Tuesday 21 May 2024

Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? (aka There's Gotta Be A Record of You Someplace)

Season 2 of The Simpsons was a proper roller-coaster of emotion. There are multiple episodes involving characters entering into the Simpsons' lives, forging some meaningful connection with one or more of the family and then having to painfully part ways by the story's end. Karl of "Simpson and Delilah" and Mr Bergstrom of "Lisa's Substitute" each compete for the most heartbreaking of these inevitable goodbyes (I would give the edge to Bergstrom, even if I'm otherwise a card-carrying Karl devotee). The gruesomest, most gut-churning goodbye, however - oh boy, that's no competition. The title goes to "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?" (episode 7F16), which first aired February 21st 1991. In this one, Abe suffers a mild heart attack and, rattled by his perceived brush with his own mortality, decides to share with Homer a family secret he's kept hidden from him all these years - he is not actually Abe's first child. Before he settled down with Mona, Abe had a one night stand with a hooker he encountered at a carnival, and their union was a fruitful one. Since neither parent wanted to take responsibility for the baby, they left him with the Shelbyville Orphanage, and to this day Abe has no idea what became of him. Homer is a lot more driven to uncover the answer, and eventually locates his half-brother living in Detroit, Michigan. He discovers that the man, one Herbert Powell (guest voice of Danny DeVito), has done extremely well for himself, and is now the wealthy CEO of a major automobile manufacturer, Powell Motors. Herb, though, has a very different perspective. As he sees it, Homer has the one thing he doesn't, which is a family, and that makes Homer by far the richer man. It sounds like such a sweet and wholesome scenario, but good lord is it headed for disaster.

Here's an observation I'm not sure I've seen anybody make about Herb, but which with hindsight strikes me as significant - he is, in many respects, a proto-Frank Grimes (see "Homer's Enemy" of Season 8). When you look at it, their backstories are eerily similar. Both of them were abandoned by their biological parents. Both of them are self-made men left battered and embittered by a system where everything seemed to be weighted against them but where others got a free ride through nepotism or sheer dumb luck (there is a lot of overlap between Herb's tirade during the Persephone pitch meeting and Frank's tirade on Homer's doorstep). Both their lives were thoroughly rocked on intersecting with Homer's - one of them was overwhelmed by his love for Homer, the other by his hate, but that made very little difference to how things worked out for them in practice; they both crashed and horrendously burned. Where they diverge is that Herb allowed himself to become blinkered to what Grimes could see only too clearly - that Homer was dangerous and not to be trusted. If Grimes' story was a tragic bearing out of the adage that a sane person to an insane society must appear insane, then Herb's is a cautionary tale on the pitfalls of not being able to tell the difference. His blunder was in mistaking the society he inhabited for an insane one, and Homer's intrusion as the overdue voice of reason, instead of the ticking time bomb it turns out to be. Truthfully, Herb is a much more cursed individual than was Grimes. Grimes at least had an easy enough time figuring out where he stood. He was an outlander in the Simpsons universe, ill-equipped to understand, much less survive its mind-boggling absurdities, and his suffering there was made mercifully brief.  The thing about Herb is that he actually does belong in Homer's world. He has Homer's face. He's a man begot by an insane world who had the tremendous fortune of being exiled and raised among the sane, but who always felt out of step there, as though he didn't fit in. "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?" sees the Simpsons heading to Detroit for an induction into Herb's lavish lifestyle, but it's really Herb who's coming home, gaining the long-awaited opportunity to reconnect with his roots and discover who he really is. Of course, he ultimately realises that he was better off not knowing, but by then it's too late. His hard-earned fortune and reputation are gone, and he's been cut down to Homer's miserable level. Lisa phrases it explicitly, for the benefit of anyone who wasn't paying attention: "His life was an unbridled success until he found out he was a Simpson."

"Homer's Enemy" is a considerably darker slab of Simpsons life than "Oh Brother Where Art Thou?", having caught the series at a meaner, more jaded point in its run. Herb and Grimes are each brutally destroyed by their fixations with Homer, but Grimes is the only one to whom this applies literally. Which doesn't negate just how unflinchingly bleak the ending of "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?" is. Frankly, it still has the power to deliver one heck of a searing gut-punch. As noted, endings that didn't shy away from exploring painful truths were not a rarity throughout Season 2. "Simpson and Delilah" ended with Homer losing his promotion along with his hair, because nobody would take the bald man seriously. "Bart Gets an F" had Bart putting his all into studying for a history exam and still flunking by one mark. Bergstrom abandoned Lisa for Capitol City at the end of "Lisa's Substitute", leaving her with the written reminder that she, much like Herb, would forever be a Simpson. "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?" goes a step further than them all, in offering no redemption, no light at the end of the tunnel. Herb disowns Homer completely, and the family are sent packing back to Springfield. Roll credits. There's a small moment at the very end where Bart says something to Homer that brightens the mood slightly, but it feels like deliberately meagre consolation compared to the absolute onslaught of bitterness that's preceded it. It must have left someone at Simpsons HQ with a guilty conscience, for they wasted little time in creating a sequel episode purposely designed to offset the sourness of this one. Rounding off the third season was "Brother, Can You Spare Two Dimes?", which saw Herb recover from his financial ruin and ultimately re-accept Homer as his brother. It's pretty clear, however, that things are never going to be the same between them. Herb has seen Homer for what he is, and there's no going back on that.

Simply put, I adore Herb Powell. I'd rank him alongside Jacques and Karl as one of those early presences who helped the fledgling world of the Simpsons feel immediately richer and more alive, but who was sadly forgotten as the series progressed (it still seems such an amazing fluke that Sideshow Bob didn't go the same way, but then I guess there was always a vacant spot for a recurring villain). One of the major things that made all of those characters stand out was that they were voiced with such flair and passion by their respective actors, and Herb was certainly no exception. Danny DeVito (like A. Brooks, he was a good buddy of series producer James L. Brooks) was the perfect choice to supply Herb's vocals. The obvious, predictable route would have been to have had Dan Castellaneta voice him, doing a slight variation on his Homer voice (a la all those random Simpson relatives in Season 9's "Lisa The Simpson"), to emphasise that the guy is effectively Homer from a parallel reality. Thankfully, they were able to think outside the box. Giving Herb a strong and distinctive voice, utterly apart from his brother's, really helped cement him as a character in his own right. It would have been so easy for him to have played as a gimmick character, or as a hollow plot contrivance; instead he feels like a fleshed out, legitimate part of the series' world-building. You could argue that DeVito was a more recognisable "celebrity voice" than other instances of early Simpsons guest casting, but he embodies the part so well, nailing all facets of Herb's personality - the warm, spunky side, the broken, vulnerable side and the aggressive, hectoring side. Because that's the other thing that makes Herb such an enduring character. The dude's got layers. Which side of his nature you get might depend on the angle you walked in from. He's really not that nice of a guy. He's prone to some pretty vicious mood swings and is brimming with contempt for anyone he considers beneath him (more so than Frank Grimes, honestly). And yet he is at all times sympathetic. You never lose sight of that little lost kid who's felt disconnected his entire life and is overwhelmed with joy on being reunited with the blood relations he erroneously believes are going to fill all his emotional holes. Being so in touch with his inner child, Herb bonds beautifully with the Simpsons children and wants nothing more than to give them the time of their lives. He's the kind of guy it might be fun to have as your actual uncle, but an absolute nightmare to have as your employer. 

"Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?" begins with Abe and Jasper watching the latest Rainier Wolfcastle flick at the Aztec Theater, and an argument with a young usher (a sort of evolutionary ancestor to the Squeaky-Voiced Teen, but with way too much pluck) about the tacked on romantic subplot triggers Abe's heart attack. The early McBain skits are always fascinating to watch because you can see the seeds in these things for what later became The Critic (Al Jean and Mike Reiss have no writing credits for this episode, but this one scene has their fingerprints all over it). At this point, there was also enough of a contrast between McBain's overblown fictitious world and what could reasonably happen within the Simpsons' reality (a barrier that would be all but obliterated in the space of two seasons). As timelessly hilarious as McBain's Hollywood bombast might be, I'd be curious to know just how frequently he shows up in the newer Simpsons episodes, because as a reference he seems almost as archaic now as the Happy Little Elves. Wolfcastle was most obviously conceived as a pastiche of Arnold Schwarzenegger, but he was spoofing a broad number of macho movie stars who were big at the time - Sylvester Stallone, Steven Seagal, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Bruce Willis, etc. The kind of action flicks those guys made are nowhere near as prolific now as they were at the dawn of the 1990s, with superhero movies having replaced them as the predominant Hollywood action model (and the Simpsons, thanks to Disney, having become shills for such things - there's no way Jay Sherman would break bread with these guys now [1]).

