It’s amazing how we keep getting further and further out of reality and yet still hit not only some great commentary on America but some great universal themes. The Stonecutters, as a parody of institutions like the Freemasons, seem almost old hat now, as archaic as Bart writing lines or a TV clown. If people ever did believe in secret societies ruling the world, I think that’s been supplanted by a collective understanding of sociological forces. Barring dedicated conspiracy theorists, people aren’t going to say that the world works the way it does because a secret society of people are deliberately shaping the course of events, they’re going to say that events are a series of accidents, habits, and behaviours that keep pushing history forward (though they’re more likely to phrase it as something like “people are consistently stupid”). But the episode works because the Stonecutters feel like a cartoon exaggeration of real world behaviour. The best understated gag of the whole thing is how for all their pomp and secrecy, the Stonecutters are just an excuse to drink and party and enact cruelty, both to lower members of the order and to the world at large via not taking action to help them (like the plumber who bilks non-Cutter customers out of their money by wasting as much time as possible). You know, I put it like this, and it occurs to me that the episode parodies that whole ‘Freemasons run the country!’ attitude by revealing that, no, you give a bunch of human beings (and one Martian) a secret society, and they’ll use it for the same dumb shit they use everything else for.
(If you like, there’s something significant in how the Stonecutters are all dudes)
I also love Homer’s journey through this. He kicks off the whole thing because he’s lonely and wants to be included in something; this is one of those cases where Homer is childlike rather than (or more accurately as well as) childish. Homer isn’t beloved despite his childish petulance, but because of it – he can take our emotions, our gluttony and laziness and entitlement, and express it far beyond what we would. He’s catharsis for our worst instincts; we can recognise our base emotions and take them a much smarter place than Homer (or at least make fun of them). I also like that when he gets all the beer and adoration he could possibly want, that old theme of spiritual fulfilment versus superficial pleasure comes back again. I’ve read about schools in Finland that don’t enforce attendance at all, and they consistently find that after a few weeks of the kids enthusiastically bludging off, they end up getting bored enough to start going to class and doing assignments anyway; I believe we’re seeing the same basic pattern play out, as Homer gets past the basic pleasures of life and is still unsatisfied. We do the obvious things that should make us happy, and find we’re still unsatisfied, so we turn to the less obvious ideas. Though of course the existence of rich people who have so much and still demand more puts a hole in the idea that this is a universal human concept.
And once again, when The Simpsons comes back to an idea, it takes it just one step further. The Stonecutters exist to enable some serious drinking and debauchery, and they haven’t felt the spiritual emptiness Homer has. To some extent, it’s the overly cynical idea that people in general are too lazy and selfish to aim for (let alone achieve) any kind of enlightenment, which to my eye is understandable to feel a lot of the time but isn’t strictly true – most people want to be, and think of themselves as, good and decent people and often take a stab at doing the right thing. But I think it’s also an accurate reflection of the idea that the world doesn’t get smarter just because you did. Nobody’s had Homer’s spiritual crisis, nobody’s learned the emptiness of getting everything you ever wanted and still being unhappy. A lot of the time, learning something new that the rest of the world doesn’t know can make you smug, like you have power the rest of the world doesn’t, but Homer here feels what I think is more common – despair, rejection, and powerlessness. It’s what makes the ending land as powerfully as it does, when Homer can fall back on the support and love of his family. After getting paddled.
Chalkboard Gag: Adding “just kidding” doesn’t make it okay to insult the principal.
Couch Gag: The family’s house looks like an MC Escher painting.
This episode was written by John Swartzwelder and directed by Jim Reardon. This has so many brilliant Swartzwelderian jokes, with my favourite being Homer’s oath (“May my stomach be bloated and my head be plucked of all but three hairs.”). It’s the precision of the language, sounding so much like what these kind of oaths would sound like while setting up the gag. The best shot of the episode is the one of the Stonecutter headquarters with Homer’s shadow cast on it. It’s almost pure Simpsons, something genuinely beautiful, probably a reference to something, absolutely hilarious, and subtly sophisticated in technique – it sets up the gag of Homer falling through the window in the funniest possible way. Best animation is of Skinner bowing to Homer and then crawling out of the room, a perfect visual representation of toadying.
Patrick Stewart guest stars as Number One, and his appearance here totally fails to set up his role on American Dad – this relies fully on his gravitas as opposed to letting him get drunk on Acting. The egg council creep shows up at the Stonecutters meeting! File under “things that aren’t really jokes but are somehow still hilarious”: Moe crying out “Somebody get the Jaws of Life!”
The Stonecutters, as you might guess, are based on the Freemasons. When the Stonecutters burn Homer’s underwear, ghosts come out of it a la Raiders Of The Lost Ark. Also, the Stonecutters have the Ark. Homer’s crowning as the Chosen One is a reference to The Last Emperor.
Iconic Moments: 2. “It’s ‘No Homerssssss’. We’re allowed to have one Homer.” | “I’m an Elk, a Mason, a Communist, I’m the president of the Gay And Lesbian Alliance for some reason…”
Biggest Laugh: It’s so hard to pick this one! Homer rebuffing Lisa’s advice against hubris kills me (“Beware the Ides of March.” / “No.”), and Bart and Lisa’s special rings is such a hilariously dumb gag, but ultimately this was the winner: