Braindead 1×11: “Six Points on the New Congressional Budget: The False Dichotomy of Austerity vs. Expansionary Policies”

Recap

Previously on Braindead: So much happened! No, literally, the voiceover says that, and then basically skips to summarizing a fake show called Gunsmoke, involving a sheriff and a fatal shootout and other Western-reminiscent things. (I have no idea why, but I’m glad Jonathan Coulton is having fun with his task I guess?) In actuality, what has recently and relevantly happened is that Gareth and Laurel broke up because he is a slut-shamer, Luke’s possibly-infected wife Germaine gave birth to a possibly-infected baby, Wheatus had this secret room called SRB-54 that we know will be important because they mentioned it so much, and Ella and Wheatus let their ear-bugs mate and it was totally gross.

Gareth is trying to compose a stilted resignation letter in a Word document when Wheatus interrupts him to announce that he likes the new Jewish intern. The intern, Gary, says he’s half-Jewish and Wheatus trumpets that he’s “a friend to the Jewish people.” How nice of you, dude. Then he ushers Gary out, casually mentioning the “rumors” that are going around due to the fact that his other interns have died very bloody, very disgusting deaths. Gary is too dumb to be worried about this. He just grins and bobs his head and leaves.

Wheatus, still basking in his own enlightened-ness as a friend of the Jews, tells Gareth to go to SRB-54 and instruct them to “release it” and set up a press conference. Release what? Gareth asks. Oh, you know. It. Hopefully Wheatus doesn’t mean a huge bouquet of bug-infested cherry blossoms. Gareth asks him if he still trusts Gareth. Wheatus goes a little overboard in lying that he does: “You’re my ballast. You’re my tonic.” Whatever that means.

For some reason this makes Gareth go to his computer and… individually delete each character of his resignation draft. I wonder if he knows you can delete whole files. He’s interrupted in this endeavor by the sound of Wheatus cooing in the next room. Wheatus has decided to talk to his ear-bug while it lays eggs in a cherry blossom with his door cracked open. Wheatus is not a very crafty villain. Gareth witnesses this, and the part where the bug crawls back into his ear, and looks suitably alarmed.

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When he exits the office, you’d probably expect he’s running to Laurel to ask if she thinks Wheatus’s earbug is connected to that plague of spacebugs she mentioned that he didn’t seem very concerned about. But no. He has gone to SRB-54. What he intended to do there is unclear, because when people emerge with a cart full of giant books, he just takes one and does absolutely nothing.

It turns out the giant books are a bipartisan 2017 budget. Wheatus announces to all and sundry, including TV news shows on the well-known network “CRS,” that it will be voted on in 48 hours.

Luke calls the majority leader all in a tizzy asking why he approved the vote. The majority leader says he doesn’t want to look obstructionist (funny, that doesn’t seem to be a problem for Republican senators, does it?), and that it’s probably just the same pork that is in every budget. “God is in the details,” Luke yells a few times, pointlessly. The senator tells him to find something objectionable so that they can delay the vote.

Luke decides to take his frustration out on Laurel, who’s stopped by to offer her help. He yells at her about the “stupid moronic tribalism” and the “gamesmanship.” Laurel assures him he’s helping people, but he doesn’t believe her. He tells her to “get everyone.”

She does, and Luke starts literally ripping up the budget book and handing out pieces of it for people from his (massive) staff to read. He tells them to look through it “the old-fashioned way” and find the landmines that are hidden in the budget, because if there weren’t landmines Wheatus would have sent out a searchable PDF instead of a giant paperback. Um, OK, but… you know you can make a searchable PDF out of a book, right? Someone needs to explain OCR to these guys. But when he’s only on page 712 (out of what looks like approximately 10,000, given the small proportion of pages that are missing from the book) he gets distracted by a few suits out in his waiting room, and leaves everyone else to divide up the budget themselves. Laurel watches curiously as he greets the suits.

