The Simpsons, Season Eight, Episode Six, “A Milhouse Divided”

The strange thing about season eight so far has been seeing things that remind me of post-Golden Era episodes, but I end up liking them a lot more. The central plank of this episode is that two random background characters who’ve never really been the centre of any plot (as Marge points out in a non-fourth wall breaking way) are going through a divorce. One of the major themes of the show’s slump was creating random stories for random background characters, with the main family acting as unlikely (and often unexplained) sidekicks. As always, it’s the plotting that makes this all work; it’s plausible that the Van Houten’s marriage issues would be simmering underneath the action and only become visible to everyone at a dinner party, Marge’s involvement works as both general empathy and embarrassment at her party being the cause of a divorce, and Homer’s involvement mainly comes from him being in the right time and right place to witness something that would have a profound emotional effect on him, and it’s less him getting involved with the Van Houten’s problems as it is getting an idea off them and wandering off to do his own thing. You could argue that the Van Houten divorce doesn’t really get any closure, but that kind of messiness is what I’ve always liked about this show; I think it gets precisely the amount of time and energy it deserves before it plausibly burns out, as opposed to a more conventional show where we’d hit a bunch of predictable beats in predictable order.

So, this episode obviously delves into divorce, and it’s interesting to me how it once again empathises with all the parties involved (I’ll put my bias upfront here: I have absolutely zero personal experience with divorce from any angle and all my analysis is based on what we see here in this episode). What we have here is a scenario where Luanne has been unhappy and planning a divorce in her head for a long time and Kirk has been unhappy but assuming things will just go along the way they always did, and we can see how that plays out in their actions. I like that both have some element of not having thought things through in their arcs; Luanne is seizing a whole bunch of stuff that makes her happy and is leaving a small trail of destruction in her wake that she’s too pleased to notice or care about, and Kirk is impulsively grabbing whatever will immediately cheer him up and watching it crumble before his eyes because he hasn’t put the work in to get it to all function. The Simpsons is a show that has always valued thinking things through, and in this case, relief, shame, and especially spite have overridden their critical thinking. I like that Kirk has been given space to recognise this though; he wasn’t thinking things through in his whole marriage, just reacting and going with the flow, and that’s what he did when he lost his wife and what’s sent him to the gutter.

We get at best an acknowledgement of the effect this had on Milhouse, but given what we know about where the show goes, I’m actually okay with that, and it makes me think about the show’s approach to continuity. It’s famously pretty flexible about a lot of the details, but there are big, important examples of it introducing some immutable idea that sticks, and interestingly, most of these happen at the start and end of the Golden Era. It’s sensible that the first few seasons would take their time in introducing elements and characters and discover things that unexpectedly stuck, and it makes sense that its creativity would plateau as it made a functional world (hence why I dropped the “first appearances” feature). But it also makes a kind of sense that it would eventually hit a wall at what it could do with what it had and start either introducing more elements or adjusting what was already there. In this case, I don’t think making the Van Houtens a divorced couple was a bad idea because it set up potential for more stories and jokes, even as I don’t like where they did go with them.

Chalkboard Gag: N/A
Couch Gag: The family walk in, and Bart is glowing green. Homer adjusts the TV, which changes Bart to neon pink. Homer claps Bart over the back of the head, and he turns normal.

This episode was written by Steve Tompkins and directed by Steven Dean Moore. The idea for the Van Houtens being in trouble partly came from a joke earlier about Milhouse seeing a therapist in “Sideshow Bob’s Last Gleaming”. My analysis was right, and the shift from the Van Houtens to Homer and Marge in the third act was a deliberate move.

Homer divorcing Marge so he can marry her again and start their marriage on the right foot might be the purest example of Homer’s dichotomy; he’s sympathetic because he absolutely wants his family to be happy, and he’s funny because he has no idea what his family actually want, and in this case his action actually makes complete sense and is very sweet once you get past the whole ‘literally got divorced behind his wife’s back’ thing. There’s also the purest example of Homer getting funnier the further in the background he’s pushed when he provides commentary for Luanne’s story, and it’s funnier because he’s not even onscreen for most of it.

It’s kind of funny, but the joke about Kearny being old enough to have a kid and be divorced really grates on me.

The title is a reference to Abraham Lincoln’s “A House Divided” speech.

Iconic Moments: 4. This has a wealth of material used in shitposting. Kirk’s drawing of dignity, “I sleep in a racecar bed!” and Bart hitting Homer with a chair are all used in shitposts.  There’s also “I like his movies, except for that nervous fella who’s always in ‘em!”
Biggest Laugh: