Hey, I found an episode I enjoyed! This re-entry to my Lifetime of Simpsons hasn’t exactly been the best experience, but against all odds, I found an episode I ended up having a pretty good time with. Even though it was a real roller-coaster. I can’t think of another episode that I’ve gone from “hey, this episode isn’t half bad,” to “oh, fuck this episode,” back to “that actually ended up working pretty well.” So, let’s take that ride together!
The episode begins with Homer and Marge getting all dressed up in their bedroom, while Homer sings the very timely theme song of Married With Children. It turns out that it’s their anniversary, and they’re planning to paint the town red, having come up with a pretty solid little idea. They’re going to have fancy dinner, go on a coach ride in the park, play put-put golf, have sex in a sketchy motel, and mail their mortgage payment on time. All around a very satisfying experience.
The only problem is that they’ve largely been blacklisted from all babysitting services, leading Homer to decide that his Amazon Alexa will just watch the kids. But, before Marge and Homer can leave they witness the kids doing their best to destroy Alexa with logical fallacies, and realize that they’re actually going to need a sentient human being watch the kids.
And, because they’re running out of time, Homer decides to scrape the bottom of the barrel and go pick Grandpa up from the Retirement Castle so he can watch the kids. Grandpa is fine with the idea, but Homer does notice that he’s little depressed, and has finally thrown away a picture of he and Mona’s wedding. But, Homer and Marge don’t have a lot of time to pull their fabulous night off, so they race Grandpa home and leave him with the kids.
Grandpa then gets to work making the kids miserable, forcing them to watch some sort of TV show about radio dramas. The kids hate it, so Bart ends up turning the TV off and eating the remote batteries so that they can’t watch anything again. Instead they decide to play some board games, and start looking through their options, which are slim. Grandpa shoots down all of their ideas, and they eventually come across a tub full of little green plastic army men.
Bart pours the Army men out, and it has an almost immediate reaction on Grandpa, throwing him into what appears to be a PTSD flashback to his time in World War II. He really starts freaking out, causing the kids to leave and go get ice cream while he runs around the home in terror. And, he’s still having the panic attack when Homer and Marge return home, showing that they need to actually take care of this problem.
So, the next day the family take Grandpa to a crumbling and ill-staffed VA Hospital so that they can try and get him some therapy. The therapist seems pretty used to dealing with PTSD, and brings out a set of pictures of violent war images, hoping to see one of Grandpa’s freak outs. But, weirdly, Grandpa doesn’t seem phased by that. He claims that he’s at peace about the horrors he committed and saw in the war, causing Bart to bring the Army men back out.
This immediately throws Grandpa back into a panic. Everyone’s confused, until Lisa takes out a magnifying glass and realizes something absurd. The Army men all look like Grandpa. And, with that realization, Abe starts to get some new flashbacks, showing that his memories aren’t from the war, but from a photo-shoot he did when he modeled these toys. And, because this is no longer war related, the VA doesn’t care about Abe, so the family return home to get to the bottom of things.
They start forcing Grandpa to think about this photo-shoot, and he starts to have some memories. He starts to remember that a few years after the war he was walking around the streets of New York in his uniform, and was stopped by some businessmen who ran a toy company. They offered him a lot of money and royalties to be the model for their toys, and he accepted. But, he’s never gotten any money from it, which is probably why it was such a terrible memory.
The family then start putting Grandpa on the television news cycle, letting him tell his story about being screwed over. And, this ends up catching the eye of the toy company, who reach out to Grandpa and offer to let him and the family come to New York, all expenses paid. They do this, and get to drive around in limos, staying in a wonderful hotel, before meeting with the toy executives.
And, things aren’t as they seem. The executive, who is the same executive who made the deal with Abe, says that they wanted to pay him, but he left before the session was over and never even gave them his name. Abe is shocked by this, but when they start talking about it he starts getting more memories, specifically of the photographer Philip Hefflin. Abe remembers having a good time with the guy, but then remembers that at the end of the session Hefflin tried to kiss Abe, causing him to have a homophobic freak-out that led to him storming out without getting paid. And, that kiss is what has given him traumatic memories.
So, that’s less than ideal. But, the thing that really bothers Abe is that this apparently ruined Hefflin’s career, and he feels bad about that. So, as the family plan to return to Springfield, they attempt to look Hefflin up, and are shocked to find that he’s living in Marfa, Texas. Which means the Simpson’s are going to Marfa to help Grandpa clear his conscience for ruining a man’s career!
The family get to Texas, and start driving to Marfa, experiencing the barren nothingness of Texas. But, when they finally get to Marfa they learn that the city is actually an artist haven, as demonstrated by that weird fake Prada store. And, while the rest of the family wander the town, Abe starts strolling around, looking for Hefflin, while wondering if maybe the reason he freaked out so much in the past was because he was actually gay too.
And, things get weird when Abe stumbled upon an art gallery that seems devoted exclusively to paintings and statues of him in his Army uniform. It of course belongs to Hefflin, and the two start to chat. And, it turns out that Hefflin doesn’t resent Abe. Getting fired inspired him to live his truth, embracing his sexuality and coming out to Marfa to live the life he wanted to, full of his art.
Abe is thrilled that things worked out for Hefflin, and that he didn’t ruin his life. The two then start talking about Abe’s sexuality, and Abe says that he’s too old to figure out if he’s bicurious. But, he does agree to finish the old photo-shoot, giving the two some catharsis. And, at the end, the two shake hands, before Grandpa decides to try kissing Hefflin. And, he decides it’s not for him. The family then return to Springfield, and Abe is able to sleep soundly knowing that he a) didn’t ruin a random man’s life and b) that he’s even more comfortable in who he is.
I actually found myself enjoying this episode quite a bit. Which, for parts of it, I wasn’t really expecting. The beginning of the episode, with the babysitting wasn’t really anything, but when it seemed like the episode was going to be about PTSD among the WWII generation and the current state of the VA, I was interested. That could have been a really fascinating thing to handle. But, I wasn’t too surprised when it swerved from that, instead making it about Abe modeling for Army Men. That wouldn’t have been nearly as poignant, but an episode about the horrors of PTSD is maybe a little too heavy for the Simpsons, especially in this era of the show. But, when it briefly seemed like the episode was in fact all about Grandpa repressing the time a guy kissed him, I assumed the episode has lost me. And, it ended up being kind of conflicting. The show has handled the topic of homophobia and learning to be more accepting of people’s sexualities wonderfully in 1997 with “Homer’s Phobia,” so you’d think they’d be better than that. But, with the current way the show is being run and the way the creators have dealt with the whole Apu thing really made me worry that this episode was about to take a real foul turn. But, against all odds, they stuck the landing. Having Abe feel terrible that he may have ruined a man’s life for something so absurd as homophobia was an interesting turn, and then having him seek the man out to make sure things turned out well really ended up working for me. And, to have Abe decide to try kissing Heffling, just to make sure that his real issue wasn’t that he had lived a lifetime of lying to himself, and then to have him just decide it’s not for him, was pretty enlightened. I wasn’t expecting something this well thought-out from modern Simpsons, and it was a really pleasant surprise.
Take Away: Don’t be a homophobe. You owe it to yourself to figure out who you really are.
“Mad About the Toy” was written by Michael Price and directed by Rob Oliver, 2019.
Categories: Lifetime of Simpsons