The Simpsons, Season Eight, Episode Twelve, “Mountain Of Madness”

This is an episode that uses a simple, fast, and tight plot to lightly touch on a range of satirical points; it’s a true extension of the work the show has done up to this point, because it’s gotten its ability to say something down to scenes and sometimes individual lines before moving on. The main thematic throughline is, of course, corporate teambuilding exercises. Despite Burns starting off the episode in a rare moment of upbeat sincerity, “Mountain Of Madness” is deeply cynical about the concept, capturing everything unpleasant and awful about Corporate-Mandated Niceness™. Relationships are organic, messy, and often difficult to quantify, let alone replicate; the shorthand and levels of trust I have with, say, my best friend are not something I’m ever going to get with another person, and I form relationships easier if I don’t even try and simply treat each new person as a new relationship. Corporate culture – and this is an extension of one aspect of human nature in general – wants to create a specific relationship between its workers as simply, quickly, and efficiently as possible, and it often rubs up against people who actively see themselves as rebels and freethinkers, people who don’t like their coworkers, and of course people who just show up to work because they have to and try and get through their day. My favourite little detail in this episode is the joke about Homer losing his map (“You haven’t been issued a map yet!”), because that’s exactly the kind of thing you hear at these things from people who, whether maliciously or innocently, aren’t putting any thought into the exercise at all.

Floating through the middle of this are a few different but related ideas. The family wandering around the National Park might not be the best expression of ‘boredom as comedy’, but it does have the purest and simplest: “Budget cutbacks have forced us to eliminate anything the least bit entertaining.” That quickly shifts to the wonderful sight of Smithers just plain in a shitty mood – we’ve seen him irritable before, and we’ve definitely seen him lose his temper entirely, but this feels like the first time we’ve seen him already in a foul mood and ticked off by everything that wanders into his view, and that tickles me. Speaking of malicious and innocent, it’s a scene that shows how annoying children can be, with a perfect division between Bart’s pranks and Lisa’s innocent rescuing of every animal she sees. I think the main reason I like it is because we see the battle between Smithers’ reflexive niceness and his shitty mood, which pays off both hilariously and in a way that I recognise (“Mr Smithers, that moose is on fire!” / “Fine! Good! I don’t care anymore.”).

Swinging back to the main plot, the final cynical take on corporate culture is Burns revealing a predictable layer of corruption and cheating to win the hike – of course work is something the boss doesn’t have to do. Watching it spiral out of control is a lot of fun, as if they’re being punished for cheating; once again, it’s fun to watch even as it runs out of thematic steam, although there is the very funny fact that if they hadn’t gotten into their fight, they probably wouldn’t have been saved. If the episode retains any deeper energy, it’s through the bizarre humanity of Homer and Burns. Locking a few characters in a room is a time-honoured way for writers to pull rich characterisation out of their weirdos, and Simpsons characters are weirder than most. At first, their relationship plays out pretty straightforwardly; Burns is thoughtlessly authoritarian and Homer is slightly terrified of him, so they end up following Burns’ impulses (it’s strange how Burns seems to go beyond the infinitely old, infinitely rich, infinitely evil archetype he represents and into somewhere almost alien with the phrase “We’ll build real men, out of snow!” and yet still have that feel like exactly the thing he’d say). The descent into cabin fever is inevitable but informed by the particular weirdness of the show, and the final joke of Burns causing a massive stampede over the technical rule his game operated under is a hilarious button to the theme and plot.

Chalkboard Gag: N/A
Couch Gag: The family find Grampa sleeping on the couch as a fold-out, and fold him in to sit.

This episode was written by John Swartzwelder and directed by Mark Kirkland, though the script was heavily rewritten – although, I think all the extremely precise language has Swartzwelder’s fingerprints all over it. Josh Weinstein remarked that this is the first episode to make Lenny and Carl into a double act. The forest ranger was physically based on then-Vice President Al Gore. 

Dan Castellanetta’s impression of John Muir always struck me as sounding almost exactly like John McTiernan.

I totally mixed this up with “King Of The Hill”, in which Homer climbs a mountain alone based on health bars, based on the title. A good fifty percent of my best friend’s vocabulary is lifted from Mr Burns, and he especially uses the phrase “huzzah”, which Burns uses this episode.

The title is a reference to the HP Lovecraft novella At The Mountain Of Madness. Marge watches a filmstrip narrated by John Muir. Burns compares the fire drill to a Ritz Brothers film. Smithers refers to Bart and Lisa as the Bobbsey Twins. 

Iconic Moments: “Your ideas are intriguing to me, and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter.”
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