Abe has only a minor role in "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?", but this feels like his most revealing appearance thus far, and it doesn't reflect at all well on him. Even without any flashbacks detailing how he parented the young Homer, we get significant illumination on the kind of father he was, and the extent to which Homer may be the reflection of a psychologically abusive upbringing. Homer is moved to tears by his father's story, because he interprets it to mean that Abe must have wanted him, if he did not offload him as he did Herb. "Interesting theory," Abe murmurs. Later, when Abe is brought up to speed on the man Herb became, he discreetly mutters, "I kept the wrong one." It never occurs to Abe that he was fated to get stuck with the "wrong one" either way - if he had taken responsibility for his first born, then it's doubtful Herb would have ascended as far in life as he did. A rearing by Abe would unquestionably have hurt Herb, and yet it might actually have helped Homer. The presence of a third individual would have altered the dynamics of their household and made him less of an obvious target for Abe's bullying. Then again, based on what we're shown in this episode, if Abe had kept Herb, there's every chance that things might not have worked out between him and Homer's mother. "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?" takes massive strides in exploring how dynamics worked on Homer's side of the family, establishing not only the existence of Herb but also what a womanizing sleaze Abe apparently was in his "youth" (he doesn't actually look that young in the flashback sequence) and giving us our first glimpse of the elusive Mona Simpson. Here, she's voiced by Maggie Roswell, and seems as eager to sweep Herb under the rug as Abe, making him promise never to tell Homer of his illegitimate brother (something Abe only remembers once he's already told Homer the full story). This feels at odds with how Mona was later characterised in "Mother Simpson" - the Mona voiced by Glenn Close was a conspicuously more liberal woman, and I suspect she'd more likely have encouraged the relationship than outright denied it. But then having to retroactively factor in the developments of "Mother Simpson" inevitably casts an awkward light on the entire set-up of "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?", since we're told there that Abe has concealed not just one but two major familial secrets from Homer. If he really believes he's on his deathbed, then when was he planning to drop the even bigger bombshell that Homer's mother has been alive this whole time? It's a dubious business, allowing your perception of an episode to be coloured by narrative events that blatantly hadn't crossed the writers' minds when first it aired (I'm going to fess up to a time when I did exactly that toward the end of this review), but it bears saying nonetheless. Whichever way you slice it, the Simpson line is a flagrantly chaotic one. Say what you will about the Bouviers, but they've clearly got a better sense of unity.

The nicest thing you can say about Abe, as portrayed in "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?" is that he has presumably felt some remorse for his abandonment of Herb, if it's a weight he's compelled to get off his shoulders. But that's as far as his interest in absolving his guilt goes. His desire to meet with Herb is ignited only on learning how rich and successful he's become. When he gets there too late and discovers that Herb has already vacated, having lost his vast fortune thanks to Homer's idiocy, he doesn't even care to hear what happened. Of course, given that Herb has such a temper problem, and that Abe had already wronged him, you have to wonder if he'd have been as willing to roll out the welcome mat for his old man as he was for Homer. Alas, the prospective relationship between Abe and Herb will have to remain uncharted - they don't get to meet in the sequel either, not even with Herb living with the Simpsons for what must be a fairly substantial length of time. Apparently it just never crosses anyone's minds.

As Herb puts it, he's just a lonely guy, a statement that touches on three different nerves at once - his prioritisation of his career over starting a family, his having known nothing of his roots until now, and his having led a misplaced existence as a successful Simpson in the "real" world (ie: far from the cursed confines of Springfield). When he first meets the Simpsons, there's a sense of him understanding cars better than he does people (on grabbing hold of Maggie, he takes a sniff of her and comments on the "new baby smell"). Although I do have this one major question regarding Herb's loneliness - what are we to assume happened between him and his adopted family? Mr and Mrs Powell may not have been his biological parents, but they did take him in and raise him as their own, so does he feel no sense of kinship with them at all? Nominally, he continues to identify with them, but they're otherwise out of the picture - Herb's sole reference to this adopted parents is in indicating that they didn't pay for his Harvard education. Jeff Martin's script never establishes what, if any, relationship they still have, nor does it attempt to explore how Herb's feelings of belonging and identification as a Powell might impact his relating to the Simpsons, and vice versa. From a narrative perspective, that's fair enough - this is meant to be focussed on the Simpsons' perspective, and bringing the Powells in might have made the arrangement more complicated than we perhaps have time for in 22 minutes. It is, however, a question that becomes even more pressing with "Brother, Can You Spare Two Dimes?", when we rejoin Herb to find him sleeping on the streets, and it's pretty danged harrowing to think that no one in his adopted family stepped in to prevent this. Are his adopted parents dead? Did they have some kind of cataclysmic falling out? There is, presumably, a story to be had there that's as emotionally devastating as anything we see at the end of "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?"

The obvious answer is that Herb's adopted family don't actually exist, because nobody in the writers' room cared to give him one - the unseen Mr and Mrs Powell were a plot device to get him well away from the Simpsons, after which their purpose was served. We did, however, get a glimpse of them in the tie-in book The Simpsons Uncensored Family Album, published in 1991. At the front of the book is a family tree detailing the Simpsons' genealogy (with one for the Bouviers at the back), in which the Powells are included. Ordinarily, I would be heavily guarded against the idea of treating material introduced exclusively in these tie-in books as canon - the same book also indicates that Mr Burns is a distant relation of the Simpsons clan, and I'd be very surprised if that was ever supported in the series proper. But since there's currently nothing in the series to contradict the details of Herb's adoption, and it is all we have to go on, in this particular instance I don't see the harm. According to the Uncensored Family Album, Herb's adoptive parents were named Edward and Mililani, and they had three biological daughters, Coco, Wanda and Carla. If we read between the lines, we might conclude that the Powells adopted Herb because they had all those daughters and wanted a son. All the same, having to factor so many sisters into Herb's backstory makes it all the more depressing, since it adds to the tally of relationships in his life that have potentially broken down. I'm guessing Herb doesn't have much contact with his sisters either - not only is he seemingly unable to turn to them after the events of "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?", it's evident in the episode itself that Herb has never experienced being an uncle before and that having this relationship is novel and exciting to him. It's not a given, I know, but with that many sisters you'd think that at least one of them might have had kids of her own by now? The series is unlikely ever to touch on this stuff, so I guess it's over to you fanfic writers to decide.

(You'll notice that Mona Simpson's name is here given as Penelope Olsen - which actually was one of the aliases she used in "Mother Simpson", so we can't entirely discount this thing. Not sure how we're to account for Jackie Bouvier's name being given as Ingrid, though - outside of the obvious explanation that the series and book writers were each just making shit up as they went along.)

The Powells aren't the only family who've got a patently fascinating backstory that's casually brushed aside. "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?" also sees the introduction of a running gag regarding Dr Hibbert and his multiple long-lost siblings, as Homer receives tip-offs from a man who is conspicuously Hibbert's twin, separated at birth. Actually, I'm not sure this went far enough to be considered a "running gag", but I find it hard to believe that the writers didn't have this episode in mind when they later insinuated that Hibbert and Bleeding Gums Murphy were also unwitting brothers, in "Round Springfield" of Season 6. (It's a callback that makes Murphy's solitary passing all the more tragic, since you're aware that he's actually got two brothers, and neither knows that their sibling is dead.)

The other major question regarding Herb concerns the extent to which he brings his ruination on himself. He hits on the idea of having Homer design a car for the average consumer, having noted how drastically Homer's expectations diverge from the company's assumptions, then takes zero interest in how the project is shaping up, failing to so much as look at the prototype until the fateful public unveiling. We can see the impending disaster from a mile away, with every one of Homer's increasingly dreadful demands taking us a step closer to the absolute car wreck (in more ways than one) gearing up to happen. Still, Herb remains too intrinsically sympathetic a character for us to enjoy seeing him get what's all but inevitable. His downfall is again threefold, a perfect storm brewing from his misplaced faith in his brother, his total disdain for his workforce, and how much he's relishing getting to spend time with his nieces and nephew. He fails to keep an eye on what Homer's up to because he'd rather be hanging out at the zoo, bribing the staff to let the kids go into the exhibits and get dangerously close to the penguins. (In the meantime, Marge doesn't have a lot to do, although the script incorporates one of my all-time favourite Marge-isms, when Herb asks for a little background information on herself. She states that she and Homer were married and had three children, then admits upfront that she's already told him everything worth knowing.) He also doesn't care to listen to his employees' misgivings, having already decided that it's himself and his brother against a world that makes little sense. His contempt for his underlings is so off the charts that in one scene he flaunts it by coercing one into saying the exact opposite of what he thinks of Homer, on speaker phone so that Bart and Lisa can hear, giving them a false impression of their father's prowess and fortifying his own drunken sensation of at long last cutting through the bullshit he's had to deal with every day of his pre-Homer existence. He gleefully ignores all the warning signs, including the implicit warnings in Marge's repeatedly-voiced concern about the likelihood of spoiling the children. Herb is intent on ruthlessly indulging his inner child, giving Homer leeway to do exactly the same. The car that emerges is a brutal wake-up call that what they both needed to do was grow the hell up.

It seems significant that the grotesque set of wheels Homer conceives would also bear his name, since the car is a manifestation of everything warped and preposterous about his id. It lays horrifically bare to Herb not merely what kind of man he's invited into his life, and into his business, but what kind of man he's been all along. He's thrown his lot in with both Homers, and now he's going down with them. Powell Motors is bankrupted by the project, and Herb is swiftly exiled from his luxurious home. It's in the episode's tart resolution that The Simpsons was able to reaffirm why it was such a refreshing alternative to the other sitcoms of its era. In a more conventional sitcom, a car as cartoonishly abominable as the Homer would never have come to fruition, period. But in the penultimate scene, when Homer suggests that maybe it would have been better if he'd never come to Herb, a conventional series would have likely indulged the response Homer is blatantly reaching for - that Herb is happier just for knowing who his family is, and that the money, house and business he's lost were never that important by comparison. Instead, Homer finds himself on the receiving end of one of Herb's tirades - he tells Homer that of course he would have been better off if he'd never come into his life, and that as far as he's concerned he has no brother. Is this perhaps a mite unfair of Herb, given that he surely has to take some responsibility for giving Homer full reign over his castle in the first place? Yeah, but you have to keep in mind that for Herb, Homer is an extension of himself - the man he could have been, and the man he could still become. He now sees this is no good thing, and is determined to put as much distance between himself and his twisted reflection as possible. And he's not the only one. Homer is denounced twice over, when Abe shows up in a taxi, eager to meet his millionaire first-born, only to find that the ship has already sailed and submerged. Homer offers Abe a ride home, promising to fill him in on the sorry details along the way, but Abe isn't even prepared to share a journey with the son he views as an eternal screw-up, getting back into the taxi and finding his own way out of the situation. As the family leave Michigan, Homer gets a morsel of consolation from Bart, who assures his father that he thought the car was cool. Homer's father and brother might each see him as a reflection of the very worst of themselves and project their self-loathing onto him, but there is a thread of hope in that Bart can look to his father's vision and see something in it that was sincere, spontaneous and fun (although Bart possibly wasn't aware what kinds of unpleasant features Homer was wanting installed to keep his kids under control [2]). It's a meagre alleviation, but we can see how it means the world to Homer. For as cursed and chaotic as his lineage may be, we see a little bit of that Simpsons solidarity come through, at least among our central unit.

