The best way to illustrate the difference between the gas leak that was Community’s fourth season and the rest of the show under the reign of Dan Harmon is to compare last year’s finale, “Advanced Introduction to Finality,” with this season’s fifth episode “Geothermal Escapism.” Both rely on invoking the sacred Community tradition of pitting the characters against each other in a children’s game with high stakes – a la the original paintball trilogy – but despite their insane premises only one truly belongs in the world that Harmon built.
In “Geothermal Escapism” we start where we left off last week: Troy is ready to become a man and inherit millions of Hawthorne family dollars by sailing the deceased Pierce’s yacht, Childish Tycoon, around the entire world. It’s not a fake out, this is a true goodbye. It feels just as advertised by Britta: “A member of our family is leaving. For a year, maybe more.”
Of course, while the study group acts like people normally would in this kind of situation, giving Troy a universal translation gadget as a going away present, Abed is not content. He sits on Dean Pelton’s desk as the announcement is made: The floor in Greendale is hot lava and the last student or teacher to touch the ground wins Abed’s near mint condition Space Clone issue number one comic book, recently appraised at $50,000 (because sometimes the not-awesome need incentive to be awesome). By the time the PA system switches off, the school has once again gone crazy over a high stakes, school-wide test of enforced pretend time and we get a really cool and campy custom title card reading “Lava World.”
The campus is covered in warm lava-light and everyone crawling on top of anything to avoid fake death. The entire school population except Britta is fully committed to the imaginary peril, and as usual, she is determined to convince them (specifically Abed) that this is sort of kooky escapism is just the manifestation of an inability to let go. After being saved by Jeff and Annie from a close call with a desperate Duncan (John Oliver), Britta and her friends – who are acting like they hit their heads on each other’s heads – are ambushed by Chang and his gang of Locker Boys (a bunch of marauders who inhabit the lockers).
This is when, in an episode being billed as a farewell to Troy, we first see our favourite Childish Gambino with his best bud Abed. As usual, these two are more prepared for this kind of scenario than anyone else. They play with different stakes: Where the maniacs that make up the Greendale student body and faculty are driven mad with money-lust, these two heroes are just happy to be here living in a fantasy, forever at home in a world of imagination.
Using broomsticks as bo staves, Troy and Abed attempt to intimidate the Chang gang, only to be outdone by the breakout new character of the season: Criminology professor Buzz Hickey (Jonathan Banks) in a makeshift fire-extinguisher-powered steam tank. Jeff and Annie are told to meet up at a place called Shirley Island and Troy and Abed leave Britta behind. Disgusted at what this game is doing to people, Hickey enlists Britta’s help in winning the prize comic to pay for his son’s gay wedding (“The flowers alone, you have no idea.”)
At this point the differences between “Escapism” and “Finality” are showing. Crazy high stakes in a goofy game that is fully committed to by its players, but for some reason this one matters more, despite there being no actual life-or-death stakes in either (the season four finale takes place in Jeff’s mind).
In act two, Abed, Troy, Annie and Jeff make it to Shirley Island: A special haven guarded by Neil and to whom Garrett is a storytelling religious figure. It’s run by Shirley and contains a legendary artifact known as “the orb.”
It’s not long before Buzz and Britta show up, heralded by a retinue of chair walkers (students with chairs duct taped to their feet like stilts), and a siege battle ensues. Annie is taken out early, and after a dramatic Britta-on-Jeff plunger and one liner fencing match Winger is consumed by imaginary lava too. It’s only then that we get the reveal that Shirley Island is the orb.
The island collapses in a cloud of hyper-cute nostalgia with the chant, “Troy and Abed in a bubble!” and they escape inside a giant inflatable hamster ball, but not before the orb is punctured by Buzz’s knife in a disastrous game of chicken. Exiting into the hallway and crushing a prematurely celebrating Star-Burns, they roll down into the basement of Greendale and after Abed apologizes that their butts are touching, they take to some shelving units.
This is where the heart-to-heart stuff begins. Abed suggests that if no one wins, then the floor can be lava forever. They can keep playing. But Troy, in a surprise moment of adult restraint objects, “The game’s got to end.”
Abed can’t take it. “I don’t think the lava goes away until you stop leaving.”
Buzz and Britta confront the best friend team, toppling the selves and causing Abed to hold on to a ceiling fixture for dear fake life. Hickey is betrayed with a shove from Britta (who he’s going to shove back once this game is over) and Abed realizes he’s being selfish. (“I don’t think the lava’s here because you’re leaving. I think it’s here because I won’t let go.”) causing him to commit fake suicide by dropping to his fake death – Alien 3 style – backwards into fake lava.
When we join back up after commercial, Abed is fake dead on the real ground and Troy gives Britta the copy of Space Clone. The prize doesn’t matter to him (“He’s really playing dead and he’s not going to stop.”) Britta, in a moment that truly emphasizes the magic this show is capable of, pretends to make a cloning machine out of a box with Troy and they imperfectly clone Abed Alien: Resurrection style (due to Britta’s sloppiness).
This allows Abed’s personal narrative to deal with the heartbreak of the departure of the only person who was ever even close to understanding him, and in following Abed’s example, Troy can cope with leaving. In this we see how Community can take something as cartoonish as a 22-minute game of hot lava and craft it into a strong and emotional story about how shitty saying goodbye to a friend can be.
In “Advanced Introduction to Finality” the stakes seemed absurdly high, but the treachery of this is that even if the transdimensional paintball revenge somehow had touching moments (which it didn’t), they only ever would have happened to Jeff, which is something that cheapens the beauty of what “Geothermal Escapism” stands for. In this episode the lava wasn’t real either, but the fact that it was shared made it hotter. The imagined realities that Community presents allow for the characters to deal with real change that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to take on their own.
Troy says his clone farewells and gives clone hugs to his friends on the front steps of Greendale as the Childish Tycoon, resting on a trailer, awaits his boarding. Because a goodbye wouldn’t be complete without one last word from the other departed cast member, it’s revealed that Pierce has arranged for Troy’s hero, LeVar Burton, to accompany him on his quest and make sure he doesn’t cheat. Cue “Come Sail Away” and an extensive list of questions about Star Trek (like why it wasn’t called Planet Trek).
After tonight I am more happy than ever that Donald Glover stayed for these first five episodes of Community before embarking on a sailing voyage from landlocked Colorado. Season four couldn’t handle this. It would have taken one look at the LeVar Burton on its proverbial Childish Tycoon, and run away to cry in the bathroom while singing the Reading Rainbow theme. We’re in season five now, and we’re ready for anything (except episodes that turn out to be dreams).
Final Grade: An A that fell into lava and was cloned so that it could let go.