Episode 39 (8F03), Season 3. Written by John Swartzwelder; Directed by Rich Moore.
Point of entry: It is indeed the function of the critic to, as T.S. Eliot argued, separate the man who suffers from the mind which creates, or in the words of D.H. Lawrence, to rescue the story from its narrator. "Never trust the teller," Lawrence wrote, "trust the tale". Below, a discussion of the importance of the maxim as we untangle tales from tellers in an episode dubbed no. 8 all-time by no less an... uh... authority... than Vanity Fair.
One seemingly perfect morning in televisionland - Springfield, USA in particular - Bart Simpson awakens to a ray of sunshine and his hero's laugh immortalized in his alarm clock, with his homework done, his "mojo working", and an afternoon field trip to the chocolate factory to look forward to. Today is not to be Bart's day, however: the "official" Police Badge in his Chocolate Frosted Krusty Flakes is snatched away by Homer, and when Bart returns to his room to get dressed, the lovable family dog Santa's Little Helper greets him with the growling destruction of that very same homework.
Though nine times nine does not equal 100, as the shreds of Bart's homework reveal he has written, a much more important truth is called into question in this opening scene when Bart says "You ate my homework? I didn't know dogs really did that," referring to the "oldest excuse in the book" - one never believed by any teacher - and observing a situation in which he will have to face the power of narrative authority: it could very well be true that your dog has eaten your homework, but the validity of this rendition of events is dismissed out of hand. The reliability of the narrator, and thus the narrative, are immediately scrubbed.
The episode's title gives us one example of an authoritative information source which right away can't be trusted: though the writer has dubbed this episode "Bart the Murderer", we are going to find out in the end that Bart has not in fact murdered anyone. And it is these two facts which ought to put us on our guard, as we have just been told that not only will the authority of a usual target (e.g. the police) be undermined (e.g. by an "official" badge coming in a cereal box before they demonstrate wide-ranging incompetence throughout the episode), but so too will that of the narrators.
Written or oral narration comes in the first-person ("I went to the store") or the third-person ("he went to the store") varieties, and while a voice-over can usually communicate first person narration in film or television (e.g. David Fincher's Fight Club, one of many in which the protagonist narrates his own life), there is an inherent flaw: we can see this person, on screen and not saying the words we are hearing. Instead of reported speech and activities via the protagonist's narration, we are given direct speech, watching the character have conversations and take various actions. The narrating character, therefore, has stepped outside of the frame to tell his/her story, narrating from a point in time and space that is not what is being depicted on screen.
In this story, though it is clearly about Bart (as he drives all of the action, and is the object of the title), we do not have first-person narration. Bart does not tell us about his day, meaning that the show's writers will be doing so, and in addition to his earlier troubles, Bart misses the bus and has to skateboard in a timely rainstorm.
The inclusion of weather befitting a character's (sombre) mood is termed pathetic fallacy, and while it is standard in many films for sad moments to occur with a rainy backdrop, the notion is precisely this: weather arbitrarily added by the writer for the purpose of complementing the action. The writers not only toss in some rain to Bart's bad day, they make it clear that it is only there for the character when they surpass the cliche and make it stop when he gets inside the school. Here the writers are essentially saying that if they can turn on rain on a whim, now that the character is inside, they might just as well turn it off.
Though this sequence exists to create comic frustration, it calls attention to the constructedness of narrative, and the theme will run through the whole episode in an attack on the creators of narrative, and the sources which one should or should not trust. Very little of this episode - the trip to the chocolate factory and the crime families' meeting being about the only parts - takes place without depicting Bart, and in these scenes, his perspective is absent, and only so because of a run-in with an authority figure's narration. Without permission, Bart can't go on the field trip - the lack of a permission slip means that no narrative can be imagined in which the parent has given the child permission to do so - and later in the episode, though he is only supervising the spray-painting of stink-lined Principal Skinner saying "I am a weiner" on the school walls, Skinner's construction of a narrative places the blame on Bart, who, as the one doing the bribing, must be the ringleader.
Bart's attempt to bribe Skinner is at the heart of both the action of the episode - it causes him to be late for work which results in the chain of events leading to Skinner's disappearance - and the deconstruction of narrative: a bribe to "see nothing" is collusion to change the relation of reality, that is to say, to create a new narrative whose authority is ensured by the participation of both parties.
