"I had a dream like this, but it was sexual!”
Thanks to the oddly specific bequeathal of Pierce Hawthorne, and the real-life ambitions of the actor who plays him, Troy Barnes is leaving Greendale Community College. While the rest of the study group (which I still feel inclined to call them, as we’ve not yet seen the Save Greendale group meet again) prepares to send Troy off with one last round of make-believe, Britta, as much of a buzzkill as ever, urges the group not to let fantasy overshadow the emotion of Troy’s departure.
Abed, naturally, is the one she’s the most worried about, but he has a plan of his own. He convinces Dean Pelton to put on a school-wide game of hot lava—the kids game where the floor becomes deadly magma that kills you the minute you touch it (personally, I always played “the floor is water” game, feel free to speculate what this difference reflected about my childhood subconscious). But, as with every Greendale-wide game, there’s a twist—the top prize, Abed’s copy of the first issue of the comic book Space Clone (can we not let that become a thing, the way we did with Inspector Spacetime, Community fans?), is valued at $50,000.
Greendale, as ever, loses its collective shit. If there’s a weakness here it’s that we’ve seen that happen so many times before, and a post-apocalyptic aesthetic was already referenced in the first-season classic Modern Warfare. But where that episode also drew from “man alone” films like Die Hard, “Geothermal Escapism” has a more steampunk aesthetic (especially the desk car that Hickey just “threw together”), and parodies movies like Waterworld that create new societies with specific customs and lingo. As the only person trying to stay connected to the reality of Troy leaving, Britta can only ask, “did you guys all hit your heads on each other’s heads?”
Abed doesn’t want Britta around, so he abandons her to die while Hickey, who need the money to pay for his son’s gay wedding (“The flowers alone, you have no idea …”), attacks in his desk of death. Hickey spares Britta, disgusted at the group’s behavior, and they join forces with the most awkward fist-bump in history (little touches like that show just how seamlessly Jonathan Banks is fitting into this world—he’s already the best part of the show this year).
Britta and Hickey, along with an army of “chair walkers”, storm “Shirley Island”, where Troy and Abed have gone seeking a legendary orb that holds the key to winning the game. That orb turns out to be a giant plastic bubble, which Troy and Abed jump into and use to plow over Hickey’s chair walkers.
So here the symbolism is made concrete—Troy and Abed, locked in their world of make believe, have been in a bubble for five years, one that didn’t even dissolve for Troy’s relationship with Britta. But now the outside world is closing in, and that bubble has to pop. Once it does, Abed reveals what we might have suspected all along—that this is no game for him. He’s really seeing lava on the floor because Troy is leaving (in fact, when we first see Abed in this episode, he’s sitting on the desk in Dean Pelton’s office—hat tip to S.C. Stuckey for pointing that out). “I don’t want to be crazy”, Abed says, a nice moment for Danny Pudi as an actor and for Abed as a character.
Abed realizes that he needs to let Troy go, and so he sacrifices himself to the lava, but he’s so committed to the bit that he won’t wake up. Britta, inspired by Space Clone, grabs some cardboard boxes and with a few beeps and boops creates a “clone” of the original Abed –one that can properly say goodbye to his partner. But Abed’s not the only one scared to let go—Troy is afraid to leave Greendale as well, so he also jumps into the lava (or, beautifully, performs a “trust fall”) to clone himself and awake as a man ready for the journey.
More than anything, “Geothermal Escapism” is about closing an arc—Troy’s personal arc as a character. Dan Harmon’s circular story structure, based in part on Joseph Campbell’s monomyth hero cycle, has been the engine behind all of Community’s plots during the seasons he’s been on the show. Last season (or, as Harmon might call it, “The Dark Night of the Soul”) that four-act structure was abandoned. So with Troy we get our first look at what one of those complete circles looks like, and Harmon knows as well as any of the ancient storytellers before him, just how important sacrifice is to those hero tales. Therefore, before he can set off on his Odyssey, Troy must die and be reborn as someone with the bravery to both sail around the world and speak to his first mate, LeVar Burton. The goodbyes are sweet, the emotions well-earned through five years of adventuring, and Troy as a character is serviced well.
Troy says his goodbyes to his friends and sets sail, and somewhere on the open sea a new story circle spins on, but we won’t be following it. What happens to Troy is up to the realms of fan fiction (or, with Burton, I suppose, slash fiction). Our attention will stay with the ones who are left, and while it’s still a strong group of characters, we’ve lost something critical to the core of the series. Through Troy’s eyes we saw Abed’s games as more than calculated distancing apparatuses. His naiveté provided a counterpoint to Jeff’s cynicism, Annie’s contrived innocence, Shirley’s cheerful malice, and Britta’s loud, lazy activism. If we’ve liked the show, it was because we’ve accepted it the way that Troy did, with an open heart and willingness to go back to the places that we wished our world still comprised—blanket forts, pillow fights, and epic paintball battles, with our best friend always by our side.