It's here that I do have to backtrack on something I said a few years ago, in my review of "Old Money". Having that episode follow on so soon after "Oh Brother" still doesn't sit well with me, because Herb and his having lost everything is going to be fresh on our minds as we watch Abe potter over his newfound fortune and which needy soul he should be helping. But to be totally fair, it's actually not clear from the ending of "Oh Brother" that Herb is headed for quite the level of destitution we find him in in "Brother, Can You Spare Two Dimes?" For all we know, he's going back to the Powells, or to stay with a contact he's made in the automobile industry. His becoming a down-and-out was an invention purely of the sequel, along with the specific details of his eating cheese out of discarded pizza boxes and using rats for pillows, and that was still a year and a half away. The intended implication of Martin's script was, I suspect, that Homer had brought Herb down to his own level; the sequel was written by John Swartzwelder, who according to the DVD commentary has this thing about derelicts, so no surprise that's where he'd stick Herb. There's ambiguity as to whether "Old Money" was consciously written to follow on from "Oh Brother", with the knowledge that Abe has two sons (he tells Bea he has one, but later makes reference to his having had multiple children) - either way, I think I'm justified in having Herb in mind as I watch it, but I'll concede that I shouldn't let my perception of the story be so heavily coloured by an episode that didn't even exist when it aired. Most of my feelings on "Old Money" still stand, but I'll retract the all-caps rant at the end of that write-up.

As for Herb, he is fundamentally a survivor, and there'll be more to say about him when I cover "Brother, Can You Spare Two Dimes?" He's also fundamentally a misfit, in that his genetics and his upbringing will forever be at odds. At the end of "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?", when he's kicked out of his Detroit-based empire, he knows that his real place is with the Simpsons, and that the logical thing to do would be to return to Springfield with them and pick up the life that was once ordained for him. At the same time, he was raised among normal society, and he is too much of a normie to be capable of assimilating into their world - he angrily rejects his kinship with the Simpsons and boards a bus that will take him far away from them, even if that means resigning himself to a life of perpetual solitude. In the end, his story might be less comparable to Frank Grimes' than to that of another character introduced in Season 8 - Hugo, Bart's Treehouse of Horror-exclusive long-lost twin brother. Dr Hibbert (who always seems to find his way into stories of this nature) described Hugo as being "too crazy for boy town, too much of a boy for crazy town - the child was an outcast." That about sums up Herb.


[1] I'm not sure if I'll ever go in-depth into my feelings on those Simpsons shorts made under Disney to promote their streaming library, but know that they are much the same as Frank Oz's on Disney's handling of The Muppets: "They're cute...I love cute things like little bunny rabbits, but I don't like pejorative cute."

[2] If I remember correctly, wasn't there a similar joke in the 1992 movie Stay Tuned? We actually got to see some of those features in action.

Thursday 16 May 2024

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (aka This Earth That You Walk Upon)

A revealing moment during the opening sequence of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (2023) occurs when the title character steps out of his house and onto the pathway outside. Harold's emergence from the porch shadows and his entry into the sunlight is framed in such a way to suggest that this is a momentous occasion, and that Harold has not felt the sun on him for some time. Harold has presumably stepped out of his house every day up until now, but this is the first time in a while that the act has apparently meant something to him, that he's felt any kind of leeway to participate in the world existing beyond his front door. The title shot, which shows Harold walking away from the walls that previously confined him, paints him as a metaphorical ex-con re-entering a society that has long passed him by. This is more-or-less what is happening with Harold, but that his imprisonment has been self-imposed.

Directed by Hettie Mcdonald and based on the 2012 novel by Rachel Joyce, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry tells the story of a sixtysomething man who goes out one day to post a letter, then takes rather a protracted detour before making it back home. If the premise of the film ever comes off as a little too self-consciously whimsical (like the title), it is always grounded by strong central performances, spectacular scenery and an emotional footing that proves surprisingly enduring.

Harold (Jim Broadbent, on typically brilliant form) is a retired brewery worker living in Kingsbridge, Devon with his wife Maureen (Penelope Wilton, also brilliant). The two of them have an austere relationship. They do not talk openly, and Maureen keeps the house spotless in a regime seemingly geared toward keeping their world free of emotional residue. One morning, Harold receives a letter from an old work colleague named Queenie (Linda Bassett). He and Queenie parted ways some years ago, but it is immediately evident that she has not strayed far from Harold's mind in the interim. "Who?" Maureen asks, with a barely suppressed bristle that conveys Queenie has never strayed far from her mind either, and that by acknowledging the letter Harold risks broaching forbidden subject matter between them. When Harold shares with her the difficult news, that Queenie is declining from cancer in a hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed, Northumberland, and has written to say goodbye, Maureen's response - "It's a nice day; why don't you get out the patio chairs?" - appears more designed to paper over the ramifications than to offer consolation.

Harold tries to pen a response to Queenie, but the right words aren't coming (Maureen's suggestion that he say what he means rings especially hollow, given that she herself is clearly incapable of doing so). He sets out to post his perfunctory attempt at a farewell, but each time he reaches a post box he cannot bring himself to let the letter go. Doing so would be tantamount to letting Queenie go, to surrendering to the cruelties of fate before returning to his stilted life with Maureen to wait for the inevitable day when it will call for him too. Instead, he keeps walking until he reaches a garage, where a conversation with a young tattooed girl (Nina Singh) working the cash register puts the idea into his head that there is another option. She tells him not to lose hope, stating that her aunt is a cancer survivor, an outcome she attributes not to medicine but to her personal belief that her aunt would recover so long as she never gave up on her. Harold leaves the garage, having finally figured out what he needs to say to Queenie. He writes "Wait for me" on the back of the envelope and lets it go. He has given her, and himself, some reassurance that this is not the end, but a whole new chapter in a story that must be continued. She has something to live for, and so does he. He does not return home to Maureen but instead goes on walking north, insisting that so long as he persists, Queenie will not die. Of course, if you know your UK geography, you'll know that Devon and Northumberland are at entirely opposite ends of England. That's a heck of a long way to travel by foot, particularly for a man with feet as aching and prone to blistering as Harold. It's a patently reckless decision, but the universe gives him immediate confirmation that it is the right one - one of the first spectacles Harold passes on his epic journey is a couple loading up a caravan on their front lawn, arguing about the fact that they never get anywhere because they always need to pack more luggage.

If Harold were to return home, even to gather the smallest of things, he would naturally talk himself out of going altogether. It's now or never, and he can only take whatever he has on him. Among the items he is forced to go without is his mobile phone, which he'd left on the kitchen table. This is consistent with what we already know about Harold as a man who doesn't gel with modern technology; Maureen had asked him earlier why he couldn't contact Queenie by email like everyone else. As Harold progresses further along the English landscape, he grows increasingly detached from the comforts of modern living. In the early stages of his journey, he behaves like any regular tourist, visiting the cathedral at Exeter and buying souvenirs. He goes from leading the life of a conventional traveller and sleeping in B&Bs to the life of a vagabond, sleeping in barns and unoccupied buildings. Eventually, he grows comfortable living off the land itself, sleeping in the wilderness, foraging for berries and washing himself in streams. Harold's journey is in many respects a rejection of technology - he insists on doing all of his travelling by foot, resisting offers from strangers of a ride, and in an increasingly online world his urge to meet with Queenie face to face could be read as a throwback to a simpler time when communication was less instantaneous but perhaps more intimate and personal (even snail mail is too impersonal for Harold). He later jettisons his wristwatch, his credit cards and his driver's license, sending them back home in a package to Maureen; he has learned to survive without money, out of time and with no tangible reminders of who he is. The interludes with Harold rambling through green hills and forests, accompanied by Sam Lee's folk tunes, suggest a reconnection with an ancient England that also exists out of time but is overshadowed by the omnipresence of modern civilisation - wherever Harold roams he is never far from another town, motorway or power station. Interspersed amid these sequences are shots of Maureen waiting in her comparatively drab domestic space, a reminder of how Harold's endeavours to disconnect himself have left her every bit as cut off. From her parallel narrative, Maureen sees a different meaning to his actions. For her, Harold's abandonment of his phone is a move that disempowers her, removing her ability to contact him and leaving her waiting on whenever he next deigns to call her from a telephone box. His rejection of his driver ID is an effort to cast off emblems of the life he has lived up until now, dumping the remains at her feet. Maureen does not express emotion easily, but is obviously distraught at Harold's desertion. She confides in her neighbour Rex (Joseph Mydell) that she had long contemplated leaving Harold but had never quite summoned the gumption to do so. Now Harold seems to have beaten her to the punch.

