“Mother Simpson” (season seven, episode eight; originally aired 11/19/1995)
In which that’s how Homer (re)met his mother…
Everybody has a mother—even TV characters. The people on our screens may have been conceived by rooms full of writers and given life by performers playing professional make believe—but technically speaking, these fictional people had to come from somewhere. But therein lies the pitfalls of bringing mom and dad into the mix: There’s a temptation to use these characters as devices that explain every last tic and quirk of the people we see on a weekly basis. They’re infrequently characters in their own right. If they’re not held up to the regular players like some kind of Freudian mirror, then visiting family members might just be a substance integrated into a show’s makeup for the sole purpose of mixing things up for 30 minutes.
Mona Simpson falls somewhere in between all of these types, leaning more toward the “full-fledged character” end. “Mother Simpson” gives her a rich backstory and a fantastic excuse for being absent from Homer’s life—but in her first onscreen appearance, she’s largely present to catalyze the plot. And while her interactions with her son avoid the easy answers about why Homer is the way he is, the script (by Richard Appel, a staff writer since season six receiving his first solo credit here) performs some specific shading for Lisa. The question that inspired “Mother Simpson” was “What about Homer’s mom?”, but the episode strives to fill in the genetic blanks regarding Lisa’s un-Simpson-like levels of intelligence. (“Lisa The Simpson,” from season nine, would take this thread even further.)
But the writers’ work toward realizing Mona could only go so far; another artist would have to give her a voice. And in her portrayal of Homer’s mother, Glenn Close makes an instant, lasting impression. It’s stunt casting (in an episode that aired during November sweeps—though that’s a function of the plot as much as the guest star), but it’s stunt casting in the vein of Dustin “Sam Etic” Hoffman’s appearance in “Lisa’s Substitute.” Glenn Close is a name with a lot of clout—but it’s not a persona. Close is an actress who disappears into her roles, and she expertly settles into Mona’s convictions and regrets in her first outing as the Simpson matriarch. It’s a funny, touching performance, but it’s not showy in any way. In fact, it was the showiest bit of dialogue that she just couldn’t nail down: When Mona bonks her head at the end of the episode, the Simpson family’s signature exclamation had to come from Pamela Hayden’s scratch vocals. Close is so nuanced in her performance, she just couldn’t muster the bombast for a proper “d’oh!”
Not to suggest that Mona is any way meek. As seen in flashback, she conforms to the cliché of a housewife stirred by the turbulence of the 1960s, but her principles are rock-solid—and they’re informed by compassion. The choice to deviate from The Weather Underground’s practice of actually blowing shit up was meant to shed Mona’s militancy in a more sympathetic light—but I think it gives her a stronger core. She’s the revolutionary who truly cares, checking on the safety of her enemy—a certain germ-warfare researcher by the name of C. Montgomery Burns—and working odd jobs for her colleagues who gave up the cause. (“I ran credit checks at Tom Hayden’s Porsche dealership.” As the writers and producers note on the episode’s DVD commentary, that’s the only fabricated joke in Mona’s laundry list of post-’60s activities.) That element of her countercultural drive could be read as a gag, but I take it as part of the sweetness that’s laced throughout “Mother Simpson.” The real joke in those flashback sequences is what caused Mona’s transformation: It wasn’t acid, Lenny Bruce, or “Tomorrow Never Knows.” It was Joe Namath’s sideburns, a visual feast that buttoned-down grinch Abe couldn’t stand in the least.
Grampa Simpson’s transcendent description of Johnny Unitas’ high-and-tight ’do—“There’s a haircut you could set your watch to”—demonstrates the important leavening agents among “Mother Simpson”’s familial melancholy and ’60s nostalgia. With a writers’ room spanning the baby boom and Generation X, this era of The Simpsons expresses an affinity for the ’60s and ’70s. (These are the qualities that will lead us to the strange brew of “Homerpalooza” in a few months.) But “Mother Simpson doesn’t tiptoe around sacred cows: The soundtrack features a Jimi Hendrix Experience cut (the trio’s cover of “All Along The Watchtower”) and a song inspired by Hendrix (Cream’s “Sunshine Of Your Love”), but there’s no kneejerk reverence for Mona’s hippie comrades. By noting the hypocritical, opportunistic post-’60s activities of Thomas Hayden, Jerry Rubin, and Bobby Seale, “Mother Simpson” strengthens Mona’s sense of resolve. Those guys, the joke argues, were only ever in it for themselves. They were the preening Broadway Joes of the Woodstock set, eager to use their notoriety to make a quick buck. Mona, meanwhile, truly cared about making the world a better place. She cared so much that she disappeared for decades in order to protect her family.
