“Last Exit To Springfield” (season 4, episode 17; originally aired 03/11/1993)
“Last Exit To Springfield” is a popular candidate for the single greatest episode of The Simpsons, the greatest television show of all time (suck it, The Wire;cram it, All In The Family). What makes this episode so special? What makes it the very best of the best? The answer, I think, comes down to joy. For an episode centering on emotionally charged, high-stakes labor negotiations and the horror of cut-rate dental care, “Last Exit To Springfield” positively radiates an unlikely but pervasive sense of joy.
Much of this joy is musical in nature. “Last Exit To Springfield” is filled with both music and sequences blessed with a real sense of musicality. Take, for instance, this wonderful sequence where Burns and Smithers decide that they don’t need their striking workers, what with their infernal demands to be treated like human beings. The sequence plays like something out of an MGM musical from the 1950s, as Burns and Smithers literally dance, prance, and sashay their way through a hilariously over-the-top gauntlet of professional horrors, from tossing the lid of a bin of toxic waste to a two-headed mutant dog to being pursued by robot workers whose containers promise are “100 percent loyal” but who chant “Crush! Kill! Destroy!” and turn on their ostensible masters. The jokes are incredibly dark and morbid but the tone is cheerful and breezy, a giddy little romp through grotesque corporate malfeasance.
Alternately, take a gander at yet another kaleidoscopic fantasy sequence, this time involving Lisa taking a magical mystery tour through Pepperland and the DayGlo universe of Yellow Submarine after inhaling the wacky gas at the dentist—complete with a cameo from The Beatles. The Simpsons indulged its trippy psychedelic tendencies so often in its early years that you can’t help but wonder if magic mushrooms were widely disseminated during pitch meetings.
Lisa herself sings most of the music in “Last Exit To Springfield.” Given her Wobbly leanings, it’s only natural that Lisa is the one with an acoustic guitar crooning earnest folks songs to rally striking workers to keep up the good fight. The tunes she warbles are comic, but they’re also oddly poignant. Underneath the richly merited jabs at labor’s propensity for corruption lies a real respect for labor’s capacity for good. In its own exquisitely cynical way, “Last Exit To Springfield” offers a surprisingly nuanced depiction of the strengths and weaknesses of organized labor. It’s take on big business, however, is understandably more one-sided, especially when cutthroat capitalism is represented by a ghoul like Mr. Burns.
But I am, once again, getting ahead of myself. “Last Exit To Springfield” opens with what is probably the single funniest McBain sequence ever. With golden-era Simpsons it’s all about specificity and attention to detail. In the McBain parody, for example, a sneering bad guy calls together his criminal minions to discuss his “most diabolical creation: Swank.” It’s a drug, the kingpin sinisterly boasts, that is “Ten times more addictive than marijuana!” (which means it’s not addictive at all) before offering a toast to “human misery!”
The notion of a designer drug being “ten times more addictive than marijuana” is inherently hilarious, but what really sells the sequence for me is the small orchestra performing for the assembled bad guys. Why on Earth would anyone hire a group of expensive musicians solely to perform mood music during a meeting of evildoers? Yet it’s just the kind of over-the-top flourish you’d find in the 1980s action movies the McBain scenes so adroitly parody. I was reminded of a split-second sequence in the hilariously awful melodrama Shadowboxer (which I recently wrote up for an upcoming edition of Commentary Tracks Of The Damned) where an establishing shot of Stephen Dorff’s mansion clearly illustrates that he has a zebra as a pet. Why? Why would a bad guy hire classically trained musicians to perform at a business meeting or have a zebra as a pet? Because that’s the kind of flamboyant shit supervillains do because they have both unlimited resources and a constant need to prove the extent of their wealth and power. Otherwise, they would merely be villains, not supervillains.
The bad guys are in for a surprise, however, when McBain breaks out from an ice statue, quips “Ice to see you!” and begins killing people indiscriminately—including musicians unfortunate enough to pick the wrong gig. It’s a testament to how deeply ingrained McBain is in our culture and how closely he’s identified with Arnold Schwarzenegger that many people, including myself, misremember the “Ice to see you” line as something Schwarzenegger said in Batman And Robin—where his entire performance consists of delivering terrible cold-related puns—instead of a McBain quip.
