There are two types of episodes that Community does particularly well, though they seem direct contradictions of each other. The first is tightly focused, character-and-dialogue driven stories—bottle episodes, a bit of television terminology that the show itself made common knowledge in season two’s “Collective Calligraphy.” For all their narrative complexity, “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons” and “Paradigms of Human Memory” would also fall into that category, as would last week’s excellent “Cooperative Polygraphy.” And at the other end of the spectrum are the big, high concept, gimmick episodes, wherein character and emotion are smuggled in underneath spoofs of genre tropes. The multiple paintball episodes are the most obvious examples; the Ken Burns-influenced “Pillows and Blankets” and Law & Order-styled “Basic Lupine Urology” also leap to mind. But no stunt episode had as heavy an emotional burden as last night’s farewell to Troy Barnes, “Geothermal Escapism,” which makes the show’s dual success as comedy and drama all the more remarkable.
And on top of all of that, it gave Gillian Jacobs her best episode in ages, with Tim Saccardo’s script taking its cues from both Britta’s good heart and her delusional psychoanalytical inclinations. From the very beginning, at Troy’s Bon Voyage party in the study room, she’s warning the group that pleasantries and diversions are no way to deal with the painful emotions of Troy’s departure on the Childish Tycoon (its nod to Donald Glover’s alter ego a nice touch carried over from last week). But a diversion is exactly what Abed has in mind: a school-wide game of Hot Lava.
If the paintball episodes took their cues from action films and Spaghetti Westerns, “Geothermal Escapism” (or, as it’s dubbed onscreen, “COMMUNITY: LAVA WORLD”) seems pulled from a variety of post-apocalyptic entertainments, but most specifically the Mad Max movies (Chang’s gang of freaks and weirdos seems particularly Road Warrior-inspired). What’s notable about the parody aspects of the episode is that it’s structured in such a way that they’re primarily frontloaded; the third act is mostly played straight, which means the gags are nicely compacted, with few duds.
This viewer’s favorite set piece is probably the sequence at “Shirley Island” (“where all your dreams come true, if your dreams are standing on a table and pissing in a jar”), where we discover that Shirley has skipped her son’s birthday, and is rather gleefully organizing her list of the fallen into secular and Christian categories. Shirley Island is populated by a gaggle of occasional characters (Fat Neil, Leonard, Magnitude, Garrett, etc.); it’s also where Jeff and Britta battle to the “death,” and for the right to tell a knock-knock joke while doing so. It’s a ridiculous scene, but Britta’s triumphant “Who’s there, bitch? Floor! FLOOOOOOOOOOOOOOR!” is one of her finest moments of the season—maybe of the show, period.
But the episode’s emotional crux is the Troy/Abed dynamic, which is played (properly) as very serious business. “It’s not a game for me, Troy,” Abed confesses, as the “game” nears its conclusion. “I see real lava because you’re leaving.” But he amends that confession a few moments later: “I don’t think the lava’s here because you’re leaving—it’s here because I won’t let go.” Their closing scenes are genuinely sweet and charmingly heartfelt, while the solution of avoiding their break-up (let’s call it what it is) by “creating” a “clone” of each is not only exactly how those characters would deal with it, but the participation in, and embracing of, such a solution shows a bit of growth for Britta as well; she’s now doing exactly the kind of avoidance that she discourages early on. (Also: it’s surely no accident that framing of Abed’s fall into the lava looks so similar to the death of Hans Gruber in his beloved Die Hard.)
Everybody gets a nice moment to bid Troy—and Donald Glover—farewell in front of the school, with season five finally acknowledging the badly-fumbled Troy/Britta relationship from the previous year (“I’m better at sex than Jeff, right?” “I’ve yet to have anyone worse”), Jeff confessing that he’s never left Colorado (is this the show’s first confirmation of its location?), and a return appearance for LeVar Burton as Troy’s co-captain (“Why don’t they call it Planet Trek? You never go to a star. Not one episode”). The whole thing is so lovely that even “Come Sail Away” seems longing and evocative—though having Aimee Mann sing it probably helps.
What remains to be seen is how the show’s delicate chemistry will work without Troy—particularly when it comes to Abed, who, as Troy reminds us, no one gets, and he only gets a little. But there’s time to make sense of all of that. This was the beloved Mr. Glover’s sweet little send-off, and it is quite a relief that they managed not to, as she put it, Britta their goodbye.