Though it is presumable that Bart has learned this approach to dealing with authority figures from his mobster cronies, it is arguable that he has learned the behaviour from Principal Skinner: made to stuff envelopes all afternoon while his classmates gorge themselves at the chocolate factory, Bart asks to leave school early. Principal Skinner allows him to do so, but only with this proviso: "Don't tell your teacher I let you leave early". This is Skinner - the episode's most reliable authority figure - trying to collude with Bart to ensure that a secret is kept quiet, and though insignificant, they too are attempting to make an untrue narrative more powerful with their consent to tell the same story.
Once Bart leaves school, the writers, again calling attention to the constructedness of the narrative, open the clouds on Bart again, and in the rain, his skateboard wheel comes off and precipitates his fall down a set of stairs. His "What next?" from the ground is met by the cocking of guns, as he has stumbled upon a (perhaps not-so) secret mob hideout marked with a sign reading "The Legitimate Businessmen's Social Club".
First thing in the door, Bart is quizzed by the boss himself: William "Fat Tony" Williams, in the character's first ever appearance. "Hey, what's with the kid..." he starts, and Bart interrupts: "Hands off the material". The mobsters note that Bart has "spunk", then urge him to pick a horse in the third race to see if he's lucky. His answer? The patented "Eat my shorts".
The writers use a little dramatic irony here: while the viewers know that this is Bart's usual way of telling off an authority figure, there is no way that Tony could know this, as he has never met Bart. (The joke is of course that "Eat My Shorts" is a horse in the the fifth race, and, reacting to Tony's outrage at this, Bart tries to calm him with "Don't Have a Cow", which turns out to be both a horse and a horse in the right race.) While this works within the frame of the story, it also works outside the frame: Fat Tony is a new character in this episode and as unknown to viewers as he is to Bart, so the catchphrase, when used, is no longer a catchphrase as it doesn't accomplish its role. It's taken out of context, and as such, the narrative that is the television show itself is stripped of its own authority.
Bart and Tony (not to mention his mobsters) thus place Bart's fate in another report of activity: the call of the horse race. The live action narrative of events. The characters can only wait, and as this is a life and death matter - for Tony does say, after Don't Have a Cow wins the race, "and to think, I was going to shoot you!" - the narrative with the most authority belongs to the race announcer, his words determining what will happen next. What's interesting to note is that Fat Tony has already constrcuted a plan to shoot Bart, and delivers a competing (though defeated) alternate narrative - a speculative fiction, in a way.
Having survived this test, Bart is taken into the mobsters' confidence, but he first has to pass a second test and make a Manhattan for Legs. Being a ten-year-old, Bart does not know this, but he finds the recipe - again, a structured series of additions to the glass (events) being narrated - and overcomes the challenge and shows us a second narrative with the authority to determine whether he lives or dies.
Bart goes on mixing drinks for the mobsters, who play poker, one of them with four aces, the next with five, the next with six. All the men are cheating at the game, clearly, and all are still "in" the poker game. Poker is a game all about interpreting clues: tells such as eye movements or any one of several nervous ticks may give away the player's confidence in his hand, and to bluff is to give the impression of having a better hand than one does. In other words, to embellish it by way of narrative.
But this episode - like any 22-minute delight on the box - can't string its own narrative out as long as it would like, and as a result, it has to rely on some standard narrative pieces to get the viewer to come along for the ride. A classic from the film world that has been truly embraced by the small screen due to episodes' short duration is the montage, and this episode features one set to swinging, jazzy early rock and roll played over Bart's ascension to a trusted associate. Viewers use montages to interpret large pieces of narrative development over a short period of time, and this one seems to speak specifically to Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas, setting the rise through the ranks to a similar soundtrack.
The montage ends, and we see Bart on Fat Tony's knee - a sure sign of a stronger, even paternal relationship - watching an Itchy & Scratchy cartoon, "The Sound of Silencers". The evocation of the infamous St. Valentine's Massacre (a simple depiction of Itchy with a Tommy Gun mowing down about seven cats - Scratchy among them - against a brick wall) brings about two telling critiques from the mobsters: "It's funny because it's true", Fat Tony remarks, and he's complimented by Legs ("Well observed"). The resonance of narrative here has to be noted: it's funny because, to the mobsters, it's true, and due to its resemblance to real organized crime, it is a narrative that is to them authentic and has legitimate authority.
