Episode 223: A Fistful of Paintballs
A Fistful of Paintballs
Where to start with this episode? “A Fistful of Paintballs” is hands down one of my favorite Community episodes of all time, if not my absolute favorite. It is a gripping action storydripping with Western atmosphere, it is a gutbusting comedy with just as many laughs as any other character you’d care to name, it is a well-crafted group drama which brings to head some long-percolating tensions, and it is one hell of a great expression of Annie’s development as a character. It was also the very first episode of Community I ever saw, and I’d be hard-pressed to think of a better introduction to the series for me personally.
I’m going to break down each character’s role in this episode and discuss it, which will mostly involve looking at Annie, Pierce, and to a lesser extent Jeff, but first I’d like to give a general assessment of just what makes this episode so great.
First off, the atmosphere. Integral to any parody which seeks to play upon such a well-defined genre as the Western is the need to nail the distinctive feel of that genre exactly, and “Fistful” fits the Western mold to a “T”. This may be the most dead-on of any of Community’s concept episodes in terms of cultivating a distinctive feel.Dark hallways lit only by the warm orange light of trashcan fire, Fort Hawthorne’s honky-tonk piano, beans heated over a “campfire” and gleaming silver (paintball) revolvers are just some of the Western charms “Fistful” has to offer. Perhaps more remarkable is the ease with which the episode integrates these well-worn tropes of a rugged frontier setting into that of a pedestrian, suburban community college environment. “Fistful” sells its Western sensibilities so well that the viewer (this one, at least) finds themselves becoming immersed in Greendale’s own “Wild West” even as they laugh at the absurdity of it all. Annie heating up a meal of canned beans over a Bunsen burner feels both Western and distinctly Greendale in equal measure. Old-fashioned gunslinger showdowns and standoffs, of which there are many, are every bit as tense as those out of a spaghetti Western despite the fact that community college students are facing each other down in cowboy costumes with plastic weaponry. Much like “Modern Warfare”, “Fistful” manages to make its audience forget the inherent absurdity of what they are witnessing as viewers are caught up in genuinely thrilling, visceral action sequences. “Fistful”, however, puts its own distinctly Western spin on things with twangy guitar, eagle cries, and hammy, dramatic showdown music. The “Black Rider”, portrayed by some guy who’s “network TV good-looking” and toting paint-filled shotguns, lends exactly the right weight of cheesy gravitas as the mysterious stranger in black who dogs the group throughout the episode, is a worthy successor to Senor Chang in “Modern Warfare”; though he doesn’t have an entry to match that of ElTigre’s, the Black Rider is simultaneously a believably intimidating and highly entertaining antagonist.
Of special note are the episode’s unique spin on the Community opening as well as the title cards used to introduce every character, with the notable exception of Pierce. “Fistful” ‘s opening is simply another example of the fantastic atmosphere of the episode, and would not feel out of place in a Sergio Leone Western. The title cards function as a visually engaging way to introduce each character in a manner which heightens the tension of the episode and furthers the Western theme, yet also are ingeniously integrated into the main plot of the episode itself, a point which the viewer learns more and more about as the episode continues. Much like “Fistful” itself, the title cards do not exist simply to look cool and provide some nice eye candy; both the title cards and the episode play an important role in Community’s ongoing plot.
Despite its enthralling Western style, much like other concept episodes “Fistful” does not exist for the sake of a Western paintball showdown alone. I believe that it is the commentary on “Modern Warfare” in which Harmon discusses that every concept episode is meant to be grounded in a character story which could exist regardless of whether or not the episode was a daring parody. “Fistful” is no different, as the episode grounds its high-powered shootouts in a bit of character drama developed throughout S2, that of Pierce’s increasing estrangement from the rest of the study group. Pierce’s storyline and escalating antagonism has far-reaching effect throughout S2, particularly in the episode which arguably brings the inter-group conflict to a head, “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.” “Fistful” is the penultimate episode in the saga of Pierce in S2, as we end with Pierce and the group rejecting each other with guns drawn and even Annie having turned her back on him. Though there is no resolution to the conflict to be found in this episode, “Fistful” does an excellent job of breaking apart Pierce from the rest of the group in a manner which neitherfully villanizes Pierce nor forgives him for his admitted dickishness throughout S2. Were “Fistful” to be a wholly normal “pizza” episode in the style of S1 with no genre, parody or concept trappings whatsoever, the real heart of the episode, Pierce’s squabble with the group, would still make for interesting viewing.