The word "Pilgrimage" in the title brings obvious connotations of religious devotion, yet Harold establishes upfront that he is in no way a religious man; his assertion that Queenie will not die if he keeps on walking is not based on any notion of his having made a divine bargain. The unlikeliest thing about Harold's pilgrimage, from the outset, is that he would accept at face value the garage girl's claims that she was able to cure her aunt's cancer by simply believing that she could. He seems a little down-to-earth for such thinking, and a whole lot too worn down by life. What she has given Harold, unknowingly, is the permission to take a step out of the personal inertia he's been mired in for years, and to make massive strides forward, with the hope of reaching something else. He is in effect able to put the onus on her for his uncharacteristic display of heedlessness. Toward the end of the film, when Harold chooses to write the girl a letter in which he bears his soul to her, in spite of not even knowing her name, there is a possible element of passive-aggressiveness in the action. His conviction that she, more than any of the people he's met, deserves the full story, betrays a latent desire to have her take responsibility by forcing her to understand the extent of the traumas she has prompted him to confront. For though Harold travels light, he has clearly brought a staggering amount of emotional baggage with him; unlike his material belongings, these cannot be so easily shed, and he intermittently collapses under the weight of it all. A particularly bitter source of tension between Harold and Maureen concerns the absence of their son David (Earl Cave), whom flashbacks indicate was a bright and promising young lad who became depressed and hooked on drugs after things didn't work out for him at Cambridge University. Wherever Harold goes he is perpetually haunted by the spectre of David, who seems to linger on various street corners. Lest Unlikely Pilgrimage ever play too much like a wistful nostalgia trip for a time when people weren't so damn obsessed with their tablets and their phones, the sombre figure of David offers a persistent reminder of the responsibilities older generations have to those who follow, and a cautionary tale about disengaging from the challenges they face.

Word of Harold's journey spreads over time, attracting media attention and causing Harold to become something of a folk hero among the masses. Before he knows it, there's an entire band of devotees who wish to literally follow in his footsteps and participate in his so-called pilgrimage, convinced that Harold's quixotic endeavours will reveal the path to their own enlightenment. We find here obvious echoes of the interlude in Forrest Gump (1994) where the title character embarks on an unlikely jog across America, purportedly with no greater motivation than feeling the irrepressible itch to keep running (in Gump's case, it is transparently a grandiose reaction to his love interest walking out on him for the umpteenth time). But whereas Gump was fundamentally indifferent to the legions who chose to follow him - he neither objected to their presence, nor had any qualms about leaving them without leadership or direction when his interest in running eventually petered out - Harold is much more attuned to the implications of having so many people behind him, erroneously believing he has the answer to whatever baggage they've brought along with them. He can't help but view the arrangement as somewhat parasitic - none of these people actually know Queenie, nor do they understand the nature of his prior dealings with her, or the deeper significance of what compels him ever onward. Overall, I find Harold's journey to be less evocative of Gump's than that of Alvin Straight, in David Lynch's The Straight Story (1999), who crosses the state of Iowa on the back of a lawnmower to reunite with his estranged and ailing brother. The initial reasoning behind his unconventional mode of travel is that he does not have a driver's license and there is no public transportation that would cover his full route. But Straight (much like Harold) also declines a stranger's offer to drive him the rest of the way, for reasons that have become apparent by the film's end - the punishing impracticalities of his journey were all very necessary in order to reach his brother emotionally as well as physically. A similar principle guides Harold. Like Straight, he is an older man having to compensate for a lifetime's worth of regrets by doing something monumental now. If he wishes to achieve what he's set out to do, then there can be no shortcuts or compromises. Every step he takes on his blistered and bloodied feet represents an attempt to confront the grief he has long suppressed for the absent David - scenes where the pain overwhelms him are accompanied by flashbacks detailing his struggles in seeing eye-to-eye with his wayward son. Like Alvin, Harold has taken a deliberately hard road in order to reconnect emotionally as well as physically. But there is a twist in Harold's case. Although he obviously wants to see Queenie, she is not the character he is actually looking to reach.

Macdonald's film is a thoroughly faithful adaptation of Joyce's story (not surprisingly, given that Joyce herself wrote the screenplay). The most radical departure is the near-total excision of the character Rich Lion (king and queen themed names seem to be a running gag in Joyce's story), a relatively minor figure who was nevertheless notable for being the closest thing Harold encounters to a villain on his travels. He was an aspiring pilgrim who chose to follow Harold, but quickly moved to co-opt the journey for his own egotistical means, eventually convincing the other travellers that Harold himself was dead weight and should be left behind. A small vestige of the character survives in Macdonald's film, in a bit part played by Paul Thornley and credited as Rich The T-Shirt Pilgrim - his most insidious act here is to attain a shipment of tacky t-shirts for Harold's followers to wear as outward advertisements of their devotion. Minus its most nefarious character, Mcdonald's film could be perceived as an all-round much gentler tale about the inherent goodness of people, one that genuinely believes the assertion, made by Maureen of all people, that "on the whole, people are kind". Although he spends much his travels avoiding getting bogged down with further connections, Harold remains fundamentally dependent on the generosity of strangers, often strangers who are out of view - he grows accustomed to collecting free produce and the occasional useful item left out on people's driveways. Perhaps the actual most unlikely thing about Harold's pilgrimage is that he never encounters anyone inclined to try mugging him, or more conveniently still, anyone inclined to challenge him for trespassing on private land (there are times when Harold appears to be traversing a version of England that's almost comically mythical in its openness, devoid of insurmountable fences or barriers). The most hostile response he ever gets is from a cafe manager who threatens to call the police on him for perceived begging. Mostly, his interactions with other people (as with the garage girl, he seldom stops for long enough to learn their names) reveal just how broken and vulnerable everybody is, even those of us who don't outwardly suggest it. At Exeter, a seemingly nondescript businessman (Nick Sampson) opens up to him about his kinky private life, and the dilemma that it's prompted. He tells Harold of his weekly rendezvous with a young immigrant man, which he keeps a secret from everyone who knows him. They do things together, some of which entails him licking the shoes of the young man. The question he needs guidance on concerns whether or not it would be proper etiquette to buy his companion a new pair of shoes - he has been troubled by the realisation that there is a hole in one, and while he hates the possibility of offending his companion, he's just as pained by the idea of him experiencing discomfort when he walks. Harold, who can certainly relate to the hardship of moving with inadequate footwear, advises him to buy the shoes. A little further on up the road, he meets Martina (Monika Gossman), a Slovakian woman who is a qualified doctor but unable to find any work in the UK besides cleaning (her medical finesse comes in handy when she is required to tend to Harold's feet). A year ago, Martina's partner left her for another woman; she has not heard from him since but goes about each day as if it will be the one on which he suddenly returns.

In one instance Harold encounters a soul so damaged that it threatens to derail his entire mission, by emphasising how feeble and limited he is in the face of such overwhelming despair. The first of the wannabe pilgrims to seek him out is a youngster named Wilf (Daniel Frogson), who claims to have received divine instruction to travel with Harold. He talks very openly about the love of God, something that should put him at odds with the quietly atheistic Harold, but Harold tolerates Wilf because he sees so much of David in him. Like David, Wilf is a drug addict, and is estranged from his parents - he has transparently turned to religion with the intention of purging himself of his many demons but has not been successful, and is now looking for a new avenue of salvation through Harold. Harold knows he has a grim track record when it comes to helping young people battling addiction, but sees Wilf as an opportunity to atone for his failings with David. He allows Wilf to accompany him and they form a bond that is, sadly, not fated to last. Wilf is out of his depth in the wilderness. The idea of hearing sheep without being able to see them is frightening enough to him. He also ends up being the character to cut Harold down to earth in the bluntest of ways. In one scene Harold catches Wilf attempting to steal the glittery hanging ornament he'd purchased at Exeter Cathedral and had earmarked as a present for Queenie. Wilf's knee-jerk defence is to remind Harold that "It's just a piece of glass." It coincides with the upsetting discovery that Wilf is still using drugs; his words are a sharp reminder to Harold of the futility of what he is doing. However grand his gesture and however noble his intentions, he will not save Queenie simply by walking to her, much as he will not cure Wilf of his substance addictions. Wilf himself has grown all-too aware that Harold is not the Messiah he is seeking; Harold awakens the following morning to find that his surrogate son has opted out of the pilgrimage and vanished without a trace.

For all the cold realities underpinning Harold's story, there are times when a genuine enigmatism suggests itself. Only when Wilf joins him does Harold become aware that a dog is also mysteriously following him, and he and Wilf adopt it as a mutual pet. We might connect the dog to Harold's earlier remark that David had always wanted a dog, and how he sees his failure to get him one as indicative of his broader shortcomings as a parent. The appearance of the dog seems to reinforce the idea that Harold has, in Wilf, some hope of vicariously restoring his relationship with David. Even when Wilf disappears, Harold retains his attachment to the dog, taking it with him when he gives the remaining pilgrims the slip. The dog, though, is uninterested in accompanying Harold much further, deserting him at a bus station and forming an alliance with another traveller, a lonely young woman who presumably has a harrowing tale of her own. It seems that Harold has been mixing with the British equivalent of the Littlest Hobo, an outcome he'd anticipated in his caution against ever naming the dog (the idea of dog names as extensions of their owners' identities is another running theme of Joyce's story - an interlude from the book that does not make it into the film is Harold's encounter with a popular actor who admits to being weary of hearing from fans who've named their dog after him). The dog's fickle attentions confirm to Harold that his story is really no more unique or extraordinary than that of any other lost soul wandering the earth; the dog seems to attach itself to such individuals, and with so many out there for it to find, its wanderlust could potentially go on forever.

(Third act spoilers now follow.)

The joint departure of Wilf and the dog serves to drive home Harold's separation from David, prompting him to relive the most terrible trauma of all - the day he arrived home to find that David had hanged himself. We discover, through the letter he writes to the garage girl, how Queenie fits into the picture. Contra the narrative the world has projected onto his actions, he is not walking to Queenie because he is in love with her, but because he is indebted to her for his past mistakes. In the aftermath of David's death, he and Maureen fought constantly. Harold turned to alcohol to ease his pain and at his lowest ebb caused significant damage at the brewery, for which Queenie voluntarily took the blame and lost her job. Unbeknownst to Harold, his debt was forgiven long ago - it is revealed that,before Queenie left Devon, she'd met with Maureen and asked her to pass on the message that she had no hard feelings about what had happened. Maureen withheld Queenie's message out of spite, since she did not like the idea of Harold finding relief when she had none. Still, we suspect that this knowledge would not actually have prevented Harold from setting out for Berwick-upon-Tweed. What bothers him most about the tragedies life has thrown at him is how they were rooted in his own inaction. He allowed David's deterioration to happen by doing little to understand him, much as he allowed Queenie to face the consequences for his self-destructive fury. Walking may be a futile action in the face of what he's up against, but it is an action nevertheless, and the only thing Harold feels it's in his power to do.

Harold's story can be interpreted as a parable for how one is expected to navigate through life in general, when death is inevitable and grief is so omnipresent. Harold insists that it the process as easy as putting one foot in front of the other, but even that proves immensely difficult for much of the time. Everyone he meets has their own coping mechanism for dealing with their particular hardships. The businessman puts on a facade for six days a week, but on Thursdays finds an outlet through his clandestine affections for the young man whose trainers he licks. Martina has chosen to keep things exactly as they were when her partner left; even if it will not bring her partner back, it allows her to maintain a connection to him. In another instance of ambiguous dog ownership, she tells Harold that the dog living on her premises is her partner's dog and not her own; by projecting his ongoing ownership onto the dog he has abandoned along with her, she retains some sense of ownership over him. The garage girl reveals to Maureen that the story she told Harold wasn't true - in actuality, her aunt died, and there was nothing she or anyone could do to save her. Why she told Harold otherwise is not made explicit. Did she want to give him some thread of hope, however misguided, or was she telling Harold things as she wishes they could have been, as a means of dealing with her own grief? Wilf and the other aspiring pilgrims rally around a common cause in Harold, seeing him as some sort of beacon in the darkness when he's actually as scared and as helpless as they are. It goes without saying that his walking does not actually heal Queenie. When he finally arrives at Berwick-upon-Tweed, he enters the hospice to find Queenie unresponsive. His only recourse is to leave the souvenir he brought at Exeter hanging by her window and go his own way once more.

But then it was never Queenie he'd set out to save. The real purpose of Harold's pilgrimage was previously hinted at during a conversation with a man outside a pub (Maanuv Thiara) with whom he'd shared a packet of crisps. He'd asked if Harold was in love with Queenie and was told "No, I'm love with my wife." He has, the whole time, been trying to find his way back to Maureen, in spite of the obvious contradiction that he's spent the duration of the picture moving further away from her. Harold and Maureen have somehow managed to share the same living space for the twenty-five years following David's death, but have been further apart than the emotional equivalent of 600 miles. Harold takes such monumental steps out of his situation not simply to prove himself to Maureen, but to awaken Maureen from her inertia and to guide her through the healing process along with him. Maureen stays in Kingsbridge for most of the narrative and follows Harold's progress from afar; it is nevertheless clear that she is going through her own more subtle but no less transformative journey, in gradually coming to terms with what her husband is doing. During the height of public interest in Harold's story, he even drives out to his current location to meet him, but declines his invitation that she literally accompany him for the remainder of his journey (Harold does not extend so open an invitation to anybody else). She insists that "I do need my things", referring not to the wordly luxuries Harold has forced himself to give up, but to the daily grief she is resigned to and feels incapable of moving on from. But Maureen is more capable than she realises. By the end of his journey Harold finds that she has made her own way to Berwick-upon-Tweed, ready to take her place beside him on a public bench; for the first time in decades, they are meeting at the exact same point.

The film ends with Harold suggesting to Maureen that they go home - a return journey that, compared to the gargantuan trek he has just undertaken, consists of a single step. He and Maureen reach across to one another physically and link hands. "Home" refers not to their abode down in Kingsbridge (both of them have walked away from its austere confines, if not literally then figuratively), but to their salvaged affinity. The trauma of losing David will obviously never leave them, but they are now in a position where they might be able to face that trauma together, instead of it putting them at such disparate odds. We also see that Harold's visit has, in fact, made some difference to Queenie; in her severely deteriorated state, she is aware of the light reflecting from the ornament Harold left for her, and draws visible comfort from it. This is followed by a montage of various other people Harold encountered on his travels - the businessman, Martina and the garage girl - all responding to the ways in which light interacts with shadow in their individual surroundings, as if noticing such detail for the first time. This emphasis on light might put us in mind of a statement Wilf previously made about finding the light of God - suggesting that Harold really was the Messiah, at least to these particular individuals, and the gifts he'd given them, whether tangible or emotional, have opened the doors to their personal enlightenment? Or perhaps it all goes back further than that, to the first significant step Harold took on his pilgrimage. His modest shuffling from out of the porch way and into the sunlight brought with it the knowledge that there was a wider universe out there, in which he was a participant. The sunlight is a connective presence, and Harold's intersections with each of these characters, however cut off and harrowingly defenceless they might seem in their respective haunts, has given them some clarity on the matter that they are not alone; there is a bigger world and they have a part to play in it. The final takeaway from Harold's trek is not the grandness of his overall gesture, but the collective power of his every little step, no matter how much blood and pus he was required to shed along the way.

PS: I realise I didn't say anything about the man in a bathrobe who asks Harold if he's seen any hedgehogs today. He's my favourite character, after the businessman.

Wednesday 8 May 2024

BT '92: Get Through To Someone (Empty Nest Angst)

By late 1992, Frank the plasticine tortoise was already such a revered advertising icon that British Telecom (aka BT) saw fit to appropriate his electric (not gas!) powered charms into one of its own campaigns. Sandwiched somewhere between the Maureen Lipman and Bob Hoskins eras of British Telecon's advertising history was "Get through to someone", a series of adverts (at least six in total) about the importance of everyday connections and communications. Each installment follows a different protagonist grappling with some form of overwhelming uncertainty, ultimately remedied with a simple telephone call - in one case, the mother of a university fresher fretting about how her daughter is coping in her new environs, until her daughter gets in touch to reassure her that things are hunky-dory. Before then, the mother looks to the television for a source of diversion, but every single item being broadcast reinforces her paranoia about the world her daughter is currently being inducted into, one of derelict kitchens and rambunctious rugby players. Failing to offer comfort is Frank, whose off-hand remark about how nice it is to come inside to warm abode after you've been freezing to death outside conjures up bleak, blue-tinted visions about the horrors of student accommodation - in which Frank's hyperbolic observation is snipped out of all context and echoes off the mildew-stained walls as the unremitting proclamation of doom. I gotta say, this freaked me out something nasty as a child. Like everyone else, I only ever knew Frank as an entirely genial presence, as a wide-mouthed tortoise who was apparently a proficient athlete off of screen (there was something vaguely sinister about the backdrops to his world, and those of all of the Creatures Comforts spots, but we'll get into that another time). BT's appropriation felt like a rotten bit of sabotage, a subversion of everything the Aardman tortoise stood for. They gave Frank a dark undercurrent by twisting his words, honing in on some grimmer subtext that would otherwise not have crossed my mind, and creating an association I was never quite going to shake. From now on, whenever I saw Frank in his regular presentation, I was going to have Sam the university fresher and her pallid, shivering form lurking somewhere within the same train of thought, reminding me of the chilling alternative to the perfectly-heated utopia the claymation reptile extolled.

That one upset aside, I'll admit to being inordinately fond of the "Get through to someone" series. In many respects, they are the perfect encapsulations of early 90s banality, but they're my kind of early 90s banality, brimming as they are with a beguiling nostalgia for a time when mobile phones were still the ugly toys of the business elite and all long-distance communication between friends and family was conducted via landline (and the occasional phone box), and when ads signed off with upbeat leitmotifs, this one delivered by harmonica. There are a so many details that are honestly catnip to me - the warm guitar strums, the overstuffed mise-en-scenes. Above all, I like how they mix the hokey prosaicness of each featured scenario with a prevalent sense of trepidation, so that the most everyday of banalities become portents of some impending catastrophe. Take what happens at the opening of the Sam spot, before Frank even enters the picture. We get an early indicator of the conflict in store with an overheard BBC announcer informing us that, "That was the last program in the present series." Ostensibly an entirely non-threatening detail designed to segue into a reminder that the Open University is starting in 25 minutes, and then on into the protagonist's own memories of having left her daughter at the university doors, its implications are frankly apocalyptic. The world the protagonist knew has reached a natural end; the television she turns to to fill the companionship void offers only a frightening portal into the new world she fears might be emerging in its place. The specific mention of it being the last program in the present series indicates that renewal is a possibility, but by no means a given, underlying the protagonist's uncertainty as she awaits confirmation that her bond with her daughter can be re-established and endure. The uneasy in-between state in which she's currently mired is amplified by the ad's somewhat exaggerated visual choices, imbuing it with an unsubtly that seems as cartoonish, in its way, as the one inhabited by the claymation tortoise athlete. In particular, there's the manner in which that framed photograph of Sam looms prominently over her mother's shoulder, as if to say, "In case you don't get it, she's feeling her daughter's absence." And there in between lurks the telephone, that vessel of communication that cold restore the ostensibly ruptured connection.

