The premise: Still riddled with grief over his mother’s death, Todd Flanders has a crisis of faith, resulting in an angry tirade at church where he publicly renounces his belief in God. Incensed, Ned forces Todd to stay with the Simpsons, hoping living in such a sinful hellhole will strike the fear of God back in his son.
The reaction: Reading the synopsis of this episode a few weeks ago most definitely got my attention, something I can’t remember ever happening before. Ned Flanders and his two boys have really gone through a lot; our floating timeline makes it unclear exact;y how much time has gone by, but over what must feel like a tragically too short period of time, Ned has loved and lost two wives, and Rod and Todd two mothers. It’s a topic that was really only explored in Maude’s death episode “Alone Again, Natura-Diddly,” and a little bit in the following season’s “I’m Goin’ to Praiseland,” but those two shows were much more concerned with goofy dumb antics and Homer acting like an asshole, and most importantly, forcing Ned to move on and start dating again, moving swiftly past Maude, given killing the character off was directly tied with her voice actress getting the boot by FOX anyway. Ned, Rod and Todd never felt like they had any time to grieve, and while Maude was really a relatively minor character we didn’t know all that much about, an episode dealing with the effects of her absence is absolutely brimming with potential, especially when viewed through the eyes of an innocent child coping with the loss of a parent. So I got excited. Despite absolutely knowing I should know better given the shitty shit shit quality of this show, I got a little bit hopeful. I mean, we’re now almost twenty years passed since Maude’s untimely death, but I guess better late than never to tell this kind of story. I was also curious if this episode would even acknowledge Edna Krabappel and her role in the Flanders’ lives as the new stepmom or anything, but as I figured, despite her making two brief cameo appearances towards the end, she’s never mentioned. She doesn’t even appear in any of the many photos on the Flanders walls. “Nedna” was completely pointless, and there was absolutely nothing to their relationship. But who cares? I’m willing to put all of that aside, pretend it never happened, and make like this show happened like a few seasons after Maude’s passing. I was willing to give this episode some rope to tell a meaningful story about these characters… and it then proceeded to hang itself with it while shitting all over my face.
I was immediately fooled by the episode’s opening. Ned wakes up teary eyed from a dream about Maude, alerting Todd, prompting him to ask his son if he ever dreams about his mother. Todd is hesitant; we see that he has dreamed of her, but with a blank face. He somberly recounts this to Ned, “Daddy, I can’t remember what Mommy looks like.” Heartbreaking stuff. I’ll be perfectly honest, as someone who has also lost their mother, the conceit of this episode has me in the bag already. I too struggle with these kinds of things with my mother. Her face and voice becoming less clear, memories of her getting hazier, all of this is very scary stuff, the idea of someone who meant so much to you becoming more and more of just a faint recollection. This is GOOD SHIT, incredibly emotional material you could definitely center a whole episode around. This show has dealt with the topic of death in very serious and honest ways, while simultaneously remaining incredibly funny and poignant (“Old Money,” “One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish,” “‘Round Springfield,”) so it’s incredibly disappointing that this episode starts to go off a cliff in the very next scene, signaled by two glaring things. Ned shows his boys an old home movie of Christmas morning to show them their dearly lost mother, a beautiful occasion quickly interrupted by a confused and irritated Abe Simpson busting through the door, and Homer abandoning him there for the day. Later, Todd watches more home videos of his mother and him, tape footage that is promptly interrupted by Homer in a bad wig playing air guitar, as we cut back to Todd holding back tears as Homer continues being an ass, having taped over Ned’s personal home video tapes for God knows why. I’ll get into this in a bit, but Todd very quickly gets steamrolled out of his own story, and his emotional pleas about his beloved mother are mostly ignored.
The second glaring thing is that Ned is firmly in ultra-religious caricature mode, a big part of his Flanderization over time was him becoming less and less like a normal human being and more an avatar for jokes about conservative Christian zealots. Fair enough, he’s been like this forever. But what I wasn’t expecting is that after Todd passionately renounces his faith, Ned is absolutely furious at him (“Son, let me put this gently… WE’RE ALL GOING TO HELL!!”) We proceed to get more doozy lines from him going forward (“You do not question God’s real estate holdings and tax-free status!” in response to Todd asking why God needs so many churches.) Here’s the thing: this episode could have featured an incredibly conflicted Ned. Concerned for his son’s soul, but still warm and understanding considering he’s still grieving. Hell, he himself is still grieving Maude too. Todd could get increasingly obstinate about his renouncement of God, which could over time lead Ned to the brink in frustration. Ned could even have a crisis of faith himself, which was used as a joke back in “Natura-Diddly.” But instead, the episode becomes about needing to get Todd believing in God again, almost entirely disconnected from him missing Maude. Ned is furious at Todd, with no further mention from him about his son deeply missing his mother (“There must be some way to scare religion back into my son!”) He sternly casts Todd out to live with the Simpsons, where we get scenes of Homer and Marge attempting to get intimate without Todd’s keen ears hearing, and Lisa doggedly attempting to convert Todd to Buddhism for some reason. No sympathetic ears are ever extended to this poor kid. Eventually we circle back around to hearing from Todd about how he misses his mom, which actually clicks with Homer, who has also lost his mother. But from there, he abandons the young child on a park bench, rushing to Moe’s to drink away the pain, meets Ned there, the two get drunk together, then get hit by a car and sent to Heaven. Where the fuck is this episode going?
