Photo: Comedy Central

A little less than 20 years ago, a still-finding-its-legs South Park aired a memorable episode called “Gnomes,” which focused both on the omnipresence of Starbucks Coffee (named Harbucks in the episode), as well as little gnomes that steal your underpants in the night, with their ultimate goal being “profit.” That episode is likely best-known for the scene in which Cartman whacks a gnome in the head with a baseball bat, to which the gnome replies “is that all you got, pussy.” That being said, what made “Gnomes” truly important in terms of understanding the show’s beliefs was its main thesis statement, “big corporations are good.” The show argued that Starbucks coffee was successful because it had a good product. It’s no secret that Trey Parker and Matt Stone are libertarians, and while they’ve made similar points, that episode stands out as their most explicitly pro-capitalist moment.

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Two decades later, things have gotten radically different. “Unfulfilled” focuses on the arrival of an Amazon Fulfillment Center in town, and the fallout it causes. Things get miserable pretty quickly. Stephen Stotch yells at Butters for seemingly no reason, and we soon find out it’s because he’s being worked to death since taking a job at the factory. We soon find out many others have joined him, as the Center has pretty much eliminated every job in town. The frightening working conditions at Amazon factories have been talked about quite a bit lately, and they don’t sugarcoat things here, as a worker named Josh is quickly maimed by a robot, which the company attributes to human error. This ends up being the last straw, as the workers go on strike, leaving everyone in town without their precious Amazon stuff. In Season 8's “Something Walmart This Way Comes,” the show argued that boycotting Walmart was a dead-end, because another Walmart would simply take its place. This episode grants more power to the worker than that episode did to the consumer, because the strike causes legitimate chaos, as just about everyone has come to depend on Amazon deliveries.

The ensuing crisis leads to Jeff Bezos’ arrival in South Park, and once again, he is spared no mercy. He speaks seemingly through thoughts, and while his brain is pulsating through his head, when he turns around, it’s revealed that the back of his head is a butt (I guess he has TGS, but in reverse). Visual humor aside, the point is driven home when Bezos tells the mayor that Amazon’s philosophy is that the customer is the only thing that matters. Indeed, this is pretty much the primary reason Amazon has become so massively successful. Getting the product out as quickly as possible is the only priority, and the workers are entirely disregarded. A few weeks ago, Saturday Night Live defended Amazon in multiple capacities, with Bezos being portrayed as in heroic opposition to President Trump, while Colin Jost argued that New York had “won the lottery” when Amazon decided to come there. South Park takes a wider, much more informed view, showing both how the jobs they would “create” would only take away other existing jobs, and that they would involve workers facing unspeakably cruel conditions. That a show with a history of defending capitalism would come to this conclusion while SNL argued that it’s actually fine shows that this was quite a blind spot on the latter’s part.

Without any Amazon delivery, the boys are desperate to get parts for the upcoming bike parade, and with nowhere else to turn, they head to the nearly abandoned South Park Mall, where a handful of mall employees have suffered severe mutations since the customers stopped coming in. This was one of the most genuinely disturbing scenes the show has ever done, and not in a remotely comedic way. Unfortunately, the mall mutants are of no help. Online shopping has made it so consumers can find exactly what they want at all times, and picking from a limited inventory isn’t enough to satisfy the boys’ demands. Desperate to prepare for the race, they look to end the strike by sending the mutants to work in the factory as scabs.

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Towards the end, the episode takes a turn from implying socialist concepts, to straight up saying them. The mangled worker—who is repackaged in an Amazon box and will die if his organs leak out—begins openly quoting Marx and talking about seizing the means of production. Perhaps Trey and Matt realized the arguments they were making were more left-wing than what they had been previously known for, and decided to comment on it directly. As we might guess from the second-to-last episode of the season, things end on a cliffhanger, as the striking workers prepare to face the mall mutants in what should be quite a battle.

In all honesty, I’m stunned by this episode, even moreso than I was when they brought back ManBearPig, and acknowledged the errors of his first appearance. In a way, this can’t help but feel like a companion piece to the ManBearPig episodes. When the effects of global warming weren’t really being felt yet, it was easier to argue that maybe the whole thing was overblown and Al Gore just wanted attention. Likewise, two decades ago, the horrors of modern capitalism weren’t as readily evident, and it was easier to tell yourself that everything was Actually Fine, and the people predicting doom were simply getting bent out of shape (“How many Native Americans did you slaughter to make that coffee?!”). Now, anyone who pays attention is acutely aware of what’s going on, and how utterly unfettered modern capitalism has gotten. As such, South Park had no choice but to re-examine their values, and, in this episode, come to the conclusion that no, big corporations aren’t necessarily good. It was a stunning and massively encouraging change of heart, and it also did a great job of setting us up for yet another suspenseful finale next week.

Stray Observations

  • “16 Tons” by Tennessee Ernie Ford plays over an early sequence of workers at the factory. By which I mean they play the entire song. Maybe a little too long, but it certainly was effective.
  • Also fun is the “Unfulfilled” song as people are forced to adjust to life without Amazon. “Somebody just bitch-slapped the smile out of me.”
  • “If you pay for free shipping, can you go anywhere you want?”
  • I realize that this is the first episode of a two-parter, and next week’s episode could contradict the message of this one. But after portraying Amazon and Bezos as this brutally evil for a whole episode, I don’t see how you do an about-face the following week.
  • Okay, I’m really curious to see which story-arcs they’ll fit into the finale. Obviously, the Amazon plot has become the center, but I imagine they’ll also tackle Cartman’s anxiety plot, as well as the success or failure of Tegridy Farms. It’d be weird to just leave those threads hanging into next season, right? Does Mr. Hanky come back? I mean, that episode was awhile ago, and it feels like the season has moved on, but then again, it is Christmas time. There is going to be a lot to sort through next week.

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