Friday, April 20, 2012

3x16 "Virtual Systems Analysis" (The Psychology of Control)

"Virtual Systems Analysis"
Original Airdate: April 19, 2012

Hi. My name is Jennifer, and I am a control freak. I'll be the first to admit that I like control. A lot. In middle and high school (and even, on the rare occasions during college), we used to get group projects assigned. And I usually enjoyed these to an extent. However, the one thing that always worried me about them was when someone - other than me - was assigned an integral task to do. If they, say, had to hand something in to the teacher or professor, I would squirm. Because the bottom line is that I loved to be the one who would do the important tasks. How else would they get done RIGHT if I didn't do them? Yes, that may sound insane to some of you (to those of you who were the type of person who benefited from my personality, this may be the case) but it's my life. I hate change. It's something that I am cognizant of, at least and that I am attempting to improve. But you weren't really looking for a case study about my life when you clicked whatever link that brought you here, were you? So let's talk about "Virtual Systems Analysis" then. This episode, much like Inception, was multi-layered. I read a lot of comments on Twitter, and some of them hailed this to be one of the more far-fetched episodes of the series. To me, it is the most real. If you want to know, at their cores, who Annie and Abed are, don't watch "For a Few More" or "Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design." While those episodes give us glimpses into each of them as characters, they're merely representing pieces of a whole messy puzzle (yes, these two are messy characters... but the beauty is that so are all of the others). Honestly, I could not have been more pleased with how this episode turned out. 

(Also, just a fair warning: this blog-review is VERY long. Kudos if you make it all the way to the end!)

The plot of the episode (in case you were too busy psychoanalyzing everything like I was) is fairly simple: the group is in their study room, attempting to cram for a biology exam that they have. The Dean, however, announces that Professor Kane is ill, which means their exam has been cancelled. The group and the audience celebrate -- I guess they'll have to learn to study some other time! Jeff decides that this is the perfect opportunity to take a three-hour lunch, and the callback to "Anthropology?"/"Intervention?" from seasons 1 and 2 is flawless. As we noticed in last week's episode, Troy may have a thing for Britta, and Britta has just realized this. And Annie has just realized that she can play matchmaker for the two. Instead of Troy's original plan (which Abed decided for them both) to take the lunch hour and play in the Dreamatorium, Annie decides to send Britta and Troy to lunch and volunteers to spend time with Abed instead. 

And here's where Annie's first decision begins to impact Abed. The whole point of the episode seemingly is to understand Abed better. The irony is that, in doing so, we understand Annie better. That's what's so brilliant about the show - it sets out to seemingly accomplish one thing and ends up accomplishing another. We learn that Annie and Abed's view of relationships is fundamentally different but practically similar. Abed, as we have witnessed this season, is intent on controlling circumstances. His main focus is himself, which causes dissension between him and Troy during the construction of the blanket forts. Annie is used to viewing relationships in a very... romantic light, I believe. She clings to the idea that friendship means thinking about other people over yourself. And essentially, neither of these views is inherently wrong, but it's harder to relate to Abed because it's harder to admit to the part of us that IS like him -- the part that would much rather see others catering to our whims than vice versa. (Think about it: in the last 24 hours, when have you refused to do something for someone because it was inconvenient or didn't fit into YOUR will?) It's much easier to accept Annie's view of the world as truth. It sounds wonderful. But the bottom line is that Annie has often romanticized her relationships to the point where she starts to see people only the way she wants to see them. This creates a disconnect when the people in her life are NOT who she wants them to be, and instead are flawed human beings. Annie's instinct then is "fix" -- to fix the people around her so they are more or less how she wants them to be. And this is never more evident than with Jeff. But more on that later on.

Abed's fear is that he is not needed in the group. And it's a legitimate fear - each group member, I assume, has often wondered whether or not the group could function successfully without them. We've seen that, even the person we are meant to consider the "leader" can be absent and the group carries on ("Remedial Chaos Theory"). Do Abed's fears justify his actions? By no means, of course, is controlling someone the right way to respond to your insecurities. And while it doesn't make Abed's actions right, it does make them a bit more understandable and perhaps even relatable.

