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Paintball Battle Royale: Thoughts on the Season Finale of Community

If there's a show that knows how to throw a curveball (or a paintball), that seems to relish deflecting your expectations, it's NBC's Community.

The delightfully absurdist comedy wrapped up its season tonight with the second half of a two-part episode ("For A Few Paintballs Or More") that continued the paintball assassin-exploits of last week's Sergio Leone-style spaghetti Western. In looking to top last season's jaw-dropping paintball-themed "Modern Warfare," executive producer Dan Harmon and Company have delivered an astonishing combination of Westerns and Star Wars, paintball and mind games, Stormtroopers, Black Riders, and, er, saloon dancers. (Yes, Vicki, I'm looking at you.)

Tonight's season finale firmly embraces the gonzo style of those previous episodes, creating an episode that is both an absurdist adventure plot and the culmination of the entire season's overarching plotlines: Jeff's need to control the group, the Problem with Pierce, the inter-college rivalry, and the Community gang's obsession with Cougar Town. (Yes, that *was* Busy Phillips and Dan Byrd cheering on the Greendale "Human Beings" near the paintball Gatling gun.)Not to mention the surprising tryst between Annie and Abed... or at least Abed channeling Star Wars' immature hero, Han Solo. But it's not this liplock--its spell broken by the orange paint raining down from the sprinkler systems (courtesy of plumbing enthusiast Troy)--that ends the season; it's a singular moment between the characters. While Annie seems to cling to the unexpected pleasure she gets from that kiss, Abed has already moved on, casting off his latest character to return to the relative reality of the scene.

It's the departure of Pierce--and his decision to walk out on the study group--that actually brings to a close the second season. (Apart, that is, from the tag with Abed and the poor Greendale janitor.) It's interesting that Harmon et al would choose this moment to signify the end of the sophomore year, given the way in which these past twenty-odd episodes have held up a prism to the character of Pierce. Is he redeemed by his decision to sabotage the enemy and then hand over the $100K to Greendale rather than keep it for himself? Is it enough that he commits an act of generosity and altruism? Is it a moment of truth for this character when he turns his back on Jeff and the others and walks out of the study room?

We're told--rather surprisingly--that Pierce has been at Greendale for 12 years, and that this is the first time he actually made friends with any of his fellow students. It's a twist that I didn't see coming, particularly given the spotlight that has been shone on Pierce throughout the season.

Let's be clear: Chevy Chase isn't going anywhere... so neither is Pierce Hawthorne, the group's resident, well, thorn in their side. However, I think that this turn of events will manage to set up a new dynamic between Pierce and the study group when they return in the fall. After being excluded and playing the "villain" all season, he's decided to exile himself from the group altogether, subverting Jeff's own expectations that he would come crawling back at the last second after making a dramatic exit. (This is a man, let's remember, who fakes a heart attack twice during one game of paintball... and has also faked a heart attack out of giving Abed a piece of gum.) Just what does this mean for Season Three and for Pierce's connection to the central characters? Will the series follow Pierce as he forms a new group separate to this group of misfit outsiders? (Perhaps with Starburns and Leonard? Or Fat Neil and Garrett, named for executive producers Neil Goldman and Garrett Donovan? Kendra with a "q-u"?)

Putting aside those far-reaching effects, this was a pretty amazing episode that not only wove together those aforementioned story strands but also served as another installment in a long line of ambitious high-concept plots over the last two seasons, albeit retaining Community's emphasis on emotional truth. In looking at the two halves as a single one-hour episode, the plot veers from the spaghetti Western to the intergalactic wars of, er, the stars. Gatling guns, paintball sprinklers, menacing ice cream company mascots (Pistol Patty, you were Dean Spreck all along?!?!), Han Solo leather vests, and mysterious gunmen all converge into one explosive plot, which culminates in the final study group meeting of the year.

With Pierce's self-expulsion, Annie's curious interest in Abed, and Jeff's self-assuredness returned, the unity that the group had experienced just minutes earlier--as all of Greendale (and a few Cougar Town cast members) celebrated the defeat of their bitter rivals--evaporates into thin air. For a show that's been about communal experiences, about the common goals and shared experiences, it's interesting that the season ends on such a note of fractured friendships: of the group not staying together, of one of its members willingly walking out on the others.

There are no card-based voting systems here, no cries for help, no crawling back to get into others' good graces. Jeff is, for a change, wrong. He's unable to predict what Pierce would do; he's a "father figure" out of touch with his flock. And as that piece of the ceiling plummets to the ground, there's the real sense that the group isn't falling together, but falling apart. And I couldn't be more excited to see what happens next.

What did you think of the season finale, both as an installment on its own and as a full one-hour offering? Head to the comments section to discuss and debate.

Season Three of Community will begin this fall on NBC.

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