Watching "For a Few Paintballs More," you can almost hear the battle in Dan Harmon's head: Do you try to top your first season by going bigger, or do you try to negate the issue by refusing to even play along? Do you go for the happy ending, or the hard one? In the style of the series that used stop-motion animation to explore psychological trauma, the answer is: Both.
It's telling that this season ended with a two-part sequel to last year's fan-favorite "Modern Warfare," which aired two weeks before the actual season finale, which itself dealt with the love triangle between Jeff, Britta, and Professor Slater (Remember her? Liar). That action experiment was the season's real swan song, so it makes sense to return to the form for this year's finale. But Harmon and company -- as well as writer Hilary Winston and director Joe Russo, who also did last year's closer -- are determined to do more than just revisit hallowed ground.
The point of "For a Few Paintballs More" wasn't just to up the stakes from last year's contest, but to link it to the future of the study group itself. Yes, the game was bigger, spanning two episodes, two separate genre riffs, and innumerable pop references. But it also bucked any chance to be predictable by killing off Jeff and then letting everyone else get picked off until Pierce used a sneak attack to claim the prize. This wasn't about the game, but the players. And then we got a happy ending when Pierce donated the cash prize to Greendale and came clean about his emotional shortcomings, only to have our expectations for closure firmly dashed when he walked out on the group and didn't come back. Some storytellers try to have it both ways because they're afraid to commit to a given path (e.g., the latest How I Met Your Mother, which wanted Zoey to be a bad guy that no one admitted disliking), but Harmon's all about having it both ways because his show is complex and strong enough to make it work. That's life, you know. You get the good and the bad in one dose and you just make do.
The references came expectedly fast, too. The Star Wars vibe was in place from the get-go, with white-clad soldiers ushering in the giant evil ice cream cone into a hallway by shooting their way through the rebels, but the episode had a lot of fun with the set-up. Lines of dialogue from the films were mashed up and reworked for the story's purpose, right down to the surprisingly cute interplay between Abed and Annie (though he's been able to seduce her before). The jokes were totally on point, too, thanks to the fantastic toss-offs from Leonard, Magnitude, and the supporting characters that give the show its flavor.
So this is where we are. The gang's been through some battles, but they're not quite as strong for it as they'd like to think. Pierce realizes he's been a dick but doesn't want the group back; the group realizes they've shunned Pierce but can't persuade him to stay. Community's still hilarious and brilliant, but it's also getting brave. And that's a great place to be. Here's to a quick summer and a new semester.
• "They're an unstoppable juggle-knob."
• "I've been in a few real wars. This one is actually the most terrifying."
• It's always great to get more Magnitude. (Pop pop!) Here's a look at the birth of the character.
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• Loved the Saddam-like statue takedown.
• "It appears I'm running late to drink a bottle of wine in my bathing suit."
• "I may be stuck in this vent. It is too early to tell."