Abed and Annie play in the Dreamatorium, except that - to Abed - Annie isn't playing "right" or up to par. The real reason he is upset with her, however, is because she set Britta and Troy up on a date. And I think it's interesting that Annie is called out by Abed for tampering with "the fabric of the group." It's interesting mainly in its irony. Annie is not the type of person who traditionally meddles in other peoples' lives, necessarily. But she IS the person who cares about the well-being and stability of others, and perhaps the only person in the group who plans life just as much as Abed does. Abed would never call himself out on tampering with the fabric of the group but... isn't that what keeping Troy to himself is? Isn't he, in doing so, preventing Troy from making deeper connections within the study group? Abed is, at his core, selfish because he CAN be (having a disability often causes people to overlook some of your slights, or - in the very least - downplay or excuse them). No one stops him in the group. But his manipulation is inconspicuous, unlike how he views Annie's.

And here's the thing -- selfish people usually always start out with good intentions. Abed doesn't want to prevent Troy from ever having fun or cause him to forgo every other relationship in his life. But Abed sees the world like a set of scales. After everything that the group has gone through, he presumes that they have finally reached an equilibrium -- a balance, if you will. He knows though that one extra weight on either side could tip the scales. And once a scale tips, he can no longer control it. And that's what scares Abed, deep down. Because if his calculations are wrong and he has invested all of his time and energy into preserving them and developing scenarios and running through scenes... what is there that he has left? What good is he to the group if he can't be "in control"? Because that's the thing with control -- it's an illusion. No one ever REALLY has control over anything. Think about this morning: did you have control over what you would wear? You seemed to, right? But you didn't really -- you could only choose from what you had in your closet or available closest to you. And even if you went out and bought clothes, you didn't have control over those. You could only buy what was in the store, at the price that the store said it would be, etc. Control is an illusion that we love so much and cling to. It's the feeling that somehow our lives are run by us and that gives us comfort in an unsettling world -- in a world we can't understand.

Abed mimics a simulation, explaining to Annie that Britta and Troy's date will not go well (which, at the end of the episode, we realize is not true -- they actually have a good date). I think that the idea that Abed views the group objectively is interesting as well. Clearly this isn't the case, unless Abed truly IS a robot (maybe that is how Dan Harmon will end the series! Gasp!). What he doesn't realize (and what Annie actually does, to a dangerous extent) is the impact of relationships on lives. Abed thinks that he can take a step away from a relationship and view it without any obstruction. This is impossible, however, because once you have an emotional or relational tie to something, no matter how insignificant, that tie exists (i.e. the pencil example that Jeff gave in the pilot episode, which Abed reacted to). The idea that we can be completely logical and lack emotion is one extreme. The other extreme - where Annie usually lies - is using emotions primarily as a guiding force in relationships. Again, neither is inherently wrong, but an excess of either is dangerous.

Troy calls Annie and asks how Abed is doing. Annie, frustrated by how Abed is treating her explains: "He's fine. He always will be. People bend over backwards to cater to him." Once Annie re-enters the Dreamatorium, she decides that she is going to teach Abed to not be robotic and logical, but empathetic. The catalyst then, for the rest of the events is the idea that (as I stated before) Annie believes emotions and relationships are primarily about thinking of other people more than you think about yourself. It's not bad, but it has the potential to be when implemented in someone who ONLY thinks logically. A complete shift in personality can be jarring and detrimental.

Annie, however, breaks Abed by causing him to only think of other people. Immediately, in this new "role," Abed assumes the character of Jeff. And I think that it's interesting that Abed imitates Jeff and decides that this is the best person to imitate when he awakes in Annie's emotional/empathetic world. But it's even more telling that he assumes (later on) that Annie only wants Jeff and nothing else out of the group. It's a brash and bold statement to make, and one that Annie dismisses. Abed-as-Jeff reveals that, in Annie's dream world (remember how she wanted to go to a world that she knew, early on? We are now in it.), Abed doesn't exist because nobody needs him.

