Well, that’s unfortunate. Rather than build on the momentum of a very fun cliffhanger, BrainDead does the equivalent of grinding to a halt at the edge of that cliff, taking out a book, and reading for awhile.
Laurel’s indecision about FBI Anthony hurts the episode in two big ways: It slows everything down and it makes her seem dumb. Look, I know that our heroine can’t figure out everything all at once. That process needs to be slow, both to build suspense and to create a modicum of realism. I get that. But Laurel is a smart woman. I don’t understand why she wouldn’t take the hard-and-fast evidence of Anthony’s hearing loss (and his weird machinations with her bed sheets) to determine that, yep, he’s a Bug Man. Instead, she doesn’t see past the rote characterization of “I saw a wet spot on your sheets, so I changed them because I’m a little anal!” and spends the rest of the episode trying to decide if he’s infested.
Spoiler: He sure is! Anthony rambles about AA, announces that he left a serious relationship after he slept with Laurel, discovers a newfound love for yelling about Norway and drinking green juice, and eschews sexual advances in favor of warm side hugs, but apparently all of that doesn’t convince Laurel, and neither does his love for the Hugh Grant dancing scene in Love Actually. (If that ardor alone is a symptom of ant infestation, I should see my ENT.) She doesn’t piece it together until he’s basically holding her down, waiting for the ants in the cherry blossoms he brought over to make their way from the sink to her ears. Good thing Laurel beats the hell out of him with a pair of brass knuckles; after BrainDead spent an hour trying to convince us she’s an idiot, it’s incredibly satisfying to see her be competent again.
The previous episode ended with Red on the news, claiming Luke had pulled off a government coup to end the shutdown, and basically trying to incite citizens to militia-style violence. This week, Red and Luke do battle over a cancer patient and a coffee cart, so that’s … tamer. It’s not that I want things to get more violent or graphic — I’m squeamish about its admittedly tame content already — but this episode fails to make good on those heightened stakes, and that’s frustrating. Is this a show in which alien ants cause our society to become completely unglued, or is it just a show in which alien ants cause people to use their outdoor voices a lot?
The storyline with the cancer patient is a great example of this problem. He’s a vet who needs clinical trials reopened; Luke asks Red for help; Red declines because he thinks it’d help Luke’s chances for an eventual presidential bid; Luke lets Red help on his own terms and take full credit; Luke sulks; Red smiles and waves from his perfect photo op. It’s not an objectionable storyline, and there’s even a cute baby involved at the end. But we’ve seen this kind of political story before, in fact and in fiction. I’m legitimately not sure what it’s doing here, other than filling time.
That said, the bit about the coffee cart is pretty funny. A quick vote to rename a coffee kiosk after a former Capitol police officer becomes controversial when Red points out that his last name sounds ever-so-slightly (which is to say not at all) like Sharia. He earnestly asks whether everyone present to vote is okay with the American public assuming they’d voted for Sharia law. The meeting basically falls apart after that, with insinuations that the term “kiosk” is French and should be avoided at all costs, followed by suggestions that the cart should be named after Emma Goldman or Ronald Reagan. (Red points out that he was a veteran; Luke points out that he played a veteran in a movie.) Luke storms out of the meeting mumbling, “Everybody hates everybody,” and, later, in a nice sight gag, we see Gareth leaning up against a coffee cart called the Reagan Hut.
Meanwhile, Margo Martindale is here! It’s my firm belief that every television show would benefit from a Martindale guest appearance, and this one’s no exception. She plays Joanne, a scatter-brained CDC entomologist and friend of Luke’s who immediately gets excited when Gustav and Rochelle bring her evidence of the ants, muttering about infection clusters and going on an all-night stakeout with Gustav to track their movements. I’d happily watch a Gustav/Joanne spinoff, but it’s not in the cards: When Gustav and Rochelle turn up at her lab, they find her messy hair, cardigan, and glasses replaced by a business casual, stone-cold demeanor. It’s the classic “she took off her glasses and that’s how we know she’s pretty and put together!” move, but the contrast between Regular Margo Martindale and Bug-Infested Margo Martindale is delightful enough that I’m willing to allow it. Unfortunately, Joanne exposes Luke’s involvement in the investigation, which she now disavows, turning him into a Congressional laughingstock. He demands that Laurel never mention the bugs to him again. We’ll see how long that lasts!
Here’s the thing: I want to love BrainDead. I really, really do. The cast is one of the most uniformly strong we’ve seen on a freshman show in a very long time. The premise is solid. The “last time on…” musical sequences are unparalleled brilliance. It passes the Bechdel Test. But it’s still struggling to find a good pace and hit a consistent tone. Even this week’s big cliffhanger doesn’t land the way it should have. We know ants are in Laurel’s apartment. We know one crawled onto — or maybe even into — her ear. But when I saw that final scene, my response wasn’t a gasp followed by, “I can’t wait to see what happens next!” It was more of a, “Sure, great, let’s get on with it.” And that’s worrisome.