Speaking of this episode’s merits and reasons for existence, “Fistful” does an excellent job of following up what is quite possibly Community’s most widely-known and most celebrated concept episode of all time, “Modern Warfare”. Though I was not a fan of Community at the time of the episode’s airing, I imagine that “Modern Warfare” quite possibly seemed a work of unstoppable genius to more than a few Community fans. “Fistful” had to both prove itself a worthy successor to Community’s greatest hit and establish itself as a distinct and unique episode in its own right, and the episode accomplishes both tasks with aplomb. Though both episodes are centered around paintball battles, “Fistful” tells a story very different from that of its predecessor. Key players last year are mere afterthoughts this time around, characters discarded as expendable gags in “Modern Warfare” are now the heart of the episode, and the “final boss” dies not in a dramatic shootout but goes out like a chump at the end of a fake heart attack. There are those who might say that “Fistful” is a cheap rehash attempting to cash in on the most widely-known success of “that show with the paintball episode”, but they’d be wrong, and should probably feel bad. In fact, I am of the opinion that “Fistful” exceeds “Modern Warfare” in many, if not all areas; the jokes are just as funny, the atmosphere is even better, and the action sequences and tension are phenomenal for a show which is ostensibly a comedy. Harmon & crew did not content themselves with resting on their laurels and half-assing a sequel, but rather poured a hell of a lot of love and effort into one of the best episodes Community has ever produced.
Now then, on to the characters!
Miss Annie Edison is unquestionably the focal point of this episode, and that’s a fact which is made clear from the very get-go as she drops from the ceiling and coolly dusts Mike and his henchmen, followed shortly by Fat Neil. The opening sequence makes it very clear that this is not the Annie we have grown accustomed to often seeing. Annie is decisive, cold, ruthless, and downright badassthroughout the duration of “Fistful”. As Abed says, “She’s pretty awesome today.”
Annie might at first seem to be acting somewhat out of character, but an examination of her actions in this episode quickly reveals that “Fistful” is in fact a wonderful expression of Annie’s growth as a character throughout the entirety of the show to date. Little Annie Adderall was insecure, needy, naive, and dependent on others. Throughout the series, Annie learns to be more sure of herself, more self-reliant, and more world-wise even as she sheds some of her charming naivete. The badass, gunslinging Annie Edison of “Fistful” is the culmination of a side of the character which has been continuously developed ever since her arrival at Greendale. Annie’s backstory is that of a girl which has always been reliant upon a group for support, whether it be her rehab buddies or the study group itself. Yet, the Annie we meet at the start of “Fistful” is a woman who is operating entirely independent of her compatriots and thriving for it. This is an Annie who, while still desiring of the support of others, no longer requires it in order to make her way in life; she does just fine in the game wholly on her own.
Following this theme of lessening reliance upon the study group, Annie learns a valuable lesson in this episode; sometimes, as much as you might dislike the very idea, keeping the group together at all costs is not the best option. She realizes that Pierce has become somewhat of a toxic presence and is willing to cut him free for the sake of the group, an action the Annie who desperately fought to hold the group together in “English as a Second Language” would never have considered. This very lesson would be echoed in S3’s opener, “Biology 101”, where Annie is ready to eject Jeff himself out of the group for poisoning its atmosphere, and the broader theme of Annie’s self-assurance in standing up to every member of the group on a broad variety of issues (not just schoolwork) appears repeatedly throughout S3, with perhaps the most notable example Annie’s self-affirming rejection of Troy and Abed’s blanket fort bedroom in “Modern Movement”.
Ultimately,this episode is just a kickass expression of every bit of Annie’s growth. Miss Edison is every bit the part of the hardass lone gunslinger, and her ability to fill that part entirely believably is a wonderful testament to her character development.
