An undercurrent to The Simpsons that’s been there since the first episode is the conflict between the desire to be a good, hardworking American citizen and the desire to sit around drinking beer, eating like a pig, and watching TV – or to put it another way, the conflict between a spiritually and emotionally fulfilling life and an easy one. That theme was there when Grampa came into a load of money and realised he would rather help people with it, it was there when Lisa convinced Homer to disconnect the cable, and it was there when Homer threw away fame and fortune based on one word from Marge. It makes sense that the second season finale would make this an explicit basis of the plot.
Old man Burns has a medical crisis: hypohemia, a completely fictional medical problem (resembling hypovolemia) where he simply doesn’t have enough blood, and his blood type is extremely rare: double O negative. Homer is over the moon with joy, then upset when he learns his blood type is B negative, then extremely pleased to learn Bart has that blood type. A moral debate pops up; Marge takes the “a good deed is its own reward” stance, and Homer takes the “an extremely large amount of money is its own reward” view, mangling the story of Androcles and the Lion in the process.
(For once, Lisa takes a backseat to all this, being more preoccupied with teaching Maggie about obscure animals)
Of course, it’s all a moot point; Mr Burns didn’t make his money by writing a lot of cheques, and his big reward to the Simpsons is a thank you card. In his rage, Homer gets Bart to dictate a letter insulting Burns in very specific detail. Marge begs him to sleep on it, and even through his anger Homer can’t help but listen to her; the next morning, he feels fine and dandy and agrees it would have been a bad idea. Unfortunately, Bart wakes up the next morning exactly the same and mails the letter, and now Homer has to dedicate his efforts to getting it back.
This sequence is the funniest in the episode; it’s a classic sitcom setup, and Homer’s particular brand of idiocy finds gold within it, my favourite being his attempt to pose as Burns and get the letter at the post office. He fails at the first step when he has no idea what Burns’ first name is, but what really cracks me up is that he puts on an outrageous accent despite the fact that presumably nobody at the post office knows what Mr Burns sounds like, and doesn’t sound anything like Burns if they did!
(It’s to the show’s credit that the point isn’t belaboured by anyone bringing it up)
He tries to sneak into Burns’ office early in the morning to take it, but Burns is already there, working on his memoirs, and in fact Homer’s presence makes things worse when Burns finds the letter and reads it out in front of him. There’s a brief moment of hope that Burns will only read the sarcastic first part of the letter, but unfortunately he keeps reading, and the plot has now twisted: Burns is hellbent on swift, brutal vengeance on Homer Simpson.
But there’s a catch: Smithers, who loves Burns but not in a gay way yet, feels nothing but gratitude towards Homer for saving Burns’ life, and is torn between his loyalty to Burns and a slightly different loyalty to Burns. This commitment to character is one of the things that made the show so great – it leads to an amusing scene of Smithers trying to tell the hired goon to beat up Homer, but not, like, too much. The goon himself is great, apparently completely reconciled to the fact that he’ll beat up people he likes for a living.
It’s Smithers who resolves this plot for us; when he admits to Burns that he called off the beating, it’s enough to make Burns realise he’s been a heel, and that he should reward the Simpsons for saving his life. This all leads up to the punchline of the episode: Burns, in his terrible taste, buys the family a $32,000 Olmec head. Satisfied, Burns leaves the family to contemplate the head.
“Nothing. Worse than nothing, a big scary rock.”
“Hey man, don’t badmouth the head.”
“It’s the thought that counts. The moral is: a good deed is its own reward.”
“Hey, we got a reward! The head is cool!”
“Then I guess the moral is ‘no good deed goes unrewarded’.”
“Wait a minute, if I hadn’t written that nasty letter, we wouldn’t have gotten anything.”
“Well, then I guess the moral is, the squeaky wheel gets the grease.”
“Perhaps there is no moral to this story.”
“Exactly. It’s just a bunch of stuff that happened.”
“But it certainly was a memorable few days.”
“Amen to that.”
This ending was written when the writers didn’t want to make some sappy moral point, but also didn’t want to just leave it all hanging without some summary. Obviously, it reads on the surface as “this is just a dumb comedy, don’t read too much into it”, but I also like it in two separate but equally important ways. Firstly, that the show rejects the idea of any single moral authority, even itself (think of it as living up to the example of “Itchy And Scratchy And Marge”). You’re smart, you can figure out a moral for yourself.
Secondly, it feels like reaching a conclusion on that whole spiritual enlightenment/material pleasure dichotomy I laid out above. What the show consistently demonstrates is that this conflict is not a moral conflict – it is always more moral and more satisfying to choose family, love, and goodness over TV, junk food, and superficial fame. But what it also consistently demonstrates is that this is still a conflict – we know that Homer is morally wrong when he relentlessly chases reward from Mr Burns, but we also know part of us would want to do the exact same thing.
And what the conclusion the show comes to is… it’s okay. That conflict is normal and complicated. Don’t worry too much about it.
Chalkboard Gag: I will not sleep through my education.
Couch Gag: The couch falls through the floor.
This episode was written by George Meyer and directed by David Silverman. The plot was inspired by the writers’ coworker getting a blood transfusion, and everyone thinking it would be hilarious for Burns to get one. Al Jean and Mike Reiss heavily rewrote this episode. This episode was one of Silverman’s favourites.
The scene of Smithers and Dr Hibbert is a parody of Citizen Kane. A ghostwriter Burns speaks to wrote Like Hell I Can’t, which is a parody of Sammy Davis Jr’s Yes, I Can. A mural in the post office resembles Michaelangelo’s The Creation Of Adam. In describing the present he wants to buy, Mr Burns starts talking like a Dr Seuss character. The whole letter plot is directly ripped off from an episode of The Honeymooners.
The episode opens with some good satire of nuclear power; Burns unveils a slightly disturbing warning system, and Homer and friends laugh at it because “Jokes on them! If the core explodes, there won’t be any power to light that sign!”
Bart pranks Moe with Mike Rotch.
First Appearances: Homer having a conversation with his brain!
So, that’s season two. I stand by my assertion that, while it has Classic episodes, it is not a Classic season – there are some serious highs but also a few mediocrities, and I believe the definition of Classic is, as ZODIAC MOTHERFUCKER put it, “NOT OPTIONAL”. When I collected seasons four to nine on DVD, I was shocked at how there wasn’t a single bad episode in the whole bunch; if I’m going to go to the trouble of capitalising the word Classic, it might as well mean something, and I can’t in good taste call this season Classic. That said, it was a necessary season for the creators of the show, because you can see them growing in confidence and vision as we get further into the production schedule. I am fully confident season three will be wall-to-wall Classic.
I’d also like to take a paragraph to thank you all for your loyal readership. This wasn’t just made because I like overthinking a twenty-six year old cartoon, it was made because I thought it would bring the Avocado together, and even hitting the Recommend button makes me feel like I’ve accomplished that in some way. I look forward to moving into season three with you, and hopefully with the new people who escaped from the dissolving AV Club community like rats from a sinking ship.