“Marge In Chains” (season 4, episode 21; originally aired 05/06/1993)
Many of the episodes in The Simpsons’ fourth season are burned indelibly in my memory. They’re like favorite songs I know by heart. Merely looking at the titles of classic, iconic episodes like “Kamp Krusty,” “A Streetcar Named Marge,” “Homer The Heretic,” “Mr. Plow,” “Marge Versus The Monorail,” “I Love Lisa,” and “Last Exit To Springfield” is enough to induce Pavlovian shivers of pure joy. Then there are sleeper episodes like “Marge In Chains” whose title and premise might not be instantly familiar like the episodes I just named. Nevertheless, the episode is filled with some of my favorite jokes of all time, not just from The Simpsons.
To cite an example, when I first started wooing the woman who is now unfortunate enough to be my wife, I referred to Jimmy Carter as history’s greatest monster in an e-mail. “Because of his stance on Israel?” she replied and I experienced a stark moment of existential panic. Did she not get the reference? Could I have a healthy, functional longterm romantic relationship with someone without a deep love and understanding of The Simpsons? Sadly, I am not particularly kidding. Thankfully, it was a false alarm. She got the reference; she was just fucking with me.
“Marge In Chains” is the episode that introduced the notion, which has now been accepted as conventional wisdom, that Jimmy Carter is history’s greatest monster, but its comic riches extend far beyond that gorgeous, gorgeous gag. Like “Whacking Day,” “Marge In Chains” moves smoothly and effortlessly between the big and little picture, between a tight focus on the Simpsons and a broad view that encompasses all of Springfield and with it, the world.
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“Marge In Chains” begins with two of the sketchiest characters in all of Springfield, Nick Riviera and Troy McClure (whom you might remember from such films as The President’s Neck Is Missing and P Is For Psycho) selling “Juice Looseners” that end up causing a flu epidemic that throws Springfield into a panic. The perpetually germ-phobic Mr. Burns thinks he’s safe in a germ-free chamber he has built for occasions like this but when he shows it to Smithers he’s mortified to discover Homer obliviously sitting inside it. When an indignant Burns inquires “Who the devil are you?” Homer, in another of my all-time favorite gags, improvises limply, “My name is Mr. Burns”, a line that would never work but particularly doesn’t work when addressed to the real Mr. Burns.
Soon Homer, Lisa and Bart are afflicted with flu, a predicament that makes them even needier than usual, as they impatiently demand orange juice, Flintstones Chewable Morphine (a product that, alas, exists only in Bart’s feverish, flu-stricken imagination), and Sheriff Lobo. An exhausted and depleted Marge lurches to the Kwik-E-Mart with impatient cries of “O.J! Morphine! Lobo!” playing in her head that are repeated so often that they attain a musicality and lyrical rhythm. If I were a DJ, I would so try to make a song whose chorus went “OJ! Morphine! Lobo!”
Marge is so depleted and wrung-out that she ends up leaving the Kwik-E-Mart (where she was able to procure aspirin for the low, low price of $24.95 because an escaped mental patient tampered with it) without paying for a bottle of bourbon.
Apu, has Marge thrown into jail, and soon all of Springfield is atwitter with gossip about Marge. The arrest instantly changes the perception of Marge from a devoted mother and wife and pillar of the community to a sticky-fingered, probably alcoholic woman of low morals and questionable integrity. Even Mayor Quimby gets into the act.
In their quest for representation at a low, low price, the Simpsons recruit the services of Lionel Hutz, who seems far more interested in the smoking monkeys he’s giving away as a premium than in Marge’s case. “By hiring me as your lawyer, you also get this smoking monkey! Better cut down there, Smokey! He’s taking another puff!” Hutz crows delightedly. Hutz is much less excited to discover the judge he’ll be facing, conceding sheepishly, “He’s had it in for me ever since I kind of run over his dog. Well, replace the word 'kind of' with 'repeatedly' and the word dog with 'son.'”
The prosecuting attorney is so cocky that he begins his case by asking the jury, “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, who do you find more attractive? Tom Cruise or Mel Gibson?” before explaining to the judge, “Your honor, I feel so confident of Marge Simpson’s guilt that I can waste the court’s time by rating the super-hunks!”
Even Hutz is forced to concede that Marge’s case is hopeless; it doesn’t help that he becomes so fixated on the purloined bourbon in question that he has to call his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor David Crosby for moral guidance and strength in his time of need. This is a bit of an in-joke, because the great Phil Hartman, the voice and smarmy soul of Lionel Hutz and so many others, designed an album cover for Crosby, Stills & Nash back in the 1970s.
Marge loses, of course, and Homer is burdened with having to take care of his children. Homer’s approach to parenting is minimalist to the point of being Dadaist: He doesn’t want to wash clothes or do dishes so he orders his children to drink directly from the sink or milk carton and wear clothes from the attic, even if they’re wildly unpractical, like a wedding dress or a Halloween costume, like the devil suit Homer wears to visit Marge in jail.
It goes without saying that Homer will not rise to the challenge of taking care of his children but the show makes an interesting, unusual choice in making Homer confident in his terrible parenting choices rather than overwhelmed and frantic. Homer really seems to think packing a sugar packet and peanut butter smeared on a playing card is an adequate school lunch for Bart.
Homer isn’t the only one having a hard time adjusting to life without Marge. Springfield feels her absence acutely as well. When the park commission comes up short at a bake sale due to the appalling absence of Marge’s marshmallow squares, it’s forced to cut corners and replace its scheduled Abraham Lincoln statue with a statue of Jimmy Carter. The public is understandably aghast. In what may be the single greatest sentence ever spoken by anyone, ever, an enraged looker-on yells accusingly, “He’s history’s greatest monster” before a full-on riot breaks out as the citizenry takes out its rage on various businesses and shop-keepers.
Marge is eventually released from prison, and something approximating order and calm once again descends upon Springfield in general and the Simpson household in particular. I suspect “Marge In Chains” didn’t stick out in my mind as one of the show’s all-time great episodes because Marge episodes tend to be sweet and clever more than gut-busting, laugh-out-loud hilarious. But “Marge In Chains” is much more than just a Marge episode. It’s also a great Springfield episode and a great Lionel Hutz episode. Hell, Hutz figures so prominently and has so many great moments here that the episode could probably double as a back-door pilot for a Lionel Hutz spin-off. More than anything, “Marge In Chains” is just plain great. Would you expect anything less from The Simpsons in its prime?
- Lionel Hutz might just be my favorite “law-talking guy” in all of entertainment, even if he’s unsuccessful in getting the judge to declare a “bad court thingy” (otherwise known as a mistrial)
- I love that Homer gets chest pains from answering the phone.
- “Oh, the network slogan is true! Watch Fox and be damned for all eternity!”—Flanders on the perils of watching Married With Children
- Next up is “Krusty Gets Kancelled,” the season finale. If memory serves, that’s a good one. Then I’ll have a little break and start up with the fifth season of The Simpsons in November