The fictional supervillain’s evil segues effortlessly to the real-life super-villainy of The Simpsons’ resident heavy, Mr. Burns, who rues having to negotiate with his employees’ union and remembers, via flashback, a more hospitable era where evil tycoons like himself and his father held all the power. That would change, however: As a plucky proletariat firebrand hollers defiantly at Burns’ dad as he’s being led away in the flashback, “You can’t treat working men this way! One day we’ll form a union and get the fair and equitable treatment we deserve! Then we’ll go too far and get corrupt and shiftless and the Japanese will eat us alive!”
Back in the present, Burns is intent on once again screwing over his employees by having them sacrifice their dental plan in exchange for a free keg of beer at their union meeting. Only Homer knows enough to object to this bit of chicanery, and that’s only because the phrase “Lisa needs braces” keeps reappearing over and over again in his mind.
The threat that Burns will take away his employees’ dental plan and keep Lisa from being able to get braces instantly transforms Homer from an exemplar of lazy stupidity/advocate for apathy into a labor zealot. Burns, meanwhile, misreads Homer as a brilliant, no-nonsense tactician, albeit the kind who misreads Burns’ winking offer of a bribe as a sexual advance.
In the episode’s B-story, Lisa wrestles with having to wear a dental contraption so hideous, bulky, cumbersome, and impractical (the sinister dentist explains that it predates the era of stainless steel and consequently should never get wet) it’s less an alternative to braces than a Cronenbergian torture device that renders Lisa a veritable monster.
“Last Exit To Springfield” gets surprising comic mileage out of the seemingly tapped well that is the dentist joke, scoring big laughs out of the deplorable dental hygiene of the English (when the dentist wants to terrify Ralph into brushing regularly he shows him an ominous tome of British smiles, each somehow more hideous than the last), the stern manner of dentists (when Ralph tells the dentist he brushes three times a day the unimpressed dentist asks him, “Why must you turn my office into a house of lies?”) and the mind-altering qualities of nitrous oxide (the aforementioned Beatles-inspired dream sequence).
Burns and Homer’s war of wills escalates until Burns decides to pull out the nuclear option and shut off all of Springfield’s electricity to punish his striking workers for their rebellion. Like the titular character of How The Grinch Stole Christmas, Burns learns that he cannot destroy people’s souls and spirits just by denying them of material things. When Lisa leads a sing-along in protest of Burns’ tactics, the evil tycoon responds in explicitly Seussian language, marveling, “Look at them all through the darkness I’m bringing. They’re not sad at all they’re actually singing! They sing without juicers! They sing without blenders! They sing without flungers or cap-dabblers or splendors!”
Good triumphs over evil and the power is restored, much to the delight of Springfield’s thriving sin and wacky-novelty-items industries. Lisa even gets a nifty new set of nearly invisible new braces. When Marge admiringly tells Lisa “Oh, honey. You can hardly see your new braces” a delighted Lisa quips, “And that’s the tooth!” before the family and even the dentist laugh long and hard at her lame joke. Eventually, the dentist finds the cause of their overreaction: the nitrous gas was left on. It’s a brilliant closing parody of the kind of cheesy endings favored by 1970s and 1980s sitcoms—as well as a neat little echo of the terrible McBain wordplay that began the episode—and a fittingly ironic close to one of the greatest television episodes of all time.
- I love that the stupid monkey who composed, “It was the best of times, it was the blurst of times” for Mr. Burns is smoking a cigarette like any harried writer, primate or otherwise. Such a great detail.
- How great is it that Homer’s conception of being a powerful mob boss begins and ends with being given free pastries by local merchants?
- Gummy Joe has one of the best names of any one-off Simpsons bit player
- “Oh no! I’ll be socially unpopular; more so,” frets Lisa after learning of her needs for braces. It’s the placement of “more so” in that sentence that really kills.
- Next up is the very first clip show in the show’s history. Yay?