Well, BrainDead is finally dead… er, over. It hasn’t yet been officially canceled, but considering its ratings, it seems like it’s only a matter of time. The show that tried to combine politics and sci-fi ultimately failed at both politics and sci-fi, and as a reluctant fan of the show, the ending was disappointing to say the least.
Spoilers after the jump.
In the episodes leading up to the finale, Laurel and company find out that the space bugs are utilizing government funds to build hothouses in which to grow more cherry blossom trees, because they can only spawn in cherry blossom trees and only when it’s the right temperature. How or why this is is never really explained. (And speaking as a D.C. native, the cherry blossoms never last longer than two weeks in April, much less make it all the way to September, but okay.) While Luke fights in the government budget showdown and tries to stop the bugs’ funding that way, Laurel, Gareth, Rochelle, and Gustav draw out the queen ant in Red’s head and eventually kill it. This kills all the other bugs, too, because of some handwavy bug science.
Jonathan Coulton then sings us out with one final song to tie up the story and show us where all the characters ended up, and wraps up the show’s final message with this verse:
You can vote your conscience, you can vote to make a point
Or cut and dry your principles and smoke them like a joint
Though we rarely rise to be the best that we can be
Just stand up and be a citizen, it’s called democracy
Not all of it is happy (which is nice, since happily-ever-after epilogues are kind of bad), but the resulting message just seems to be “be kind and participate in democracy”—a sappy, clichéd message for a show that never grew past stereotypical, clichéd beginnings.
As you might be able to tell from the above, the zombie ant villains are not particularly suspenseful or well thought out, worldbuilding-wise, and they’re certainly the weakest part of a show with many weak parts. In my last review of the show, I mentioned that though BrainDead had many plot issues, its greatest strength was its characters—yet their charm was also ruined by the time we got to BrainDead’s final episode. Instead of capitalizing on the show’s one strength and using its characters to truly illustrate the fight against extremism, BrainDead often forced its characters and their actors to do things that either didn’t make sense or didn’t push the plot forward at all.
There’s no greater example of this than Gareth, our Republican half of the Romeo and Juliet equation. Oddly enough, I did like Gareth and Laurel together, and I was looking forward to seeing how the two of them learned to balance their political ideals while working together on how to save the world and their romantic relationship. Instead, we got Gareth saying such scintillating dialogue as “You’re a liberal, I’m a conservative. Our priorities are different.” Such incisive political satire! Why didn’t the writers give any of Gareth’s conservative ideals more weight? There’s a whole episode where Gareth tries and fails to not slutshame Laurel for her sexual history, and that could have been used to discuss real differences in social mores, but instead the idea of Laurel sleeping with Michael Moore was played for laughs. Gareth is from the Midwest and his parents want to “take back America”, but we don’t learn anything about why, so it just makes him a conservative stereotype to laugh at rather than a character who says or does anything insightful.
Even if the writers didn’t want to expand on Gareth’s relationship with Laurel or with his parents, they could have really used him to fight against extremism in his own party. There’s a particular scene in the fourth episode where Gareth, in his role as Red’s chief of staff, helps to form a group called the One Wayers (the show’s version of the Tea Party). He just wants them to stir up invective, but eventually has to confront them about their website, which has instructions on how to build bombs. When he asks why they might need bombs, the spokeswoman assures him that they really do want to start their own militia to defend their country. Confronted head-on with this extremism he helped to create, Gareth does… nothing. He’s uncomfortable with the idea, for sure, and tells them that they can’t kill people, but doesn’t make any further moves to distance himself from the One Wayers. Given that Coulton’s final song pushed the idea of kindness vs. extremism so strongly, you’d think Gareth could have done a little more here.
Laurel and the Democrats don’t have exactly the same problems fighting extremism. While the Republican version of extremism is very true to what we see in real life, the BrainDead creators dream up an absurd opera-listening NPR fan with a knife as the main Democratic extremist and put him on the same level as the thinly-disguised Tea Partiers, thus making the very real Republican extremists seem absurd as well. This could have been a good place to point out that the two extremists aren’t nearly on the same level, as has been pointed out with Clinton and Trump detractors, but BrainDead never picks up on this opportunity.
Laurel and Luke’s problems mainly result from their own cacophony of errors in communication and strategy (so I suppose something is true to the real-life Democrats). Luke, a long-serving senator who should be well aware of the pitfalls involved in his job, has a series of affairs and gets in trouble for them, then immediately tells Laurel extremely classified information and gets in trouble for that too. Luke is also front and center in what I think is one of BrainDead’s worst faux pas: when Red is winning the debate over the government budget, Luke instigates a sit-in to insist that they be able to vote on separating the budget. His protest is clearly a fictional copy of #NoBillNoBreak, when Democratic representatives, led by civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, held the House floor for thirteen hours to demand a vote on gun control in the wake of the Orlando shooting this summer. Including this protest in a fictional show about space bugs doesn’t seem like an homage—it cheapens both Lewis’s efforts and the gun control efforts.
The show could have expanded on so much other stuff about Laurel and Luke instead of any of the above. They never addressed Luke’s actor’s ethnicity like I wanted them to, but Laurel and Luke are completely believable siblings, and their strained relationship with their father could have had so much more weight after they found out that he was infected. However, that was left by the wayside. Luke made for an extremely charismatic senator, and his delightfully Slytherin shenanigans in Congress led him naturally into a meaty internal debate over how far he’d go to get the power he wanted. Would encouraging Red and Ella’s extremism serve him well enough to get into the White House, or should he instead do what’s best for the American people? The first few episodes let this debate shine, but the rest of the episodes—unsurprisingly—seemed to forget about it.
That’s not to mention the things that the show seems to have forgotten about entirely in between poorly juggling all its other parts. Red kills both Lawrence Boch, a special prosecutor, and Ella, his Democratic bug rival, on his way to the finale, and nothing is ever mentioned about the two of them again despite their relatively high status in the halls of Congress. Laurel convinces her mom to leave her dad because her dad is infected, but where does her mom go? Who knows, since we never see her again. In the first couple of episodes, Laurel had an infected friend who told Laurel that her friend’s head was empty and there was no way to get her back, but we see all the infected people return to relatively normal function in the finale. Honestly, what happened with the worldbuilding in this show?
BrainDead started out with a weird, complicated premise, and while it got some funny moments out of it, it never really seemed to know what it was doing. While it was a fun ride, it was a ride that fell apart after the first time, and I found myself feeling sorry that the excellent actors weren’t given better roles to play. Hopefully after this, they will all find their way to greener pastures.