5. Bart the General

(originally aired February 4, 1990)
This episode is a writer-director dream team: David Silverman in his third outing, and the prolific and mysterious John Swartzwelder in his very first episode, the man who’s written more Simpsons episodes than any other writer, many of them topping fans’ (myself included) lists of greatest episodes ever. And this episode’s a real great one, full of really down-to-earth material, relateable emotions and experiences, combined with bizarre dream sequences and an over-the-top finale. It’s probably my favorite one so far, as it’s such a real story, but still manages to integrate so many funny and weird elements into it, but that’s really the genius of Mr. Swartzwelder, as we’ll see in many episodes to come.

We begin this one as Bart, in his efforts to defend his sister’s honor on the school yard, inadvertently ruffles the feathers of big bully Nelson Muntz. While he plays a rotating role between ally and menace nowadays, Nelson is a real threat here at the start, with a great gruff performance by Nancy Cartwright. Stuck with a scheduled showdown after school, Bart passes the time whilst panicking through two fantastic dream sequences. The first is visually ridiculous, of Bart facing down a gigantic Nelson, who is completely unaffected by any knifes or gunfire Bart fires at him. The sequence is so well thought out, the scenes with Bart are so manic-feeling to mirror his fear while Nelson slowly lumbers (and laugh) along, not even fazed by the attacks. The second scene is verbally ridiculous, Bart imagining his funeral, and those paying respect. Each one is hilarious in their own right; Skinner concluding that “homework really was a waste of your time,” Otto marveling at the fantastic job in reconstructing Bart’s face, and an amazing performance, visually and auditory, in Homer’s way waaay over-compensatory mourning of his son, after he’d previously expressed his delight of getting off work. Nelson is last, who simply socks Bart’s body in the gut. Not many shows can make punching a corpse funny like the Simpsons can.

Bart seeks advice for his problem: Marge urges Bart go to the principal on the matter, but Homer intervenes, stressing he would be breaking the code of the schoolyard. (“Don’t tattle, always make fun of those different from you.  Never say anything, unless you’re sure everyone feels exactly the same way you do.”) Such a wonderful commentary on conformist parenting. After his parents’ advice gets him nowhere, Bart goes to his grandfather for advice. In our introductory scene for Grampa, we see him writing a letter to an anonymous advertising agency expressing his disgust at the depiction of old people in the media. This one scene completely encapsulates Grampa’s character: nostalgic, forever crotchety, and full of piss and vinegar. He points Bart in the direction of a friend of his: the one-armed nutjob owner of a military antique shop, Herman. He helps them devise the perfect attack plan to take down Nelson.

A seemingly simple story with Bart dealing with a school bully turns into one of the series’ first forays into pop culture parody. The third act pays tribute to a number of war films, like Patton and Full Metal Jacket. There are even more bizarre allusions to other famous treaties, and even the friggin’ Nuremberg trials when Nelson’s cronies claim they were “just following orders.” The show ends with a treaty being written up, putting Bart and Nelson at a truce, with such great clauses as “Nelson recognizes Bart’s right to exist” and “Although Nelson shall have no official power, he shall remain a figurehead of menace in the neighborhood.” All this and the final end tag, a PBS-mocking segment with Bart attesting that there are no good wars, with the exceptions of the American Revolution, World War II, and the Star Wars trilogy, and that you can learn more at your local library. I appreciate this season for what it is, but this is the first episode I can truly gush about.

Tidbits and Quotes
– We get to know Lisa’s character a bit more here at the beginning, she’s a smart girl, but knows how to have fun, particularly at her brother’s expense. Their back-and-forth on the bus is a fantastic scene, further illustrating their personalities and relationship.
– Nelson’s two little crony characters are so odd to me. They are crucial to the story here, but I really don’t think they’ve ever been seen since, as they were pretty much replaced by the other bully characters. Poor guys. They didn’t even have names.
– “You made me bleed my own blood!” Such a great line, and great delivery too.
– There’s some great drawings of Bart’s mangled contorting face when he’s getting punched by Nelson.
– Grampa’s letter is so great, it deserves to be quoted: “Dear Advertisers, I am disgusted with the way old people are depicted on television. We are not all vibrant, fun-loving sex maniacs. Many of us are bitter, resentful individuals who remember the good old days when entertainment was bland and inoffensive. The following is a list of words I never want to hear on television again. Number one: Bra. Number two: Horny. Number three: Family Jewels.”
– An amazing subtle animated bit: Bart arriving at the treehouse beaten, coughs up his hat (for the second time in the show), then just hangs it up on the wall and begins talking to the others. It just flows and isn’t addressed at all, it’s just there, and I love it for that reason.
– Another great Grampa line: “I thought I was too old. I thought my time had passed. I thought I’d never hear the screams of pain, or see the look of terror in a man’s eyes. Thank heaven for children!”

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2 responses to “5. Bart the General

  1. “What!? And violate the code of the schoolyard!?
    I’d rather Bart die!” this line, and when homer jumps on the punching bag and start biting chunks out, always makes me laugh.

  2. Really like this one, though perhaps not as much as some others, or maybe I’m more critical because it was the first simpsons episode I ever saw back in the early nineties.

    I do like how Nelson is actually just as much of a threat as bullies really are when your a kid, and how menacing he is, perhaps not best ever, but certainly a classic.

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