And it's quite sad that Abed feels like nobody needs him... that the group would continue to exist, perhaps better, if he was absent. There's this notion, this almost-jealousy that asserts its prevalence in the Dreamatorium world, from which Abed narrates. And I feel like this is why he has the characters he is imitating act the way that they do. There's an idea there that everyone has needs and functions but that if his (logic and calculations) are taken away from him, he'll be left with nothing more to offer. The fact that he believes Annie does what she does in the group and acts the way that she does (because he thinks she loves Jeff) is also telling -- Abed nearly equates love with selfishness at this point. He thinks that love only works when people do things for you, or when you "get" as much as you can from a relationship. When Annie asks him to get the files, he does so only because she promises something to him-as-Jeff in return. And that intrigues me, because it means that Abed thinks Jeff and Annie's relationship (or any relationship with love) is just a constant game of "who owes whom" -- that it's not about wanting to do something for someone without asking for much in return. It's the idea that love can only be love (in Abed's mind) if one party is always doing something to gain the other's affection or obedience.

Annie insists that she finds Abed in this weird, hospital world. So she pleas: "Enough games. Just take me where I want to go." And here we begin the fun portion of my diatribe: Annie! One of the most wonderful, endearing things about Annie to me is that I can relate to her. She's like me. She was born and raised in a world that was less-than-perfect. This is a woman who battled addiction and a broken family. And so there is this hope that she clings onto in her relationships -- the the naive hope that if you care about people, they will love you back and not hurt you. And maybe that's why Annie believes she doesn't love Jeff - because (she has made it very clear in the past few episodes) Jeff hurt her. It's interesting that she goes back to "Pascal's Triangle Revisited" in this episode, after subtly mentioning her bitterness in "Digital Exploration of Interior Design." Why would she go back to a moment that Jeff has ignored? Perhaps because (like she later states), she keeps replaying the moment in her mind and expecting different results. That, by the way, is the definition of insanity. And it's not this idea that Jeff can never love or that Annie can never love anyone. But it's better to view the world, sometimes, the way you want to rather than the way it actually is. But that is dangerous, too, because the world doesn't operate according to your or my standards or practices. For Annie, she wants clarity - we've seen that in "Asian Population Studies" and again through simulated!Jeff. She wants answers that the real Jeff either doesn't have or has and is not willing or able to give. And that frustrates her. Because how can she plan and control if she doesn't know what to plan and control for?

And it's interesting that Abed believes that with him gone, there would be nothing to stop Britta/Troy and Jeff/Annie from happening -- and he believes that this is exactly what Annie WANTS. That her quest for empathy is really a desire to serve her OWN needs. Because that is how Abed operates, no? But Abed's beliefs are subverted by Annie's next statement: "You are NOT Jeff. Because Jeff CARES about Abed." Annie then refuses to stay in the "Pascal's Triangle Revisited" moment. I think this speaks more volumes about her than anything else -- she's learned that she can't stay in that moment forever. She can't live in a past moment because emotions, while beneficial, cannot be handled the way she handles them sometimes - she clings to the "magic" of the moment so much so that she doesn't remember to live in the reality of the next.

Annie admits to Abed-as-herself that she doesn't love Jeff. She says: "We're just in love with the idea of BEING loved. And if we can teach a guy like Jeff to do it, we'll never be unloved." To me, this means that Annie wants to feel safe... and in her own admission, she wants to control people in order to make them love her. It's not as outright and manipulative as a lot of other things can be. Nevertheless, she's beginning to become less romanticized with how she views Jeff. She knows that he's flawed and she's come to accept that about him... but only to an extent. Like her story in "Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps," we realize that Annie still desires to "fix" Jeff. And I think that she knows that you can try to fix someone all you want, but that doesn't mean they will love you or "work" the way you want them to. People aren't toys or robots. But Annie is hung-up on the notion that if she can teach or "train" Jeff to love her, then she can never feel unloved again. But is that real love? I think that Annie's admission is her coming to accept that people have to find love on their own. And while it seems like she's given up on Jeff coming to that realization on his own as it pertains to her, I think it's refreshing for her to acknowledge that she needs to stop trying to force emotions on people or get them to act a certain way.

