Last week’s episode focused on the father/son relationship between Stan and Steve, so this week is a bit of smart sequencing by Fox to air an episode that centers on Steve’s relationship with his mother. There haven’t been too many Francine/Steve main plotlines over the past few seasons (I think the last was “Spelling Bee My Baby”), so it’s a nice jumble for the cast pairings to land on that one as the A-plot for tonight.
In typical animated sitcom fashion, the plot bends one way for the first act before taking a sharp turn for the second two thirds. Steve’s Gardening Club needs to help the tomatoes grow if they want gazpacho for Arbor Day (seriously, that is a great comedic detail), and Francine wants to help since it’s “one of her four things.” But Steve doesn’t want his mother embarrassing him in front of his friends, er, the Gardening Club, and pushes her away. When Barry reveals that, in a poor move by the club Treasurer, he spent all the funds to obtain dance moves (“Jealous?” “A little.”) Steve steals a tomato cage, and they don’t get caught. That sets off an attempt to shoplift from Baby’s Candy Store, but Steve stupidly gets caught, which leads to the reveal: Francine has been shoplifting for decades, has never been caught, and sees her opportunity to bond with her son by teaching him her artistry.
Meanwhile, Roger, Hayley, and Klaus form a balalaika trio, in a random attempt to corner the Russian folk music market and rake in the rubles.. Their first concert is a total failure—45 maybes on an evite, which means nobody is coming—but just saying the names of the instruments and hearing the band falling apart is hilarious. Playing the boom-bust trajectory of a family band on Russian folk instruments is an inspired throwaway side plot, until it actually helps solve a problem with the plot in the final third.
But before the shoplifting plot begins, Francine expresses her disappointment that she isn’t able to spend time with Steve, and Stan simply brushes it off as him becoming a man and thus having no interest in women. Fittingly, Stan immediately gets his comeuppance—stepping on a rake—but instead of the Sideshow Bob treatment, he takes a shot to the nads. That causes his testicles to retreat into his body, giving him an effeminate voice so high-pitched it attracts dogs. And everyone else in the family gets to laugh—not because injuring himself right after saying something so moronic is hilarious karma, or because getting hit in his balls is ironic—but because hey, Stan sounds like a woman now, who he was just denigrating like always, and he’ll have a funny womanly voice for an indefinite amount of time, perhaps forever.
This is the problem with the stand-by jokes ingrained in Stan’s character: they aren’t often used to hit the better, funnier point. A quick detail like a watch that counts down to Rachel Maddow’s death is both specific enough to get a laugh and enough of a throwaway not to linger on Stan’s liberal-hating. But hitting Stan in the crotch and having everyone laugh at him because of his voice misses the target and leaves comedic dots unconnected.
But then the montage hits, and all the stories converge again. Stan begins to sing “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” from The Sound of Music, because he has the high vocal range of a woman, which overlays Francine’s journey to find the sweatshop and Steve enduring cruel conditions. And one by one, Roger, Hayley, and Klaus reunite the balalaika trio. It takes something reductive and annoying—equating Stan’s injury with not being a man and thus not enough to rescue Steve—and turns it into something fun to watch and useful to succinctly advance the plot. That saved the part of “Crotchwalker” that was hitting the third rail for me, and forgave what I didn’t like in favor of the insane music trio and the idea that such a vanilla store like The Gash would have its Loss Prevention team rendition shoplifters to South American sweat shops.
- The episode title: Wow, that was a terrifying image. When Steve drops out…just, no.
- Steve, literally in the secret room of Francine’s closet: “Blouse monster! No, I won’t put you on!”
- “I think the periods imply detached sarcasm.” And the entire rest of that conversation. It was probably the best exchange in the entire episode.
- “I’m sorry but Rachel Maddow’s death will have to come as a pleasant surprise to me.”
- I thought it was a nice touch to linger on Matilda and then end on that unresolved note, even cutting away to the scene during the credits of the girl still sitting in Venezuela, cursing the woman who broke a promise.