The Brink: “Baghdad, My Ass”

One of the major downsides of modern serialized television is the constant presence of “table-setting episodes,” episodes that do little but advance the plot. These episodes are unfortunately necessary for the macro story to progress, but they are almost always boring even under the best circumstances. There are some writers who can write compelling table-setting episodes by privileging micro stories or character arcs over obvious plot mechanics (Vince Gilligan and co. routinely did this quite well with Breaking Bad), but more often than not, these episodes just hang there, existing not on their own but in relation to an unfinished story.

“Baghdad, My Ass” is a table-setting episode through and through, but it’s even more frustrating than usual because The Brink is a series where the stakes are so high they’re almost non-existent. The entire episode is spent moving the proverbial pieces around the board in order to get Secretary Larsen and Alex Talbot in conversation and to write away Zeke and Jammer’s official investigation. The three plots are still mostly disconnected, which isn’t much of a problem if they stand on their own, but since this episode only serves to keep the story chugging along, there’s a significant pacing problem. “Baghdad, My Ass” starts and stutters every other minute, and it’s mostly because writers Roberto and Kim Benabib create no real threat of India and Pakistan going to war, or for that matter, any of the various conflicts in the air coming to a head. When Alex is face-to-face with General Raja (Bernard White), Zaman’s half-brother, the biggest threat in the room is him losing his temper over virtual golf.

Let’s start with the funniest, most disconnected plot in the episode: Zeke and Jammer’s investigation into their drug-fueled bombing mission. The two are quickly placed into prison while they await an internal trial when Lieutenant Gail Sweet (Jaimie Alexander of Marvel fame) enters the picture carrying Zeke’s baby. Gail tells Zeke she’ll raise their child on her own since Zeke is facing a prison sentence, but when both he and Jammer get off the hook because of a superior officer jonesing for Zeke’s drugs, he organizes one last big score through his pharmacist ex-wife. It’s not much of a story, but it’s somewhat saved by Pablo Schreiber’s borderline-manic acting that fits the broad farcical tone of the series, as well as the Benabib’s willingness to showcase Zeke’s manipulative side: He’s patching up his relationship with his wife while promising to take care of his baby with Gail. Again, they’re not really cutting him down to size, but it’s better than their buffoonish, yet endearing takes on Larsen or Talbot.

Speaking of Talbot, his story this week is thinner than usual seeing as he’s actually faced with the most direct action in the series so far. After Raja tells Alex that he wants to get rid of Zaman from the inside, he forces him to communicate to Larsen his demands or else he’ll kill him and Rafiq’s entire family. Alex and Rafiq travel to the American Embassy, and after evading the Bible-thumping U.S. Ambassador (the wonderful John Larroquette, who incidentally out-acts everyone on the series in under two minutes), finally get in contact with Larsen, who’s writhing in pain on the floor of a plane headed to New Delhi. Though Aasif Mandvi delivers a reliable straight-man performance, Jack Black gets little to do but act foolish in traditional garb and rattle off information very quickly. As I’ve said, it’s disappointing.

But it isn’t more disappointing than Larsen’s story this week, which consists of him catching his wife (Carla Gugino) in bed with Billy the bartender, passing out because of a kidney stone, and delivering key intelligence to the President, but yet still comes across as very dull. Tim Robbins is a consummate professional and he can be charming and funny even in the worst of circumstances, but even he can’t save the sophomoric writing he’s been given. He’s playing a charming caricature of an alcoholic with an infected penis, which is absurd enough to work, but in the hands of the Benabib’s, he’s just unbearably smarmy and irritating. I suppose someone will argue that he’s supposed to be this way, which I could swallow if he wasn’t also supposed to be the only pacifist who can stop a geopolitical crisis. Larsen is a clown and a genius, an arrogant fool and a hero, a characterization that is only sustainable in the hands of writers who can depict both sides of his personality equally without constantly flattering him.

All of these flaws would be a lot easier to take if “Baghdad, My Ass” wasn’t also light on laughs. I’ve found The Brink’s boorish charm to be a little more charming than other critics, but I didn’t laugh more than twice this entire episode, which only highlights the series’ structural and foundational problems. It would also be easier to forgive some minor missteps if the Benabib’s showed any interest in the subject matter they’re supposedly satirizing. I know I’m beating a dead horse with this point, but we’re three episodes into the series and I don’t see any sign of an actual perspective on their fictional geopolitical crisis. Is this perspective necessary for The Brink to stand on its own? Maybe not, but honestly, it would make the lack of comedy go down smoother if the series had something to say.

Stray Observations

  • It should be said that The Brink possibly wastes more talented actors than any show in recent memory. Tim Robbins and Carla Gugino are in the same scene together and it’s their natural chemistry that keeps everything afloat.
  • However, I did find Robbins’ reaction to Billy’s large penis to be one of the episode’s highlights. “He can start a cult with that thing.”
  • Why doesn’t John Larroquette show up for two minutes in every show? Probably because he would steal everyone’s thunder.
  • Eric Ladin doesn’t get much to do this episode, but he delivers every line wonderfully.
  • “Two hundred million dollars. That’s a lot, isn’t it?” “Nah, we can print as much of that shit as we want.”
  • “Blonde Asian twins.” “Oh, that guy. I like that guy.”

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