“Homer The Vigilante” (season five, episode 11; originally aired 01/06/1994)
It’s hard to watch “Homer The Vigilante” in 2013 without being reminded of the Trayvon Martin shooting, the Newtown massacre, and countless other eminently avoidable tragedies that occurred because of our nation’s irrepressible mania for guns. The perpetually timely episode endures as a singularly scathing satire of our deep-seated belief in the secret validity of mob justice, of the notion that it is our duty as God-fearing, gun-toting, proudly paranoid American citizens to step in when conventional law enforcement fails—even if our only possible qualification for playing the role of lawman is an intense zeal for revenge.
As I wrote last week, Springfield is perpetually on the verge of devolving into rioting and madness. It’s a uniquely fragile universe where the subtlest disturbance has far-reaching, often disastrous consequences. So when a mysterious cat burglar descends upon the town and begins stealing what the townspeople value most—including Lisa’s saxophone—it instantly engenders city-wide panic. The culprit is a consummate gentleman, the sort of thoughtful chap who leaves a copy of Dealing With Loss in Bart’s arms in exchange for the portable television he sleeps with.
Newsmen are historically calming, grounding forces. For decades, Americans took comfort in the knowledge that kindly, authoritative Walter Cronkite’s calming manner and avuncular air would help them through any crisis, no matter how traumatic. If Springfield is forever a breath removed from anarchy, that’s partially because its answer to Walter Cronkite, Kent Brockman, invariably urges viewers to panic reflexively as the default response to any problem, no matter how small.
In “Homer The Vigilante,” Kent, always keen to stir up the delirium of easily unsettled viewers, sternly asks audiences, “When cat burglaries start, can mass murder be far behind? This reporter isn’t saying that the burglar is an inhuman monster like the Wolfman—but he very well could be.” He then invites on an expert and explicitly asks him, “So professor, would you say that it’s time for everyone to panic?” and receives an affirmative response.
Soon everyone is panicking and coming up with ridiculously over-the-top answers to the low-level crime wave, from houses protected by Star Wars-style lasers (that would be the controversial missile system, not the film series involving space monsters and whatnot) to a Professor Frink-designed house that sprouts giant robotic legs and runs away when threatened. It also has an unfortunate habit of spontaneously erupting into flames.
Homer opts for a more old-fashioned approach when he becomes the leader of a vigilante gang that begins with the noble goal of finding the cat burglar and returning the stolen goods—but quickly grows mad with ill-earned power. For Homer, and for the rest of Springfield, this is a distinctly personal crusade, since the burglar stole Lisa’s saxophone, leaving her to make do with a jug Homer implores her to play for him in one of my favorite weird gags in all of The Simpsons, not just this episode. Long after I forget the name of my many illegitimate children (why there’s Lefty and Jojo and, uh, a couple others at least) the phrase “music helps daddy think!” will remain tattooed in my mind.
Homer then sets about the fun task of assembling a drunken, vengeance-crazed vigilante mob. He doles out nicknames—in a bit of miscalculation he gives both himself and Moe the nickname “Cueball”—then stocks up on weapons at Herman’s Military Antiques.
In a wonderfully subtle joke, Herman sees Homer and his merry band of militia men arming themselves to the teeth and gingerly guesses it’s for a wedding. When Homer explains the situation, Herman shows him something special: a miniature version of the A-bomb the United States created to drop on beatniks. This inspires a gorgeously animated tribute to Dr. Strangelove as Homer imagines himself in the Slim Pickens role in Stanley Kubrick’s anti-war satire, riding his beloved bomb all the way down to infamy.
The Dr. Strangelove homage is one of two loving, elaborate tributes in the episode: the other is an equally impressive closing homage to It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. In “Homer The Vigilante,” as in the real world, power corrupts and the absolute power that Homer and his henchmen claim as their birthright corrupts absolutely.
The mob might have started out on the side of right, but it isn’t long until it’s doling out heavy sack beatings by the score and committing more crimes than it prevents. “Homer The Vigilante” seems to anticipate the reign of President George W. Bush (and the persona of Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report) when Homer agitates to be leader of the mob with the unmistakably Dubya-like argument, “We don’t need a thinker! We need a doer! Someone who will act without considering the consequences!”
Homer is never afraid to act without considering the consequences and soon he’s abusing his power in all sorts of ways. When Kent Brockman asks Homer about crimes being committed in the name of justice he cheerfully concedes, “Oh Kent, I’d be lying if I said my men weren’t committing crimes.” What begins as a simple quest to retrieve stolen goods morphs into something darker. When Lisa, forever the voice of reason, complains that the mob has lost its way, that it has become what it initially set out to fight, Homer explains, “The mob is working on getting your saxophone back but we’ve also expanded into other important areas. Literacy programs! Preserving our beloved covered bridges. World domination!” before realizing that he has said too much.
The Simpsons gets away with an awful lot because it’s animated. It would be hard to imagine a live-action show in 1994 getting away with the protagonist rubbing his aged father’s belly and telling him that he wouldn’t be able to help out with the vigilante mob because “You’re a very old man now and old people are useless!” The show could get away with a line that dark because it’s perfectly in keeping with its unrelentingly cynical take on aging and the way our culture cavalierly discards the elderly. It could also get away with it because the very old men Homer and the rest of society thinks are useless end up playing central roles in the cat burglar drama.
For the mysterious cat burglar turns out to be Abe’s nursing-home roommate and useless old Abe ends up solving the episode’s big mystery. The cat burglar’s arrival in Springfield stoked a frenzy among the populace, as does his revelation that he has stashed all of his stolen goodies in a mystery spot somewhere in Springfield. This of course inspires the fine folks of Springfield to set off on a dramatic chase to find the buried loot that affords the cat burglar time to bust out of jail and score one big symbolic victory for all the useless old folks out there— and a more practical victory for himself when he succeeds in outsmarting the people of Springfield and escaping.
“Homer The Vigilante” was written by the great John Swartzwelder, the insanely prolific, brilliant and iconoclastic scribe behind more episodes of the show than any other writer. Swartzwelder is famously libertarian and a big believer in gun rights, yet that somehow didn’t keep him from writing a definitive satire of our national obsession with firearms and the damage it wreaks throughout society.
- “Bart’s pain is funny, but mine isn’t!” Lisa, articulating one of the core principals of comedy; it’s only funny when misfortune befalls others
- “Can’t talk. Robbed. Go. Hell.” I love that Homer is too terse and pressed for time to actually tell Flanders to go to hell and must settle for a brisk abbreviation.
- You guys, I’m not sure if this is coming through in my reviews or not, but I really, really like The Simpsons. A lot.
- Next up is “Bart Gets Famous.” If memory serves, that’s a good one.