In a conference room, he meets with the suits, who say they want to “count their chickens before they hatch.” They want to vet him for the next administration, as director of the CIA. I’m confused. Don’t you have to like… be a spy to be qualified for that? Maybe not if you’re a white man. Luke agrees to do it “for the good of our country,” and also because he likes to be important. They tell him to keep it extremely confidential so they don’t look presumptuous, and he thanks them and then screams into his jacket in excitement as soon as they’re gone. Everyone has actually avoided saying Hillary Clinton this entire time, by the way. They’re just calling it “the campaign.”

The next thing you know, dumb old Luke is telling Laurel all about the super confidential offer he just got from “the campaign,” because leaking to family members worked so well with the whole Syrian thing. Laurel points out that maybe he shouldn’t tell her this, but Luke is like ehhh, they didn’t mean that I should actually follow the rules!

Gareth interrupts the meeting, calling Laurel to ask if she can meet. She says she’s not doing anything, and Luke grins, which is a cute sibling moment.

Then Gareth has to hang up, because Wheatus doesn’t like the statement he wrote on his behalf: there are too many big words, and he doesn’t want to sound like a (gasp) Harvard grad. He feels Gareth’s forehead and asks if he’s a little warm, then asks if they’re still “rowing together.” I’m actually not sure if it’s a metaphor or not. His parting instructions are to take out the word transactional, because none of his constituents are going to know what it means. Hey, if you stopped cutting the education budget, WHEATUS…

Anyway, so Gareth buys himself a pink lemonade with a lime in it for some reason, and sits at a picnic table somewhere waiting for Laurel. Naturally a (presumably) bug-man is surveilling him from afar. Or it’s just a regular man who we are obliged to suspect of being infected because this show makes you suspect everyone and everything. When Laurel shows up Gareth gets all skittish about actually telling her his thing, so she asks him what Wheatus is doing with the budget, and he has to admit that he doesn’t really know. Then, after another big swig of his lemonade, he works up his nerve to ask her about the “bug stuff.” Because he saw something. DUN DUN DUN.

After the credits, Gareth has drawn a fairly decent picture of the queen ant. Laurel says she didn’t see bugs like that, and when Gareth tells her how big it was, she gets even more weirded out. Meanwhile, Gareth keeps seeing—or imagining he sees—people staring at him as they walk by, just like Laurel did when he thought she was all crazy. And he keeps slapping bugs that fly by, totally innocent ones. “You’ll get used to it,” says Laurel, who was actually a lot less thrown than Gareth is when she first learned of the bugs. THEN he whips out this little nugget of truth: “I just thought this was some kind of charming bohemian affectation of yours, you know, you seeing bugs.” It is magnificently condescending and oblivious. I enjoyed it immensely. Laurel doesn’t seem bothered by it, probably because as a filmmaker she’s played manic pixie dream girls in dozens of guys’ fantasy lives. But she is bothered when Gareth mentions that the bug laid eggs, and leads him off to go “show this to someone.”

Meanwhile, Scarlett is giving the world’s most awkward clearance interview. When the FBI suits ask her if Luke was a tough boss, she says innocently, “Not really. He never hit me or called me names.” And when they ask if he was responsive, she assures them that he always listened when she had to use their safe word, “and believe me, there were plenty of times I had to.”

Then they visit Germaine, who says innocently, “Oh. I thought you were going to ask about all the affairs.” She then does a robotic, but convincing imitation of a woman pretending to be OK with the affairs, then breaking down becauze the pretense is just too much. I think it’s safe to say Germaine is definitely infected, and likely in cahoots with Scarlett. “That’s gonna make a hearing a nightmare,” the suits agree when they leave.