The conversation around The Simpsons’ seventh season often returns to the delicate balance of humor and heart that mark the season’s standout episodes. “Mother Simpson” comes as close to perfecting that balance as any other half-hour from this production cycle, give or take “Bart Sells His Soul.” It’s an episode of precision laughs and genuine warmth, qualities neatly summed up when Mona suggests that she and Homer simply bask in the moment of their reunion—a moment Homer naturally ruins. But it’s not enough for him to say something inappropriate or have an out-of-proportion reaction. Instead, a pelican lands on his head, then drops a fish into his pants. There’s a craftsman-like attention to detail in every beat of the joke: The specific genus of bird, the particular way it embarrasses Homer, the way the fish flops around a few more times after Mona says “It’s not your fault.” It’s an attention to detail that only comes from a piece of television that takes nearly a year to complete.
The sentimentality of “Mother Simpson” is never so mawkish that it defangs the episode’s sense of satire. Likewise, the pointedness of its barbs and the sources of its jokes aren’t so needlessly cruel as to be at odds with scenes like Homer and Mona’s tearful farewell. “Mother Simpson” doesn’t have enough time to make Mona feel as real and multifaceted as the permanent residents of Springfield, but its opening scenes pull a neat variation of the “like mother, like son” tropes of episodes like this. Pull back from Homer’s ploy to earn a free Saturday, and it’s essentially the same thing his mom did some 30 years prior: He’s sticking it to Mr. Burns by faking his own death. Mona later tells her son “You’ll always be a part of me,” reinforcing the statement made by the faux Homer that was shredded by turbines 22 minutes earlier. In an episode with a stealthily dark sense of humor—in which Patty and Selma gleefully purchase a headstone for their brother-in-law, then make it the centerpiece of their living room—that’s the perfect, subtly deployed parallel. “Mother Simpson” is both poignantly cheeky and cheekily poignant.
- This week in Simpsons signage:
- Music licensing was in a strange state during the mid-’90s: The Simpsons could afford tracks by Cream, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and ABBA—but a Wham! cut was right out. (Though this could just be an unfortunate indication of predatory publishing practices at the dawn of rock ’n’ roll.) Mr. Burns’ invasion soundtrack was original scripted as “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” but the song proved prohibitively expensive. No matter: The battleground metaphor of “Waterloo” adds another layer to the joke of Smithers taping over “Ride Of The Valkyries.”
- Glenn Close is fantastic as Mona, and the presence of her character brings out similarly fantastic shades in Dan Castellaneta’s “Mother Simpson” performance. There are a lot of emotions roiling through Homer in this episode, and the dynamics of Castellaneta’s voice find them all—particularly the bittersweet anguish of having to say goodbye to Mona all over again.
- They say “Show don’t tell,” but Lenny and Carl’s “Oh good!”/“Oh no!” (“Oh good! Those helpful beavers are swimming out to save him.” “Oh no! They’re biting him! And stealing his pants!”) narration in the cold open is a good example of why rules are meant to be broken.
- Even the throwaway dialogue in “Mother Simpson” is hysterically precise: “I don’t like your attitude, you water-cooler dictator!”
- Like many members of his generation, Abe Simpson had trouble communicating directly with his children: “Dad always said you died while I was at the movies.”
- Lisa attempts secrecy with the help of a tumbling dryer, but Bart punctures that plan with damnable realism: “There, now no one should be able to hear us.” “WHAT?”
- “Mother Simpson” looks great, too: There’s plenty of evocative imagery in the Mona-Homer scenes. As the DVD commentary points out, director David Silverman put some brilliant flourishes in the cold open: the Homer dummy bobbing down the river; the empty hammock swaying in the breeze. Just lovely.