In truth, the creature that perplexes me most within the Sam spot is not Frank, but the clownfish seen swimming about above the BT logo at the end. It strikes me as significant that this final arrangement always showed the two conversing parties in boxes against a dark abyss, with the BT logo as the all-important connective tissue in between. Above it, some seemingly incidental detail from earlier within the ad was privileged with that same connective status, indicating that it was to be seen as somehow symbolic of the relationship being fortified and upheld by BT. This is the angle from which I really want to delve into this series - to assess them not merely on the strength of their paranoid fantasies, but on how much sense we can discern from their symbolism. In this case, the most prevalent symbol is Nemo there. Not only are fish seen in the aquarium the protagonist's husband is tending to as the ad opens (it was a common practice for each individual ad in this campaign to open with some close-up of an object tangential to the featured narrative), but the protagonist herself has them on her sweater. I can't quite make out the full design, but it looks to me like a school of fish swimming around...hmm, is that a jar of peanut butter? If so, then that's strange. From a narrative perspective, the husband's preoccupation with the aquarium accounts for why he's unreceptive to his wife's present loneliness, but since fish images are all over the place, obviously they stand for a little more. A bird motif would have made immediate sense, but perhaps been a little too on the nose, even for a set-up as unsubtly laid out as this. Fish, though? They require more work.

Two suggestions spring to mind. First, it might be a reference to the idiom about being a small fish in a big pond, with the protagonist projecting her own insecurities about the wider world onto Sam as she takes her first step into it. Both characters have their obvious vulnerabilities in the wake of change, and both are ultimately going to cope with these. Second is that it's not the fish per se that's of significance but the water. We refer now to the protagonist's second paranoid fantasy, which involves Sam making a literal splash with a bunch of rugby players in a swimming pool. As a kid, while the kitchen fantasy was always clear to me, I never had a clue what was supposed to be so upsetting about this one. Now it's obvious, water being the cliched metaphor for sex it is, that this is a family-friendly means of conveying the protagonist's anxieties about Sam getting it on with the entire student rugby team. In a broader sense, water indicates intimacy, both physical and emotional, and the scope of prospective human connections Sam has just opened up to, which the protagonist fears but which in actuality is something to be celebrated. At the end when Sam rings home to assure her mother that all is right in the world, we see how the affinity between Sam and her mother is still going strong, even as potential new avenues are suggesting themselves. She tells her mother that the food is great (we never had any paranoid fantasies about the food Sam was eating, but apparently it's the first thing she's asked about), that the university has central heating and that she doesn't much care for rugby...only for that last remark to catch the bemused eye of a rugby player standing adjacent to the communal telephone, and Sam to respond with a giddy flicker of the eyebrows that spells trouble on the horizon. It isn't presented as anything to be afraid of, though. Far from portending the incoming apocalypse, the end of a series merely signals that something else will be arriving to fill the vacant timeslot. Will it be a worthy follow-up? All you can do is stay tuned.

Tuesday 30 April 2024

Humdrum (aka Fear of A Midday Shadow)

If you owned a copy of the 2000 home media release Aardman Classics, you might recall just how flat-out unsettling the compilation got the deeper you delved into its centre. For those who only knew the Bristol-based animation studio for the Morph skits and the creations of Nick Park, I'd imagine this would have been one heck of a bucket of ice water. Things got off to a deceptively genial start, with the original Creature Comforts short and the first of the spin-off ads for electric heaters featuring Frank the tortoise. Then Pib and Pog appeared, in all of their mean-minded, psuedo-educational glory, and things were thrown just a little off of balance. The Creature Comforts gang resurfaced, and for a fleeting moment we felt like we were safe again...right before were slap-dab in the middle of an incredibly fucked-up computer animated bit about a minotaur murdering a duck with the help of a severed hand. Sandwiching Minotaur and Little Nerkin in between the two ads about the dishwasher-loving pandas had the effect of making the pandas seem utterly false; going back to their smiling faces immediately after witnessing the horrors inflicted on that duck was like to having to resume your place at a dinner party after being privy to some enormously disturbing gossip about your host. There was some agreeable content ahead - War Story, Wat's Pig, a music video where a claymation cat with the vocals of Nina Simone performs "My Baby Just Cares For Me" - but "Heat Electric - Penguins 3 and Pablo" would be the last stop before a very disconcerting stretch throughout the middle, where we were basically leaping from one bite-sized nightmare to the next. Stage Fright, Pop, Ident, Loves Me, Loves Me Not - it was a non-stop parade of sleep-robbing freakiness. Obviously nothing else among them was as dark and sobering as the apocalyptic drama Babylon, but twisted psyches with full creative freedom clearly were endemic to the studio. The end of the compilation took us back into calmer territory, with the grimy realism of the Conversation Pieces and Animated Conversations, but even then they had to stick on one final scare to send us home with, in the form of Boris Kossmehl's Not Without My Handbag. In 2006 Aardman released another compilation, Aardman's Darkside, touted as a glimpse into the studio's nastier, more adult-orientated underbelly, but I personally saw very little difference between the films therein and at least half the line-up of Aardman Classics. Family-friendly was definitely not their default setting in the days before Chicken Run.

Lurking amid that sinister middle stretch was the 1998 film Humdrum - a short that, based on the opening credits, I had seriously expected to be a lot darker than it was. Everything about the title sequence - the deeply ominous musical notes, the black backdrop, the abrasive, jagged lettering -  suggests something truly terrifying is in store. Which may well be part of the joke; we enter into Humdrum prepped for a more dramatic affair than actually transpires. Instead, the key characters, two shadowy entities voiced by Scottish comedians Jack Docherty and Moray Hunter, are navigating a nightmare of a whole other nature, one that has less in common with the overt horrors of Stage Fright and Not Without My Handbag than the plight expressed by the verbose zoo animals in Creature Comforts. Stuck indoors and fed up of staring at the same four walls all day, the shadows spend the entirety of the six and a half minute runtime in search of alleviation from the stifling monotony. Their names are never disclosed, but I've taken the liberty of applying my own for the purposes of this review - Pawn, the thoroughly morose one (Docherty), and Rook, the intermittently exuberant one (Hunter), based on the chess pieces their heads resemble. This design choice strikes me as entirely deliberate, since the game of chess comes up explicitly in the dialogue, with Pawn recounting what happened on a previous and (we presume) equally boring occasion, when Rook made him eat all of the white pieces after losing a bet. He indicates that most of the pieces have yet to work their way through his digestive system (though he thought he saw a couple of pawns yesterday), a gleefully scatological gag that takes on added resonance if we view it as a mirror to the characters' own predicament, engulfed by a smothering monotony and desperately looking for an exit that never appears. The idea that the characters themselves are chess pieces also calls attention to their positioning for most of the film, perched at opposite ends of a table, suggesting that they are, whether knowingly or not, opponents and not allies in their ongoing entrapment. In the absence of any other distractions, they have nothing to gaze into except the dark abyss of one another, their every move a bid to keep not only the monotony from gnawing away them, but their companion's eccentricities too. Pawn is, unsurprisingly, the underdog in this equation, with Rook appearing to outmanoeuvre him at virtually every turn, and we sympathise with Pawn all the better for it.

Humdrum was directed by Peter Peake, the particular twisted psyche behind the aforementioned Pib and Pog, with a script doctoring credit for Rex the Runt creator Richard Starzak (then known as Richard Goleszowski). The film takes a unique visual approach - like your archetypal Aardman production, it uses stop motion figures, with the twist that the camera in this case is interested not in the figures themselves but in the shadows they cast. Seemingly detached from any corporeal bodies, Pawn and Rook exist only as murky, one-dimensional entities who nevertheless manage to be entirely fluid and expressive with the limited features they have. They seem at once alive and stranded in a ghostly state of only half-existence, distorted imitations of a full-bodied world that seems eerily unrealised. Meanwhile, the blistered backdrops onto which the shadows are projected take on a low-key life of their own, reflections of the protagonists' barren mental states that intermittently shift to signify the nascent traces of evanescent preoccupations. When the game of chess is mentioned, the wall assumes the checkered pattern of a chess board. When a cow is cited, the blotchy markings of a bovine's hide can be seen. The uncanniness of the visuals is buffered by the distinctly human warmth of the characters' banter, the dialogue between Pawn and Rook being both hilarious and natural. If you were watching it on the Aardman Classics compilation, then that warmth, coupled with the relative simplicity of the piece, came as a great relief following after the busyness and mean-spiritedness of the preceding Stage Fright. Starzak's playful touch seems particularly evident in the film's bluntly self-aware script, incorporating multiple barbs at its own nicheness. The possibility of turning to the television for escapism is dismissed early on, when we're told all that's on is "some weird animation thing". The major development that dominates the latter stages of the film - Rook's proposal that they entertain themselves by creating shadow puppets with their own hands - is met with weary disdain from Pawn: "I can't think of anything more boring that staring at some stupid shadows, for god's sake! Is this what happens when you don't have any friends?!" Elsewhere, Humdrum looks to be making some broader comment on our relationship with popular entertainment and the extent to which it alleviates or reinforces our monotony. The radio proves as futile a means of diversion as the television, bearing out Pawn's gloomy assessment that music "is all the same rubbish these days", with every station the characters tune into broadcasting some variation on "La Cucaracha".

The real purpose of the shadow world is to allow for a series of clever twists regarding the nature of perception. In the first half of the short, a momentary distraction arises in the form of a dog (or, more accurately, the shadow of a dog) barking at the protagonists' doorstep, which Pawn indignantly attempts to send packing. We think we understand what's going on, until Rook shows up and identifies the dog as a double-glazing salesman, who has apparently pestered the shadows on previous occasions. Our natural assumption would be that Rook is simply in cloud cuckoo land, until the door is closed and the dog, suddenly speaking in plain English, confirms his perception. It becomes even funnier when you rewatch the sequence with the knowledge that Pawn is always addressing the caller as a double-glazing salesman and not a dog; it makes me wonder, likewise, if the dog is actually barking from the protagonists' perspective, or if it's all just a comical means of conveying a particularly incessant sales pitch?