Gustav is back! Yay! Laurel has brought Gareth to see Rochelle and Gustav and that doctor from the FDC. Gustav is very excited that this is probably the queen. Gareth, clearly embarrassed by Gustav’s unabashed nerdiness, starts to back down: “I’m not completely sure that I saw what I saw.” “Come on, you told us that you saw it,” Gustav says with a cute finger-wag. Meanwhile, Gustav and the doctor are very excited: if the bugs are like bees, their whole hive will die when the queen dies, so they’d only have to kill one bug. Gareth tries to make a run for it and explains, “Because you’re going to want to know how to get a large bug out of my boss’s head, and I don’t think I have the patience for that conversation.” That level of denial just to avoid embarrassment is impressive. He would rather pretend his boss doesn’t have a flesh-eating bug in his brain than admit he has a “weird” idea. When Gustav figures out that the bug’s in Wheatus’s ear, he’s like, “We should kill him.” Gareth throws his head into his hands. It’s pretty funny. Gustav argues that if it saves the human race it’s not wrong. Gareth is like, totally shocked to hear that the human race is under threat. Yes, Gareth, because usually when there’s a pandemic of bugs that eat people’s brains, it’s one of those transient threats that just goes away. “You didn’t tell him everything?” Rochelle asks. Laurel says in a low voice (that Gareth can totally still hear) that she doesn’t think it’s a great idea to get into it, you know, because Gareth is resistant to new ideas unless they fit exactly in the conventional view of the world. And sure enough, when Gustav—with his usual hilarious portentousness—announces that the bugs are “not of this world,” Gareth gets up again.

Laurel follows him out to the hall and tries to assure him that it’s not that weird. It’s just a theory that the bugs came from space. This whole scene is super weird. It seems like Gareth is blaming Laurel for… knowing about a problem (which she didn’t cause and which it may save his life to know about)? Because… it’s embarrassing (even though it’s kind of impossible for “believing something true” to be embarrassing in any meaningful sense)? Oh Gareth. So handsome. So stupid.

Anyway, Laurel points out that either way there’s something weird going on. He says “there’s always something weird going on.” Then she asks him to call her, because this behavior was just so winning that I guess she decided unilaterally they should get back together. “Or am I too insane?” she says. He kisses her and says he will call her.

Well that was not a very dramatic reunion, for two characters who parted to the tune of a very sad emo song two weeks ago.

Gareth sits on the steps of the Senate building (after passing a group of runners who all stare at him creepily) and calls his parents, who are thrilled to hear from him even though it’s the middle of the day. His mom is standing around baking and his dad is fixing the toaster “between shifts” at an unnamed job, all of which which makes sense for a guy like Gareth who’s so into his gender roles. He asks after a mysterious “Kathy” who is happy because she’s on new medication. Gareth has tears in his eyes, clearly just happy to hear his normal parents’ voices. Then the parents get all up in his business and announce that a certain Mary Ann came by, and “she’s pre-med now.” Apparently Mary-Ann is his ex and still wants to know why they broke up. Um… maybe because you’re an undergrad, and Gareth is like thirty? (I suppose it’s possible she’s a returning student or something. But it was an odd line.) Gareth makes his escape from the call, looking pensive.

Laurel arrives in her office to find a Quirky Guy of the Week rambling about the calories in her energy bar that he found in her desk, insisting that fiber causes you to absorb 20% more calories, so she should just eat a Hostess cupcake. (So, not a quirky nutritionist, apparently.) He introduces himself as Cole Stockwell, a former budget writer who has been hired to translate the Wheatus budget. He also asks to see her jacket label, and then laughs hysterically because it is 40% cotton. No, Laurel doesn’t get it either.

Wheatus interrupts this conversation. He’s calling Laurel from his office, where he’s lifting weights in his white collared shirt, as one does. He wants her to come to his office to see his oppo research. She hangs up on him, only to have Cole Stockwell announce that the budget is beautiful, and whoever wrote this one knows all the tricks to make budgets illegible. She ignores him and calls Gustav and Rochelle, who are still sitting at the exact same table in the hospital cafeteria where they met with her and Gareth, consulting with the doctor. They’re very excited about the idea of Laurel meeting with Wheatus… as long as she’ll be safe. Well, sure. He probably won’t make her head explode. Finally, Laurel hangs up to deal with Cole again. He tells her it’s weird, but the budget has something for everybody. “So why are they hiding it all in gobbledy-gook?” Laurel asks, pronouncing it like it rhymes with “spook.” He says it’s a game, like Where’s Waldo.

