More than anything else, tonight’s episode of Bob’s Burgers is impressive. This episode feels different from the show’s standard fare from the very beginning, as the show dispenses with its normal opening credits in favor of the at least halfway ominous title card; as the card promises, this is the story in which Bob either saves or ruins the town, possibly both. Throughout, “Wharf Horse (Or How Bob Saves/Destroys The Town—Part I)” feels like the show taking the biggest possible swing and trying to do something it’s never done before. This really is the perfect time for that. At the end of a very successful fourth season and with its future as secure as it’s ever going to be, Bob’s Burgers is in a place where it can step outside its normal structure and experiment with a slightly more dramatic form of storytelling. Tonight’s episode, not to mention next week’s conclusion, plays as the show’s answer to The Simpsons’ season-spanning two-parter “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” The fact that the cliffhangers of both stories involve gunplay is only the most obvious parallel; both this and “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” represent these animated shows at their most plot-driven, consciously sacrificing portions of the episodes’ usual laughs in the name of constructing the more experimental story.
That brings me back to the word I initially used to describe this episode: impressive. That’s a tricky descriptor, because I—and I’m guessing the majority of the show’s audience—watch Bob’s Burgers to be entertained and amused rather than impressed. Now, I’m open to being impressed by a Bob’s Burgers episode, but it makes for an off-kilter viewing experience, because the usual instincts that inform how I view the show aren’t quite correct tonight. “Wharf Horse” features some of the show’s most ambitious choices in both its animation and its storytelling. “Nice Things Are Nice” isn’t the show’s first big music number, but it’s unique in how it so directly drives the plot forward and in how it incorporates a non-Belcher; the waiter’s line, in which he says there’s no singing in the restaurant, blurs the line between the show’s reality and fantasy elements. Indeed, outside of those endlessly creative fantasy sequences, the show has probably never pulled off any sequence as visually striking as the climactic ride on the Scream-I-Cane, juxtaposing Bob’s desperate pleas to Mr. Fischoeder with kinetic action and a beautiful vista of the wharf at dusk. And this is the episode that ends with a broken, deranged Felix Fischoeder pointing a gun at his brother and Bob. This isn’t the first time a Belcher has been in serious peril, but never before has a main character been quite so directly confronted with the possibility of death.
Amid such determined pushing of the show’s boundaries, the jokes feel secondary, even sometimes muted by the feeling that something bad is about to happen. On first watch, I couldn’t quite enjoy the rollercoaster sequence, because I couldn’t shake the horrible feeling that Louise’s flaunting of the height rules could have real consequences. I should have known better than to think the episode would do anything quite so dark, but “Wharf Horse” plays as Bob’s Burgers operating without its normal safety net, without the usual reassurances that nothing truly bad will happen within its safe little bubble. I know that Bob isn’t going to die next week—and I’d say it’s almost certain that Mr. Fischoeder will be all right as well, assuming Kevin Kline hasn’t decided he would like to move on from the role—but it’s remarkable that Felix would even point the gun at him in the first place. This is uncharted territory for Bob’s Burgers, and any narrative wonkiness is offset by the sheer exhilaration of discovery.
All that said, this isn’t so different from the show’s typical half-hour. Felix’s convoluted scheme requires Linda to recap the whole thing at the start of the next act, but “Wharf Horse” wisely ditches the plot-heavy subterfuge in the silliest possible way, as Linda blurts out everything to Felix’s girlfriend Fanny in the absurdly mistaken belief that men won’t be able to understand their girl talk. “Wharf Horse” necessarily forces the show to take itself more seriously than it would usually, but not that seriously, and Linda’s indiscretion allows the focus to remain more on the relationship between Bob and Mr. Fischoeder and less on the implausibility of the former managing to fool the latter. Besides, the kids’ subplot is vintage Bob’s Burgers. A carousel of horrifically misshapen horses is just the sort of thing with which Tina would develop a deep bond, with a special emphasis on her favorite, Mr. Goiter. Even here, “Wharf Horse” expands its universe, as indeed this particular large-throated equine is revealed as Tina’s first horse love. Admittedly, I mostly mention that because there really is nothing funnier than baby, toddler, and teenage Tina repeatedly falling off a carousel horse.
“Wharf Horse” takes a step back and attempts to take a larger view of the Bob’s Burgers universe, and it’s in this aspect that the show is at its best and most intriguing. Bob’s typical victory is for him to stave off failure and scrape together just enough to keep his meager dreams alive, but Felix presents him with an opportunity to dream big; with the talk of Bob’s Bistro By The Beach With Burgers—not that it’s going to be called that—we finally get a glimpse of what it would look life if Bob were truly successful. He is tempted by this offer, but it’s telling that Linda is the one who really commits to the scheme. Way back in “Human Flesh,” Linda explained why she stuck with Bob saying she loved him because he was a dreamer, but it’s hard to blame her for so obviously wanting some material success as reward for all her sacrifices. Part of the reason that Felix manages to convince Bob at all is because he’s not entirely wrong; Bob’s artisanal, unconventional approach to burgers is never going to be properly appreciated by Mort and Teddy, no matter how lovable they are. Bob’s Burgers has never wavered in presenting Bob as genuinely brilliant at what he does, and it’s worth pondering whether he and Linda should really be fated to struggle forever.
But then, as Bob ultimately realizes, the kind of success that Felix envisions—maybe any success at all—would destroy what makes Bob’s Burgers unique. This show isn’t exactly about failure, but it is about non-judgmentally celebrating the kind of iconoclastic weirdness that almost never leads to success. As Bob says to Mr. Fischoeder, Wonder Wharf is dirty, dilapidated, and deeply, deeply shady, but his acknowledgment of those negatives is bookended by declarations of the wharf’s specialness. This is the kind of place that can take in a serial bank robber like Mickey and turn him into employee of the month material. Maybe that doesn’t exactly mean that Wonder Wharf brings out the best in people, because that’s a little too treacly and straightforward, but it does mean this place where misfits and oddballs can come together in pursuit of what truly matters: their pick of oversized stuffed animals. Bob’s Burgers has had its villains, but it’s yet to introduce a weirdo who couldn’t find his or her own little place to be happy. What makes “Wharf Horse” so dangerous and so offbeat is that, in Felix Fischoeder, it might finally have found a goofball that this town can’t save. But that point will have to wait for next week.
- As I said, this episode isn’t Bob’s Burgers at its absolute funniest, but there are some great moments. I enjoyed the frenetic banter of Felix’s initial pitch to Bob and the rest of the restaurant denizens, and Kevin Kline just killed it in this episode. He’s always been terrific as Mr. Fischoeder, but he was in rare form throughout his deeply underwhelming kidnapping. Also, Jordan Peele was wonderfully disturbing as the voice of Fanny.
- This episode gains extra power from how it draws on the show’s larger history. Between Felix and Mickey, “Wharf Horse” feels like an extension of “Ambergris”—the callback to Felix’s avant-garde bathroom is a lovely touch—and I particularly enjoyed all the references to Bob’s arm hair. The Fischoeders’ fixation with it is funny in its own right, but the connection between Bob and Papa Fischoeder goes all the way back to similar material in “Torpedo,” the first-season finale, which also prominently features Wonder Wharf’s rollercoaster.
- “Call him up, tell him we’re looking to swing, see if he’s into it.” “Um, no.” “What? We’re cute!” Even when Linda is the worst, she really is the best.