Having comprehensively explored trick-or-treating in last year’s stellar Halloween special, Bob’s Burgers offers something altogether more disquieting tonight as it ventures into psychological horror territory. That’s an ideal fit for the show, considering the youngest Belcher already displays more than her fair share of possibly psychotic tendencies. But “Fort Night” pulls off a particularly clever trick by introducing Millie, who displays all of Louise’s craziest traits without even the vague sense of right and wrong that keeps Louise at least loosely tethered to sanity. Admittedly, Louise has the sort of capricious, unforgiving moral code one normally associates with a prison gang leader or an Old Testament God, but it’s still better than Millie’s utter disregard for the safety and wellbeing of others.
Then again, part of what keeps Louise in reality is her complete lack of filter; she always says exactly what’s on her mind, so we at least know her perception of the world lines up with everyone else’s, even if her reactions don’t. That constant, undiluted honesty is what gets Louise and the rest of the gang into trouble, and it’s eerily heartbreaking to watch the innocent grin slowly disappear from Millie’s face as Louise showers her with verbal abuse. But the momentary sadness on Millie’s face is replaced with an expression of unfathomable blankness, as Louise’s would-be best friend starts plotting her revenge. As such, the episode rather neatly manages to have its thriller story both ways, casting a more extreme version of Louise as its villain while keeping the real McCoy trapped inside the fort, where her own casual cruelty can be channeled toward first manipulating the twins into climbing through a disgusting dumpster and later hunting out and punishing the snitch. This episode isn’t exactly scary, but it’s brilliantly tense and creepy as it shows the Belchers and their friends at the mercy of a child seemingly without any boundaries whatsoever.
While that’s enough to make “Fort Night” an exemplary Halloween episode, it’s the jokes that make this a great Bob’s Burgers. This is a welcome return to form after last week’s mild misfire “A River Runs Through Bob,” and a big part of the episode’s success is how it spotlights the show’s supporting characters. The Aziz Ansari-voided, Devo-garbed nerd Darryl makes a welcome return, his initial affable worldliness—“True, fading, it is an issue”—giving way to pantsless treachery. The character offers a fresh spin on Ansari’s gift for embarrassing meltdowns, as Darryl proves singularly unable to deal with his unexpected incarceration. “Fort Night” plays up all of Darryl’s social deficiencies—his claustrophobia, his awkwardness, his need to poop—without ever making him unlikeable. He’s pathetic, to be sure, and his one actual escape plan nearly gets them all killed, but he means well, and he at least has the decency to cry like a baby whenever he doesn’t mean well.
As for Andy and Ollie, the Bob’s Burgers writers seem to recognize the twins’ usual exuberance works best in small doses, and so they are subtly toned down for their more extensive role here. Andy’s “death” at the hands of Millie’s plastic spiders is still plenty ridiculous, but the confusion over why Ollie will see his brother every time he looks in the mirror (because they look alike, Andy helpfully explains) plays more like an exchange between two real characters who just happen to be silly rather than a pair of over-the-top caricatures. That exchange works particularly well because it’s the rare, almost unprecedented moment when the twins aren’t in lockstep, and Ollie’s delayed realization humorously undercuts what is already a deeply, intentionally unconvincing death scene. I imagine they will return to their normal conjoined hyperactivity when the show next requires it, but it’s still a welcome bit of development for the twins. Indeed, their very best line may also be their quietest, as Andy quizzically wonders what Louise meant when she said they came out of their mom.
That particular joke offers an almost uncomfortably perfect segue into Bob and Linda’s story, given the latter’s grumbling about all the time the kids spent in her original fort, even if they won’t now invite her into theirs. The parents’ subplot is a more straightforward Halloween-themed tale, as they try and mostly fail to make a Chinese dragon costume for the kids. Given the lower stakes of their story compared to the kids’ predicament, the show provides more room for rambling silliness, as when Bob and Linda bicker at length over who is supposed to be making the foot and who is supposed to be doing the tail, an argument Bob wins by recalling his deeply stupid mnemonic (“You can’t tail me what to do!”) and displaying his superior tail-making skills. The main plot represents just enough of a tonal departure from the typical Bob’s Burgers story that the episode benefits from the freewheeling goofiness of the parents’ storyline. Linda gets in her usual breakneck emotional shifts, as she instantly moves from misplaced pride in her dragon to horrified certainty that her children are dead to irritation with all their fort rules.