Luke is meeting with the clearance dudes, who don’t have great news for him. “They said that?” he asks. “In so many words. And a few gestures,” is their amusing response. They ask for a complete list of all the women he’s had relations with so they can look into it. Luke’s face is skeptical, presumably because he’s trying to calculate how long it’ll take him to write down every female name in the DC phone book. Then he tells them this long story about how he decided to stop cheating on his long-suffering wife when he saw his daughter’s face, which again, is not exactly the saintly redemption Luke seems to think it is, like, he’s basically saying he would’ve kept on hurting Germaine forever if it weren’t for the arrival of this third human that happens to have some of his genetic material. “But even if I hadn’t, are you really suggesting I can’t do my job because I’m a failed human being? Does your candidate really want to be suggesting that?” You know, because their unnamed candidate may or may not have been the wife in the world’s dumbest sex scandal?

Gareth is trying to sleep in bed, but all he can do is stare at the cracks in the wall and imagine buzzing. Laurel calls him, even though it’s 2:30 in the morning, to make sure he’s OK. “What are you doing?” he mumbles sleepily.

Next thing you know, she’s crawling into his bed and they’re enacting a somewhat clichéd scene, but with the genders reversed. He says that it wasn’t just an excuse to have her come over, then says that she can have sex with him if she wants (so, basically offering up his body in return for her protection!), which Laurel gallantly declines. She big-spoons him, and promises to “keep the bugs away” as he drifts off. It’s kinda cute?

In the morning, the suits interview Onofrio about Healy on the steps outside a building. Yep: they are conducting a confidential clearance investigation in a public place. Onofrio smoothly explains that he knows Laurel because he was investigating her ties to Syrian terrorists, and because she had “radical ideas” about the cause of the exploding heads. When they ask what those are, he grins triumphantly, very excited to tell them all about how Laurel thinks there are bugs eating his brain.

Back in Laurel’s office, Stockwell is still reading, and happily announcing his findings. She asks him to stop because he’s making her head explode. Har har. Gareth stops by to tell her in a low voice that Wheatus only made corrections in one area, so that must be the area he cares about: the farm bill. Laurel is surprised by this, which is weird because I’m pretty sure farm bills always have crazy stuff in them and get lots of debate. She thanks Gareth and tells Stockwell to look at the farm bill.

The suits have come by to talk to Laurel. They explain that they need to look into his family history for any vulnerabilities. “What do you think about bugs?” they ask. Laurel plays dumb. But when they mention talking to an FBI agent, she smoothly explains that if it’s Onofrio, she broke up with him and he took it badly and abused his position to torture her. They ask her stiffly to confirm that she never said bugs were eating senators’ brains and turning them into zombies. Laurel just laughs, which seems to convince them—till Gustav, with his usual excellent timing, bursts in to announce that they can use monkey brains to get the bugs out of Red’s head. Whoops.

Laurel takes Gustav out to the river, where he holds out a Tupperware full of monkey brains he got in Chinatown. Apparently they smell horrible, but the smell will draw out the bug if she meets with Wheatus. He tries to put them in her purse, which Laurel wisely refuses. Wow, brains in Tupperwares is a really big theme with this show.

Luke finds Laurel and asks her about the meeting. He heard it didn’t go well, and he thinks it’s about the affairs. She admits that it’s not that, it’s that they think she’s crazy. Luke gets super pissed when he realizes this is about the bugs again, but Laurel promises to handle it.

Her next stop is at Wheatus’s office, where she finds him listening to a Melanesian choir on his laptop. He claims he found it on iTunes. Laurel puts her monkey-brain-filled purse ostentatiously on the desk and asks what he needs. He asks her about the 24 guys she’s slept with, which she isn’t super thrown by. He reveals one of them ended up murdering his mom later for social security, and when Laurel finds out which one it was she says, “Seriously? Oh my God, I liked him.” Hee! He says he’s found “other unsavory aspects,” and she mentions a fight with a cab driver with just a hint of pride. Then he gets a whiff of her purse and starts trying to get at it. Gross! Laurel directs his attention back to the task at hand. He tells her that he has a fund to invest in a documentary about Melanesian choirs, if she happens to know anyone. Laurel can’t believe he would pay that much to get rid of her. He cheerfully says he would, then opens her purse and finds the brains, which are sitting in a pool of blood. It’s so super gross. “What kind of brains are these?” he asks, fascinated. “Monkey,” Laurel answers coolly. He tells her to take her Tupperware of monkey brains and think about making some documentaries. But as she’s on her way out, he totally grabs the Tupperware back. Well, he’s not very invested in putting up a convincing front with Laurel, is he?

