A great deal of how much you enjoyed tonight’s South Park probably comes down to how you felt about its final few moments, in which the true nature of the prophecy that temporarily brings peace to the Middle East is revealed. It’s not just a litmus test for one’s views on religion, morality, or basic human decency. It’s also a litmus test for what one wants to get out of South Park itself. In reading the comments over the past few weeks, there seem a sizable number of readers that have been less than thrilled with the current state of the show. Some are disappointed in the lack of topicality. Some are disappointed in the lack of laugh-out-loud funny moments. “Ginger Cow” has probably more elements of both than any other episode this season, but still leaves a queasy feeling behind in those closing moments.
To be sure, that queasiness isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Any episode, South Park or not, that deals with religion and treats it with any type of certainty serves up its own form of heresy. Let’s get the plot recap out of the way, so we can get to the real meaty stuff as soon as possible. Cartman starts off the episode making a public apology to Kyle, who had recently rebutted Eric’s assertion that only humans could be red-haired and freckled. Cartman’s “apology” involves dressing up a cow in a red wig and painting over its black spots, thus introducing the episode’s titular figure to the world. No one can see through the ruse except Kyle, and soon, the entire world is reeling from the revelation. The word “revelation” isn’t out of place here: Judaism, Islam and Christianity all apparently have a single, consistent prophecy in their respective holy texts: “The Red Heifer means the end of times.” But rather than starting a war, the religious leaders decide that an era of peace should start with the death of the cow. Soon, Van Halen is playing a concert to celebrate the newly-unified Israel while Cartman blackmails Kyle into constantly (and publicly) eating the former’s farts to ensure Eric keeping his mouth shut about the true nature of the cow. Like ya do.
But in those final moments, in which Stan tries to free Kyle from being Cartman’s eternal slave, “Ginger Cow” places a twist on the prophecy. Rather than depending on the appearance of a miracle cow with red hair and freckles, the prophecy actually states, “A fat kid with a small penis will decorate a cow to be ginger.” In other words, the religious leaders of the world all subscribe to a theory that validates Cartman’s initial plan. Upon hearing Stan’s cover-up that it was a “miracle,” anarchy once again reigns in Jerusalem. Kyle’s episode-long martyrdom achieves nothing. In the eyes of the world’s major religions, the actual prophecy is as (im)possible as a spontaneously-generated, genetically-unique bovine creature. Today’s study question: Are you OK with this?
That’s not a question with a universally correct response. But it’s hopefully a question that helps articulate one’s attitude towards tonight’s episode. On one hand, you could argue that faith is faith is faith (as Gertrude Stein may have once said), and that believing in something greater than yourself has innate importance. Peace is achieved through the execution of the prophecy, and it’s a genuine peace, and would have been a lasting one had Stan not contacted that reporter. On the other hand, you could argue that the prophecy in this case is so outlandish and silly that it simply doesn’t retroactively remove any tension from tonight’s episode, but makes an absolute joke of institutionalized faith in general. On a third hand, you could say, “Fuck it! Hearing/seeing Van Halen perform ‘Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love’ was hysterical! Farts are funny! Why do you hate everything fun in this world?”
And hey, sure, farts are funny. But in an episode packed with potent ideas about organized religion, religious/moral figures ostracized in their own lifetimes, the thin line between self-sacrifice and self-importance, and balancing individual suffering to secure the greater good… why have the singular, flatulent aspect to Kyle’s torture? It provides the main engine for Kyle’s transformation, but the specific mechanism chafes against the rest of the installment. Having Kyle insult his mother as the first salvo in Eric’s psychological war was equally cruel, but didn’t involve anything crude. Yes, South Park historically goes to crude well quite often, and the highbrow/lowbrow mixture has always been part of the show’s DNA. But it needn’t always mix the two, and Kyle’s inward journey (towards enlightenment or “being a huge dick”, depending who you ask) might have been more potent had his torture been more varied. If nothing else, Cartman is a creative sadist.
As with nearly every episode this season, “Ginger Cow” is bursting with too many ideas and not enough time to harness them into a single, coherent episode. But whereas past episodes had a couple of half-decent ideas that rarely went anywhere, this episode has six or seven really great things to explore and spends more time lining up real-life footage to cheer on David Lee Roth than delve deeply into any of them. Kyle’s dream in which God may or may not have praised his actions is a good example of this. Was this in fact a real visitation, or simply a byproduct of Kyle’s ego? Stan’s opinion of Kyle starts to nosedive as the latter gets more zen, but it’s clear onstage in Jerusalem that Kyle still has his wits about him even while in the throes of self-sacrifice. I’m not particularly upset that we didn’t learn one way or another if God actually spoke to Kyle. But I’m a little annoyed the Stan/Kyle schism didn’t have enough narrative room to breathe. Both of them are right. Both of them are wrong. But neither really gets a chance to generate friction with the other via their opposing viewpoints. Ideas are never this show’s problem. But choosing which one gets primary focus often is.
Ultimately, there’s way more good than bad this week. It may or may be the best episode this season, but it certainly is the most potent. Kyle running through Cartman’s fart-laden gauntlet and coming out as Fart Boy on the other side might have provided many of the overt laughs, but also covered up the episode’s most charged ideas. “Ginger Cow” comes very close to utterly succeeding on several occasions, but ultimately settles for being fascinating. There are some great ideas here that no amount of screen time would ever sufficiently answer. But those ideas still needed more screen time to sufficiently debate. Still, in a season as subpar as this has been, it’s heartening to see the show can still recapture some of its past heights this late in the game.
- Principal Victoria and Mr. Mackey summoning Kyle to “interpret” the rabbis was an obvious joke, but the timing on every interaction was spot-on that it didn’t really matter.
- On more than one occasion, Kyle’s quiet suffering bordered on actual pathos. It wasn’t quite on the level of “You’re Getting Old,” but it was in the ballpark at times.
- Stan almost comes around to wanting to eat Cartman’s farts. We almost had the fart-based sequel to Eugene Ionesco’s play Rhinoceros.
- You get David Lee Roth to perform when there’s world peace. So I assume you get Gary Cherone to play the apocalypse?