We’ve previously praised Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet for its sharply satirical humor and its joltingly profound heartbreak. So, we shouldn’t be surprised that creators Charlie Day, Megan Ganz, and Rob McElhenney offered a brilliant dose of both in the Apple TV+ series’ special edition episode, which is all about life in quarantine.
When lockdowns shut down film and TV production across the country, Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet was partway through making their second season. McElhenney, creator/producer/star of the comedy series, tweeted that the show’s makers were working on a way to keep paychecks coming for cast and crew.
Mythic Quest Season 2 production will be shutting down at the end of the day. We are working on a plan to make sure no one misses a paycheck. These are strange times and we need to take care of each other. Hang in there Kitties! pic.twitter.com/9lfWx6UZM3— Rob McElhenney (@RMcElhenney) March 13, 2020
From this, Episode 10, “Quarantine” was born.
Much like the Parks and Recreation reunion special, this episode featured the familiar characters in various video-chat conference calls. There was a rush of joy in seeing some things never change. Producer David (David Hornsby) was desperately trying to wrangle creative director Ian (McElhenney) and head-engineer Poppy (Charlotte Nicdao), who turned each vid-call as a power struggle. Though distanced, game testers Dana (Imani Hakim) and Rachel (Ashly Burch) continued their fun and games and flirtation via video chat. Intern Jo (Jessie Ennis) was tasked with getting sci-fi writer C.W. (F. Murray Abraham) onboard with the required work-from-home apps, while David battled with stingy money-guy Brad (Danny Pudi) over a big charity donation. Plus, the harried-by-homeschooling HR rep, Carol (Naomi Ekperigin) begged Ian to stop sending “mandatory viewing” videos to his employees, while sneering manager Lou (Craig Mazin) plotted a group project that is both stupid and brilliant.
Amid all this, the ep’s writers (McElhenney, Ganz, and Hornsby) peppered in parodies of real-life lunacy. For instance, Ian’s tone-deaf music video of R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” seems to be inspired by the dean of NYU’s Tisch School Of The Arts, Allyson Green. When students demanded a partial reimbursement of their tuition once the campus shut down over COVID-19 concerns, Green inexplicably responded with a video of her dancing to R.E.M’s “Losing My Religion.”
McElhenney might also be spoofing the celebrity hubris behind the infamous “Imagine” video, where stars sang of hope while showing off how their wealth has given them plenty of space to trek about in during lockdown. (You know, instead of actually using the wealth to help people?) Other bits in the ep also seem inspired by social media, where braless-ness was embraced, DIY haircuts became all the rage for better or worse, and unexpected nudity during conference calls went viral. Or perhaps McElhenney’s flash of bare chest, then bare butt was a thirst trap, dropped with casual cheek worthy of Stanley Tucci, Tom Holland, and Oscar Isaac.
The Dean of Tisch sent this as an attachment to the email saying they won't give us our money back. Embarrassing. pic.twitter.com/Q63x5GqsJm— Anarcho-Whataboutist (@michale_price) March 23, 2020
There are also more homegrown moments. Jo’s struggles in teaching her older co-worker to Zoom reflects frustrations of teaching Boomer parents how to use such tech. Carol’s venting about how “they’ve changed math” will hit home to parents now forced to play teacher. And Ian’s thirst for attention even in lockdown might connect to the horde of quarantined extroverts who’ve taken to TikTok. It’s funny, because it’s true (and performed by a crackling cast with an excellent editing team). However, the most moving arc of the episode belongs to Poppy.
While others are playing, making videos, and parenting in lockdown, Poppy is working. She’s been noodling with a fix to the titular game’s programming for weeks on end, only stopping to eat and sleep. She’s become a mess, literally and figuratively, and it shows on the video chats. Her colleagues beg her to take a break, shower, and engage in self-care. Poppy ignores them like she ignores everything but the work.
This hit home for me.
