In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, plenty of journalists, academics, and world leaders have characterized the attack as being motivated by Vladimir Putin’s fear of his own mortality. Whether or not that’s an oversimplification of his rationale is beside the point—it’s in the air.
Even just today, Yale intellectual history lecturer Marci Shore described the autocrat on CNN as “an aging man facing his own death [who has] decided to destroy the whole world.” It’s a statement that could easily function as a logline for tonight’s episode of South Park.
Alright, maybe that’s a stretch. Mr. Mackey may not exactly be destroying his very small world in “Back To The Cold War,” but he’s definitely upending it in an effort to—as we eventually discover—stave off the inevitability of growing old.
At the top of the episode, he’s seemingly gone into full-on panic mode over the Russo-Ukranian crisis, ordering the students of South Park Elementary to conduct regular duck-and-cover drills in the event of a nuclear attack. But it soon becomes apparent that Mr. Mackey’s getting a bizarre kind of enjoyment from the idea of a Russian conflict, as it gets him nostalgic for the Cold War years of the 1980s. Once the students are trembling under the gymnasium’s bleachers, he begins stiffly cutting a rug to Wang Chung’s “Dancehall Days.” When we next see him with PC Principal, he’s sporting a piano-key tie.
From there, Mackey’s paranoia spirals out of control—not out of genuine fear, but rather an unconscious or subconscious effort to keep the new Cold War (and thus his superficial throwback vibes) going. First, he grows suspicious that PC Principal could be a Russian spy. Then he’s sneaking into a horse stable after he learns that Butters Stotch’s rival in dressage (the boy’s latest interest) happens to be Russian. Mackey finds willing allies in Butters’ parents, who are trying to sabotage their son’s equine opponent and claim a metaphorical American victory over Russia a la Rocky IV in an upcoming competition.
Trey Parker and Matt Stone cleverly shroud the episode’s climax in archaic tech theatrics straight out of War Games, showing that, even as Mr. Mackey coordinates with the American military for a possible counter strike against Russia (he believes the country is going to use a Stotch win as a reason to attack), it’s all part of his goofy fetishization of the past. Aesthetically, there’s nothing threatening about his acts of intrigue because he’s become a child playing dress-up.
He finally realizes this while talking to his mother, who, during a conversation in his childhood bedroom, reminds him that the initial Cold War involved a staggering amount of fear and death, and isn’t something to be nostalgic for. “It just felt good because it was familiar,” she wisely tells her son as she talks him down from his metaphorical ledge—albeit in her own version of the dopey Mackey drawl.
On its own, the heart-to-heart between the Mackeys functions as the latest piece of South Park wisdom—a reminder that, when we long for our supposed halcyon days, we’re often only remembering the good parts. In that way, “Back To The Cold War” feels in conversation with episodes like “Member Berries” (which also used nostalgia as a justification for atrocity) and the now-classic “You’re Getting Old” (which, in a complete inverse, showed Stan recognizing the deterioration of nostalgia in real-time).
And yet, in relation to the rest of the episode, the Mr. Mackey/Mother Mackey conversation feels like it’s missing a beat. When observing her son’s behavior, Mrs. Mackey immediately jumps to talking about his fear of aging—a topic that, up until that point, hasn’t come up once, even though it ends up becoming the thesis of the episode.
It’s a tricky balance. To be fair, Mr. Mackey isn’t supposed to be self-aware enough to acknowledge the true root of his Cold War nostalgia. So it makes sense that the idea of mortality doesn’t get mentioned out loud until the scene with his mother. At the same time, it might be a harder-hitting conclusion (which Parker and Stone seem to want it to be) if the audience knew earlier on that his nostalgia wasn’t coming just from a place of whimsy and longing, but also a place of great pain.
The hiccup in Mr. Mackey’s emotional arc by no means ruins the episode. There’s still plenty of filthy barnyard humor with Butters’ horse, Melancholy (who’s far more concerned with shitting and fucking than prancing), and the overall message of “Back To The Cold War” rings true in both a historical context and a modern one.
“I know how it is when you’re getting old,” Mr. Mackey says in a TV address to the Russians after Butters does indeed win. “You start getting aggressive because your dick doesn’t work the way it used to.”
Thousands of miles away, a shirtless Putin solemnly agrees. I don’t know enough about him or Soviet Union history to say what’s truly in his heart—if he’s actually invading Ukraine because of reasons having to do with age and, as South Park proposes, impotency. But the final stretch of “Back To The Cold War” does get at one very simple, universal truth: men always have and always will start wars for very stupid reasons.
- Dressage really is the perfect Butters sport.
- Parker and Stone have perfected the way different species poop over the years. Every time Melancholy did so, the stuff just fell out of his body with little to no effort from the horse. Just like real life!
- The parody of Sting’s “Russians” at the end was a nice touch. Did I hear the lyrics correctly as, “I wonder if Russians get diarrhea from heroin, too”?
- Update: A couple of you have pointed out that it’s “Erewhon,” not “heroin,” which of course makes much more sense given the scene in the stable with the Stotches.
- Did anyone catch the Dino-Riders action figure on Mr. Mackey’s childhood dresser?
- I was thrilled to see Mr. Garrison still saddling the students with his romantic woes. More Rick, please.
- It looks like this episode makes South Park the first scripted television show to address the war. Pretty wild.
- “Putin? It was just a little noise when I pulled out. Nobody was pootin’, okay?”