“A Fistful of Paintballs”
May 5th, 2011
“That was a game. This is paintball.”
“A Fistful of Paintballs” is unquestionably a sequel to “Modern Warfare,” but I’d argue that it’s a fundamentally different episode on some level.
It follows the same basic principle from a story perspective: the school’s descent into paintball-related madness brings out some of the pre-existing relationships between the characters, specifically focused on Britta and Jeff’s consummation of their ongoing sexual tension. However, in terms of the actual methodology of the episode, it was a fairly extensive collection of pop culture references which only occasionally connected with the show’s overall mythology.
Now that the show is ending its second season, “A Fistful of Paintballs” is much more interconnected with ongoing storylines, building much of its structure around the season’s central conflict. While I have had my issues with how Pierce has been portrayed this season, believing that the character’s unpleasantness has not been funny enough to justify its omnipresent nature, this episode is much stronger in its use of the power structures within the latest paintball-based warzone to draw out ongoing character relationships.
With a more straightforward pop culture reference point paired with a more complex serialized component, “A Fistful of Paintballs” is the logical maturation of the “Modern Warfare”-template and a strong first half of what feels like a suitably strong finale.
It’s still not clear where the show is going with Pistol Patty and her paintball warriors dressed like they just came from the third level of the Inception dream, but based on the preview for next week I quite like it. The idea of an external force seems silly when it’s an ice cream cone in a cowboy hat, perhaps, but it works on an abstract level: by giving the show another villain, it allows for the study group to come together (or fall apart) in their battle against it.
That is the case with the Black Rider, which was really a perfect role for Josh Holloway. His handsomeness creates some fun insecurity from Jeff, he fits perfectly into the Western aesthetic, and his ability to turn it all off and become more of an average joe (like on the phone at the end) helps emphasize the way that paintball “changes people.” The role doesn’t have much substance, but it was a great bit of atmosphere in an episode built around it.
This was no more clear than in the introduction, as Anthony Michael Hall and Fat Neil return to help introduce us to Annie “Ace of Hearts” Edison, outlaw. It’s just a beautiful bit of setup, and a really great use of Alison Brie. I could go on at length about how attractive she looked in this episode, but let’s focus on what really matters. In the storyline as it is set up, Annie is the outcast: we learn later that this is because of her dissenting vote against Pierce being kicked out of the study group, a detail that is beautifully built into their playing card-based nicknames (which foreshadow the “only one red card” reveal) and explained through the flashbacks.
As the youngest character on the show, and as its most innocent, Annie is a brilliant pivot point for an episode like this one. She’s the disadvantaged yet hopeful figure, who has every reason to be jaded but holds onto at least some part of who she used to be before the warzone took over. We find her fending for herself, isolated from the group who feel she in some way betrayed them, but also still believing that she was right to trust Pierce that he really wanted to turn things around. In an episode where most of the characters are largely marginalized, Annie becomes central as the character who has to face the fact that she was wrong: Pierce was willing to let Jeff die, and Annie dealing with this betrayal is some really great use of this high concept to deal with some fundamental characterization.
I’d say that for the episode as a whole, actually. Pierce as the mayor of a lawless town just plain works, as does the way in which the game brings the ongoing question of Pierce’s behavior to the forefront of the discussion. That final showdown holds a great deal of weight even before Pierce fakes a heart attack, to the point where I actually wondered if it was real and we were heading towards a “Pierce that Cried Heart Attack” moment. But that it was all fake proves an important point: Pierce truly has done this so many times that they know it to be fake, and comparing that to how an outside observer (Holloway’s Black Rider) would respond nicely identifies just how far Pierce has outgrown their patience. They would have fallen for it the first time too, but it’s been a lot longer, and the show does have to deal with this.
A lot of the “meaning” of the episode will depend on the resolution, but “A Fistful of Paintballs” works best as a sort of summary of what has happened so far. It puts Pierce’s relationship with the study group into the context of this paintball Western, which proves an ideal setting for exploring many of those relationships. That it does so while having so much fun and delivering some nice narrative play (the reveal of the origin of the card nicknames was super satisfying for me) is perhaps the only way the show could handle this. Pierce’s behavior might have gone too far to be handled directly, which makes the choice to add this extra level of insanity just the way to defuse the situation and allow the show to continue its conflict-heavy but ultimately friendly dynamic into its third season.
Bring on “For a Few Paintballs More.”
- But seriously, though, Alison Brie looked stunning in this episode. As I noted on Twitter, if Maxim didn’t have this when placing her on its Hot 100 list, I demand a revote.
- “Wanted: Gay and Live” got a nice chuckle – I might dislike parts of how the show has used Pierce, but I could just imagine him giggling while writing that poster, and that works for me.
- “Too late, bean allergy” should be put on a t-shirt.
- It’s odd to hear a joke about someone being “Network TV-good looking” on network TV, but that’s the price of getting in at least one reference to Holloway’s time on Lost.
- Hope to be able to have time for the finale next week, but I’m rushing this one out in thirty minutes and probably should be doing something else instead. But fingers crossed!