And then, we come to the heartbreaking realization in the Dreamatorium that Abed believes if his friends put him anywhere in their lives, they'd put him in a locker, chained to the wall. And while part of me is apprehensive to fall too much into pitying him (only because of his selfishness and manipulation this season), it's hard to not feel bad. But Annie explains to him what I did earlier -- Abed's calculations are like science fiction, brilliant and wonderful but not accurate. Abed is a self-defeatist, determined to be bound to a locker, not because anyone puts him there, but because that is where he THINKS people will put him. At some point. He's just beating them to the punch. And honestly, it's hard to not love Annie who (in spite of her own insecurities, and actually because of them) comforts her friend with the notion that he will never be alone. (Cue A Very Potter Musical's "Not Alone.")

Because as long as you have friends, Jeff explained a while ago, you have family. Families are messy and weird and they hurt each other all of the time. They don't always understand one another, and sometimes they fight... but they're always bound by something bigger than their differences: their similarities.

Additional de-lovely aspects about the episode included:
- I transcribed the entire "truth serum" monologue Troy said. I regret absolutely nothing.
- "Guys, we don't have to cram last minute anymore! Last minute got moved to tomorrow!"
- I have said this in weeks past, but I absolutely LOVE reading the white boards behind the characters. This week's gems included: "Help. I'm being bound in a book factory" and the joke "If the opposite of pro is con, what is the opposite of progress?"
- "Damn our two foot height disparity!"
- "We both need to be more comfortable with winging it."
- "In the montage of things Abed doesn't know, tying his shoes is in there.
- Troy and Abed in the morning!

If you've made it to the bottom of the page... I applaud you. Sincerely. Thank you so much for reading! Next week we get a highly-anticipated episode written by the wonderful and talented Megan Ganz -- "Basic Lupine Urology." It's the Law & Order parody episode, so I am very much excited for this. Until then, folks! :)


  1. Very good recap. This episode really does require multiple viewings to get a lot of what was shown. I didn't get inception either! Well, at least until I went to the chat rooms on IMDB.

    As pure entertainment, I wasn't digging this episode as much, but there were still momentary gems that make it all worth watching. At times this season, it feels like the show is getting a bit too self-aware, but considering that almost every aspect of the show is metaphorical, that could be the point. It's a fine line between layering a core message and meaning into a story and preaching/lecturing.

    I love the fact that the creators try very hard to layer complex human issues beneath the icing that is the comedy. It's got to be damn hard to do.

    Either way, I'll always watch. You never know what you are going to get with Community. They keep trying new stuff. That's a big part of what makes it so great.

  2. "How else would they get done RIGHT if I didn't do them?" Yes. This is why we are friends. And would probably be terrible on a group project together. ;-)

    I'm still wrapping my head around last this episode. I agree with you that it showed INCREDIBLE growth for Annie. She's moving past this idealized version of love and her feelings of Jeff. I don't believe for a SECOND she doesn't have feelings for him, but I do think she is getting past that teenybopper hearts flowers and unicorns perception of a relationship with him. This is all part of her coming to grips with herself so she can be ready for a real relationship, like Megan Ganz said. Plus, as many people said on Twitter last night, I think Jeff's gotta be the one to make a move in the end and make her fall for him.

    And you're right, it is hard NOT to feel bad for Abed, despite his behavior this second half of the season.

  3. I can't wait for the gag reel on the DVD of Donald Glover adlibbing stuff cut from the truth serum monologue.

  4. I wouldn't say people always 'benefit' from somebody driven to take control; sometimes it shuts out other group members when they actually want to participate more or are actually better equipped but less aggressive.

  5. You made some really intriguing points on this Goliath of an episode! "So many layers!" This is a really interesting analysis of Annie and Abed, but there's one part in particular where I differ. I don't think that Abed’s reactions when playing Jeff should be taken as a blanket statement that Abed thinks any love relationship is nothing more than an exchange of favors… a transaction. It's all about perspective and whether Abed's is accurate or not is certainly up for debate. But if you consider what Abed knows about Jeff's history with women, I think that "Jeff" fishing for Annie to agree to have sex for his retrieval of the file, has much more to do with what Abed believes is Jeff's version of love. I think Abed is trying to hold a mirror up to Annie, to show her what he thinks Jeff wants from her. What he thinks Annie wants from Jeff. I'd also argue he portrays Jeff that way because there is some jealousy there as Abed has genuine feelings for Annie that he can't quite express, but I'm pretty sure I'm in the minority on that;)