(originally aired March 11, 1993)
What is the greatest Simpsons episode ever? Completely subjective of course, but a few select shows have become notorious for being labelled the absolute greatest by a variety of sources. “Last Exit to Springfield” seems to pop up the most: it was named best episode ever by an Entertainment Weekly piece, along with many other journals and Internet bloggers. Years back when I read the EW piece I was a bit surprised at their #1 pick. “Last Exit” was not an episode that really stuck out for me. Re-watching it now, I can certainly see why people love it, it contains the best of all of the show’s greatest elements: a tight, rich plot, lots of great ridiculous gags and parodies, and some interesting character stuff sprinkled in. Some people might feel the need to nitpick at such a highly regarded episode, but why bother? It’s a fantastic episode that shows just how damn great the show can be.
The story’s pretty easy to surmise: Burns hopes to undercut his workers’ dental plan, causing Homer to unwittingly step up as head of the union, later resulting in a power plant strike. One thing I love about this episode is how focused it is, how every element is tied into the plot. The McBain opener is hilarious on its own, but Mendoza’s cartoonish villainy is purposely mirrored to Burns’. The bits with Lisa and the dentist are all connected since that’s what drives the main story. Episodes like these feel like they have more weight; there are still a fair share of wacky gags, but they all serve a purpose as the story moves along. Also great is our hero Homer, after rousing up enough enthusiasm to become union leader to begin with, seems to absent-mindedly ride the rest of the story out. Burns raises him to a superior level as Homer fights with his own mind. Any attempt by Burns to reach Homer is completely futile as the loveable oaf has no idea what he’s doing; Burns underestimates Homer, but for all the wrong reasons. It’s not until the end when he finally realizes that.
There’s parodies galore in this show, sometimes piling up two or three in a row. We have Homer imagining himself in Godfather Part II (“That’s-ah nice-ah donut”), Lisa’s legally distinguishable Yellow Submarine hallucination, immediately followed by the scene from Batman where Joker smashes the mirror, and the ending with Burns standing in for the Grinch, and Smithers as poor Max (in a wonderfully animated sequence). There’s absolutely classic gags as well: a thousand monkeys on a thousand typewriters, “Dental plan!” “Lisa needs braces,” Grampa’s rambling story about onion belts, Homer thinking Burns is making a pass at him, the list goes on. I don’t know how high up this show would rank in my favorites list, but it certainly is one of the best of this season. It’s an absolute classic in every sense of the word: satirical, sincere, and of course hilarious.
Tidbits and Quotes
– The ‘Springfield, 1909’ flashback is fantastic: in sepia tone we see Grandpa Burns haranguing a poor urchin workers for attempting to pocket six atoms, with young Monty Burns with lolly in tow. The squeaky voiced wage slave protests: “You can’t treat the working man this way. One day, we’ll form a union and get the fair and equitable treatment we deserve! Then we’ll go too far, and get corrupt and shiftless, and the Japanese will eat us alive!” It’s one of those classic Simpsons lines that tells so much in so little.
– I also really like how the story really occurs through happenstance. Burns just wants petty revenge against the unions and picks to cut the dental plan at random. If he’d chosen anything else, Homer wouldn’t have felt the need to protest, and there’d be no episode. But that’s how life works sometimes: the biggest events are triggered by the smallest decisions.
– Painless Dentistry (formerly ‘Painful Dentistry’) is a great set-piece, with the most vindictive dentist you’ve ever seen, armed with his greatest asset “The Big Book of British Smiles.” Great bits include him loudly calling Marge a liar as she tries to cover up Maggie’s pacifier sucking (followed by the baby sucking on a giant tooth as substitute,) his virtual depictions of future Lisas with ghastly teeth, and his terrifying words to Lisa before going under (“The first thing I’ll be doing is chiseling some teeth out of your jaw bone. Hold still while I gas you!”)
– At this point the joke of Burns not knowing who Homer is had run its course, so here we have Smithers trying to remind him by mentioning the numerous memorable encounters he’s had with the man. Burns still runs a blank.
– An easy joke, but still hilarious: Homer mentions how he’ll have to be a good negotiator, then Bart bilks him out of his crummy danish in exchange for a delicious doorstop.
– We not only get one great Burns monologue where Homer confuses as an advance, but two, the second further urging Homer’s need to take a piss. Being in Burns’ leaky basement (which he should really stop ending his tours in) and spilling some of his coffee doesn’t help. The best is the end of the scene where Homer dodges Burns question about finding the bathroom; he obviously just urinated in a random room out of desperation.
– Love the school photographer’s overreaction to Lisa’s antiquated braces: “There is no God!”
– The sequence of Burns and Smithers running the plant is one of my favorites in the entire series, and the music over it is definitely my favorite piece of music ever done on the show. I remember in a much, much later episode it was used again in a much, much poorer Burns and Smithers montage, and I was infuriated that they brought it back in such a shoddy way. I’ll have fun ripping that to shreds when I get to that episode… about a year from now.
– This episode’s phenomenal, but it contains the first of many wasted, superfluous guest stars in Dr. Joyce Brothers, who has one line (“I brought my own mic!”) I don’t know if they had other material for her that they cut, but it was kind of quick and random. Thankfully the Smartline segment is hilarious anyway, with the producers instructing Kent to not talk to Homer and allowing Burns his self-proclaimed opening tirade.
– Love the Get Smart montage of Burns and Smithers getting to the main power grid, only to have a ramshackle screen door already there. Burns cutting power to the town is a pretty dramatic scene (“Goodbye, Springfield! From hell’s heart, I stab at thee!”)