It’s a pity that the annual American Dad off-the-wall Christmas episode got bumped this year, but in light of how this show’s particular tradition has skewed toward violence, it’s not that unexpected. So instead of perhaps the most-anticipated American Dad episode of the year, we get a surprisingly introspective Francine-centric episode that didn't blow the doors off, but is a solid final outing for the show in 2012.
While Steve and Hayley watch a morning talk show, they discover that Francine fell down a well when she was a child, and got rescued by a firefighter named Henry. Their mother doesn’t want to acknowledge the history, but they coerce her into going onto the show for the 35th anniversary of the incident. What they didn’t realize is that Henry the firefighter died saving their mother, so when his family comes out to reunite with Francine and grills her on what she’s done with her fortunate life, she starts to have a nervous breakdown.
This isn’t just some standard mid-life crisis for Francine: It’s an indictment of her entire way of living and whether she’s done enough in her life to be worthy of saving. And as she considers her life as a housewife and mother, she feels lacking, and is so embarrassed and stressed by the pressure that she can’t face anyone to answer the question, throwing herself down the well once again in attempt to get away. But once down there, she falls through a false bottom, and discovers that Henry (voice by Will Forte) has been living at the bottom of the well for the past 35 years. Forte has done very well before with fringe, mentally disturbed characters before—his recurring role on 30 Rock is particularly memorable—and in a bit part here, he’s funny as an unhinged and maladjusted hermit.
Francine tries to save Henry, but not for his own sake. He’s perfectly happy down in the well and is so far gone that he can’t readjust to everyday society, biting off his wife’s nose, drinking everything in a barber shop, and throwing Klaus’ bowl against the wall of the Smith home. Francine wants the guilt of her survival at his expense off her conscience, but it’s not that simple. Francine has survivor’s guilt, even though as a child she had no control over the situation, which is an interesting emotional center for an episode replacing a Christmas special pulled out of sensitivity for the Newtown tragedy.
But though Henry can’t relate to the rest of society, he is able to articulate to Francine that she doesn’t have to bear the burden of living a great and exceptionally meaningful life just because he saved her. It was his choice to rescue her, just like it’s her choice to do what she wants with her life. All he wants is for her to be happy—a familiar message, but a darn good one. There are plenty of moments in this episode—particularly Francine talking with her kids at the dinner table about what she could do with her life—that in Family Guy’s hands would yield several time-wasting tangents showing Courtney Love or a Rob Schneider movie. But American Dad exercises restraint, focusing on Francine’s guilt and her journey to understand that just because she lived through exceptional circumstances as a child, it doesn’t mean she has to live a publicly meaningful life as a role model for others.
The B-plot runs counter to Francine’s existential crisis insofar that it has absolutely no purpose other than gunning for ridiculous laughs. Roger sees Stan wearing only underwear and shoes, and after observing how strange he looks, they hit upon the idea for Male Stripper Shoes—an idea so great that Roger’s painfully funny dollar sign eyes make an appearance. They head to Giuseppe the shoemaker for a prototype and to Toshi Yoshida’s venture capitalist father for some startup money. But his conditions are a bit too much to handle: He wants Stan and Roger to kill his wife. This is just a goofy subplot, so it’s good that the guys don’t really entertain that idea, playing around with a laser pointer and admiring some cookware before giving up that idea. Instead, Yoshida steals the idea and gets a huge windfall for himself. But Roger isn’t mad once he sees the biplane design for the shoes, which allow the strippers to fly and spin around while dancing. It’s a delightfully odd complement to Francine’s emotional arc, one that’s full of enough laughs to balance out the serious and occasionally sad main plot.