An unpleasant encounter with Nelson Muntz lead Marge to warn Bart never to spend time with him. “Nelson’s a troubled, lonely, sad little boy,” she says. “He needs to be isolated from everyone.” Ignoring this, Bart walks to the Muntz household, where Nelson cajoles him into firing his newly-won BB gun at at a bird nested in a nearby tree. Bart, uncomfortable taking a life, tries to miss the shot, but instead hits and kills the bird due to a crooked sight on the gun. As he shrinks from his new reputation as a “cold-blooded killer,” Marge finds him there, discovers the dead bird, and gives up.
What’s the point, Bart? I punish, and I punish, and I punish, but it never sinks in. So you know what? Do what you want. You wanna play with little hoodlums, fine. Have fun killing things.
She leaves Bart alone with his misery, shut off from his mother’s love, and without a ride home.
Bart discovers the bird he killed had been incubating eggs. To appease his conscience, he takes them to his treehouse to hatch them there in secret. When Marge discovers him perched over the eggs, warming them with his ass heat, her heart melts and she helps him to hatch what turns out to be not birds, but lizards.
The family consults with the Springfield bird-watching society, who proclaims the lizards to be Bolivian tree lizards, an invasive species that replaces bird eggs with its own, and whose young devours the bird that had moments before been guarding their lives. Skinner resolves to kill the lizards and eliminate the threat, but Marge assists Bart’s escape, and the lizards fly to safety, where they live out their lives decimating Springfield’s pigeon population.
This to me is a fascinating episode in the way it reveals the contradictions that live under the surface of characters we thought we knew.
The most obvious is Bart himself. Like his father, he’s relentlessly id-driven and commonly unaware of the damage he’s doing to the people around him. Unlike Homer, he’s occasionally capable of remorse – but in a way that never seems to last and never requires a long-term commitment. We’ve seen him repent before – for breaking Lisa’s Thanksgiving centerpiece – and we’ve seen him attempt to repair his mistakes – as when he wrote Woodrow’s final letter to Ms. Krabapple in “Bart the Lover.” But we’ve never seen him do something hurtful at the start of an episode, then spend the rest of the time putting in the hard work to make things right.
That’s what makes Bart the Mother such an important episode for him. It’s a genuinely self-sacrificing act, and he maintains that sacrifice through to the end. His words of contrition didn’t move Marge’s heart, but his actions do, and his redemption is fully earned.
Marge’s characterization is a little harder to parse. On first viewing, she comes across as cartoonishly villainous when she abandons Bart and gives up on him. I have childhood memories of times my mother wouldn’t listen to the mitigating circumstances, or the honest mistakes that led to a horrid mistake, or how this one bad act wasn’t who I really was. Maybe we all have memories like that with a parent or relative or teacher. The indignity never really goes away. And for Marge to pile onto that indignity the idea that she was giving up on him, in that moment and divorced from context, seems beyond heartless.
But with the luxury of hindsight, I can see Marge’s perspective too. If I were a parent, I could tell you how that experience changed me, but the truth is that I can empathize with Marge based solely on looking back at my own childhood.
I don’t want to indulge in too much navel-gazing, but I can say honestly that I was the kind of kid to make my mother feel like giving up on me. As with Bart, sometimes there were mitigating circumstances, and sometimes there were honest mistakes mixed in with the fuck-ups. But it was never just one act, and it was who I was. I made the wrong choice over and over again until my ideals and my good heart and my potential were buried under a mountain of lies and broken promises.
And so as much as I resented my mom at the time, I look back now and sympathize. To pour your entire being into the task of turning a child into a functional adult, and to be thwarted time and time again – to be left feeling helpless – from the outside appears to be as frustrating and agonizing as anything can be. That she unloaded that frustration on Bart is hard to forgive (though doing so is what gives the scene its power); that she felt is may not be admirable. But it is honest, and it is understandable, and as the culmination of a decade of suffering Bart’s bad behavior, it works. (I have more to say about some of Marge’s less than kind words, but I’ll save those for the stray observations.)