Laurel’s plan for handling the problem she caused for Luke is to bring the suits back and explain to her that she is an auteur filmmaker, and as such, she loves metaphors. She shows them her video from last week about how extremism is an infection. In a nice touch, she’s wearing a kooky outfit with a mismatched scarf and a loose boho shirt, instead of her usual crisp black-and-white wardrobe. The suits seem a little dubious—not because they’ve figured out that Laurel’s name isn’t on the video, which was my concern, but because they don’t think bugs are a normal metaphor. But Laurel wins them out by mentioning Jiminy Cricket. “I always loved him,” one of the suits says.

Luke is on the phone insisting to a fellow Senator that he needs his vote on the budget. Then he gets a call from the CIA, who are apparently no longer trying to be stealth, asking him to come in for a security briefing with the director. “Understood. All security measures will be taken and are acceptable,” he says rather nonsensically. Then he fist-pumps in excitement.

Stockwell busts into Laurel’s office saying he has read the farm bill and it’s totally regular, except for a three hundred million dollar construction project in eighty small towns across the country. Obviously, anyone who’s been watching the show is immediately going to think, “Oh, the internment camps that Laurel was all freaked out about a couple of episodes ago.” But Laurel takes awhile to get there herself. Only when she starts reading the town names does her memory get jogged. To be fair, what with her Republican boyfriend and oppo research and war on spacebugs and new niece and infected father, Laurel has a lot going on.

Meanwhile, Gareth is googling bugs, as one does (and his results are truly disgusting). Finally his air-conditioner makes a little rattle, and he runs down to Laurel to tell her he’s figured everything out: when the AC turns off, the bugs come out. Because bugs only spawn between 85 and 95 degrees. All bugs? What? That does not sound real. But Stockwell agrees that it is real, because Science. Laurel realizes she should probably talk about this away from the random budget man, so they… go six feet away to talk at the doorway. They think that the queen will come out again tonight since the A/C comes off at 10:30. She hugs him, and he announces, “It’s official. I’m insane.” Get over yourself, Gareth.

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Up in his office, Wheatus is trying to convince someone to vote for his budget (“What you call moderation, I call not giving a crap!”), but his queen is apparently itching to come out to play, so he has to take multiple breaks to sweet-talk her while holding his earhole shut. Finally he hangs up and bursts out to ask Gary where the cherry blossoms were, but Gary threw them out, because apparently their season is ending. I wonder what happens when there aren’t any more of them to lay eggs in? Luckily there are a few brownish, wilted ones in the other room, which Wheatus brings into his office, totally ignoring the dweeby Gary as he tries to talk more about the cherry blossoms.

Relieved to have made it, Wheatus lets out his bug and apologizes to it for taking so long. Then Laurel speaks up from his desk, where she’s sitting, saying she came by to talk about the documentary. He tries to kick her out, but Laurel asks what he’s gonna do about it. “I’m a Senator and you are nothing,” Wheatus protests. He makes her leave, but instead she opens the door and lets Rochelle and Gustav in. Gustav totally tackles Wheatus and holds his hands over Wheatus’s ears, while Rochelle and Laurel roll up some magazines and prepare to go to town on the bug. Wheatus is freaking the fuck out asking them not to hurt her, and Laurel and Rochelle are just slamming the magazines down on top of it. It’s actually kind of sad for the poor little bug. But Gary, who’s playing with his phone outside, gets wind of the commotion, busts in, and saves Wheatus (and his earbug). Wheatus quickly stuffs the battered queen back in his ear and tells Gary to call the Capitol police. This would be alarming, but he isn’t actually planning to arrest them, he just tells them to leave so they won’t be arrested.

