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One of the great things about Community is how each episode brings something entirely new to the table. While the characters are all loveable and memorable in their own ways, and relationships are built and altered over the course of the series, the themes and subgenres shift dramatically (if not comically) week-to-week. With that in mind, just how in the Hell were Dan Harmon and Co. supposed to pull off a two-part episode?

Short answer: they apparently aren’t trying to. And that appears to be an excellent decision so far.

It seems while the first half of the episode is portrayed in a Spaghetti-Western style, the second half will be set more of a futuristic dystopian atmosphere. The episode will share the same story arcs –such as the betrayal of Pierce, the larger conspiracy of the ice cream company, the defection and “death” of Chang – but the two halves should feel very different thematically.

But enough about next week; talking too much about that would do a disservice to this week’s episode, which was wonderful -- even if you aren’t a fan of the Western genre.

“A Fistful of Paintballs” does a fantastic job at creating the absurd environment and culture that has taken over Greendale (and caused its inhabitants to devolve 100 years). In a world driven by greed and violence, ammunition has become the most precious resource and chief form of currency. People have learned to survive alone or in small groups. Only one microcosm of civilization has sustained through the hysteria under the guidance of Judge Pierce Hawthorne.

Pierce has created a protectorate of sorts in Fort Hawthorne. Its citizens supply Pierce with paintballs for the right to live in his care, under the protection of himself and his deputies, and to provide patronage of his services (whether it’s the right to use the lavatories, to eat, or to watch “the show”).

Jeff, after meeting up with Annie and Abed, decide to go to Pierce when they run low on ammunition. Before they get to Pierce, they run into Troy, Shirley and Britta, who are now sworn deputies of Fort Hawthorne. It seems the Judge had been seeking an audience with Jeff as well, and the group goes to meet with the man in charge.

Pierce admits to the group that he is disheartened by the approaching end of the semester, and by how he has drifted apart from the group. He has a request for the group: to retrieve Dean Pelton’s hidden stash of paintballs from last year’s debacle, so they have the edge to win the competition – as a group and a family.

Very touching… or it would have been, if it were true. In a form befitting Pierce the Dickish, Pierce loads Jeff’s gun with blanks, setting him up to fail once again. The gang is able to get to the stash anyway, and Annie decides it’s time to pay Pierce a lesson.

Throughout these events, the gang is perused by a Man With No Name (except that he’ll always have a name to me, and that’s James Ford). Yes, LOST’s Josh Holloway guest-stars this week as the Black Rider, and displays all the wry wit and undeniable charm we’ve come to expect from our favorite confidence man. The Black Rider is not successful in shooting any of the group members, but does manage to charm Annie and make Jeff feel all kinds of insecure.

When the group confronts Pierce, the Black Rider turns up as well, but is content to let Annie and Pierce settle their dispute before attacking the survivors. However, his resolve seems to weaken when Pierce visibly shows signs of chest pain. The study group – no stranger to Pierce’s phony heart attacks – does nothing while Pierce writhes on the ground. The Black Rider kneels near Pierce in concern, and Pierce repays his kindness with a paintball in the gut. Pierce grabs one of the Black Rider’s shotguns, and manages to escape the cafeteria.

The Black Rider also leaves, his mission having failed; we learn that the Black Rider was hired to ensure that no Greendale student won the contest. When Annie asks him about it, he promises, “Sweetie, this whole thing is bigger than you can even imagine.” But come on… coming from Sawyer, it’s hard to imagine that promise will pay off.

At the close of this episode, we are offered a cryptic look of the events to come. The ice cream company (or whomever is really pulling the strings) is initiating Plan B: if the Black Rider couldn’t stop the students of Greendale, the company will have to lead a full-scale invasion. The students of Greendale will eventually band together to oppose the new threat. It is unclear if Pierce – fresh off another betrayal and having officially been cast out of the group – will make amends again. But one thing is certain: Chang is definitely not winning that $100,000.

Extra Credit

* This week’s Quote of the Week comes from an unlikely source, but it was definitely the moment where the immersion broke for me and the show became too ridiculous. And I mean that in the best possible way.

“I can’t go back out there! This is the only life I know!” –Vicki, who has been an old West showgirl for less than a day.

* Other favorites from this week:

- “Math Club! I’m Asian. You guys Asian?” –Chang, trying to find common ground with his assailants

- “Surrender your guns, and your drugs.” –Starburns, being Starburns

- “Last week he did it to get out of letting me have a stick of gum.” –Abed, describing a recent fake heart attack from Pierce

- “Hey, Christina Ricci! I said kick!” –Annie, being punny with Fat Neil