“Whacking Day” (season 4, episode 20; originally aired 04/29/1993)
As I have noted early and often in my pieces about the halcyon days of The Simpsons’ golden age, the unruly mob is one of the most important characters in Springfield mythology. The Simpsons long ago established itself as our nation’s premier satire of mob mentality and the mindless groupthink that characterizes so much of American culture.
“Whacking Day” is arguably the purest and most scathing attack on mob mentality in The Simpsons’ oeuvre, purer and more trenchant even than “Marge Vs. The Monorail.” It’d be nice to imagine that the notion of a “holiday” devoted exclusively to physically destroying slithering reptiles in the cruelest, most sadistic manner imaginable would be a matter of satirical hyperbole or a figment of writers’ vivid imaginations, but according to the audio commentary, “Whacking Day” was loosely inspired by a real Texas town that set aside one day every year for flamboyantly, ceremonially, and enthusiastically killing rattlesnakes.
The episode is a sly and savage critique of the mindless conformity that leads people to unquestioningly embrace traditions and rituals that aren’t just nonsensical but cruel, violent, and insane. In one of the episode’s most inspired gags, Reverend Lovejoy answers Lisa’s fears about Whacking Day being vicious and amoral by quoting an apocryphal Bible verse proclaiming, “Whack ye, all the serpents which crawl on their bellies and your town shall be a beacon onto others.” Consciously or otherwise, the joke is a potent reminder that the Bible was once used to prop up similarly abhorrent rituals and institutions like slavery and the subjugation of women, and is currently being used as a tool against marriage equality.
Reverend Lovejoy isn’t the only authority figure who should know better yet heartily endorses Whacking Day. Whacking Day is explicitly welcomed by everyone: the Mayor, teachers, even the gun-wielding likes of the Legitimate Businessmen’s Social Club. The whole town unites behind Whacking Day. It takes an outsider like Barry White or a sensitive soul like Lisa Simpson to see past the rah-rah boosterism to the cruelty and flagrant animal abuse.
“Wacking Day” opens with Skinner making preparations for a surprise visit from Superintendent Chalmers, who makes his debut here. To make the best possible impression on his boss, the toadying and sycophantic principal takes to the intercom to promise free mountain bikes for Bart Simpson, Jimbo Jones, and Nelson Muntz that they can collect in “Utility Closet B.” Bart, Jimbo, and Nelson fail to see through Skinner’s cynical ruse even after he cackles maniacally and yells “fools!” after announcing the ne’er-do-wells’ “prize” while still on the intercom.
The bullies take the bait but Bart manages to slip out of Utility Closet B and wreak further havoc when he sends Willie’s beloved tractor hurtling in the direction of Superintendent Chalmers’ backside. The dynamic between Chalmers and Skinner is a low-key delight. Their exchanges are filled with wonderful little moments, like the conspiratorial way Skinner says, “There’s a grape in the center!” while offering Chalmers a Jell-O brick. Hank Azaria and Harry Shearer know these characters so well that according to the writers and producers, some of their funniest lines and riffs are improvised.
Bart’s hijinks involving the runaway tractor and Chalmers’ posterior get him suspended from Springfield Elementary. A stint at a Christian school goes predictably awry when Bart is asked to favor the assembled with a psalm and Bart instead chooses an ungodly number about a musical fruit and the gastrointestinal chaos it engenders. Bart then ends up being home-schooled by Marge, where he makes a shocking discovery: Books can be not only edifying but entertaining. Will Bart’s newfangled love of literature figure prominently in the show’s climax? Yes. Yes it will.
But Bart’s troubles at school are ultimately just an elaborate preamble for the real meat of the episode: Springfield whipping itself into a frothing frenzy over Whacking Day, a holiday Kent Brockman informs viewers was “called distasteful and puerile by a panel of hillbillies.”
Despite the censure and disapproval of the aforementioned panel of hillbillies and the holiday’s fuzzy, questionable origins, Springfield nevertheless proudly embraces the blood-thirsty Grand Guignol of Whacking Day. In a supremely misguided promotion, Apu offers a free drink to anyone who can whack the snake hidden in his store, then watches the Kwik-E-Mart get destroyed in a violent rage. A children’s choir adds an ethereal, otherworldly quality to all the snake-smashing by crooning a gloriously bloodthirsty ditty with lyrics like “We’ll break their backs / Gouge out their eyes / Their evil hearts / We’ll pulverize” in the heartbreaking falsetto of a castrated angel.
Only Lisa sees through the tidal wave of excitement over Whacking Day. When she brings her concerns about mob violence to Homer, he gently tries to assuage her fears by telling her, “Maybe if I’m part of the mob, I can steer it in wise directions” though his noble vow is ever-so-slightly undercut when he follows it by asking, “Now where’s my foam cowboy hat and air horn?”
Whacking Day provides one of the show's biggest and most elaborate setpieces as the entire town hunts down an army of snakes in a frenzied ritual of mindless destruction. Thankfully, Bart has been reading Bob Woodward’s muckraking book on the origins of Whacking Day and discovers that it was created as a flimsy pretense to beat up the Irish.
In The Simpsons, the mob can be a band of angels or a mindless destructive force. It’s also incredibly suggestible. All it takes is a few kind words on the snakes’ behalf from an old woman and guest star Barry White to change Springfield’s opinion of snakes in general and Whacking Day in particular.
By the time Mayor Quimby shows up at the Simpson home—where the snakes have found shelter from the mob after being attracted by the bass in Barry White's voice—to bask in Springfield’s hatred of snakes, he’s surprised and a little disgusted to discover that the angry mob has turned unexpectedly into an aggregation of snake-fanciers. “You’re nothing but a pack of fickle mush-heads!” he yells in disgust, to which the mob can only add, “He’s right!” and “Give us hell, Quimby!”
In “Whacking Day” and The Simpsons, the mob can be a force for good, a force for bad, or, in this case, a force for evil that morphs into a force for good. That’s the duality of mob mentality in The Simpsons: What the mob gives it can also take away and no show has ever spoofed the madness of crowds as adroitly or consistently as The Simpsons, especially in its radiant, God-like prime.
- Among other triumphs, this is the episode that gave the world evil Homer dancing a merry jig on Good Homer’s grave. Such a transcendently funny moment.
- “Then we ride these bikes to Mexico and freedom, Willie! Freedom!”—Principal Skinner’s exit strategy if the bullies he locked away in a utility closet end up dead.
- The incredibly tender way Homer talks about hitting a referee with a whiskey bottle absolutely slays me.
- “Pleasing taste, some monsterism”—scientists on a soda that causes theoretical future Bart to turn into a terrifying beast-man.
- “Avert your eyes, children! He may take on other forms!”—Christian educator on Bart’s evil ways
- “No son of my mine is going to be a 19th-century Cockney bootblack.”—Homer nixing a possible trade for Bart
- Next up is “Marge In Chains.” If memory serves, that’s a good one, as well as the second-to-last episode of an absolutely spectacular season.