The interlude with the dog seems initially to be nothing more than a random sprinkling of absurdity, but later transpires to have laid the ground for the punchline of the short, once the game of shadow puppets has unfolded and become increasingly heated. As noted, the viewer's sympathies are invariably with Pawn, since he is the character with whom our perspectives are more firmly aligned. Odds are that we too would not recognise Rook's ridiculous attempt at contorting his digits into the shape of a cow, before he supplies the giveaway mooing (Pawn quite accurately observes that it looks more like he has his hands caught in a sandwich toaster). By contrast, Pawn's wizardry in creating an astonishingly fluid rabbit shadow is always painfully conspicuous to us, even when Rook insists that it looks more like an otter with two sausages tied to its head. It all climaxes with a deliciously cathartic moment where Pawn finally loses it with the hopelessly obtuse Rook: "I'm stuck indoors playing Guess The Misshapen Beast with someone who clearly wouldn't recognise a rabbit if it came to his house for tea, said "What's up, Doc?" and started burrowing into his head! There are blind people with no fingers who are better at shadow puppets than you! No wonder I'm a tad miffed!" All thoroughly just criticisms...except it's all tipped on its head in the closing moments, when a second caller appears at the door, a mooing shadow that perfectly matches Rook's prior attempt at creating a cow. Something even more shockingly unexpected then occurs - for the first time, we see a smile form across Pawn's face. "Not today, thank you," he says politely, before closing the door, seemingly unfazed by the irony of the situation. While it's certainly gratifying to see things end on a more buoyant note for the beleaguered Pawn, it's here that we also part ways with the character, seeing how our perspective no longer lines up with his. Suddenly, he seems at totally peace with the absurdity of his surroundings, and what's obviously normal to him has us scratching our heads with regard to what we're actually looking at. Is this hideously misshapen beast an accurate representation after all of how bovines look in this world? Is it another door to door salesperson flogging their unwanted wares? A grand cosmic joke at the expense of Pawn? A meta joke at the expense of the animators? All of those things at once? Has Pawn potentially been the daffy one all along, while Rook has a firmer grasp on the realities of the shadow world? After all, we never get any objective insight into how a rabbit even looks in this universe, outside of Pawn's projection - for all we know, his efforts really do look more like an otter with sausages protruding from its head. Or is Pawn simply calmly rejecting the film's final efforts to make a fool of him? All that matters is that Pawn is now in on something that we aren't, and it seems significant that he closes the door while facing the viewer, effectively ejecting them from the premises and leaving them out in the cold. The music heard during the end credits, yet another variation on "La Cucaracha", offers a striking contrast to the music featured during the title sequence and seems almost mocking of the viewer's confusion.

Humdrum was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Short, but lost to Aleksandr Petrov's take on The Old Man and The Sea - a film to which there was seriously no shame in losing. I'm just happy that it got some recognition, since like a lot of the studio's projects that weren't helmed by Nick Park, it remains something of a hidden oddity. It's disconcerting as hell, yet basically genial enough that it helped the psychological scarring from elsewhere on the Aardman Classics release to go down more easily, which speaks volumes to Aardman's character at the time.

Friday 26 April 2024

Homer vs Patty and Selma (aka Neither A Borrower Nor A Lender Be)

There is something faintly paradoxical about the way in which "Homer vs. Patty and Selma" (2F14) handles the overdue grudge match promised upfront by its title. On the one hand, this is the first Simpsons episode in which the mutual dislike between Homer and his twin sister-in-laws is permitted to take centre stage. Their antipathy has been a fixture of the show since its very first episode, where having to accommodate Patty and Selma was one of the many grievances weathered by Homer during a particularly grim holiday in "Simpsons Roasting on An Open Fire", but had seldom escalated into anything more dramatic than regular rounds of passive aggressive murmurs. The characters make little secret of what anathema their respective existences are to one another, but it's always been something that, for the most part, everyone just has to tiptoe around. So long as they've ample opportunity to take snide potshots at the enemy party (often from behind their back), then Homer and Patty and Selma are about able to coexist, united on the understanding that they're required to put up with one another for the sake of Marge. It's far from ideal, but it's a kind of equilibrium. "Homer vs. Patty and Selma" attempts to explore in-depth what putting up for Patty and Selma for Marge's sake really looks like for Homer, by thrusting him into a situation where that equilibrium is flipped hopelessly out of whack, with Patty and Selma gaining the critical advantage. Showrunner David Mirkin suggests on the DVD commentary that when this first aired, on February 26th 1995, it represented the show's most exhaustive dive to date into this uneasy dynamic, and I'd agree insofar as it does more with it from a narrative standpoint than any episode before it was wont to do. But I'm not sure if that necessarily makes it the most developed look at the relationship between Homer and his sister-in-laws, as it has to be said that this is something of a regressive entry on Patty and Selma's end. It makes the move of casting them as straight up villains, for which there is honestly very little precedent. Patty and Selma have never been the most affable of souls, but they have typically always been treated with more nuance than is evident here. Whereas a lesser series might have settled for painting them as the loathsome boogeywomen Homer assumes them to be, with no greater drive than to make his life miserable, The Simpsons has always been careful to give them distinct shades of humanity, with doubts and vulnerabilities all of their own. "Homer vs. Patty and Selma" is a rare episode in which their characterisation is determined exclusively by Homer's perspective, and therein lies the paradox - their disdain for Homer gets a ton of focus, but they themselves are at their most one-dimensional, to the point that you would have to go as far back as "Simpsons Roasting on An Open Fire" to find an episode where the matter was ever quite this one-sided.

That's not to say that Homer is without fault, since he gets into his situation through an act of flagrant misjudgement, the kind that could only validate Patty and Selma's perspective that he is an unworthy husband for Marge. The episode opens with him having invested all of the family's savings in pumpkins, observing that demand for the gourd has been souring all throughout October but failing to grasp the obvious reason for this (ie: Halloween is right around the corner). The season passes, leaving him with only a worthless investment, a looming mortgage payment and too much shame to be capable of explaining the situation to Marge. Having exhausted every other possible avenue of support, he turns to his last ditch option of Patty and Selma, who've recently received a big promotion at the DMV and are in a sound position financially. They agree to lend Homer the money, keeping the wolf from the Simpsons' door but leaving it wide open to a disagreeable intrusion of another nature. Not surprisingly, Patty and Selma had an ulterior motive for their generosity, having spied an opportunity to gain leverage over Homer - as Selma so elegantly puts it, "We know something you don't want Marge to know.  Now we own you, like Siegfried owns Roy." The twins insist on calling at the Simpsons' house more frequently, forcing Homer to perform a variety of degrading tasks at their beck and call in exchange for their continued silence around Marge. But of course that cat's only staying in that bag for so long.

As Mirkin observes, this an unusually straightforward and grounded story for its era, the kind of conflict we might expect to have come up not just in the show's earlier seasons but in any number of its live action counterparts. It has, though, unmistakably the flavour of a Season 6 installment. It's a wholly relatable situation - at some point in our lives, we've all had to ask a favour of someone with whom we did not ordinarily get along, and perhaps they weren't exactly gracious about it - but it paints itself in distinctly big and broad strokes. Take the comically exaggerated sequence where Patty and Selma are first inducted into the conflict, as Homer arrives home to find smoke gushing out from under his front door and is initially elated, thinking the house is on fire and that insurance money will cover his pumpkin losses. He rushes in, to find the source of the smoke to be none other than his sister-in-laws with their usual cigarette-biting antics. They're established, none too subtly, as toxic invaders, filling the household with their noxious fumes like a couple of rapacious fire-breathing dragons. But the sequence feels just as telling for the troubling window it offers into Homer's muddled, overly-impulsive psyche; he spends the entire first act struggling to save his family's home from repossession, yet he was momentarily happy at the thought of it going up in flames if it meant an imminent cash payout. It foreshadows how the story will eventually develop, as Patty and Selma do indeed turn out to be Homer's salvation, at least in the short-term. In the long-term they prove to be just as destructive as his hypothetical fire, making his home life unliveable and dragging his already battered self-esteem to blistering new lows.

The resulting episode is one of assorted contradictions. It's a small story that, in narrative terms, is content to stay small. Neither Patty and Selma nor writer Brent Forrester seem interested in taking their unholy arrangement to overly dramatic heights, the tasks Homer is required to do being unpleasant but basically nondescript. The nastiest it gets is when they force him to grovel at their freshly-massaged feet and to talk in the voice of a stereotypical Hanna Barbera dog. Yet the larger-than-lifeness that dominated your average Simpsons outing by the mid-1990s stays firmly in the driver seat. It isn't entirely disconnected from the realism of the earlier seasons; for one, it's nice to have another story in which the family struggles with money in a meaningful way, something that used to happen a lot in the early years but now rarely seemed to be an issue any more (we were just a season away from that infamous moment where Homer hands Bart $750 like it was pocket change). But the undeniable despair of the predicament is buffered by copious amounts of silliness, and this is before we get into the comparatively lighter subplot. There's the ridiculous means through which Homer loses the family's money in the first place (which, admittedly, seems quite sedate compared to his recent get-rich-quick shenanigans involving a sugar pile and a trampoline), the cartoonish physicality of the sequences where he ejects Patty and Selma (and Marge, in one instance) from the house, and the way he protests Marge's evaluation of the matter by smashing a plate against his head. There are a few downright baffling gags, including a total non-sequitur involving a possibly paranormal television and a nod to The X-Files. And then the third act development where Homer resolves to bring in more money by moonlighting as a chauffeur takes a distinctly improbable detour, which Homer puts neatly into quotation marks: "I can't believe my very first passenger is comedy legend Mel Brooks!" With hindsight, Brooks' cameo seems kind of ominous, it being an early example of a celebrity appearance that's been conspicuously crowbarred in for the sake of a celebrity appearance (Brooks' wife Anne Bancroft had recently voiced a character in the episode "Fear of Flying", and the producers wanted to stick Brooks into an adjacent story while they were at it). Brooks is given no substantial link to this particular narrative; he's there because he just happened to be passing through. They could have dropped any celebrity into the backseat of Homer's limo and it would have made every bit as much sense. And yet I can't really begrudge the Brooks sequence because it contains what might be my second favourite joke of the episode, one so subtle that it took a few watches for it to completely register - Homer telling Brooks that he loved his movie Young Frankenstein because it scared the hell out of him. (I can relate to that; I'll never forget my confusion on being shown the movie Airplane! at age 7 and, being too callow to comprehend the idea of a spoof movie, trying to follow it as a serious adventure story. It certainly made me leery about airline catering.) Besides, the script is able to scrape some decent humor out of Brooks' sidelined status, when Homer is found by Wiggum to be driving without the correct licence, and ordered to apply to Patty and Selma at the DMV. Homer starts screaming uncontrollably, and Brooks, not comprehending the situation on which he's vaguely impinging, concludes simply that Homer is dangerous and opts to bum a ride with Wiggum instead.

