[This is a review of the BrainDead season 1 finale. There will be SPOILERS.]
Previously on BrainDead… Season 1 of the CBS sci-fi thriller-meets-political satire has followed Laurel Healy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a documentary filmmaker who’s stuck in Washington D.C. working for her brother — Senator Luke Healy (Danny Pino) — while saving up for the funds to produce her latest project. However, when Laurel stumbles onto an alien invasion spearheaded by a parasitic race of bugs — led by the queen inhabiting Senator Red Wheatus’ (Tony Shalhoub) head — she, along with her friends Gustav (Johnny Ray Gill) and Dr. Rochelle Daudier (Nikki M. James), attempt to learn all they can and prevent the fall of the human race.
Laurel navigates both her friends’ investigation into the bugs and her brother’s political world of Democrats debating Republicans on the budget (which is made more difficult due to the bugs infecting the brains of those on Capitol Hill), all while also pursuing a relationship with Red’s chief of staff, Gareth Ritter (Aaron Tveit). Just as Laurel jumps from her political world to dealing with the alien invasion, BrainDead blends its narrative through multiple genres as the main characters unravel exactly what’s going on in Washington D.C. While the mix of sci-fi with political drama is at times off balance, BrainDead does provide a largely entertaining satire.
CBS brings BrainDead season 1 to a close with a two-episode finale: The first half, ‘Talking Points Toward a Wholistic View of Activism in Government: Can the Top Rebel?’, was written by Larry Kaplow and directed by Felix Alcala, while the second half, ‘The End of All We Hold Dear: What Happens When Democracies Fail: A Brief Synopsis’, was written by Jacquelyn Reingold and Jonathan Tolins and directed by Robert King — who created the series along with wife and producing partner Michelle King (The Good Wife). The season finale wraps up the D.C. alien invasion as Luke thwarts Red’s plans with the budget bill and the queen bug is killed — leaving little room for a second season.
Throughout the majority of season 1, BrainDead struggled to develop the sci-fi aspect of its premise. Though Laurel and her friends slowly discovered what made the bugs tick, how they affected their human hosts, and – on one occasion – how to control the bugs’ hosts through audio frequency, the motivations of the bugs is never truly explained – other than them working to survive. But, aside from one occasion in which Laurel was briefly overtaken by the bugs, they do very little to attempt to infect those people who they’re aware are actively trying to defeat them – even though, earlier in the season, those infected would lock friends and family into rooms or physically hold them down in order to let the bugs take over.
Of course, the bugs, as Laurel suggests while her brother is being vetted by the CIA, are a metaphor for political extremism – a fact of BrainDead that becomes too on-the-nose long before she mentions it aloud. With little development aside from their influence on Red and Democratic Senator Ella Pollack (Jan Maxwell), the bugs can only be seen through the lens of metaphor. Their murky motivations additionally help to drive home the metaphor as a stand-in for the questionable motivations behind political leaders.
But, as Laurel works to figure out what Red and Ella were trying to hid in the massive budget they proposed, this story arc of ‘Talking Points’ and ‘The End of All We Hold Dear’ fails to payoff as Luke simply slips a bit of legislation through that nullifies Red’s plan. The alien invasion is wrapped up similarly easily, with Laurel discovering that shame draws the bugs out of people’s heads – a discovery that surely should have come earlier in the season. Still, she finally digs up something that Red is ashamed of, drawing the queen out of his head only for an intern to step on her. However, the space bugs don’t die as her friend at the CDC theorized. Rather, they simply gathered around their fallen queen, though it isn’t explained what happens from there.
The following epilogue is narrated by the charming singing voiceover character from the “previously on” recaps as he explains what happened after the queen was killed. Luke leaves Washington D.C. for Wall Street, while Laurel moves in with Gareth and goes back to work on her documentary. The singing narrator styled like a troubadour also details that those infected with bugs are left alive, albeit without almost half their brains – though it doesn’t necessarily have much of an impact on the Congress’s ability to do its job. The narrator leaves viewers with a warning to pay attention to their country’s politics, vote, and that perhaps the space bugs weren’t actually defeated.
The epilogue takes the show’s on-the-nose satirical metaphor and explains it to the point that it no longer becomes effective – or enjoyable. In addition to indicating BrainDead may have only been planned as a 13-episode one-off series, the epilogue retroactively makes the entire series feel like one long public service announcement to urge the American public to vote in the upcoming presidential election. While certainly an important message, it feels tacked on to the end of BrainDead – which was ordered to series and largely developed and produced prior to the U.S. choosing its presidential candidates.
Still, aside from the epilogue and it cheapening the season, BrainDead largely provided an entertaining and offbeat dramedy that may have been a perfect summer relief series, though it would have undoubtedly been lost in the regular television season. The actors were serviceable, though BrainDead didn’t give its characters much to work with as they were mainly required to bounce back and forth between extremes, whether those extremes were anger, cunning, or disbelief and wonder at whether they were going crazy.
All in all, BrainDead attempted to blend political satire with a sci-fi metaphor and was largely unsuccessful in the endeavour. Though science fiction has a long history of being used as metaphor for modern politics, with too little focus on the actual science fiction aspect and too much on the metaphor itself, it came off heavy handed and somewhat patronizing in the end.
Still, the episodes leading up to the prologue were compelling due to the characters’ relationships, particularly Laurel’s dynamic with her brother, her criminally underdeveloped relationship with her father, and her on-again off-again romance with Gareth. However, though BrainDead was entertaining in its, at times, meta humor and offbeat take on Washington D.C., the series left little room to continue – even as the threat of space bugs looms.
We’ll keep you updated on BrainDead season 2 as more information becomes available.