Ned and Homer are both in comas at the hospital, leading to the one and only nice moment of the episode, where Marge actually helps Todd cope with his conflicted feelings on whether or not he should pray for his father (“Prayer doesn’t have to be to God, it can also just be an honest conversation we have with ourselves. Just do what your heart tells you.”) Meanwhile, Ned and Homer are dicking around in Heaven, where the former hears Todd praying and returns to Earth. “Daddy, you came back! I believe again!” the boy cries. “Two lives saved by prayer!” Ned responds, as the family has a group hug. What am I to take from all this? I haven’t the foggiest. The episode ends with Maude’s ghost tenderly tucking in Rod and Todd, an absolutely hollow attempt at a sweet ending, so I really have no idea of the writers even acknowledge that the show wasn’t even about her death. It’s episodes like these that really convince me this show is truly unfixable, at least in how it’s been run for the last nearly twenty years. Last week’s “Thanksgiving of Horror” was admittedly fun, fleeting entertainment (an absolute rarity in over a decade of nearly uninterrupted junk), but the rot of this series runs too deep. Some shows will have glimmers of decent ideas, but through the writing and rewriting process, these concepts and themes end up completely buried in stupid nonsense. Every so often a stock character will breech ever so close to actually behaving like a human being, like Todd being sad he forgets his mother’s face, but that shit will be shot down real quick, in this case being an empty, status quo-confirming resolution that doesn’t even address why he was mourning in the first place. Over the course of its over thirty-year-long run, through all of the decaying characterization, the stupid jokes, the preposterous stories, the insulting shots at the fan base, the biggest casualty of the series is the death of its soul, of characters who behaved like real people, and the other characters, and the show itself, acknowledging and respecting that fact. Now, none of that matters, and it hasn’t for a long, long time.
Two items of note:
– Lisa repeatedly pestering Todd about converting to Buddhism reminded me of “She of Little Faith,” whose final act featured Marge attempting to discourage Lisa’s discovery of her new faith and bring her back into the fold of Christianity. I recall being annoyed by her insensitivity, but at least I can kind of understand her plight of wanting her daughter to share her faith and be with her in the afterlife. Here, Lisa knows Todd is upset and grieving his mother… but doesn’t give a shit about that, she’s out for souls to convert! For some reason? Outside of the complete insensitivity from who should be the most sympathetic Simpson, we’ve never seen Lisa militantly try to push for new converts before. And then it’s the stinger at the end of her being chewed out by Buddha by not nabbing an easy get like Todd Flanders. Scenes like those make it clear that the writers as a whole never really gave a shit about writing a serious story about Todd’s grief or Maude’s death at all.
– Glenn Close returns as Mona Simpson in her tenth guest appearance, with seven of her appearances being posthumous for the character. Here, we get more revisionist history painting Mona as unusually cold and distant, rebuffing her son’s earnest attempt at a hug in Heaven, and appearing in a flashback screaming at Abe as a young Homer cries himself to sleep (“I’d tell the kid I love him, but I’m as bad at goodbyes as I am at picking husbands!”) Why did they do this? Outside of any continuity issues, why the fuck wouldn’t they make it that Homer bonds with Todd over their fond memories of their loving mothers? How the fuck do you not make that part of the episode? If Ned is too wrapped up in his unflinching religious bullshit to speak to his son after excommunicating him, maybe Todd’s first step back is to open up to a kindred spirit who knows how it feels to lose a mother? Instead, not only does this not happen, but they retroactively make Mona kind of an asshole? WHY.
One good line/moment: Todd’s somber retelling of his dream of his faceless mother, and Marge’s heart-to-heart with him at the end about prayer are two honestly great moments, acting as bookends to a truckload of fucking horseshit. But because of this, that the episode doesn’t even attempt to even fucking try within the body of the story, those two scenes are rendered completely inert. Fuckballs.