For eight episodes, The Purge has followed a predictable pattern, flitting between various plot strands seemingly connected only because they take place on the same Purge Night, while occasionally flashing back to reveal the backstory of the series’s main characters. It’s a pattern that worked well — but it’s also one the series took a match to at the end of last week’s episode, “The Giving Time Is Here.” That installment ended with the revelation that the seemingly sweet, heroic Joe — whom we’d previously seen rescuing all the other protagonists from sticky situations and who grew disillusioned and dispossessed during a flashback episode that made him seem like a fundamentally decent, perpetually luckless guy — had a master plan that involved all of the series’s other characters. And it wasn’t a nice master plan. It was more of an “I’m going to bind, gag, and stuff every one of you in the back of a truck then drive off to parts unknown” type of plan.
This episode reveals those parts unknown to be the shuttered Thomas Paine High School, which Joe has rigged with explosives so that no one can get in or out as he holds Jane, Rick, Jenna, Penelope, and two other characters, whom we’ve seen only fleetingly, in a cage on the stage of an auditorium, with intent to put them on trial for their perceived offenses. And obviously, the newcomers are redshirts doomed to die before any of the core cast — who are sure to make it out of the series alive or at least survive until the final episode, right?
Except, once again, the episode zags instead of zigging. After Joe dispatches Charlie, a now-homeless former classmate who humiliated him in ninth grade, he turns his attention to Jane, whom he met on a dating app. Their date, which we see in flashback, does not go well, self-sabotaged by Joe’s bad decisions, beginning with his decision to use a seemingly much younger picture for his profile. It gets worse from there, thanks to Joe’s unconscious racism. He expresses relief that Jane’s not “loud and sassy” and accuses her of having gotten as far as she has because she’s leveraged her race to her advantage.
This, unsurprisingly, does not go over well, prompting Jane to excuse herself, pay the bill, and leave. She doesn’t seem like the type of person who would spend months (years?) stewing over what she should have said to Joe to put him in his place. But while on “trial,” she gets to express every withering insult she kept to herself during the incident, calling him out on his racism, condescension, and unchecked assumptions, never blinking even as he holds a Taser to her face.
Is this the smart play? Ultimately, tragically, we discover that it’s not. But asking for forgiveness doesn’t really work out for Charlie, either, and Jane’s resistance helps turn this into an episode that — in the midst of a sham trial — puts the Purge itself on the stand. When Joe calls her out on killing David, Jane doesn’t try to defend herself. Instead, she accepts the shame of the moment, an arguably justifiable homicide given everything David had put Jane through. Next to that, most of Joe’s complaints look petty, especially his beef with Penelope, who, in a moment of distraction, didn’t say thank you when he held the door for her.
“There are two kinds of people in the world: builders and takers,” he says, echoing the justification of Ayn Rand–addled jerks everywhere. He’s decided that Penelope is a taker and, worse yet, a young taker. (That she’s Latina remains unspoken, but probably plays a role as well.) So Joe’s intent on having his revenge. This is the Purge mentality in its purest form, and it’s awful and unjustifiable. It’s ugly to watch in action, too. The episode doesn’t pull away as Joe chokes the life out of Jane, the series’s most vital and compelling character, offering an image of aggrieved white privilege in the raw.
It’s a shocking moment that arrives at the end of an episode that sometimes seems to be marking time as a lead-in to the finale. But it’s rarely wasting time. This is the deepest The Purge franchise, in any form, has delved into why a seemingly ordinary person would turn to the Purge for release. Joe’s not the good guy we thought he was. In fact, he has some pretty deep-seated racist and misogynistic tendencies we’d never seen before. But prior to what we’ve seen him do on this particular Purge Night, he doesn’t seem like an irredeemably bad guy, either. He might have changed for the better, who knows? But we do know that the bad angel on his shoulder in the form of the pro-Purge propaganda he’s been listening to nonstop since he lost his job has changed him for the worse. He’s been radicalized by ideologues with bad information and even worse ideas, which they’ve boiled down into simplistic, hateful ideas that he’s internalized. I hate to put a fine point on it, but elements of this series have been eerily dead-on in their echoes of the headlines of the day.
As the episode ends, it’s Joe’s who’s in control, another victory for those who support the Purge and use it to shore up power. A lot is going to have to change for this season to have anything like a hopeful ending, but it’s not like The Purge promised a hopeful ending anyway.
• Elsewhere, Miguel and Pete the Cop make their way to the high school by way of Joe’s house. Along the way, we meet some suburban Purgers and learn that Pete gets a pass, thanks to his heroic efforts against some fellow cops on a Purge Night event known as “Blue Friday.” He survives the episode. The sweet muscle car, on the other hand, does not, thanks to Rex the Cowboy’s surprise return.
• Joe makes a reference to “Bobby Sheridan,” presumably the Purge-created self-help guru whom he listens to all the time, causing Jane to scoff. Will we learn more about Sheridan next week? Is he the Jordan Peterson of the Purge world? Discuss!
• Ernest Dickerson, a veteran director who got his start as Spike Lee’s cinematographer, helms this episode, and it benefits from having a tremendous talent behind the camera. The scenes onstage could easily have felt, well, stagy, but Dickerson stages and lights them in ways that make them feel dynamic, even if he can’t quite overcome a script that feels a bit like a stretched-out first part of a two-parter.
• One of the best touches this week: The way Joe echoes his bully without realizing what he’s doing. Having felt out of control as a kid, he’s now created a situation in which he’s in total control. He’s become what he hates without realizing it.