I’m a person who thrives when I have a project to focus on. Work is not a chore in troubled times, it’s my salvation. It’s where things make sense. It’s where I have control. When I’m hammering away at my keyboard, I’m not thinking about the world outside of this particular project. I am safe from the big, scary thoughts of pandemic and all that entails. It’s a way to compartmentalize, and not necessarily a healthy one. Because once the project ends, the emotions—fear, anxiety, anger, sadness—can flood back in and overwhelm me, just as they do Poppy.
Over the course of Season 1, Nicdao has proved a stellar lead, bringing a manic determination to Poppy’s quest to make her game the best there ever was. She was funny in her extremes, but relatable in her passions and quirks. Still, “Quarantine” proves Nicdao’s strongest performance yet. In the scene where Poppy has finished her ambitious coding project, she first rejoices. She throws her hands up in exaltation, “I did it!” Then, comes the flood. She lives alone. There’s no one around to share in her celebration. Without the work, she feels alone like she hadn’t in weeks. It doesn’t feel like a choice, it feels like a cage. She’s not ok.
This leads to the downside of the video-chat craze. Sometimes, we don’t want to be seen. We’re not up to showing our lockdown realness, the rawness of feeling lost and sad. Thankfully for Poppy, she has a friend in Ian, who won’t allow her to hide. We can’t get through these feelings by ignoring them or compartmentalizing them. The only way out is through. Here’s where Ian’s stubbornness becomes a virtue. Masked up and socially distancing, he leaves the safety and solitude of his compound to seek out Poppy. He shows that he cares and that he sees her.
“I don’t think I’m doing very well,” Poppy admits over video-chat, turning her webcam on to reveal a dark apartment, where she sits in a tear-stained shirt. “It was okay when I still had work. But now that’s done and I don’t have anything else. All my family are thousands of miles away, and I don’t have any friends. I’m just alone.” Meanwhile, Ian has gone inside, somewhere. He tells her that’s not true. Sometimes how we feel isn’t the truth, even when it feels soul-crushingly real. Then, comes the knock on the door. Ian’s at her home. Mask up to keep safe, he’s there for her. There to hug her, and let her cry into his chest to tell her without snark or agenda, “I miss you.”
What’s perhaps most remarkable about this scene is how it’s shot. Like the whole of the ep, it’s on webcams and phone-cams. So, we don’t get the traditional coverage you might anticipate with such an emotional moment. There are no cozy close-ups, no medium two-shots that hug them in the same intimate frame. Ian’s camera is dropped to his side, becomes a blurry wash of doorframes and hallway. Her webcam has a view of them at the door, but it keeps us at a distance. This is how “Quarantine”s big emotional scene achieves intimacy, by creating the sense that it’s not for us to see. It’s for us to feel. It’s the catharsis so many of us crave right now, that hug from the one we miss but can’t visit. It hits so hard you might gasp, or weep, or feel it burn in your chest. And that’s OK. Because no matter how it feels right now, you are not alone in this.
“We’re all in this together” has become a bit of a tired catchphrase over the course of this pandemic. Companies use it to hawk their wares. Social media has turned it into a hashtag, a chastisement, a warning, and a trend. But the final sequence of “Quarantine” gives a joyous, ludicrous reminder of what it could mean.
With Lou’s belligerent prompting, Mythic Quest’s cast gets together to create an epic video-chat challenge. Inspired by Dana and Rachel’s chip passing, they attempt to create a Rube Goldberg machine that bounces from one panel to the next. There are books and balls and toilet paper rolls involved. But most importantly, it’s dependent on everyone working together. It’s a project that has no stakes, and yet feels incredibly important. Because it’s not about the chip delivery, it’s about the message behind the machine.
Together, we can do something great, if we put our minds to it and do our part. We can stop this pandemic. We can mend the psychological trauma it’s wreaking. We can be triumphant and still be us.
Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet is available on Apple TV+
Header Image Source: Apple TV+