Image: Comedy Central

In the typical American sitcom, the two storylines of “Doubling Down” would have converged by the end of the episode, especially since their subject matter is so similar. On one end, there’s Cartman and Heidi’s poisonous relationship, with Eric constantly gaslighting her through multiple breakups and reunions. No matter the circumstance, he always positions himself as the victim.

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On a more macro level, the show takes us inside the White House, where Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, and Mike Pence are suffering a similar type of manipulation at the hands of Garrison/Trump. Although their relationship with their superior involves sexual abuse as well as emotional abuse, it’s a blunter version of the dynamic between Cartman and Heidi: This is an episode of South Park about Stockholm syndrome, an episode about emotional vampirism, an episode about men (or, in Cartman’s case, a boy) abusing their power on both a national and local level.

Considering the narrative similarities between the A and B storylines, it would make sense for Trey Parker and Matt Stone to have the plot threads dovetail by the time the credits roll. They could have even leaned into the throwback element of this season by crafting a classic “message” episode, where Kyle steps forward and points out the trickle-down effect of Garrison’s abuse. When the leader of one’s country operates like a tyrant, of course an impressionable boy is going to think that manipulating others is okay. Monkey see, monkey do.

Maybe it’s because Cartman is already a bona fide sociopath without the aid of his president, but Parker and Stone never explicitly connect the two halves of “Doubling Down” in a narrative sense. The characters in South Park never even reference any of the folks in Washington. It’s more an instance of parallel structure, which feels bold when compared to the show’s usual format. While Heidi and Trump/Garrison’s subordinates are smart enough to know that they’re being abused, the closer they get to rebelling against their tormentor, the faster they come crawling back. Pence sells out Ryan and McConnell before they can all go through with low-approval-rating mutiny against their leader, and Heidi ends a new relationship with Kyle after Cartman pleads with her one last time.

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But Cartman’s mistreatment of Heidi doesn’t just represent the Trump administration; it also represents the average Trump voter. When Heidi finally recognizes how horrible Cartman has been to her after much urging from her friends, she breaks up with him and they all go out to celebrate. But the dinner soon turns sour as her girlfriends only seem interested in cackling about how shitty Cartman was to Heidi.

This makes her feel stupid and resentful, which no doubt plays a role in her returning to Cartman at the end. The very people who wanted her to leave Cartman end up driving her right back into his arms. This is probably how so many reformed Trump supporters feel when encountering the “I told you so” attitude of their liberal friends—not exactly the most welcoming demeanor toward someone who’s just altered their political ideology. This can lead to going back to old ideas. It can lead to doubling down on one’s former beliefs, even when they know they’re damaging.

But there’s an added wrinkle to Heidi that complicates her logic. In the episode’s final scene, she breaks up with Kyle after hearing out Cartman one last time. We never see her and Cartman’s full conversation, but it’s implied that he shares something anti-Semitic with her. After Heidi shows up at Kyle’s house, she leaves him and calls his people “sneaky,” making it clear that she was all too eager to adopt Cartman’s hateful viewpoint.

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This goes beyond the backfiring of liberal elitism. Heidi returning to Cartman because her pals are being smug assholes makes sense. Even if we don’t agree with it, we can still feel sympathy for her having the limited options of an emotionally abusive partner and spiteful, self-satisfied friends. But spewing anti-Semitism on a dime shows that returning to Cartman—or, in the real world, voting for Trump—has at least something to do with bigotry, however unconscious on her part.

And that’s where Parker and Stone leave us, with another ending that never settles on a definitive answer. But where more recent South Park conclusions of this ilk have resulted from the show’s creators refusing to anchor themselves to a specific viewpoint (sometimes frustratingly so), “Doubling Down” simply recognizes that this past election was complicated. It recognizes that Trump voters, like anyone else, are complicated. Should their opposers embrace them or should they never bother reaching out in the first place? In Parker and Stone’s eyes, that’s something that can’t be answered by a mere cartoon.

Stray observations

  • Not tying the episode’s title to the KFC sandwich of the same name seems like a missed opportunity.
  • I caught nods to the “Pink Elephants On Parade” sequence in Dumbo and the final confrontation in The Little Mermaid during Cartman’s nightmare about Kyle. Were there any other Disney films in there? “Night On Bald Mountain” from Fantasia, maybe?
  • Member Berries! ’Member the Member Berries?
  • Kyle describing Cartman (and Trump) with painful accuracy: “He’ll always find someone to blame for his shortcomings, and because of that, he’s never going to change.”
  • “My oath to the office was that I would fuck everyone to death, remember?”
  • “Oh, uh… No, I tripped on a doorknob. That’s just… that’s doorknob cum.”
  • “I don’t know anything. I’m just a turtle.”

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