Finally, we have Nelson. It’s not really his episode – he disappears halfway through act two – and again, we’ve explored some of his more subtle nuances in the past, mostly in Lisa’s Date With Density, as well as in Bart on the Road. This episode, more pithiliy than the others, illustrates how seemingly inconsistent traits can live within the same person. He slaps Bart out of boredom, but seems genuinely concerned for Bart’s health (“You’re not going out without a scarf, are you?”). He clearly enjoys the autonomy afforded him by his absent parents, but also craves something better (Marge: “Young man, you’re coming home with me this minute.” Nelson: “All right, finally, a real home!”). He calls out Lisa’s cheating at skeeball, only to proceed with his own far more efficient cheating method; a man’s got to have a code, and Nelson does even if it’s a bit inscrutable.
And is there a better or more succinct way to describe his simultaneous disdain and old-fashioned respect for authority than “Cram it, ma’am”?
But Is It Funny?
- There’s some great physical comedy, like Homer being bombarded by the pitching machine (after getting indignant with it), and Homer falling down the basement stairs in the dark three different times (the sound effects add a lot here).
- Marge sticks to her “slow and steady” plan for go-kart racing, and it works as terribly for her as it always does. (The lesson from that fable shouldn’t be “slow and steady win the race”; it should be “go fast and don’t take naps.”)
- We get our final Troy McClure film ever, as “Birds: Our Fine Feathered Colleagues” was the last performance recorded by Phil Hartman before his untimely death, and it hits the right notes.
- Reverend Lovejoy checks out his Bible from the library every week rather than buying one. This rings true; my father preached for about ten years, and trust me: it is not a good way to make money.
- Jasper finishes his list of birds to be sighted with the pigeon.
- Lisa: “So what prize did you end up getting?”
Bart: “Moustache comb. What’d you get?”
Lisa: “Fake moustache. Wanna comb it?”
- “Hi, I’m Troy McClure. You may remember me from such nature films as ‘Earwigs, Ew!’ and ‘Man Versus Nature: The Road to Victory.'”
- Skinner: “Now, uh, people. There’s been some confusion about our bird sighting rules. You cannot count birds that you’ve seen at the zoo, on stamps, or in dreams.”
- I mentioned other Marge moments. The line I quoted in the synopsis (about Nelson being troubled) works as an indictment of the average privileged suburban mom, but feels out of character for Marge, who’s usually known for her kindness.
- And then there’s the emotional center of the episode:
Bart: “Everyone thinks they’re monsters. But I raised them, and I love them! I know that’s hard to understand.”
Marge: “Not as hard as you think.”
As with the scene where she leaves him at Nelson’s, the subtext is spot-on. But it’s fair to ask if that’s something a loving mother would actually say out loud to her child. “Yes you ARE a monster, but I love you anyway” is maybe something better left unimplied? Fortunately for her, Bart doesn’t pick up on it.
- Also out of character is Skinner’s threat to kill the lizards with a paper cutter and an electric drill. Funny, but it would be funnier coming from a person known to be terrible. Mr. Burns and Moe were already there!
- On the other hand, Edna saying “Oh, for crying out loud, just knock her ass down” feels perfect to me.
- The bird tribunal scene is solid, except that it explains itself too much: the “we’re knee-deep in our own droppings” line is unnecessary and a little gross.
- I like the way Bart decides that “Mommy” isn’t masculine enough a name for him, but “Mom” is okay. Wish he hadn’t used the word “fruity” though.
- Jerkass alert: Homer demanding coffee to go with his mountain of egg-warming pies.
- Two relevant Vonnegut quotes that occured to me while writing this: “That is my principal objection to life, I think: It’s too easy, when alive, to make perfectly horrible mistakes.”
- And “That there are such devices as firearms, as easy to operate as cigarette lighters and as cheap as toasters, capable at anybody’s whim of killing Father or Fats or Abraham Lincoln or John Lennon or Martin Luther King, Jr., or a woman pushing a baby carriage, should be proof enough for anybody that being alive is a crock of shit.”
Skinner: “Well, I was wrong. The lizards are a godsend.”
Lisa: “But isn’t that a bit short-sighted? What happens when we’re overrun by lizards?”
Skinner: “No problem. We simply unleash wave after wave of Chinese needle snakes. They’ll wipe out the lizards.”
Lisa: “But aren’t the snakes even worse?”
Skinner: “Yes, but we’re prepared for that. We’ve lined up a fabulous type of gorilla that thrives on snake meat.”
Lisa: “But then we’re stuck with gorillas!”
Skinner: “No, that’s the beautiful part. When wintertime rolls around, the gorillas simply freeze to death.”
Homer gets a wig, and Bart and Lisa get animated, in Treehouse of Horror IX.