Community creator Dan Harmon knew doing another paintball episode would invite criticism and inevitable comparisons to Season 1's "Modern Warfare." And that's exactly why he did it.
"It was the thing we weren't supposed to do," Harmon tells TVGuide.com. "But I followed my usual instincts, to do the thing you're really not supposed to do, and tried as hard as I can to make it work. Because, although I fail plenty, the only time I succeed is when I'm doing that. When I try to do an impression of the way other people are supposed to do things, I usually fall on my face."
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And so far, the gamble has paid off. Part 1 of the finale offered a spot-on and hilarious take on spaghetti Westerns, as the Greendale study group battled against the mysterious Black Rider (guest star Josh Holloway). In Thursday's finale (8/7c, NBC), the Western motif gives way to another cultural touchstone during the paintball war's conclusion.
"There's a bit more of a Star Wars motif just because the Greendale finds themselves aligned against an outside force, a more powerful force than them," Harmon says. "While we were shooting the first part ... I thought this is very dark — it was literally dark — and very intense, and that might feel claustrophobic as a way of ending the season. So, we let it breathe a little bit in the second part. [We turned] the lights on, made it more epic than intense and turned the comedy up a notch."
Although there is an undeniable stunt quality about the episodes, Harmon is still telling an important character story. While Annie (Alison Brie), Jeff (Joel McHale) and the rest of the gang are dodging paintballs, the group is also warring against one of their own: Chevy Chase's Pierce. The payoff is a result of Harmon using Pierce as more of an antagonist throughout the season.
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"I've always felt that Chevy, in this stage of his career, he is a little less funny falling down a flight of stairs than he is standing his ground and having some tooth and some backbone," Harmon says. "In a series where we try very hard to make each individual episode stand alone as a three-act story, there's a heavy need for a darker figure, too, and that became very handy for the writers. The collective result of that was the audience, by my perception, starting to go, 'Oh, why is Pierce such a di--?' We really don't understand why the group would even hang out with this guy at all.'
So Harmon, who says he doesn't generally plan more than six episodes ahead, was able to allow the characters to address Pierce's place in the group moving forward as part of the finale. And while Pierce will no doubt be a part of the show in the future, don't expect an about-face.
"I've always thought of him as a chiefly unredemptive character," Harmon says, referencing the likes of Archie Bunker and Eric Cartman. "Redemption is when a character changes — turns around. But there is the possibility of taking an audience by the hand, walking them around the character in such a way that they start to see the always redeeming qualities of a character. That's what you can expect in the last episode with Pierce. I think he might take you by surprise a little bit, and yet the character won't change."
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Another thing the audience sadly won't see in the finale is more of Holloway. And unlike the Annie-Jeff kiss that ended Season 1, there won't be much of a cliff-hanger, Harmon says.
"Because I think enough people will be interested in watching Season 3, I didn't want the end of the season to hold people emotionally hostage," he says. "There is a loose end at the end of the finale that will create energy going into Season 3, but nothing that's like 'Tune in or you won't know if Jeff's hand gets cut off!'"
Harmon also plans to break his own rules in Season 3. "I think I'm going to do quite a bit of planning in advance because that's something I haven't done yet," he says with a laugh. "I think my compulsive spontaneity has always been a mark of insecurity and infancy. I've always wanted to have the excuse that I was just making it up as I go. I think that getting picked up for a third season is a mandate for maturity.
"Even though our ratings are upliftingly abysmal, I still think that the Season 3 pickup was an invitation to invest intellectually into this show," Harmon continues. "I don't want to disappoint any more of the more hyperactive savvy fans that love nothing more than the fact that the show is completely unpredictable. ... But at the same time, I've got to get my mom more comfortable with the show and that's going to be a huge challenge. Like doing a paintball sequel, I'm totally willing to fail at it, but I think it needs to be attempted."
Community's Season 2 finale airs Thursday at 8/7c on NBC.