‘3 Body Problem’ Episode 7 Recap: Brain Drain

Wanted: One intelligent human brain. Dying donors preferred. Serious consideration of whether or not aliens should just go ahead and take over a plus. Must survive 300 nuclear explosions in outer space. Estimated travel time: 200 years. Return transportation not provided. Full human bodies not allowed.

This is the tempting offer at the center of the penultimate episode of the first season of “3 Body Problem.” Reuniting the “Game of Thrones” team of the director Jeremy Podeswa and the writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, it is another low-key affair compared to the mounting menace and chaos of the first five episodes. Granted, it is about a scheme to remove Will’s brain, freeze it, and blast it into space at unprecedented speeds so it can be intercepted and studied by the San-Ti. Will’s doubts about the project, says boss Thomas Wade, are what make him so valuable: If he were a true believer in the fight to the death against the aliens, they might simply let him drift past.

Some people’s doubts are stronger than others’. Though she designs the nanofiber sail required to accelerate the probe through space, she walks away from it all when the idea of sacrificing Will as a glorified space monkey is brought to the table. She also takes her nanofibers off the market and out of the realm of exclusivity permanently, by uploading all the data she has on them to the internet and making them accessible to everyone for free.

The problem is that compared to a Cyclopean eye in the sky or a boat getting sliced to pieces by an invisible web out of Stephen King’s “The Mist,” none of this is all that interesting. From the very first episode, it was apparent that ideas and images, not compelling characters and a novel plot, were the strength of “3 Body Problem.” Leaning into the characters makes the whole thing lopsided.

Look at Wade, for example. At first just a gray eminence working behind the scenes while Clarence pounded the pavement, he gradually grew in prominence, reaching a fun spy-movie throwback sweet spot last episode. Now, however, it feels like Benioff and Weiss have overshot the mark with him into cliché.

There’s only so much even an actor like Liam Cunningham can do with dialogue like “The Doomsday Express just pulled into the station — you can all queue up behind me” or “The future’s not as far as it used to be.” The man is talking about having himself cryogenically frozen like a C.G.I. chimpanzee and revived annually so he can personally oversee humanity’s defenses for 400 years. He’s a bit too “a Jerry Bruckheimer production” to fit in with the show’s more psychologically realistic characters, i.e. all the rest of them.

Among those characters, though, Will is a poor choice to be the season’s emotional linchpin. Will had mere minutes of screen-time before he received his diagnosis, during which he was overshadowed by his friends’ more impressive accomplishments and vivacious personalities. For all intents and purposes, he’s only ever been “nebbishy guy who’s very ill” to us.

This works fine in one sense: I’ve greatly enjoyed the subplot in which he and Saul just lounge around a beach house getting stoned while the world falls down around them. Obviously Will has more of an external rationale for taking this approach than Saul does, but in both cases their lackadaisical attitude makes for a bracing contrast with the can-do spirit of their pals Jin and Auggie, along with Raj. Those three characters seem to recognize on some level that they’re protagonists in a sci-fi epic and therefore have important things to do. (Or in the case of Auggie, who walks off the team, to not do.) Saul and Will have just been Rosencrantz and Guildensterning it off on their own. We’d all like to imagine ourselves as members of Group Type A, but the slacker squad would likely outnumber them by an order of magnitude.

But once Will’s story line switches from making the most of his remaining time to ending his life, that situational uniqueness is gone. Now he’s a character on a TV show, dying of cancer, and that’s all we’ve ever known him to be. We don’t feel the loss of him — as a friend, as an educator, as the one that got away — the way Saul and Jin do. His inability to admit his feelings for Jin until he’s drugged up near the very end feels like a small thing to care about in the context of the show’s events. Even the power of his farewell scene with Saul, who holds his hand as he prepares to click one last button on a touch-screen and end his life, is mitigated by the fact that he’s not really dying, but instead becoming a comically hoary sci-fi staple: a brain in a jar.

Two characters do stand out from the rest as capable of being load-bearing supports from the drama surrounding them. Jin is distinguished by the show’s best performance, courtesy of Jess Hong. Jin’s moral and emotional struggles seem to roil beneath the surface. Every other character is sure of their actions, whether Raj and Wade on one side or Auggie on the other. Jin is doing the work in spite of great doubt, and the almost physical effort required to keep going under those circumstances is visible in every scene.

The other standout is Wenjie. Despite her claim last episode that she could still help her Lord, she seems set adrift here, in what I presume is her last episode. (This is television: I hesitate to pronounce anyone dead without seeing a body. Also, this is sci-fi television, so even then, proceed with caution.) Though Rosalind Chao consistently and convincingly portrays Wenjie as a burned-out person, a dead woman walking, the character’s feelings about her place in the world vacillate wildly.

At one point she tells Saul she’s let more people down than anyone in history, and appears to offer him some kind of clue hidden within a joke about the folly of an angelic Einstein trying to play a duet with God. At another, though, she communes with Tatiana, the mysterious assassin we’ve seen on and off throughout the series, over their shared hope for the future and trust in the San-Ti — this despite the fact that Tatiana has been sent by the San-Ti to kill Wenjie.

But as Wenjie points out, she was about to take care of this herself, by leaping from the cliff upon which the now ruined Red Coast broadcast installation sits. This is another reason Wenjie stands out: She has the best-looking death of the bunch so far, silhouetted against the gray sunset. Just looking at it, you feel as if something important is happening and someone important is being lost. The episode closes with this image. It’s not a return to the spectacular endings of the first few episodes, but it’ll do.

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