150. Raging Abe Simpson and his Grumbling Grandson in “The Curse of the Flying Hellfish”

(originally aired April 28, 1996)
Grampa is really one of the show’s more interesting characters. His senile outbursts are his main gimmick, which, like with much of the cast, would usurp his entire character in later years, but his life story is very rich, with fascinating tidbits that may or may not be completely true. He’s a man very much the product of his era: an agile young man sent off to war, then coming back home to settle down with a family. We’ve seen a younger Abe before, full of vigor in his constant berating and denigrating of his only son. Here we see him at full physical form, leading a rough-tough battalion in the Ardennes. We gain a newfound respect for Grampa, as does Bart, who at first is embarrassed by his grandfather’s insolent outbursts, but then starts to believe his war stories aren’t completely nonsense. This is a pretty crazy ambitious episode, and some of the stuff is maybe too fantastical for the normally grounded series, but it’s just incredibly entertaining and one of my favorites.

We start by re-establishing that everyone thinks Grampa is a delusional old coot, especially Bart. But he soon learns of his grandfather’s past, of how he entered a pact with his fellow Hellfishes in the war regarding a trove of paintings stolen by the Nazis. The last surviving member will gain access to these priceless items, and the only two left are Grampa and Mr. Burns. The latter, being the greedy old miser that he is, wants to speed up the process, hiring an assassin to try to kill Abe. The attempted murders are pretty damn silly, but they kind of keep the show balanced from getting too dark. The flashbacks during Grampa’s story are fantastic; we get to see Abe at his most active and courageous, and that Burns was just as selfish and with a sense of entitlement as ever. As gags, we see that familiar ancestors like Wiggum and Barney’s fathers were part of Abe’s platoon, but it makes sense given that Springfield is the typical American town that most townsfolk would have enlisted. We’ve seen Abe’s wartime experiences in a few flashbacks, mostly as gags (him posing as a cabaret singer comes to mind), but it’s great to see it here played in a serious light. A particular great moment is his air of respect when he addresses the gravestones of his men, which feels so genuine, even if it is capped with a joke (“I want you to know that when I die, you’re all welcome to visit me in rich men’s heaven.”)

Bart manages to swipe Burns’ key, and together with Grampa’s, trigger the Hellfish gravemarker to shine a light on the location of the treasure… out at sea. They manage to retrieve the sunken crate, but are ambushed by Burns, who buys time escaping by kicking Bart into the empty crate to sink to a watery grave. Now, this is hands down the most evil, unforgivable thing Burns has ever done, and would seem to be going too far, but for some reason it doesn’t feel that way. You’re wrapped up in the story, and we get to see Grampa be heroic in saving his grandson, and then regaining his past physical feisty nature in getting on Burns’ boat and taking him down. It’s a proud moment for him, and we’re glad to see it. The resolution is pitch perfect, with the US government arriving to retrieve the paintings, and to avoid unwanted tension overseas return the items to their closest living relative: contemptuous snooty Eurotrash (hilariously performed by Hank Azaria). It’s a real adventurous episode; later seasons would be known for having silly action sequences and ramping up absurd elements, which are present in this episode, but the difference is this one earned its finale. The plot is very interesting and works with our characters, and we even get a nice bonding moment between Bart and Grampa at the very end, which is then wonderfully undercut by the best line in the show: “Hey, fun boys! Get a room!”

