There are many reasons to love Eureka, but massive plot twists aren't usually among them. Well, the end of last night's episode definitely qualified, as our heroes tried to figure out the dangerous secrets of virtual reality.
Major spoilers ahead!
While last week's episode restricted itself solely to the Astraeus crew's computer-simulated prison, "The Real Thing" brings us back to the real Eureka. After meeting the mildly unsavory fake versions of Carter, Henry, and Jo, it was a real relief to see them back as their normal, indomitable selves, willing to stop at nothing to bring their friends and loved ones home, even as Senator Wen (guest star Ming-Na) threatened to shut down the search for good. Their last chance is a beyond bleeding edge detector array designed by Allison's mega-genius son Kevin, but Carter and Deputy Andy will need to go steal a few things from the army for it to work. That, as you might imagine, presents some minor difficulties.
Meanwhile, the Astraeus crew is adjusting to their new lives in what they think is Eureka four years later. Beverly Barlowe's virtual reality program is almost perfect, but the unexpected addition of Allison to the program means the servers are overtaxed, and glitches are starting to pile up - not the least of which is a dragon flying around town. The real and fake townspeople must track down the dragon and get rid of it before the Astraeus crew works out something is wrong, which would force the Consortium to terminate them to protect its secrets.
I was a big fan of last week's episode, but I knew coming out of it that the follow-up would need to answer some key questions to keep this arc chugging on. Chief of these was making sure Beverly Barlowe and the Consortium's plot actually made any sense, which would pretty much be a first for this show. The show presents some nice explanations for just why the time-jump was necessary — it's an easy way to fill in for inevitable inconsistencies in the characters' actions — and why the crew was kidnapped in the first place — to invent amazing new technology for the Consortium. You can certainly quibble about some of the finer points of the plan, particularly whether these innovations will justify the sheer elaborateness of the virtual reality program, but it more than passes an initial inspection, so it's good enough for me.
The episode also pulled off a neat trick in subtly expanding the ideas seen in last week's AI police state. While the previous week showed all the humans, real and fake alike, banding together to take down Andy and S.A.R.A.H.'s repressive rule, here the threat of termination means that the Astraeus crew is constantly in danger whenever they are around the non-player characters, and worst of all they don't even realize it. It's a neat progression as the show expands the dangers of malevolent computer to the crew's entire reality. It makes for a nice sense of dread whenever the crew members start asking dangerous questions, particularly in the scenes between Grace and a suddenly intellectually incurious Henry.
Of course, that all builds up to the episode's big final twist, in which Felicia Day's Holly realizes the strange things she is seeing are glitches in a computer simulation, and she happily shares her latest amazing breakthrough with Carter. Colin Ferguson does some nice acting in this scene, his stony expression suggesting a mix of murderous determination and computer-simulated anguish at what he has to do. Telling Holly that he's so sorry she said all that, his touch renders her unconscious — all while Senator Wen fatally unplugs Holly from the computer program.
It's a brutal, well-executed moment, made all the more so because the episode doesn't really suggest up to that point that it's really going to kill anyone off. Sure, there's the talk of termination during the opening scene, and the fact that the show hasn't even bothered to show any Astraeus crew members this season beyond the main cast pretty much means that if someone is going to be killed off, it will be someone we know. And of those, there's no way the show was killing off Allison or Fargo, and killing off Grace would have been too brutal to Henry, considering he's already lost one wife to Beverly Barlowe's machinations. Zane would have just been in the realm of possibility, and would have been the even gutsier move. But really, if someone was going to die, Holly was the only logical choice.
Still, I didn't really think the show was going to do it, especially not in such a casual manner. Obviously, this isn't the first time Eureka has killed a major player — there was the death of Nathan Stark back in "I Do Over", and considering that's easily my favorite episode of the show, it's not something I'd easily forget. But everything about that death made sense — that entire episode had a vaguely funereal tone, Stark's death quite possibly saved the entire universe, it made for a lovely character moment between Stark, Carter, and Fargo, and it just generally functioned as a great heroic sendoff. (It also removed a character who was inextricably blocking the romance between Carter and Allison, so it wrote the show out of a bit of a corner.) Basically, if Eureka was ever going to kill off an important character, I expected plenty of advance notice and a nice big moment.
That's pretty much the exact opposite of what we get from Holly's death. Her demise isn't a heroic sacrifice — if anything, it works as a tragic byproduct of her complete inability to keep her bright ideas to herself, turning one of her silly quirks into something lethally serious. It's great in a completely different way from Stark's death, and it's tremendous evidence that the show is playing for keeps in its final season. Still, much as this is definitely the right narrative decision, I'll admit some sadness that we don't get a nice big sendoff for Felicia Day, who has done some great, charming work as Dr. Holly Marten and won me over after some initial uncertainty.
Honestly, after all that, there isn't quite so much to say about the real world plot, but it is nice to see "our" Carter back in action after a week away. This whole side of the episode underscores why it was so hard to buy into last week's supposed new reality — Carter simply doesn't ever, ever give up, and the belief he and the rest of the townspeople put in Kevin's detector is a great touching moment. It also makes for the comic highlight of the episode, which is Carter and Andy barely managing to complete their heist of army equipment.
It also allows Carter the chance to do some legitimate detective work, as he figures out that Senator Wen is the traitor that allowed the Astraeus to be hijacked. I'm not totally sure how I feel about that particular character revelation, honestly - there has always been something a little untrustworthy about Senator Wen, but I liked last season's suggestion that that was simply because, well, she's a politician. Still, I like that Carter got to work out the truth all by himself, and I'm excited - and more than a little trepidaticious - to see how the show handles all the fallout of this week's craziness in next Monday's episode.