who lost half a brain would start behaving oddly, too. They also determine (although I’m not exactly sure how, as BrainDead’s medical science is slightly over my head) that infected people should demonstrate either trouble with balance or deafness in one ear. I’m a little annoyed about this — suddenly seeing Ella stumble all over the place when she’d been walking just fine in earlier episodes bothered me — but I see the need for Laurel and Co. to have a foolproof means of identifying the infected.
Rochelle approaches a researcher friend for help after the CDC tries to cover their collective asses by recalling some experimental blood-pressure meds, claiming they’re to blame for the head explosions and calling it a day. This guy is interested (he and Gustav actually hit it off, and I would happily watch a buddy-cop comedy starring the two of them), but he also needs a human subject to study. Laurel and Rochelle go to Abby’s house to convince her to come in, and she greets them by announcing, “ALL lives matter, not just black lives!” Charming. When Abby won’t come voluntarily, Laurel asks Anthony to compel her to. (Which is something the FBI can apparently do?) Abby lets him in, storms off to get her coat and her phone, announcing her intention to film the entire arrest … BUT THEN JUMPS OFF THE DAMN BALCONY AND KILLS HERSELF. It raises all sorts of questions about the agency of the zombies: Are they controlled by a higher power? Can they coordinate action amongst themselves? It also breaks Laurel’s heart, sending her into Anthony’s arms after he brings her condolence cookies.
As Laurel draws closer to Anthony, Gareth steps up his game. First, he fully funds the Kickstarter for her Melanesian choir documentary — drawing on an inside joke about an Eastern European prostitute as he does so — and then he pulls files from Anthony’s time in Iraq, which include photos of him waterboarding prisoners. Is it weird that these two (arguably) unhealthy gestures got me more onboard with Laurel and Gareth as a couple? Don’t answer that.
Gareth’s also busy starting an accidental militia! The “grassroots organization” he convinced a handful of constituents to start goes from being a mouthpiece for conservative viewpoints to a clearinghouse for lessons on how to build bombs and kill liberals. Those concerned citizens aren’t the only ones getting violent, either. After Luke pulls off a crafty plan to temporarily end the shutdown, Wheatus gets even more unhinged. “You’re dead,” he tells Luke. “No, seriously. You’re dead.” Wheatus is on the news minutes later, inciting citizens into violent uprising, and it’s decidedly more scary than it was when he hurled pencils against the wall and screamed at Ella earlier in the episode.
“Wake Up Grassroots” closes on Anthony curled up in Laurel’s bed, the morning after they sleep together. She climbs in next to him to apologize for sleeping on the couch, where she’d crashed after reading news coverage about the end of the sequester. But Anthony doesn’t hear her — he cups his hand around one ear, signifying that he’s partially deaf, a telltale sign of zombification that Gustav discovered earlier. The episode ends on Laurel’s horrified face, and it’s one of the best “Holy shit!” moments BrainDead has pulled off yet. It’s also the first time I found myself happy to be frustrated by a cliffhanger. I’ll take that as a sign that the show is coming into its own quite nicely.