The cartoon finished, Police Chief Wiggum bursts into the club and asks Fat Tony if he would happen to know anything about a missing truckload of cigarettes. Wiggum drops the details of the heist - particularly that it happened on Highway 401 - and hopes that Tony will say something to complete the story. We can look at this through the lens of the work of Roland Barthes: Fat Tony would be the reader of Chief Wiggum's writing, and as such, complete the narrative work by reading it. Tony resists, "playing dumb" - "what's a truck" - but Wiggum has basically put a story together in his head before passing the responsibility for its completion of to its audience.
Unbeknownst to Bart, Fat Tony's gang have in fact stolen these cigarettes, but the young employee's only role was to hold the cigarettes for a time. This causes a problem with Homer, though, who sees the haul and accuses Bart of having started smoking. To correct the behaviour, Homer falls back on a time-worn cliché, which is to make the child smoke so many of the cigarettes that he will be disgusted and never smoke again. But in the same way as Wiggum a scene earlier, Homer too is asking the reader for completion of the narrative: "Bart, have you started smoking?" Though Bart denies it - like the dog-eaten homework, the contraband is actually being held for a friend - Homer puts a narrative together with the evidence before him: Bart has cigarettes, therefore he has started smoking. As Bart's father, he is the authority, and his goal of enforcing the rules is only compromised by the entrance of the delivery man who has come to get the cigarettes for Tony. And when Bart's narrative triumphs over Homer's, the father is left in awe: "I'll never doubt you again", he says.
The verification of Bart's story by the delivery man stands as enough to convince Homer that everything is fine, and while there is no longer a concern that Bart is smoking, the evening news reports that as many cigarettes as were just in Bart's room have been stolen. Furthermore, Homer's powers of deduction have left him once verfication has been had: while possession of cigarettes had to mean that Bart had been smoking, somehow the possession of the same amount of cigarettes that are being reported stolen goes right over Homer's head.
The authority of the news report - after all, if untrue, the station could be sued - ought to set of some bells for Homer, but perhaps the impact of an even more reliable narrator in this case comes down to only this: does Homer care? If you are not interested in something, the narration can be packed with authority, but (as with so many news stories) if it's not your son illegally acquiring cigarettes, what difference?
The nature of these cigarettes is told and re-told in a total of four narratives, each from a different perspective: (1) Chief Wiggum's, which makes the insinuation that Fat Tony stole the truck, (2) Bart's, which ascertains simply that he is holding them as part of his job, (3) Homer's, which presumes that Bart has been smoking, and (4) the newscast's, which says only that they have gone missing and that the involvement of "reputed mobster" Fat Tony is suspected by police.
To Lisa, the newscast is a dead giveaway ("Bart, is your boss a crook?"), and it's the tipping point for Bart as well, as here he discovers that the missing cigarettes and those in his room may be the same cigarettes. That is to say, the newscast gives him a narrative that makes him question the authority of Fat Tony's narrative, which Bart concedes when he says "It would explain a lot". The lowest on the authority totem pole, however, is Chief Wiggum: his reassurance that there is no concern around the cigarette supply is rebuffed by an angsty smoker, and the crowd is only reassured by the same reassurance from the mouth of slimy Laramie executive Jack Larson. Larson knows that he is so well-received, so authortitative in his position as narrator, that he openly flouts the law, saying (to Wiggum's indifference) that the truck will not observe any stop signs or crosswalks along the way. Wiggum's authority is then completely compromised when he botches a narrative technique - metaphor - and tries to say that he will be "what[ever] cures" the cancer that is Fat Tony.
Bart believes the news story, though, and as such, he has no choice but to confront Fat Tony:
Bart: Uh, say, are you guys crooks?
Tony: Bart, um, is it wrong to steal a loaf of bread to feed your starving family?
Tony: Well, suppose you got a large starving family. Is it wrong to steal a truckload of bread to feed them?
Bart: Uh uh.
Tony: And, what if your family don't like bread? They like... cigarettes?
Bart: I guess that's okay.
Tony: Now, what if instead of giving them away, you sold them at a price that was practically giving them away. Would that be a crime, Bart?
Bart: Hell, no!
It is through no less than a Platonic dialogue - an age-old form of reasoning that may still be the strongest - that Fat Tony convinces Bart that he and his associates are not crooks. And dialogic reasoning relies on the sequencing of facts, meaning that again, a narrative has been created, and due to its seemingly undeniable strength - particularly when the author is a manipulative crime boss and the reader is a ten-year-old boy - it holds enough authority for Bart.