Annie is also plain badass in this episode, and it’s exceedingly fun to watch; Alison Brie hits things absolutely out of the park in a testament to her versatile acting ability. We don’t often get to see Annie’s (very) violent side, but when we do, it’s always a treat, and the focused, cold hardass of “Fistful” was an interesting change from the more traditional psychopathy Annie resorts to when she gets violent. That loose-cannon cop with nothing to lose from “Science of Illusion” is all grown up.
Also, as an unprofessional aside, that lady gunslinger outfit? Doing it for me, and, I suspect, quite a few others. Brie rocks pretty much everything this episode, whether it be the role or the outfit.
And now to discuss Mr. Piercenald Hawthorne, the other major player in this episode’s take on the Western drama. Pierce is somewhat of a villainous character throughout the back half of S2, and “Fistful” is the climax which sets up the resolution of his arc in “For A Few Paintballs More”. Interestingly, however, Pierce’s portrayal here is much different from what one might expect for the penultimate entry in Pierce’s own personal villain arc. Indeed, to me, the Pierce of this episode is much closer to the well-meaning, worldwise dick of S1 than the much more acrimonious and bitter figure he became in S2.
Pierce is the villain, yes; but what does he really do in this episode that is worthy of reproach? Certainly not the creation of Fort Hawthorne; it’s a refuge away from the chaos of the Greendale halls and streets, and also serves as a nice reminder that Pierce actually is quite competent as a public speaker who might be able to rally others to a cause (“Introduction to Film”, “Environmental Science”). Personally, I feel that it’s a damn shame we lost the more well-meaning Pierce of S1 as time dragged on. I liked the guy who knew that he was the butt of the joke and just didn’t care; I liked the guy who was old and had valuable wisdom to impart as a result, when his friends could sift through all the chaff.
As such, it’s wonderful to see Pierce receive a fairer treatment along the lines of S1 at the hands of “Fistful”. The episode affirms this nicer side of Pierce more particularly in the exchange Jeff and Pierce have regarding Vicki’s presence at Fort Hawthorne. Jeff believes that Pierce has more or less enslaved Vicki with the promise of food (an implied dig at her weight on Pierce’s part), and Pierce indignantly fires back, “She’s a dance major, Jeff! She loves Twinkies! And if you took the time to get to know her-”, cutting off in midsentence. Coming so soon on the heels of Pierce’s vicious cruelty to Vicki in “Intro to Political Science”, it appears that he actually has taken the time to get to know some of his fellow students that his fellow study group members dismiss as more or less nonentities. This exchange reminds us, the viewer, that Pierce is not entirely a villain, and serves as a great way to drag him back from the brink of becoming the cruel, corrupt Western baron which he seems designed to resemble. Furthermore, Pierce’s “crimes” in this episode really are not so great. He sabotages Jeff’s gun, yet it is out of a desire (professed, at least) simply to let somebody else win the game this year; he appears to bear no ill will toward other members of the group. This is the last straw for the already-exasperated study groupers, yet it is quite mild an act of villainy compared to some of Pierce’s earlier exploits in S2, and will quickly be redeemed by his actions in the subsequent episode.
Pierce raises once more in“Fistful” a concern which is the very keystone to his character; his fear of irrelevance due to his age and exclusion from the group. In a speech around dinner which is actually quite moving, Pierce communicates both to the study group and the viewer how dull his life really is outside of Greendale, and how the study group provides him with much-needed friends and excitement. This is a side of Pierce that we rarely see in S2, and even more rarely in S3, and I wish it’d appear more, as he is a much more interesting character when the good is coupled with the bad in equal measure.
The only other character who really experiences anything truly worthy of note in Fistful is Mr. Jeffrey Winger. His main role to play, as far as the plot of “Fistful” goes, is revealing the truth behind the group’s vote on Pierce, and it’s a rather small role; however, “Fistful” also expounds upon Jeff as a character by playing upon a weakness of Jeff recently revealed in “Critical Film Studies” yet hinted at for a very long time; his insecurity about his looks.
