The Simpsons, Season Four, Episode Twenty-One, “Marge In Chains”

Part of the fun of this series is tracking the evolution of the show, and this deftly combines two things we’ve already discussed: the occasional forays into riff-heavy plotting, and the development of the town of Springfield. This episode finds a middle ground between cause-and-effect plotting and anarchic riffing; strip the plot down to its essentials and it’s really just “Marge accidentally shoplifts, Marge goes to prison, Marge gets out of prison”, and the rest is all variations on those themes – the first act is why she shoplifts, the second act is how she goes to prison, and the third act is what happens to her in prison as well as what happens in Springfield because she’s in prison, which means there’s more structure than in something like “Moaning Lisa” and less than in “Homer At The Bat”.

I often interpret Marge plots as apologies to the character for letting her fall to the background and attempts to cut her a break, which probably isn’t entirely accurate but I’m definitely reacting to something here. This episode in particular shows Marge getting unfairly persecuted because the literal demands of the family caused her to make a simple mistake, and prison ends up being a short vacation for her; she only really does one thing, and she even falls to the background of her own story in the middle. Perhaps what I’m reacting to here is a struggle to figure out what to do with Marge – she’s not as inquisitive or principled as Lisa and not as impulsive as Homer or Bart, and even moreso I don’t think the show is willing to push her into dangerous territory the way everyone else does. The best plots about Marge take her squarishness and follow her somewhere strange and occasionally scary to her.

(As I often do with Marge, I find myself thinking of the cartoon mothers who followed her. Francine Smith of American Dad dropped the squarishness entirely. Linda Belcher of Bob’s Burgers is just as square but more extroverted. Beth Smith of Rick & Morty is almost totally different, but her marriage to Jerry was allowed to crumble.)

Coming back to the nature of the plotting itself: one of the show’s greatest successes was developing this unique little slice of American pie, and having a stockpile of characters to draw on means the crew can just throw a single element in and watch each of the characters take it somewhere strange – they just have to say “A flu virus comes to Springfield” and not just know that Bart will try to get sick out of sheer force of will, they’ll know how Skinner, Patty, Selma, and Burns will all react. This even ends up serving Marge’s character, when the last act has to figure out how Marge fits into her little society and what the funniest effects of her loss will be (naturally, a riot, because this is Springfield). That sense of a real ecosystem that exists when we and the Simpsons aren’t looking at it is something not entirely unique to the show (going out of animation, Community was always brilliant about selling the culture of Greendale), but it is a large part of the show’s charm, and watching the show definitely gives me the sense that I’m visiting Springfield again.

Chalkboard Gag: I do not have diplomatic immunity.
Couch Gag: The family are all several inches tall.

This episode was written by Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein, and directed by Jim Reardon. This was the first episode the duo wrote as staff writers. Their first draft was slightly more realistic, as they’d done research into women’s prisons. For Apu and Sanjay’s brief dialogue in Indian, they phoned the Embassy of India for a translation job. This episode has some astoundingly funny visuals, including Skinner’s face when he realises he’s covered in flu germs, Hutz’s little jump when he realises he’s in court without any pants, and the stylistically accurate Mad Magazine cover tattoo.

After a few episodes of Burns taking a long, dramatic time to get to a gag, this one has my favourite: opening loads of security doors to reveal Homer eating a sandwich. At this point, I’m wondering how much Grampa spends on new teeth.

David Crosby cameos and Hutz’s AA sponsor. During Marge’s trial, Professor Frink uses the Zapruder film to prove Marge assassinated Kennedy. Maude looking at Marge through a hole in the wall is a shoutout to Psycho. Chief Wiggum being chased by the flu germs is a shoutout to The Blob. Homer complains that he’ll miss Sheriff Lobo, and it’s incredible that this show has enough references to it that this isn’t the greatest one.

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