Again, in the next scene, as viewers we are given an element of a traditional gangster narrative, Bart singing another song that it would be fair to associate with gangsters in the Scorsese mold, and it constitutes a sign that the narrative has progressed: Bart wears his suit, orders his mother around and gives her "the eyes".
Marge, however, has seen enough by this point, and while trying to talk Homer into going and speaking to Fat Tony to look out for Bart's interests, she looks out the window and sees a truck marked "Pizza Delivery Truck" with a seemingly hastily pasted-on sign. As with the identifier of the mobster's club as one belonging to "legitimate business men", the signifier here is important to the process of generating an authoritative narrative: though the sign on the truck says it is a pizza delivery service, the suspicion of Bart, the duration of its stay (two weeks) and likely the satellite dish on its roof all contribute to an undermining of the story the FBI is hoping to tell; similarly, the fact that the police know that Fat Tony hangs out in this club shows that his sign has no legitimacy. The pizza truck disappears only to be replaced by a less credible delivery truck reading Flowers By Irene, but as the viewer we don't know for sure whether this ruse will hold up. A sign, much like the naming that goes on in Public Relations or various "political correctness" endeavours, does not change the reality: in fact, it oftens puts a mere cover over it that quickly wears even thinner and lets the lie shine through.
Homer's meeting with the mobsters is a success as, less street-wise than Bart, he is even more easily duped, bought off by the fact that he is winning at poker despite his bad hands. The mobster with several aces in his hand lies, saying "I was... bluffing", telling us that he is now bluffing, creating a narrative about having been just creating a false narrative. Homer then passes this false narrative onto Marge.
It is here where the major event - the bribery of Principal Skinner - takes place. Skinner gives Bart another Barthesian invitation to complete the narrative, and in an attempt to change (or at least hide) the truth, Bart slips Skinner some cash, which results in Bart being made to stay late and write lines and thereby miss his shift at work. With Bart absent, Fat Tony has a problem upholding two narratives he presents as facts: (1) that Bart is never late for work, and (2) that he can offer the visiting crime family the best Manhattan. Tony makes Louie make the Manhattans, despite Louie only knowing how to make wine spritzers, and Louie produces a subpar Manhattan that earns Fat Tony a kiss of death from his guest.
Louie, however, should have been able to make this drink: all Bart had to do was trust the recipe. Therefore, one of two things is true: either Louie can't read, or (perhaps most likely for a criminal who subscribes to no authority), he does not know of or take heed of the recipe. The second may be the most likely case if we remember that Bart had to blow dust off of the recipe, which points to disuse of this authoritative source.
When Fat Tony learns of Skinner's hassling of Bart, he says something that the viewer should understand to mean more than it does at face value: "perhaps we should go meet and greet". He leaves Bart, who shows for the second time that he is buying into the narrative of a life of crime, pouring himself a shot of milk (like that which he already asked Marge for) and downing it at an opportune time to drink.
Authority is front and centre when the mobsters descend on Skinner: "You Skinner?", they ask, and he responds "I'm Principal Skinner", placing the emphasis on the title to put the men in their place right away, and letting his authority take the reins. The outcome of the meeting, however, is indeterminate, and Skinner's disappearance becomes the next event told (1) in a montage and (2) from several narrative perspectives:
- Mrs. Krabappel, who tries to gingerly and caringly inform the children (who, naturally, start celebrating), but breaks down crying as though she had learned he was dead;
- That of the Springfield Shopper newspaper, with its headline "Principal Still Missing", and the subhead of "Police search for body" (which is then mocked when the live diver is hauled up out of the water and compared to the photo of the allegedly dead Skinner);
- The television reportage, a representative example being the interview of the seemingly useless Groundskeeper Willie regarding the cat that he turned up;
- The missing person posters for Skinner, who presume him dead, reading "Have you seen my body today?";
- That of Chief Wiggum, at his press conference, in which he promises to use the "most advanced, scientific techniques in the field of... body finding".
In all five versions, Skinner is already dead, and the hysteria mounts: a psychic is called in, and the school's fire hose is re-named in Skinner's honour. When an emotional Mrs. Krabappel says "He loved fire drills", Groundskeeper Willie slaps her and tells her to get a hold of herself, for the children's sake ("for the wee bairns", actually), and while this is unfortunate intolerance in the workplace, it might best perceived as a subtle wakeup call to her and to the viewer: we don't know that Skinner is dead.
