Community: Lava World confronts the imminent departure of Troy Barnes [Recap, season 5 episode 5]

How do you say goodbye to someone you love? Do you shake a hand, give a hug, and then get it over with? Do you write an epically long letter and leave it under the windshield wiper of a car and hope it’ll get read?  Or do you create an elaborate party game designed as a mental coping mechanism and stall tactic to deny that you ever really need to say goodbye at all?

“Geothermal Escapism” is essentially a Community paintball episode without the paintball, and without the external conflict of an invading rival school. In fact, it’s an even more juvenile version of those episodes, since “Hot Lava” is a game for little kids (and the occasional freshman dorm), and the logic behind the game starting stems from Dean Pelton’s affinity for the study group, as opposed

Like many episodes so far this season, “Escapism” is a greatest hits mash-up of two earlier, cleaner episodes that nonetheless forms a satisfying new blend. This time it’s “A Fistful Of Paintballs” and Dreamatorium fantasy sequence-heavy “Virtual Systems Analysis,” combining the members of the study group grappling with how much Abed struggles to interact with the world when it doesn’t go his way, and an outlandish theme episode where the Greendale campus obsesses over winning a needlessly valuable prize.

“Modern Warfare” couched the inevitable Jeff/Britta hookup within the best-directed episode of the first season. But “Geothermal Escapism” more resembles “A Fistful Of Paintballs,” my pick for the best paintball-themed episodes Community has ever done. That one has a distinct thematic purpose—singling Pierce out as the villain potentially ousted from the study group—and fun extensions of season-long characterization enhanced by the spaghetti western style, all culminating in a showdown duel that brings each thread of the homage together. It’s better than the stylistic flash of “Warfare” and more meaningful that the actual second season finale “For A Few Paintballs More.”

"Escapism” doesn’t quite reach those heights, but it does find a way to broach the difficult subject of what’s going on in Abed’s head. “Virtual Systems Analysis” is one of the least laugh-out-loud funny episodes of the show, and though this is supposed to be a zany, school-wide battle, it doesn’t have too many laughs aside from some throwaway lines and the concept of Shirley Island (which is borrowed from Fort Hawthorne in “Fistful Of Paintballs” anyway).

Instead of Annie taking Troy’s place during a Dreamatorium session, this time it’s Britta initially prodding, then going full-blown antagonist, in order to make Abed confront the fact that Troy can’t play Hot Lava forever, and must leave for his sailing voyage around the world. That connection also links “Escapism” to “Introduction To Finality,” but Britta isn’t trying to play therapist. She’s trying to be the helpful friend, when Jeff, Annie, and Shirley have thrown themselves into the game in an effort to keep up Abed’s ruse. They know it will keep Abed placated, but ultimately prevent him from actually learning to deal with his unhealthy desire to influence Troy’s life.

Abed can’t stand the thought of losing his best friend, so he designs a game he thinks will be so tempting that once they’re the final two players remaining, Troy will just give over to Abed’s world, where the lava is real, and dying means going away forever. For Abed, his friendship with Troy the most meaningful relationship in his life, finding someone who doesn’t totally understand him, but is at least somewhat tuned to the same frequency.  Abed retreats into his defense mechanism, and though Britta is there and wants to be involved, Abed isn’t close to ready to deal with Troy’s departure yet.

It’s not healthy to live that way, but Troy cares about Abed so much, and wants to protect him from the harsh emotional truths that his friend struggles to deal with like the rest of the study group. Everyone in the group is broken—they all admitted as much during the polygraph test in last week’s episode, and that’s not the first time—but Abed’s fragility, his loose grasps on reality and interacting with other people, has always been more up front than others’ weaknesses. There’s a tendency to circle the wagons in order to defend someone like that, but I actually think it takes great strength for Britta to unite with Professor Hickey’s battering ram vehicle in order to stand up to her friends and make Abed take the healthy step of at least acknowledging Troy’s departure. His life will change, and Community will drastically change as well, but that doesn’t mean this is the end.

I said goodbye to one of my best friends recently, someone I met on my first day of college, who became a close confidante almost immediately, and has been an integral part of my life for the better part of a decade. She yo-yoed back and forth between cities, foreign and domestic, and now embarks on what could be a multi-year journey during which I won’t see her or hear from her much. I think it’s safe to say that Troy’s departure struck a chord in the universal experience of an unexpected and irrevocable parting.

When you meet someone with whom you share a deep, seemingly innate connection, you never really consider the ramifications of never seeing that person again, of what it will be like to carry that hole around every day. Even parting on amicable terms, both sides wishing the other best of luck, knowing that paths have diverged to the point where sharing that time together is part of the past, and not the present or future. There’s a finite amount of time during which to forge that kind of lasting relationship, and no guarantee that it will continue past a point where a job, or a marriage, or something else creates an insurmountable rift that won’t go away again.

The hope is to work through the separation anxiety, the pain of not having someone you trust, admire, and care about within reasonable physical distance, and become strong enough that you can live independently. The ideal is to be self-confident enough as a single person that the pair—best friend, significant other, or otherwise—isn’t a requirement for survival, but an additional bonus. Abed is just beginning that journey, and so is Community. It will miss Troy Barnes, but he’s given so much to the show, and to deny him a chance at “becoming a man” and millions of dollars would be selfish and against the best interests of taking the character (and Donald Glover) to as natural a departure point as possible.  Now it’s time for the study group to find a way to move through the world as five people on their way to an individual goal just like Troy.

Extra Credit:

• Contrary to what Clone Troy says to LeVar Burton in the tag while the truck and Childish Tycoon trailer make the journey from landlocked Colorado to the Ocean, there are two episodes from Burton’s seasons in which the crew of Star Trek: The Next Generation treks to an actual star.

• I sort of buried the lede there: Greendale is in Colorado, and Jeff has never been outside the state in his entire life. He deserves a nice vacation for the series finale.

• “My self-published novels aren’t going to publish themselves!”

• Luke Youngblood, better known as Magnitude, finally gets to reveal that he played Lee Jordan in the Harry Potter films: “I’m actually British!”

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