The Path to War Part One: The Gathering Political Storm
Tony Shalhoub as Red Wheatus.
I went into this episode still feeling a bit cross about last week’s near-debacle, and the fact that it aired opposite NBC’s Olympics coverage didn’t help my mindset any. Seriously, does CBS want BrainDead’s ratings to sink even lower? Fortunately, the show did a lot to win me back in the “Previously on … ” segment alone. Jonathan Coulton’s songs have been a reliable high point of each and every episode, and this week’s is framed as a pharmaceutical commercial extolling the benefits and side effects of brain bugs. That slight departure from form certainly makes sense: How was Coulton supposed to write (or co-write) a jaunty tune about Laurel’s time in FBI/CIA custody?
Turns out that last week’s cliffhanger, in which Rochelle and Gustav discovered that the bugs infected Laurel’s father, wasn’t as straightforward as I’d thought. Gustav and Rochelle move a bit closer to Laurel’s dad, trying to confirm with a frequency detector that he really is infected, but all of a sudden, the machine zeroes out. Gustav thinks the bugs have changed the frequency, but when he tells Laurel, she’s convinced there has to be a different explanation.
And there is … for a little while. Laurel goes to her father’s house and tries to test his hearing, then rifles through his medicine cabinet and finds a medication used to treat Parkinson’s disease. When she confronts Luke, he confirms that, yes, their father was diagnosed with the disease. That was the main reason he insisted Laurel move back to D.C. to work with Luke — he wanted more time with his daughter. It’s nice to see the show circle back to the season premiere, shoring up what was, at the time, her father’s confusing insistence that she simply must move if she wanted any financial help.
To get further confirmation, Laurel hunts down her father’s mistress, asking if he’s had a decreased sex drive, a conversation all daughters dream of one day having with their fathers’ lovers. She leaves with the assurance that he might have Parkinson’s, or he might be infected. Or both! Or neither. So she confronts him again, and walks in on him trying to fake a Parkinson’s tremor. Turns out he was diagnosed with the disease, and given a year to live, but after he was infected with the space bugs, the symptoms went away completely.
What’s so creepy about all of this — and what Zach Grenier pulls off so nicely — is that Laurel’s father is so fully there and not there. He can list off Laurel’s childhood memories. He wants to hug her. He assures her, repeatedly, that he’s still her dad. But just as fervently, he assures her, “Let me convince you that [being infected is] an inevitable thing. This is happening, and people are going to be better for it.” It’s not just stressing the abstract “people will be better for it” angle — he’s actually better for it. The Parkinson’s is gone. He’s not staring down the barrel of a shortened lifespan and a final year of life in which his wife has to care for him. He wants Laurel to accept not just this inevitable reality, but to accept him. “I want my dad,” Laurel finally says to him. “I’m your dad,” he replies. Laurel’s not convinced, and she shouldn’t be, and now it occurs to me that if she’s going to disavow him as her father, I should probably learn his first name. (It’s Dean.)
That question of where the bugs end and the people begin is reexamined throughout the episode; in particular, an encounter between Red and Ella requires viewers to do some sort of “Our Bugs, Ourselves” soul-searching. Furious at each other over yet another political stalemate, Ella comes to Red’s office, shuts the door, and starts hissing angry accusations at him. He throws them right back, and they perch on the edge of his desk as the bugs fly out of their ears, then have hate sex with each other. To be very clear: The bugs are having the hate sex, not the people. It’s incredibly strange. Afterward, Tony Shaloub grins into the middle distance, sharpens a pencil, and may or may not reflect on the professional choices that brought him to that moment.
Let’s pause for a moment for the first (and hopefully last) installment of a new segment I’m calling Laurel, What the Hell Are You Wearing? Her outfit for the majority of the episode is a cartoon-ish, leopard-print skirt, a sort of fancy referee’s blouse with both decorative buttons and decorative buttonholes, and a leather blazer. I’m only going to the trouble of pointing it out because it was distractingly bad.
After Rochelle comes home to discover that her apartment’s been invaded by a Bug Person, she and Gustav duct tape him to a pole, intent on learning whatever they can. (After Laurel was stripped of so much of her agency last week, it’s incredibly satisfying to see Rochelle render a home intruder unconscious with a lamb shank from her freezer.) They finally get Kevin the Bug Person to talk by forcing liquor down his throat, and he confides that they want Americans to go to war with the Middle East so they’ll be too preoccupied to fight off the bugs. Kevin also lets slip something along the lines of “You can’t beat us,” which Laurel seizes on as being hugely significant. Kevin is a bug. He’s not just infected by one.
Meanwhile, after last week’s catastrophic attempt at a Senate subcommittee vote, Red reviews surveillance footage, trying to figure out who was to blame for the disturbance. He tells Gareth, “[It’s] those two black people — and I’m not being racist! I’m being descriptive. If they were dwarves, I’d call them dwarves.” Gareth points out that he probably wouldn’t be able to say “dwarves” in an inoffensive manner, either, in an exchange that ranks high among BrainDead’s actually funny moments. But Red has bigger fish to fry: He’s hell-bent on inciting an all-out war with Syria. He’s got quite the arsenal of tricks up his sleeve to make that happen, from getting witnesses to claim that the head explosions were bioterrorism to getting those same witnesses to imply that that same bioterrorism is being used to kill cute baby-zoo animals. At one point, Red gravely announces, “My colleague cares more about the truth than he does the fate of pandas!”
The proceedings of the panel get so out of hand that a CIA agent comes in and says, essentially, “Cool it, guys, this has nothing to do with Syria, and also, you can’t tell anyone what we talked about just now, okay?” Red and Ella take this and run with it, of course, immediately giving interviews about this stunning, shocking briefing. All I’m saying, you two, is if you want to start an all-out war with the Middle East, there are only a few episodes left. You better get a move on.