"My self published novels won't publish themselves."
It's always better to finish strong after a weak start than the other way around, because it can inflate the overall experience and make you all but completely forget how bad it was before (for example, thanks to a great finale, many people will tell you that The Lone Ranger is a good movie, as if the first 2 hours weren't a goddamn chore). So a year or two from now, I'll probably think of "Geothermal Escapism" as "the one where Troy left and it was pretty great" based on its third act, as opposed to "the one with the ridiculous game and not a lot of laughs", which is how the first two acts play out. The shadow of paintball looms over a school-wide game of "Hot Lava," and when I wasn't just having fond flashbacks of those episodes and wishing this one was as successful, I was mostly just admiring the production design's award-worthy work while laughing intermittently and waiting for the more interesting ending I knew was coming.
That end, of course, is Troy Barnes saying goodbye to Greendale, and in turn, Donald Glover saying goodbye to Community. Don't worry, he's not being killed off like Pierce, but as last week's episode revealed, he has to sail around the world for a year in order to claim a sizable portion of Hawthorne Wipes stock. I didn't realize it was happening so quickly (mainly because I thought Glover would be in six episodes, not five), so part of my disappointment with the first two acts is that there isn't much of a "this is the end" feeling to it. Abed designs the game as a way to send Troy off in style (and ensures full participation from the school by offering a comic book valued at 50,000 dollars as the grand prize), but it's easy to forget the stakes and reason when everyone (including Jeff, for some reason) instantly jumps in and takes it as seriously as Abed. Within seconds, everyone has torn clothes, the school has been ravaged, and Shirley has somehow created a fort that encompasses half of the cafeteria. Unlike the paintball episodes, there's no sense that any real amount of time has passed, so the scenario goes a bit too far into fantasy for it to work for me.
It also lacks any real voice of reason to counter the insanity; I kept thinking of Michael K. Williams' bewildered reactions to the way this school functions - this episode could have used someone like him (even the Dean barely puts up a fight to the idea of his school being torn apart yet again - and then he curiously disappears). Britta instantly sees Abed's game as a way to avoid dealing with the heavy emotional burden he is facing with Troy leaving, but it takes a while for her to really do anything about it. Even weirder, she forms an alliance with Hickey, who has a decent excuse for wanting the prize ("My son is getting gay married") but I still don't buy him assembling a full blown tank designed to knock people off their chairs or whatever (if you're unfamiliar with "Hot Lava", it's a game where you can't touch the floor or you're "dead"). As with the video game episode and some others, at times I felt the writers were thinking about meme potential than any sort of grounded reality - it's kind of sad when I'm thinking "this is a bit too much even for Greendale".
(That said, again, the production design work is terrific - Mad Max type costumes, a giant ball for Troy and Abed to roll around in like gladiators... it's obvious now that last week's "bottle episode" was a necessity to have room in the budget for all this stuff. One of the show's writers tweeted that the episode was a million dollars over budget - if he's exaggerating, it probably wasn't by much.)
But it all comes together once Abed reveals what we probably guessed all along - he's not prepared for his best friend to leave. When the game ends Troy will be departing, and Abed can't deal with that, but doesn't know how to just say so like a normal person would (Danny Pudi does great work here). So he lets himself "die", and it's up to Troy and Britta to come up with a way to snap him out of his current mental state (which has him really seeing the imaginary world around them, not unlike the claymation episode) in a way that he can process Troy's departure in his own, Abed-y terms. Once all that is taken care of we can finally move on to something more human and believable as Troy's boat arrives on campus, and it works like gangbusters. As with Pierce's farewells last week, each personal goodbye is both touching and hilarious (particularly Britta's; after they exchange "I love yous", Troy asks if he was better at sex than Jeff), and I admit to getting a bit choked up during the sequence, which includes a rather surprising reveal from Jeff. Maybe it's not AS sad as Pierce's, since there's a chance Troy will return and thus this won't be the true last goodbye, but given the popularity of the character and how his friendship with Abed has been one of the show's strongest threads, it will certainly leave a bigger hole in the upcoming episodes than last week's exit.
We then get a surprise appearance from an old friend, who has been tasked with making sure Troy doesn't cheat. It's a great callback in a season that's seen plenty of them already (with more to come), and reminds us how little of this show goes to waste. For example, last week's episode had a few of them: Britta getting a used iPod nano was something hinted in the first season, and when we first learned about the Laser Lotus religion back in S2, Troy expressed his desire to eat a ghost - which is sort of exactly what happened when Pierce's vial began leaking. The ass crack bandit from 503 was also hinted at back in S2, and there's an upcoming episode revolving around a throwaway sight gag in 502. It's that sort of thing that helps keep this world a bit more fleshed out and believable, which is a big help when you have an episode that strays a bit too far into the territory of cartoon nonsense.
Again, it all comes together at the end, and there are a few decent laughs to smooth over the ride to get there (I particularly love the reveal that Greendale is on 9-1-1's "blocked caller" list), but it's disappointingly the weakest of the season so far, and it's a bummer to think that the best part is when one of our heroes makes his exit. Also, it's the second episode in a row where the Dean curiously has no part in saying goodbye to a member of his beloved study group - where the hell is he? More Dean, please.
"My self published novels won't publish themselves."