'Brave New World' Delivers Big Laughs in Savagely Funny Episode 5 (RECAP)
[Spoiler Alert: This recap contains spoilers from Brave New World Season 1 Episode 5, "Firefall"]
I was unsure what to make of Brave New World after the first couple of episodes. It showed glimmers of potential, but there was always that worry in the back of my mind that it'd soon turn into another style-over-substance sci-fi outing full of mindnumbing technobabble. However, across five episodes, it's quickly grown on me, and this episode, in particular, won me over with its great comedic timing and willingness to shake things up.
Moving the action away from the Savage Lands to New London was perhaps my biggest concern. Spending so much time in this dreary grey and beige locale with its glass walls and emotionless inhabitants gave me serious Westworld season 3 flashbacks. But bringing John (Alden Ehrenreich) into the fold has done wonders in giving New London a real sense of chaotic energy, and, well, let's just say, fun! The savage's arrival has not only brought life to the city, but it's turned John himself into a far more interesting character while simultaneously helping flesh out Lenina (Jessica Brown Findlay) and Bernard's (Harry Lloyd) personalities.
John has disrupted the status quo in the usually problem-averse New London. Bernard is supposed to be helping John assimilate and adapt to the modern world, and yet, the reverse is happening. It's John's influence rubbing off on others, particularly on Lenina and Bernard, who are beginning to act out in ways not deemed acceptable in the World State. And it's not as if John is doing anything extreme to tear down the system. His brand of anarchy is subtle. A seemingly innocent, off-the-cuff remark can send citizens grasping for their soma. And John is aware of this power. "It just takes a flick," he whispers to a young boy about to stack building blocks in the conditioning lab.
The way John pokes holes in the whole ethos of New London society is a blast to watch. And you can tell Ehrenreich is having fun with it; he finally gets to do something more than silent brooding and sullen looks. There's a brilliant bit of comedic timing when Bernard visits Emotional Engineer and feely director extraordinaire, Helm Watson (Hannah John-Kamen). Bernard leaves John alone in a sort of futuristic waiting room with Helm's currently banished choreography team. "Hi," John says to the staring men and women, all of whom immediately react by popping their soma dispensers. A simple, polite greeting has them on edge, and John clicks how easy it is to catch these people off balance.
"Don't you ever want to be an Alpha?" John asks Zoe (Jeanie Hackman), a member of Helm's visual design team. Zoe is taken aback by such a suggestion. "Everyone wants to be what they are," she responds. John points out how the Alphas seem to have it pretty good compared to everyone else. Yes, the Betas may get to party all night long, but, as John says, doesn't that ever get boring? "Why do you have to 'be' anything?" he continues. He then completely throws things for a loop by telling a Gamma to bring him his drink rather than an Epsilon and picking a fight with an irritated observer. "Get up, you Beta Minus motherf**ker," John spits before laughing it off as a joke. The more John disrupts, the more soma is swallowed.
Helm is intrigued by John. She, like Bernard and Lenina, exudes an air of malaise. Her days are consumed with thinking up new concepts for her Pleasure Garden feely spectaculars. But she's all out of ideas until John walks into her life and provides inspiration. "Something unexpected for a change," she says before declaring that she and John are going to "f**k," using the savage vernacular to mark her intentions. There's a humorous aside as Bernard whispers to Helm that she can't just jump into bed with John. "Sex takes an emotional toll on them; they need preparation time, recovery... it's a deficiency," he explains. Helm presents an alternative; Bernard must bring John to her party at the Pleasure Garden tonight.
Bernard is beginning to grow concerned about John and the changes happening in New London since his arrival. He's particularly perturbed when John refuses to wear the party outfit prepared for him. While Bernard is dressed in something Lady Gaga would have rejected as "too ridiculous" in 2009, John gets Gary the Gamma to make him an elegant black suit. "Who's Gary?" asks Bernard, confused by the notion that a Gamma could have a name, let alone an opinion, particularly when it comes to fashion. The chemistry between Bernard and John is taken up a notch in this episode, and this scene, plus the ones at the Pleasure Garden, are great examples of a brewing sci-fi buddy comedy.
Helm intercepts John at the lavish sex party and whisks him away from Bernard and up to her office. There's another hilarious scene here as Helm describes the plot of her latest feely. "You're on the moon; then you fall into a crater of fire. Oh, there's an orgy at the end," she explains. "That's not a story," deadpans John, which is almost certainly the show poking fun at itself for its frequent orgy scenes, and, yes, an orgy ends this episode. After sharing his own story idea, something about a mother and son escaping a demon, John and Helm have sex. Despite the disruption he's causing, there is part of John that wants to embrace the New London lifestyle.