“Fistful” kicks this arc off with a classic Winger forehead gag, and proceeds to highlight Jeff’s insecurities by having him cross paths with the “network TV good-looking” Black Rider several times. Jeff is clearly intimidated by the presence of another older, ruggedly good-looking male figure, to the point where his efforts to assert his own attractiveness over that of the Rider’s. Normally, this might appear to be just more of the traditional Winger insecurity, but “Critical Film Studies” reveals to us that Jeff is in fact worried that people only find him attractive or interesting (as a friend as well as a romantic partner, one assumes) due to the charisma he has as a result of his looks; strip that away, or toss someone onto the scene who equals or exceeds Jeff in that measure, and Jeff fears that he may be left with nothing at all, no value as an individual.
Though “Fistful” plays this for more than a few laughs, it’s really quite a depressing side to Jeff’s character. Troy’s blithe assessment that “dude, you have a problem” is much more accurate than he might suspect, and examination of events such as Jeff’s role in this episode make his eventual turn to therapy even more unsurprising.
The rest of the characters are mostly bit players, and I’ve yammered on long enough, so I’ll spare you that; let’s just look at a rundown of some of my favorite callbacks and quotes instead, as well as a few random thoughts.
- “Fistful” makes great use of the extended Greendale community to flesh out its own little Western world and make things believable. Star Burns, Mike, Pavel, Vicki, Fat Neil, Leonard, and several others all appear in this episode.
- Jeff's cowboy costume from "Intro to Statistics" makes another appeareance! He really does love that thing.
- Troy’s reference to “pumping” is even more amusing in light of the fact that he has only as of “Paradigms of Human Memory” discovered that the group’s agreement regarding screwing around within the group does not, in fact, apply to masturbation.
- Winger forehead jokes. Oh, they never get old. The “Gay and Alive” poster is also an amusing reference to Pierce’s repeated insistences as to the true nature of Jeff’s sexuality throughout S1.
- The paintball stash contains El Tigre’s distinctive tiger-striped, fully automatic weapon from “Modern Warfare”.
- The Dean himself makes amusing reference to the previous year’s paintball shenanigans, which lends the eruption of a second paintball war some much-needed believability; the characters are not unaware of the colossal mistakes of last year. They simply repeat them through their crippling incompetence. It’s Greendale, after all!
- Annie shoots the cheerleaders and snarks bitterly about what they “told me at last year’s tryouts.” Remember how Annie ranted in “Advanced Criminal Law” about her cheerleading experiences in high school?
- This is a bit of theory which was (sadly) not explicitly confirmed, but I find the idea that Annie suddenly became so skilled at shooting paintball revolvers because she was practicing with a real revolver for most of the year to be both very funny and a very nice character point.
- Seriously, this episode does Western atmosphere SO WELL, from Annie's dangling can alarm system to Abed's fiery gaze backed by a soaring hawk cry, to the entire saloon drawing guns on the study group and the Fort Hawthorne "player piano" (there's a few shots where nobody is playing it while the music continues, and I choose to believe this is a result of willful parody rather than editing negligence). This episode rocks.
Pretty much every line in the episode, but here’s a few.
- "Yeah, and I want pants. A lot of people want a lot of things."
- “Red Five, standing by.”
- “She’s pretty awesome today.”
- Shirley: “I hope we find this cache of ammunition soon, I need to pump!” Troy: “Me too. You’re talking about peeing, right?” Shirley: “No!” Troy: “Me neither.”
- “By the power vested in us, we now pronounce you…arrested.”
- Pierce: “I’m the best!” Britta: “You’re the worst!”
- “You think you’re handsome, but you’re not. You’re average. You’re just an average-looking guy with a big chin.”
- “You guys are all terrible people!"
- “Sorry, I get paid to shoot paintballs, honey, not the breeze.”
- “That was a game. This is paintball.”
A.V. Club link – http://www.avclub.com/articles/digital-estate-planning-the-first-chang-dynasty-in,73676/#comment-781579911 (page 755)