Tidbits and Quotes
– We get a look at some of the other kids’ grandparents: Grandpa VanHouten has an RV, and a new wife, and Grandpa Muntz, a judge, is proud to announce he’s just sentenced his forty-seventh man to death, a factoid Nelson is quite proud of.
– I love everything about Grampa addressing Bart’s class; where the other men just stood in front of the blackboard, Abe makes himself comfortable at the desk, demanding attention and putting his legs up on the desk as he tells his rambling story (“My story begins in 19-dickety-two. We had to say “dickety” ’cause that Kaiser had stolen our word “twenty”. I chased that rascal to get it back, but gave up after dickety-six miles…”) When classmates, and Mrs. Krabappel, have commentary (Martin scoffs, “‘Dickety’? Highly dubious!”), Abe retorts (“What’re you cackling at, fatty? Too much pie, that’s your problem!”)
– Grampa’s mail gives us some good gags (“Consider burial… at Sea World!”) Grampa is less enthused (“This junk was hardly worth getting up for. Maybe if I go back to sleep for a few days some good mail will build up.”)
I love the atmosphere at the funeral in the rain, the music is very forboding as Burns and Abe, the only two in attendance, give each other knowing stares while holding their respective keys. Reverend Lovejoy gives a lifeless eulogy of Asa Phelps’ life in the background, which is pretty funny if you actually listen to it (“Asa Phelps spent his entire life in Springfield, except for four years’ service in WWII and one high school day-trip. He worked at the United Strut and Bracing Works as a molder’s boy, until he was replaced by a Molder-Matic, and died.”)
– The Hellfish symbol, and the gravemarker, are fabulous designs; they really give the episode a historical, mysterious feel to it.
– Nice swipe at Marion Barry; Burns calls the assassin, identifying himself as M.B., to which the assassin asks Barry if it’s time for another shipment. Barry was mayor of the District of Columbia, infamous for falling victim to a sting operation in 1990 where he did coke. And then afterwards was re-elected. Funny world we live in.
– I like how the assassin’s plans just get worse and worse, from the Simpson family disguises (I love Smithers’ Bart disguise, like why would they think this would work? “I’ll be in the car, dudes”) and then later of him just going for broke and shooting up the retirement home. Unfortunately for him, the nurses are packing more heat (“Our residents [shot] are trying [shot] to nap!! [shot]”)
– Small moment that I love when Grampa is on the Simpson couch recalling the assassination attempts. Thinking her grandfather is out of it, Lisa suggests she moisten the washcloth on his forehead. Grampa shoots up, irate, “It’s plenty moist!” I love that line.
– Love the explanation of why Burns was just a private; Grampa explains Burns was busted for obstructing a probe from J. Edgar Hoover, and they got stuck with him in the battalion.
– Exciting moment when Abe saves Burns from a grenade blast, which then turns into a bizarre dirty joke (“They took a photo of my keister for Stars and Stripes! …at least they told me it was for Stars and Stripes.”) So, yeah, some dirty men’s erotic magazine used a photo of Abe’s ass. Or something to that effect.
– Ox, the stereotypical dim tough guy, is great for when we see him, the only man who can explain what a tontine is in unusually eloquent terms. Grampa also explains he was the first to die, getting a hernia carrying the crate of paintings out of the castle.
– I like Bart’s urgings to go with Burns to get the treasure (“I won’t eat much and I don’t know the difference between right and wrong”) and Burns’ response (“Oh, you’re a good boy, but the child labor people have been watching me like a hawk.”) All an elaborate ruse of course so Bart could get the keys.
– Nice repartee to start the final act as Bart and Grampa walk through the cemetery (“Hey, Grampa, do you think that dead bodies get up and walk around at night?” “If they’re anything like me, they have to get up twice.”)
– Bart needs to dive down into the water to retrieve the crate. Grampa sets up a signal system: tug the rope sixty-three times if he’s out of air, and sixty-four if he’s found the treasure. Why so many times? So dumb, but so great. Castellaneta gives a great performance when the rope tugs sixty-three times and he bemoans his grandson’s death, which, without skipping a beat, switches to jubilant when the rope tugs one more time.
– As over-the-top as it is, I do love the climax, it’s a real exciting and satisfying conclusion, with these two old men returning to their past selves: Abe heroic and Burns sneaky. I also love Shearer’s squirming noises.

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5 responses to “150. Raging Abe Simpson and his Grumbling Grandson in “The Curse of the Flying Hellfish”

  1. This was the last Simpsons episode directed by Jeffrey Lynch, and it’s a shame. He was easily one of the best directors on the show, rivaled only by David Silverman and Jim Reardon. This episode has a unique “feel” to it, and it’s nice to see Grampa in a heroic light for once.

    Best joke, that you already mentioned: “OUR RESIDENTS… (BLAM!) ARE TRYING… (BLAM!) TO NAP!”

  2. Ah, Del Monte.

  3. Anyone who’s ever worked in nursing can sympathize with the shotgun-wielding nurse.

  4. Also, there’s a throwaway line by Grandpa during WWII that I had never noticed before: “Do you want me to report you to Commander Flanders?” lol

    of course, it couldn’t be Flanders’ father because his father was a beatnik and Flanders himself is like 60 (fuck you Viva Ned Flanders) so maybe an uncle?

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