Photo: Comedy Central

At 21 seasons deep, it’s becoming harder and harder for South Park to push the envelope with Mr. Garrison. Even before he was officially elected President of the United States, he had ascended to power by fucking the Canadian President to death—an act that was always going to be tough to follow in terms of shock value.

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Since then, Garrison has certainly had his moments as the show’s de facto stand-in for Donald Trump. At times, Trey Parker and Matt Stone have simply depicted him saying the shit Trump says in real life, or doubled down on his repugnancy by extending his penchant for sexual violence to his own colleagues.

More often than not, though, Parker and Stone have fumbled when it comes to Garrison as Trump, and it’s hard to blame them. For all of their declarations to back off of #45 in this recent season, that was always going to be impossible. As the season finale, “Splatty Tomato,” states, the dude just won’t go away, no matter how much we want him to. It’s tough for any show to stop referencing him, let alone one that’s relied on lampooning current events (sometimes down to the minute) for the better part of its 21-year run. Whenever a Trump/Garrison storyline goes nowhere, it’s likely because Parker and Stone just don’t have that much more to say about him.

That being said, the opening moments of “Splatty Tomato” set up a premise that, had Parker and Stone taken it further, could have resulted in another bit of memorable Stephen King comedy on South Park. Driven mad by how much the public hates him in the aftermath of nuking Canada, Garrison has taken to the wild, stalking the show’s children and asking them about his approval rating. Borrowing imagery from this year’s film adaptation of It, the episode conceals Garrison with red “Make America Great Again” balloons and casts everything in an ominous rainstorm. It’s Derry by way of South Park.

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But unlike the horror movie it’s parodying, “Splatty Tomato” has almost zero sense of escalation with its Garrison storyline. If we’re going off the It model, Garrison’s behavior should grow increasingly disturbing, especially on a show as profane as South Park. We’re told that he’s eating animals and terrorizing kids around town, but the grisliest thing we see him do is bloodlessly slurp down a rat. Just think of what could have been—Garrison hiding in a storm drain; Garrison unfolding out of a refrigerator; Garrison disgustingly woofing down a bucket of KFC, then baring a set of protrusible jaws a la Pennywise. Parker and Stone never clarify what exactly’s supposed to be so scary about him.

Or maybe the joke is that he’s lame and decidedly not scary, but the show’s creators never follow up on that, either. He mostly hangs around, asks about his approval rating, and disappears. By the time Ike—who braves the woods in full Canadian mountie regalia—brings him in, we haven’t gotten any classic Garrison moments. We haven’t gotten any kind of increased stakes, and this is after the guy obliterated a neighboring country just one week ago.

Surprisingly, it’s “Splatty Tomato”’s subplots that end up being the main source of both comedy and drama. PC Principal and Vice Principal finally accept their feelings for one another, much to the disgust of all of the adults in South Park. While on the manhunt for Garrison, Randy discovers them post-coital, promptly vomiting at the sight of two coworkers who have a mutual attraction for one another in the middle of the #MeToo movement. His retching has a chain reaction, the nonstop puke amplifying last week’s commentary on our collective paranoia about workplace romance.

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“Splatty Tomato”’s other saving grace is the final dissolution (or so it seems) of Cartman and Heidi’s relationship. If there’s a theme to be had in the finale, it’s one of self-victimization; of how blaming everyone else for your unhappiness can lead to catastrophic consequences. Kyle realizes the nuking of Canada had more to do with his own internal problems than actual hatred toward the country, and Heidi realizes her toxic relationship with Cartman comes from the same place.

The revelation occurs after the kids set off into the woods (or the Barrens?) to find Ike, with Heidi coming across the locations of several watershed moments during her time with Cartman. The ghost of her former self challenges her, reminding her of how far she’s fallen. Each of these sequences has a quiet kind of beauty that’s always welcome on South Park, reminiscent of some of the highlights from “You’re Getting Old.” When Heidi finally does stand up to Cartman, it feels like true catharsis. Parker and Stone have played a long game over two seasons with Cartman and Heidi’s relationship, rendering their breakup the animated equivalent to Ross and Rachel finally getting together on Friends. It’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for, and is every bit as triumphant as it should be.

That’s if it lasts, of course. In the final shot of “Splatty Tomato,” it’s revealed that Garrison has escaped after getting hauled in by Ike, meaning that he’ll probably be back in power next season, his poisonous leadership trickling down and bringing out the worst in everyone on South Park. If that’s the case, let’s hope Parker and Stone have a better idea of what to do with him.

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Stray observations

  • So what do you all think? Are Heidi and Cartman done for good? I hope so.
  • Is Ike’s dog a reference to anything? It reminds me of Sweet Boy from the comic series Saga, but I’m not sure. Is it some kind of Canadian breed?
  • After the introduction of the Blacks all the way back in 2000, I’m surprised it took South Park this long to introduce a family called the Whites.
  • And yes, it’s up to them whether or not Garrison/Trump returns. My money’s on Trump still being in power when South Park comes back next year. But one can hope...
  • Although the static horror parody feels like a missed opportunity, the episode does have a handful of amusing Stephen King/Stranger Things in-jokes. My personal favorite is the kids’ playlist, which shows how an adventure set to an ‘80s soundtrack can go horribly wrong.
  • “Just remember, he’s been eating animals and living like a monster.”
  • And that’s a wrap on season 21. In the spirit of that Pandora playlist, I leave you with this:

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