This is also the episode where Homer envisions Bart as a giant rat. Bart, sadly, perceives that as an insult, but I know I would much rather be compared to a rat than to a royal.

 "Homer vs. Patty and Selma" is less interested in how Homer relates to Patty and Selma (something touched on in more nuanced, if not pivotal ways in episodes such as "Principal Charming" and "Selma's Choice") than the depths of his devotion to Marge, and this is where the emotional crux of the story lies. Which is not to say that it's even half as interested in Marge herself, who doesn't have much to do other than stand on the sidelines and look sad. Her reaction on coming up to speed with Homer's financial ills is curiously downplayed, given how much he'd feared her finding out. Other than voicing her confusion as to why he didn't tell her, she doesn't express much of an opinion on her husband blowing the family's savings on Jack-o-Lanterns, leaving it unclear what she's really feeling in the aftermath. Disappointment? Concern? Resignation? Homer's self-loathing, and his assumptions about what his investment fiasco says about him ends up overshadowing anything that Marges actually says or does, which is doubtlessly the point, but it keeps her in a position of total passivity throughout. Conversely, this is one of the few episodes in which Marge gets to openly highlight something that should be obvious but nearly always gets ignored whenever her husband and sisters are spitting venom at one another - just how shitty it must be for her to be caught in the middle of it all. In one scene she tells Homer, "It's very hard on me to have you fighting all the time." With that in mind, there is a layer of hidden poignancy in Marge's de-emphasised view of events, since for a chunk of it she's under the impression that Homer and her sisters are finally getting along, when things are actually worse then ever while her back is turned. Which takes us into my absolute favourite joke of the episode, following Patty and Selma's "perfect" dinner with the Simpsons where nothing at all went wrong. Even more revealing than the strained, plastic grin on Homer's face is Marge's joyous aspiration to celebrate the ostensible truce by serving the most international coffee in the house - Montreal Morn! That one line says pretty much everything about Marge, about her outlook on life, her expectations and her lived reality. It's capped off by another fantastic gag when she returns a few moments later, announcing shamefacedly that her Montreal Morn supplies have been depleted and all she has to offer in its place is some cheap and nasty Nescafe (yuck, I would be ashamed too). Marge's life is an onslaught of perpetual disappointments, her hopes of impressing by serving flashy coffee about as realistic as all prospects of her husband and her sisters ever putting aside their bad blood.

Since Homer's story is a (relatively) grounded one with (somewhat) genuine stakes, a B-story is woven in to pad it out with extra levity. This involves Bart being forced to take ballet lessons and discovering a latent talent for the dance. When tasked with performing before the school, however, he balks, fearing that the bullies will target him for enjoying a traditionally feminine pursuit. As B-stories go, it's a fairly arbitrary one, offering not even the vaguest of intersections with the A-story (the aforementioned "Rat Boy" moment is the only point where Bart and Homer even interact). The most they have is a loose thematic parallel about the Simpsons boys harbouring secrets for shame of what others might think of them. But as a premise it certainly has boundless appeal. There's something about Bart being a natural ballet dancer that just makes perfect sense to me, to the point that it feels as though this might have been expanded into an actual A-story with further refinement. As it happens, the writers are content to treat it as a bit of fluff on the side. Maybe they didn't think there was anything more to be done with the idea than the standard expose and takedown of gender norms - which, judging how this arc ends, they were clearly not interested in doing sincerely. Giving it considerable momentum is the wonderful performance from guest star Susan Sarandon as Bart's ballet instructor, doing a very similar voice to the one she would subsequently use as a talking spider in James and The Giant Peach (1996). Whenever she's on screen, the story positively sparkles. Once she fades from the picture and we enter into Bart's recital, it struggles with where to take itself, ultimately settling on rather an iffy conclusion. I'm not really talking about how Jimbo, Nelson and co turn on him when he summons the courage to reveal his passion for ballet to the school - we all saw that one coming (to the point where you could question if it's even that much of a subversion) - but what happens at the very end, when Bart fails to jeté himself across a ditch to escape the bullies, and winds up potentially breaking a few bones down at the bottom. Lisa suddenly appears, embracing the injured Bart and telling him how proud she is that he showed his sensitive side. This is supposed to be our heartfelt moment to take the sting off, by having someone commend Bart for following his dreams in spite of what it cost him. In practice, it plays like an unconvincing attempt to suggest that Bart's relationship with Lisa was what the subplot was really about, which totally doesn't work because Lisa had barely even featured in it up until now. Honestly, it felt as though she had more of a meaningful presence in Homer's story, where he filled her in on his intentions to find a second job. It's also not helped by its inconclusive ending, with Lisa apparently wandering off while Bart groans, "Why'd you just leave me when I clearly need medical attention?" Yeah, why Lisa? I mean that does seem very out of character for you. Again, I think a more substantially developed version of this story might have fixed things so that Lisa's moment feels less like a tacked on afterthought; the version we have is fun, but effectively fizzles. Besides Sarandon, I think my favourite thing about it is the rare witticism we receive from Richard and Lewis. ("If they don't get here soon, it'll be T.S. for them!")

The A-story likewise bows out on rather an abrupt final note, as though it absolutely cannot wait to reset the status quo and move on, and I think it's the hurried nature of the respective wrap-ups for each narrative, coupled with their total disconnect from one another, that makes it all-too easy to dismiss the episode as one of the season's fillers. Erik Adams of The AV Club calls the two stories "undercooked" and "partially formed", characteristics he attributes to pressures Fox had placed upon the writers at the time. (Now that you mention it, while Season 6 both starts and ends strongly, there is a fairly noticeable lag around the middle.) We may come away feeling underwhelmed, as though nothing that happened therein was of any real consequence. Which seems unfair, because the developments that occur toward the end of Homer's arc are genuinely potent. It takes the earnest route, at least in the short-term, with an unusual display of maturity on Homer's part. He manages to salvage his pride, not by meeting Patty and Selma at their level and continuing the cycle of antipathy, but by rising above it and acting on the opportunity to be kind to them. As with "Black Widower", the twins' cigarette addiction ends up being the factor that nearly spells disaster, in a way that taps deftly into the niceties of life in the nineties. Having failed Homer on his driving test, Patty and Selma are so exhilarated that they momentarily let their guard down about smoking on the job and are caught by their boss with the offending cancer sticks. She's so outraged that they'd be smoking in a government building that she threatens to rescind their promotions. Homer is all ready to savour the schadenfreude, until he notices how anxious Marge appears about the situation and puts aside his desire for petty vengeance. Instead, he helps Patty and Selma by pretending the cigarettes were his, redirecting their boss's wrath his way ("You, sir, are worse than Hitler!") and sparing their jobs. He admits afterwards that his Good Samaritanism was motivated not by sympathy for Patty and Selma, but by empathy for Marge and the recognition that if her sisters were to suffer, so would she. If Patty and Selma bring out the worst in him, then she's a constant reminder of why he should keep striving to be the best he can be. By taking the higher ground, he leaves Patty and Selma totally disarmed; they are humbled by his actions, and Marge is able to make her own case for why, in spite of all his failings, she'd still be with him. Perhaps there is a better side to Homer that, up until now, Patty and Selma have simply never witnessed.

These observations feel more heartfelt and rightfully earned than those used to round off Bart's arc. But the script insists on undercutting them in a typical Simpsons fashion. The conclusion comes abruptly by design, in a way that seems to mercilessly dash all possibility of any durable understanding between the warring parties. Patty and Selma behave graciously, apologising to Homer for their recent mistreatment of him and suggesting that they might be able to do him a favour in return. The implicit offer they're actually making is to pass him on his driving test, but he has set his sights set on a much bigger prize. He demands that Patty and Selma forgive his debt altogether, which they are clearly reluctant to do. Homer, though, isn't settling for anything less - he's located a convenient out to this story's entire predicament, and with only seconds left on the clock you can bet he's taking it. A cancelled debt means that he no longer needs the chauffeur gig and can walk away scot-free. And so he does, declaring the debt void and bolting off with Marge in tow before Patty and Selma have leeway to negotiate. They're left standing there, powerless and obviously put out. The debt may have been nullified, but we sense that so too has a wad of their newfound goodwill toward their brother-in-law. It paves the way for the cycle of resentment to only continue, so I guess nobody really won.

Oh, and I noted in my recent coverage "Team Homer" that, originating with that episode, there seemed to be a conscious push on the writers' part to have Moe promoted to the status of Homer's best friend. You might not have guessed that that was so imminent from how Moe is depicted here, with his very darkest of inclinations on display. He agrees to lend Homer the money, not as a friend, but as a loan shark, and on the condition that he gets to break Homer's legs in advance since he has no collateral. Homer backs out when he can't convince Moe to deal him a bloody head injury instead. Sure, with friends like that, who even needs enemies?