Fantastic. That's the tl;dr version of this little review, for anyone who just wants a one-word bottom line.
As I and others have noted many times before, Community shines when it mixes the sublimely playful with the emotionally intimate. Go too far one way, you get a gimmicky theme episode that doesn't have any staying power; too far the other way, you get a brutal slog of melodrama and forced introspection. These characters are meant to represent real people, but they populate an inherently unreal world, and the series' success is its ability to expertly walk the line between those extremes. As such, "A Fistful of Paintballs" was a wonderful episode, packed with great jokes, perfect character interactions, and the right amount of emotional confrontation borne of this season's ongoing battle between Pierce and the rest of the group. Jeff's banter with any about which came first, the gang's ostracizing of Pierce or his ability to be cruel, wasn't just a bit; it was the summation of their entire problem. Because the truth is it's been both: Pierce, never that likable to begin with, started to get crotchety this year, but the gang also grew less forgiving of his transgressions. That's a natural progression for any group dynamic, but only Community could so wonderfully address the issue with costumes, invention, and winking-but-not gunplay. All in all, a great start to the finale.
It's a mark of just how firmly established the series voice is that it can start an episode in medias res with choppy, highly stylized action and not miss a single storytelling beat. Annie's freeze-frame and logo-adorned intro as the Ace of Hearts at first just played like a cute extension of the Western theme of the paintball contest, especially coupled with the (awesome) specialty opening titles and animation. But it turned out to have a deeper meaning when it was revealed that the card game Pierce had found the group playing was in fact a system of voting, and that everyone else had black-carded him, with Annie remaining the lone red card who thought he should stay in the group. It's easy in light of everything that's happened to forget that Pierce's talk of favoring Annie is true: despite his prickishness, he's helped her out financially, and there's reason to believe he really would want her to do well in the game. She's not just hanging onto him because she's nice, or has a blind spot; she really wants to help him.
The paintball competition itself was fantastic, with the Greendale crew once again able to utterly demolish and rebuild their campus within hours, this time in a post-apocalyptic Western wasteland owing a debt to Sergio Leone, Mad Max, and more than a few video games. The study group looks great in costume, and Troy and Abed brought a particular childish blast of fun. The script, credited to Andrew Guest, was hilarious, too, and just absolutely packed with great one-liners that recalled the way this show can really fly when it gets going. Director Joe Russo gave the episode a nice style, too, aping last year's "Modern Warfare" and keeping the pacing nice and tight.
Plus, Josh Holloway was pitch-perfect. He had years on Lost to perfect that combination of growl and aloof stare, and it was just what the Black Rider needed. Abed's right, too: he is, indeed, network-TV good-looking. Overall, a rock-solid, fun, entertaining first half of the season closer. Here's looking forward to next week.
• Anthony Michael Hall!
• "That was a game. This is paintball."
• "Free ice cream and that guy having a heart attack aren't the only surprises this year."
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• "He's really good looking. Like network TV good looking. ... I'm just saying, paintball is tough this year."
• "More juice, Miguel."
• "It began with a dream. A dream and an impulse to hide in the men's room."