So, yeah, the baby did it. If “Part One” was all buildup, this is all winding down – the consequences for all those actions. I’ve always been struck by the elegance of the plotting of this episode. Each act has a different purpose, and indeed it’s almost constantly switching protagonists – Wiggum and Lisa generally swap out investigating the crime, but we also have Smithers as the guilt-ridden red herring and Homer as the Richard Kimble-esque Man On The Run, and for a brief pair of scenes we even have Sideshow Mel as an amateur Sherlock Holmes and Krusty as his bumbling wacky sidekick. The overall goal is to pay off the eponymous mystery, and the Simpsons crew find a lot of neat solutions to that problem. Act One focuses on clearing the name of the obvious red herring they set up, Act Two knocks out the smaller red herrings, and Act Three introduces a Complication (the police think Homer did it) that can lead us to the actual solution coming out. We can also flip this over; HP Lovecraft described his process as beginning with a clear timeline of events and then choosing the order that the reader discovers them, and we could also suppose that the writers started with “Burns gets shot when his gun falls out of its holster while stealing candy from Maggie” and “Smithers goes home early and shoots Jaspar” and then let both audience and characters discover what happened from there. We’d go to the most obvious suspect, and then once he’s cleared go down the list of suspects. Once they were cleared, we’d look closer at the evidence, and when we inevitably find Simpson DNA, we’d go after Homer (with some big help from Burns being incapable of saying anything other than Homer’s name). This is all quite sophisticated storytelling, all the moreso for how accessible and easy to watch it is.
I really enjoy Smithers’ little arc this episode. In terms of pure intelligence and general decency, he’s something of an Everyman, which puts him higher than most in Springfield; it’s just that decency and intelligence is inexplicably put into loving Mr Burns. I think the bit that gets me the most is when he sincerely apologises to Jaspar for shooting his wooden leg – he’s relieved that he hasn’t done the worst thing he can imagine, but still feels the need to apologise for committing a wrong that his victim didn’t even seem to notice. I think that makes “swift, brutal revenge” even funnier, because a) “swift” and “brutal” aren’t words we’d naturally associate with the guy apologising to Jaspar and b) it implies how much of that compassion is mainly expended on Mr Burns. The switch to Lisa and Wiggum is less rewarding in terms of character; I enjoy seeing someone so lazy and incompetent as Wiggum forced to actually do work for a change, and I enjoy watching Lisa get her Nancy Drew on, but it’s all better at being funny than it is interesting. This is frustrating, obviously, but at the same time I feel like I’m being greedy, asking for it to be hilarious, technically brilliant, and contributing something deep to the Simpsons mythology. To an extent, Act Two is simply living in the world we’ve spent six seasons creating – not expanding on it, but rather getting out of Moe and Krusty and Skinner’s ways and letting them do what they do.
Act Three becomes a full-on thriller, a race against time as Homer goes on the run to take his vengeance on Burns with the townsfolk one step behind him and Lisa having to race both to get the truth of his innocence out. I actually really enjoy the melodramatic visual of Burns collapsing on a sundial to tell us his attempted murderer, and that Lisa is the one to read it (even if she’s wrong). The shooter turning out to be Maggie is something the show would joke about later, as if it were a deeply hacky joke, and people here and elsewhere have speculated whether it would be better to be, like, Barney, but honestly the more I sit and think on it the more I love it being the baby. On a practical level, I love that it resolves the story in a way that returns us to the status quo while still being off-your-rocker weird – like, I can’t help but find it significant that there’s only one recorded case of someone successfully solving the crime. A great story, like a great joke, is both shocking and logical; I run anyone else through my head, and I don’t feel the sense of reality breaking that I do when Burns cries “Maggie Simpson!”. And I love what it implies. If there’s any one major thing this two-parter teaches us about Springfield, it’s that the townsfolk are cowards, perfectly willing to let a guy literally block out the sun without coming after him. This feels like a clear extension of the general cynicism and apathy we’ve seen for six seasons, with people like Homer and Barney slowly drinking themselves to death and people like Moe profiting off it, or people like Skinner cheerfully bucketing water out of a sinking ship while people like Mrs Krabappel sigh and throw their hands up. Of course none of these people had the guts to stop him. Of course it was only a baby that would step up.
Chalkboard Gag: I will not complain about the solution when I hear about it.
Couch Gag: The living room turns into a police lineup.
This episode was written by Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein and directed by Wes Archer. David Silverman was the only animator aware of the culprit, and the table read ended before the third act. Several alternate endings were animated, including one in which Smithers actually did do it.
“I’ve had it up to here with these rickets!” is famous as a joke that makes kids laugh long before they find out what rickets are. I always thought that was Hank Azaria singing “Senor Burns”, but it is in fact one of Tito Puente’s band members. Weirdly, Grampa apparently puts orange juice on his cereal. Marge being convinced that she took Homer’s DNA when she married him is such a Marge detail; love Lisa’s exasperated “Okay, Mom.” There’s a reference dropped to Marvin Monroe with the Marvin Monroe Memorial Hospital. The episode ends with Puente’s band performing the show’s theme.
The opening of the episode is a reference to Dallas’ infamous reveal that the events of season nine were a dream, with a reference to The Mod Squad embedded within the dream. Groundskeeper Willie’s crossing and uncrossing of his legs is a reference to Basic Instinct. The nightclub is called Chez Guevara, a reference to Communist revolutionary Che Guevara. Homer’s escape from the paddy wagon is a reference to The Fugitive, as his appearing by Burns’ bedside in a doctor’s outfit. Wiggum’s dream is a reference to Twin Peaks.
Iconic Moments: 3. “Sidewalks for regular walkin’, not for fancy walkin’!” | “You shot who in the whatnow?” | Moe’s entire monologue with the lie detector.