It’s been 10 years since the Halliwells hung up their brooms, so I’m heading back to San Francisco to see if Charmed‘s special brand of supernatural entertainment still casts a spell…
Episode: 4.07 ‘Brain Drain’
Writer: Curtis Kheel
Director: John Behring
Every once in a while, Charmed pulled off something genuinely cool. There was the time Prue went undercover as a hitwoman (in season two’s ‘Ms Hellfire’), and that episode where they blew up the Manor (‘Kill Billie Vol. 2’). Top of the pile, though, is this scalpel-sharp season four entry, which flips the Charmed universe on its head as Piper is brainwashed into thinking she’s an inmate at a mental institute.
Well, it makes more sense than belonging to a family of witches, which is exactly why this episode works – as The Source kidnaps Piper, puts her into a coma and rewrites her life top to bottom, you totally understand why she starts to crumble and believe the lie. Her world has been nuts ever since she and her sisters first headed up to that dusty attic and found more than just spiders. In a nightmare of demons and ghosts, who can tell what’s real and what isn’t anymore anyway?
It helps that the Manor’s transformation from cosy antique repository to sterile hospital is so brilliantly realised. The show’s set dressers deserve serious kudos for completely renovating its central set, rendering it almost unrecognisable in the process. Sure, it makes little sense for a hospital to be located in an old manor house on a suburban street, but the transformation sells it, and it’s great fun discovering the Halliwells’ home all over again.
The same is true of the cast, who have a ball playing wacky variations on their now well-worn characters. In Piper’s coma world, Leo is recast as a sympathetic doctor (a nice nod to his past as a war medic), while Phoebe and Paige are no longer her sisters, but fellow patients. There’s a lovely moment where Piper’s told Prue isn’t dead but was merely discharged from hospital, and a brilliant gag involving Alt Phoebe’s childish Book Of Shadows.
It’s very much a case of ‘Piper, Interrupted’, and the emotional journey Holly Marie Combs takes Piper on here is powerful stuff. At first disbelieving and snarky, she’s slowly broken down by The Source, (posing as a doctor) until she’s willing to give up everything just to be free of pain. Any episode that puts Combs front and centre is guaranteed to exhaust your tear ducts, and this episode is no different.
In a season that struggled to reestablish order in the wake of Hurricane Doherty, ‘Brain Drain’ feels bigger than most Charmed episodes, and that’s partly because season four is where the show became more of an ensemble than ever before. We get Cole and Leo working together to get Piper back (Cole even gets himself caught to lead them to The Source), while Paige has just moved in and is learning the rules, which mostly include ‘demons can attack at any time’ and ‘don’t keep anything nice’.
Charmed was often unfairly dismissed as a silly show with magic, but episodes like ‘Brain Drain’ scream otherwise. Sure, there’s a boobtastic seer in a gold bikini, but this is a seriously grown-up 40 minutes of supernatural entertainment. That writer Curtis Kheel manages to stitch his script with so many clever ideas without it ever unravelling is impressive – between the demon fights and hospital drama, we also get an explanation of why we never see any of the girls’ friends (they’re too busy kicking demon butt) and gags about the doomed grandfather clock (“dammit, we just got that thing fixed!”).
If there’s one downside to this episode, it’s that it kicks off Piper’s obsession with having a demon-free life. While it makes sense here, especially in the wake of Prue’s death, that obsession became the writers’ go-to crutch whenever Piper needed to have an ‘issue’ to deal with. (And what a sour issue to have when you can flippin’ freeze time.) If that’s the worst thing we can say about ‘Brain Drain’, though, we’re obviously dealing with a pretty potent witch’s brew.