Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Bob’s Burgers: “The Millie-churian Candidate”

Illustration for article titled Bob’s Burgers: “The Millie-churian Candidate”

For most of its running time, tonight’s Bob’s Burgers episode makes an incisive, relatively subtle point about the psychology of Louise and Millie’s demented relationship, and it’s so clever and well-considered that I’m almost disappointed that the episode closes by explaining the conceit in such exacting detail. We’ll circle back to that, but first consider the challenge inherent in bringing back a character like Millie. It’s not just that her debut appearance, “Fort Night,” was such a damn classic. It’s that her character was so singular, so huge, so absolutely, utterly bonkers that it was hard to imagine how the show could ever manage a sequel that would be anything but a pale imitation of the original. “Fort Night” presents Millie as a more-or-less fully-formed creation, someone whose obsession with Louise needs no further explanation, and she is given the perfect sendoff as she races off into the dwindling Halloween night, terrified of the Belcher children’s transformation into ghosts. Taken together, it’s plausible to think that Millie is too big a character to bring back. As tonight’s episode makes clear, there’s a deep bench of guest characters at Wagstaff, but Millie might be too much if the show doesn’t know precisely what it’s doing with her.

The obvious option, given the show’s track record for humanizing its apparent villains, might well have been to devote Millie’s return to examining just why she is the way she is, to take a character who appeared a stock psychopath—albeit a damn chilling one—in her first appearance and find some hidden depths to explore. Maybe the show will pursue that path one of these days, and maybe the resulting episode will be good. But “The Millie-churian Candidate” isn’t interested in exploring Millie in more detail. The relationship between Louise and Millie is unchanged between here and “Fort Night,” with one crucial difference: The stage they share is much, much bigger. “Fort Night” is the most brilliantly claustrophobic episode in the show’s run, but it does skip one intriguing plot beat as it jumps from Millie’s obsession with Louise to her general torture of those trapped in the fort. No one else in that episode ever doubts that Millie is bad news, even in the face of Louise’s disproportionate rudeness; there’s some sense that the others are frustrated by Louise’s unnecessarily harsh treatment of this clearly unbalanced child, but nobody really objects to the notion that Millie deserves such treatment.

Here, with all Wagstaff watching, it’s far more difficult for Louise to convince everyone of the righteousness of her anti-Millie crusade. On this score, the show identifies Louise’s hitherto unrecognized kryptonite: She can bully all but the burliest of bouncers and the most Logan of teenagers into getting her own way, but only when she can operate one-on-one. Despite her tiny stature, Louise is amazing at talking at people, at ignoring all social customs and hectoring her targets into giving her what she wants. If Louise fixes something with her undivided attention, she is terrifying. But her powers wane as they grow more diffuse. In a group setting, her expertly orchestrated verbal assaults start to look like bullying and badgering, particularly when dealing with Millie, who she hates far more vocally than could ever appear sane to, well … anybody. Those who were in the fort with Louise might understand her hatred, if not share her particularly vociferous reaction. Louise’s whole deal only works as well as it does because she’s expert at reading people; she knows when to sweet-talk and when to go for the jugular. But her past experiences with Millie are so awful that she mucks up the calculus.

The fallibility of Louise has been a recurring theme this year, and her utter demolition of Jimmy Junior’s campaign is an especially brilliant illustration of a Louise who doesn’t have the first damn idea what she’s doing. We’re a long, long way from the uncontrollable agent of chaos that shaped events to her fancy in, say, “Broadcast Wagstaff School News.” The crucial thing here isn’t really the terribleness of the commercials; honestly, I would have found it just as plausible if those watching the pro-Jimmy and anti-Millie ads had had precisely opposite reactions, because Bob’s Burgers has long had fun with the townspeople’s inexplicable reactions. But what makes this section of the story work so well is that the episode chooses the perfect avatars for audience reaction. Regular-Size Rudy and Ms. LaBonz represent the exact opposite ends of the Wagstaff spectrum, with Rudy representing the kind, mild-mannered yin to Ms. LaBonz’s bored, cynical yang. Rudy is nice enough to respond unfavorably to the Millie attack ad, yet he’s also fully on board Ms. LaBonz’s desire to slap Jimmy Junior for his treacly song-and-dance number. We know Rudy well enough to recognize the latter as unusual, but it’s not out of character; Bob’s Burgers has earned the audience’s trust to the extent that we recognize that as just a new dimension to Rudy’s character.

The key is that Rudy and Ms. LaBonz register as real people, albeit ones whose reactions can represent the school at large, and that initial touch of something approach realism allows the episode to get ever more absurd in revealing the school’s support for Millie. Lose Rudy and Ms. LaBonz, and Jocelyn and Tammy are sure to follow, and then it’s just a matter of time before even Tina and Gene are ready to jump ship. That leaves Louise in a situation where she has to bully everyone to get her way, and even she is not so powerful as to take on the entire damn world all at once. Part of what makes all this work is that “The Millie-churian Candidate” knows when to have its characters care to comical extremes, and when to just let them act like bored elementary and/or middle schoolers. Louise appears all the more combustible because no one around her really cares about any of this—Jimmy Junior makes no pretense of his single-issue candidacy—and Millie’s eventual breakdown is so much funnier when punctuated by Jocelyn asking how best to conform her opinion to whatever is the new prevailing wisdom about Millie.

There’s some wonderfully insightful character work on display in “The Millie-churian Candidate,” so perhaps it’s not such a bad thing that the episode closes by so proudly tipping its own cap. The reveal that Henry Haber engineered all this allows the episode to underline the point it’s already made about Louise and Millie, and I’ll admit I didn’t find the reveal of Henry’s own Machiavellian brilliance quite amusing enough to justify the huge amount of exposition needed to get us there. That said, this barely counts as a sour note, and Jim Gaffigan’s smug performance—not to mention the secondary reveal that Mr. Branca was president of his old country, before the coup—goes a long way to making this all work, as does Louise’s newfound respect for the newly minted nerd in chief.


Stray observations:

  • Bob’s knife subplot is a fine bit of silliness, even if I was kind of heartbroken by the knife’s demise at the hands of Teddy’s hammer. (That said, Bob’s immediate desire for said hammer took some of the edge off that moment.) If I have any issue with this, it’s just that I’d like to see the adults and the kids interact more than they do here, but that’s more a big-picture complaint than anything specific to this particular b-story.
  • Of course Louise’s true bestie is named Mabel. Who else could it possibly be? (And hey, new Gravity Falls tomorrow night, everyone!)
  • “It took you a day to think of this?” How much of Linda’s planning time was taken up with heavy drinking? I’m going to say: all of it.
  • “I’m sorry J-Ju! She ruined you!” Zeke, as ever, is the best.