Still, their funniest moment comes toward the end of the episode, as Bob and Linda decide to don their terrible costume and go trick-or-treating. Bob positions himself as such a sensible grump that it’s always a delight to see him participate in a harebrained scheme, especially when he does so without being at the brink of a nervous breakdown. His childish falsetto—complete with faint but unmistakable lisp as he declares, “It’s a dwagon, duh”—and stupid insults about a man being 60 suggest Bob has put just enough effort into his disguise that he can be legitimately embarrassed when it instantly falls apart. It’s telling that Bob drops the act and reverts to his normal voice and posture once the sexagenarian identifies him. The man stops being annoyed at the bizarre trick-or-treater before him and just starts laughing at what he assumes is some weird prank, and Bob can’t quite deal with the fact that someone knows he would ever do something this stupid. The whole sequence is a masterful combination of multiple kinds of jokes; there’s the gloriously silly visual of Bob and Linda in the dragon costume, the initial silliness of their trick-or-treating, and the subsequent, somewhat more naturalistic humor of the man recognizing a mortified Bob.
“Fort Night” works as well as it does because it always knows just where to draw the line. Both Linda and Bob get in their usual freak-outs—the latter even involves the latest chapter in Bob’s feud with his arch-nemeses at Reflections—but the episode generally keeps them at an even enough keel that they don’t distract from the relatively serious events unfolding inside the fort. With Millie, the show recognizes when to give her creepiness some space, emphasizing her growing madness with some chilling music and an unnerving, straight-on framing of her face. But it also knows when to defuse the tension with some typical Bob’s Burgers goofiness, as when Gene tries to placate her by complimenting her hair and asking whether she’s been working out. Perhaps the wisest decision comes later in the episode, when the gang faces the pretty much inevitable jeopardy of the truck’s loading ramp crushing the fort. While the show could just about have gotten away with Millie pushing the button herself, it’s a wise bit of restraint to not make her an actual attempted murderer, which would likely overstretch the show’s already elastic reality. “Fort Night” admirably pushes the boundaries of what a Bob’s Burgers episode can be, but the fact that it has far more to offer than mere shock value is what makes it a classic.
- I should probably expand a little bit on that last point, because I imagine some of you might disagree with the idea that it would somehow harm the show if Millie had actually tried to kill them. I’m sympathetic to that view, actually, as it’s certainly true that Louise has already done plenty of crazy things in her time, including quite seriously threatening to maim and possibly kill her siblings. So, on balance, if Millie had pushed the button, I imagine the show would have been fine. But I’d still argue that it was a wise decision to not play that particular card, as the world of Bob’s Burgers is just realistic enough that it probably shouldn’t have more than one potentially murderous child running around at any given time. Besides, the fact that she’s not involved sets up that terrific payoff at the end of the episode, as the Belcher kids imitate ghosts and purloin her candy. It’s also a great bit of characterization that Millie’s freak-out at their apparent deaths is less about the loss of life and more about the trouble she’s going to get into, which quickly turns into her wondering whether she will like her therapist.
- “Mort, Teddy, what are you doing right now?” “Adjusting myself without anyone noticing.” “Watching Mort adjust himself.” Ah, Mort and Teddy, how I’ve missed you.
- “Cool, I collect porcelain horses. I experiment with where I put them on my dresser.” Tina doesn’t get a ton to do in this episode, but she makes every line count.
- “Who is this kid?” “I like her. She’s fun!” Linda’s instincts are always, always wrong.
- Pilot was feeling under the weather this week, so I hope you don’t mind me subbing in. She’ll be back once Bob’s Burgers returns on November 3 from its World Series-induced hiatus.