Meanwhile, in the club, Bernard starts to reap the rewards of having John as a friend. The garishly dressed clubgoers surround the councilor as they blast him with questions about "his savage." For a man who craves the feeling of importance, this sudden onslaught of attention is better than any soma fix. However, he's kicked back to reality by the arrogant Henry Foster (Sen Mitsuji), who mocks Bernard and reveals himself to be the newly appointed Director of Stability. Then, to rub soma in the wounds, Bernard watches as Henry makes out with Lenina on the dancefloor.
John, back from his fling with Helm, encourages Bernard to stand up to Henry. "Punch him in the face," is John's advice. Those acts of violent machismo are just not done in this world; one simply pops a soma and walks it off. "You said this place is about doing what feels good, right?" John says. "Well, punching this little t**t in his face will make you feel good." Again, the scene is mostly played for laughs, as John teaches Bernard how to throw a punch—some superb Mr. Bean-level visual acting from Lloyd. But punching Henry doesn't make Bernard feel good. It makes John feel good, he's the one heralded as a hero and swarmed by the partygoers as Henry clutches his bruised eye.
Bernard slumps out of the club to join Lenina, who sits alone outside watching a simulated view of Earth from space. Like their scene in the premiere, when Bernard first admitted to feeling out of place, in this moment, they have a shared connection through their wider disconnect from society. Both have changed since their trip to the Savage Lands and are struggling to readjust to life back in New London and to the feelings that have been awoken. This tender moment is abruptly interrupted as the simulated Earth flashes up a neon sign advertising Helm's next feely extravaganza (inspired by John's demon story). The comic timing in this show is seriously impeccable.
Lenina's quiet contemplation comes after an episode of erratic behavior. In fact, her actions of disruption are way more in your face than John's. It starts when she takes the dominant role while sleeping with Henry. This confuses Henry; after all, he's an Alpha, and she's a Beta, that's not how any of this works. Lenina tries to get him to admit that he liked it. "You need to act your level," he snaps as she sits behind his desk, withholding his soma. "Maybe we never take soma for the rest of our lives... what would happen?" she posits. Henry does not even pretend to humor her. He snatches the pill from her hand and tells her, "we won't do this again."
Lenina's character is one of the show's biggest improvements from the book. Let's face it; the characters in Aldous Huxley's novel weren't exactly full of nuance and complexities. The book is famous for its concepts and themes rather than its plot or characterization. In particular, Lenina is thinly drawn, with very little agency or wants and desires of her own. So, credit to the series for giving Lenina a voice, and for Findlay for bringing a varied array of emotions to the character. This Lenina has hopes and wants and feelings, despite being part of the emotionally numb New London elite.
Throughout this episode, Lenina resists taking her soma, even in situations that would typically call for it, like when she sees John and has a mini panic attack or after an argument with Frannie (Kylie Bunbury). The women clash when Frannie questions why Lenina didn't tell her she knew the savage. "Maybe I wanted part of me that is just mine," Lenina says. "Don't you want that?" Frannie calls it "private and solipsistic" and wonders why interesting things always happen to Lenina, despite them being the same level and doing the same things. "It's not fair, is it?" Lenina asks, hoping to get Frannie to embrace her negative feelings. But Frannie pops her soma and apologizes.
Lenina realizes she has to go further to get a reaction. After whooping Frannie in a game of what I can only describe as glow-up-tennis-meets-squash-meets-air-hockey, Lenina gets deeply personal. "We are the same," she says. "We dress the same, do the same things, have sex with the same people. The only difference is the order. You always come second, why do you think that is?" After Lenina leaves, Frannie lets out a raw, guttural scream, perhaps the first real emotion she's ever expressed. But Lenina is unable to keep up her protest. The withdrawals of going cold turkey are too much. She bounces off the walls and tears at her skin. Eventually, she gives in, relapsing into the numbing safety of soma.
But the changes are irreversible at this point. John's mere presence has set off a domino effect, and it's going to keep toppling more and more people. Even World Controller Mustafa Monda (Nina Sosanya) lashes out at the end of the episode as she starts to lose her grip on the system. And the Epsilon workers, particularly CJack60 (Joseph Morgan), are beginning to understand that the system is unfair too. And not just that, but after watching Bernard throw a punch, CJack60 is learning how to fight in a potential future uprising. Right now, Brave New World is just getting it right, a delightful mix of pleasure and pain with fun performances and genuinely smart comedy kicks.
Brave New World, Now Streaming, Peacock