Luke waits in a building whose marble floor is very convincingly imprinted with the CIA shield. A man played by Headmaster Charleston comes out to introduce himself as Bob Eisenstadt, a kind of director emeritus who stays on for continuity. He explains he’s briefing both candidates’ selections for CIA director in preparation, and gives Luke yet another warning about secrecy that Luke is almost certainly going to completely ignore. Then he explains to him everything about the bugs: that a meteor landed in Chelyabinsk, Russia, with flesh-eating bugs inside it, and they eat half the brain and cause the victim to become angry and more biased. Luke looks stricken, probably feeling bad for being so mean to Laurel for knowing all about this. Eisenstadt goes on to explain the plan, as they understand it: that the bugs want “to keep mankind struggling with itself.” At first, it’s completely shocking that the government knows all about this (and disappointing, if the characters we’ve been watching are several steps behind the CIA). But then Eisenstadt tips his hand, at least to us: he tells Luke that the amateurs, aka Laurel and her buddies, are getting in the way of the CIA’s plan to fight the bugs, and they need to stand down. Luke, totally buying this, says he understands. Eisenstadt sends him on his way, and then immediately goes up to a balcony where Wheatus is waiting. Wheatus says, “I think it worked.” Luke is extremely gullible, for a habitual liar.

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Review

This episode was an excellent return to form after two weeks where Gustav disappeared and Rochelle barely appeared, allowing us to get more comic relief and forward motion on the bug plot instead of getting bogged down with Luke’s political machinations. It’s tough for this show to balance the comedic horror of the bug plotline with the political satire of the Luke/Wheatus stuff, either of which can be rather too much of a good thing when it dominates an episode; and when Gustav and Rochelle aren’t around it tends to tip too much to the latter.

I’ve discussed the overarching paranoia of this show several times, and here we see how it spreads, just as infectious as the bugs themselves. Where once it was Laurel staring at cracks and waiting for bugs, now it’s Gareth; Gareth sees people staring at him, sees danger everywhere. And I also noticed in this episode how the set design plays into this; every room has what seems like half a dozen doors leading in and out, and behind any of those doors could be someone eavesdropping on you, surveilling you, or plotting against you.

All in all an enjoyable episode, taken on its own. But there’s one thing I keep writing every week, which is that the stakes are getting higher–and yet, in fact, the stakes don’t seem to be rising at all. When Laurel started the show, all she wanted was funding for her documentary. Then she got distracted by this war with the space bugs, but does she really, truly care about it? She seemed most invested in it when she was afraid for Luke’s baby. And though she is now surrounded by infected people who have it out for her, she hasn’t seemed to be in real danger since the torture episode several weeks back.

I think this is one problem with the show’s relentlessly quirky tone (which is still very enjoyable)–it flounders when it tries to establish emotional relevance, and retreats into jokes and antics. And without emotional relevance, even things that sound very dramatic, like her father getting infected, tend to happen, and stir up drama, and then… be conveniently forgotten. By this point in the season, if we’re not on the edge of our seats, genuinely wondering if Laurel and her crew will survive this bug war, and desperately hoping they will, then there’s something missing. There’s an argument to be made that this notion of emotional investment can and should be applied differently, or not at all, to a satirical comedy. But I think the falling ratings demonstrate that Braindead‘s audience might just be losing interest because the show lacks a tension that’s genuinely needed.

It’s certainly funny, enjoyable, smart, and unusual, though. So I hope it sticks around and works out this plotting issue, because it’s not like anything else on TV, and that in itself is a very good thing.

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One Comment

  1. […] Previously on Braindead: Gareth saw Wheatus’s earbug, and Jonathan Coulton agrees with me that Wheatus really should’ve closed the door. Laurel and Rochelle beat up said earbug. Headmaster Charleston tricked Luke into thinking the CIA wanted him and Laurel to leave Wheatus alone. Daddy Healy is infected. Wheatus ate brains out of Tupperwares. And that’s pretty much season one. […]

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