Trying to analyze season-long themes for South Park is a fool’s business, since Trey Parker and Matt Stone usually have little idea what they are going to satirize at the outset of each production cycle. But a clear through line has emerged in the past four episodes: The Game Of Thrones-based cycle of episodes and tonight’s season finale, “The Hobbit,” all take aim at the way popular culture worms its way so insidiously into the mindset of consumers that reality itself gets distorted into a funhouse mirror version of itself. Or, more to the point of tonight’s episode: a Photoshopped version of itself.
Honestly, for most of tonight’s running time, “The Hobbit” felt like a pale retread of the heights attained during the show’s Console Wars saga. As with most recent targets of South Park satire, the idea that people are obsessed with manufactured images of what constitutes “beauty” is hardly new. Neither is the notion that there’s a fine line in the eyes of some between “feminist” and “hater.” And while the running gag of Kanye West trying to convince the world (and himself) that Wendy’s characterization of Kim Kardashian as the titular Hobbit was amusing enough, it was also extremely one-note and repetitive. Not as repetitive as the use of the word “jelly,” but repetitive all the same.
And yet, seeing Wendy Testaburger Photoshop her own image and send it to her classmates as tears filled her eyes wrecked me.
As a final scene of a season, it’s up there with “You’re Getting Old” in terms of sharp, surprising pathos. I’m not convinced that “The Hobbit” earned that final sequence in the way that “You’re Getting Old” did, specifically because the latter organically built up to that sucker punch throughout its installment. But Wendy’s defeat is potent all the same, because it speaks to a certain futility many have when realizing that being right doesn’t mean it does a damn bit of good.
Once filtered through the prism of that final image, a lot more about “The Hobbit” comes into sharper, more sinister focus. Sure, it’s easy to mock those that think photoshopped models look like that in real life, or even on the day of any particular shoot. But it’s something else entirely to see Clyde stroll down the hallways with his new girlfriend, Lisa Berger. Sure, he has his arm around her, but when he introduces everyone to her, he simply shows his classmates the photograph that Wendy designed in order to lift the veil from Butters’ unrealistic eyes. For all intents and purposes, that photo is Lisa Berger from that moment on. The juxtaposition between the flat image on the phone and the three-dimensional, corporeal version is jarring. But the kids soon learn to accept the image as the reality, and the physical entity a poor representation of the “truth” that image represents.
In that regard, the episode’s word play involving “self-image” is quite clever. Rather than it being a mental picture that helps a person’s esteem, it turns instead into something manifested inside a computer for mass consumption. It’s not about realizing your best self through honesty and empathy but rather via the brush tool. The “self” gets transported into an image which then can be transmitted via social media. This is turn displaces the corporeal being for one that be consumed in the same impersonal way Butters consumes images of Kim Kardashian. Wendy starts to disappear as Lisa and the other cheerleaders visit the “Total-Self Image” gym to hone their best avatars. Without an image to be seen on a screen, she’s starts to melt from view like Marty McFly’s siblings in Back To The Future.
Again, all of this is fine and good if obvious… until Wendy succumbs to the pressure. Then, all bets are off. The fact that South Park doesn’t take its foot off the neck of this episode and return the world back to normal gives the entire endeavor more power. There’s no catharsis for the audience, which in turn potentially speaks to the anger with which Parker and Stone treat this topic. That relentlessness makes us more closely analyze the topic at hand. We don’t get Van Halen concerts or reality television show reveals to deflate the tension and send us merrily along our ways. Wendy was the last one in town who could still see the world clearly with her own two eyes. Yet in mass e-mailing her modified self, she chooses to close her eyes and accept the illusion. All this at the moment the show goes off the air for the next year. That’s a ballsy way to go on hiatus.
What’s especially fantastic about putting an ellipsis rather than a period on this new world order is the way the episode lays the groundwork for imagining things getting worse, rather than better, during that interim. Sure, South Park will return next season and most everything depicted tonight (or this season, or really most seasons) will never be mentioned again. But note the way that Clyde tries to maintain Lisa’s status after the other cheerleaders get photoshopped. “My bitch is still the hottest, guys,” Clyde declares, making it simultaneously an affirmation and defamation. But it also functions as a plea for primacy, the same plea that Kayne makes throughout the episode as he desperately tries to keep the embers of Kim Kardashian’s 15 minutes of fame glowing. Wendy’s actions didn’t finish a cycle so much as perpetuate it. Yet, this is the same cycle to which Kardashian and company belong. These are not two discreet circles, but rather overlapping entities whose interaction forms a tightly knit Venn diagram. One side feeds the other until both unite and form a self-shaming ouroboros. In the end, South Park leaves us devouring our own tail until the show returns next year.
- Kind of sad to hear the “normal” version of the theme song tonight, as both the goth-inspired version and last week’s Game Of Thrones parody were both fantastic.
- Pope Francis knows his Tolkien trivia, folks.
- “Are you just an asshole?” “I’ve got arms and legs. I’ve got everything!” Butters’ inappropriate enthusiasm is always ever great.
- In the world of South Park, Kayne West is really, really, really unhappy that Jay Z won the Beyoncé Knowles marriage sweepstakes.
- “Bound Hobbit” wasn’t as funny as the James Franco/Seth Rogen version of the “Bound 2” video. But the mid-song “Hold up!” as Kanye called Kim yet again to verify her status as a non-hobbit probably made me laugh harder than anything else tonight.
- “That’s not a Jelly School. That’s a Dunkin’ Donuts.” As someone who lives in the Boston area, I was way ahead of Wendy on this one.
- Thanks to Marcus Gilmer for covering half of this season of South Park with me once again, and thanks again to all that came, read, and commented. See you next year.