The clues (for the viewer, but not for the police) continue to mount, as the rumours swirl in the schoolyard and culminate with Nelson's insinuation that "Bart had Skinner killed by gangsters". Bart has no choice but to jump into the fray, to refute this false narrative: "That's not true. It's just a rumour. You're engaged in speculation. I know the law. You can't prove anything." And here too the viewer has a chance to again recognize that nothing can be proven, and Skinner may not be dead.
Bart next has the dream - a completely unreliable narration strung together by one's subconscious, most since Freud would say - in which Skinner haunts him, and tells him over and over "You killed me, Bart". The natural end of this onslaught of hearsay (for the viewer) is that there be an arrest made for the murder of Principal Skinner, which Chief Wiggum subsequently makes. Before the arrest, though, it is denied by Legs: Bart asks the gangsters if they killed his principal, and while Fat Tony accidentally admits that he killed a "Chinese guy with a moustache", when it becomes clear that the question pertains to "that Skinner guy", there is an outright denial. Of course, as viewers, we don't believe the admittedly murderous mobsters, and the arrest tells us that they must be lying.
This of course sets up the ultimate battle for narrative authority: a trial in a court of law, where the defence and the prosecution go head to head and try to present the most plausible version of events. The existence of a trial does not necessarily mean that truth will be found, however, as it must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the person is guilty of the crime: in other words, the story just has to hold up, regardless of whether it's true.
It is for this reason that the mobsters lie, ganging up on Bart and all telling the court that a ten-year-old boy is in charge of the crime syndicate; most tellingly, Legs, who a moment ago said that they did not kill Skinner, claims that Bart likes to wet his beak in everything, then wipes his nose: a fidget that could be a liar's tell, a sign of a cocaine problem, or if nothing else the most literal undermining of the story, as Legs is drying his own (presumably wet) "beak". As the prosecution gets to argue first, when the witness for the defendant - Homer - is called to the stand, he can't even defend his son because he's completely overwhelmed by the story, hopelessly crying out "Oh, it's true, it's true, all the pieces fit!" Bart is convicted, and again we get a news headline that ought to be libel-free: "Sentencing Today for Dinky Don", which, having given the criminal a name (not to get off on a tangent) in the tradition of Adam naming the animals in the Garden of Eden through the "implicit contract" of language's meaning positied by Ferdinand de Saussure, makes Bart's role in the crime inherently true. Following Saussure, "cat" means "furry, often domesticated, four-legged feline animal" to us because we have all at one point in time agreed that this is what such a thing is called: "Dinky Don" works as well as "the Beltway Sniper", "the Craigslist Killer" and many other names that the community of news consumers takes to using in the wake of a crime.
At the crucial moment, where Bart is to be sentenced for his crime, Skinner bursts into the courtroom, and is of course met with this comment from Springfield's biggest boob, Homer: "I thought he was dead". With any luck, viewers can pat ourselves on the back here, as, if we weren't drawn in by the repeated insinuations that Skinner was dead, we are truly engaged watchers and actually uphold the tenet of "innocent until proven guilty". Everyone in Springfield seems to have been duped, however, and the police come out looking the worst, charging for a murder without ever finding a body.
Skinner's narrative is the only one that can set the record straight; though dead men don't tell tales, presumed dead men may, and Skinner's narrative is the most ridiculous, implausible one of all, involving a MacGyver-esque escape from under his newspaper bundles and a Deus ex Machina in a sense: the God in the machine is actually a machine, as a cord-retract button on a vaccuum cleaner gets the writers out of the script and Bart out of jail in less than 22 minutes. Skinner again bestows authority on himself ("that's my courageous story"), though he is perhaps worthy of it when we consider that he says the toughs were "acting on behalf of one Bart Simpson or so they said); and despite a desperate attempt to still uphold a false narrative (when the prosecutor moves to have Skinner's story stricken from the record, equating him perhpaps with bribing Bart), the case is thrown out of court.
Aside from Skinner's lesson to recycle frequently, in the end we get to take away the "morality minute" in which Bart tells Fat Tony that he won't be sticking with the gang, as "crime doesn't pay". In classic Swartzwelder fashion, this line is immediately undercut when the mobsters get into their limos (parked in no parking zones!) with beautiful women and parade off down the street to the Godfather theme music.
The show then ends with the made-for-TV movie version of episode, which is, according to Marge, just far enough from the truth (i.e. Bart, played by Neil Patrick Harris, is depicted pointing a gun at Skinner and shooting [him?]) that the Simpsons will not get paid. Homer has an epiphany in the end, calling "those sleazy Hollywood producers" the "real crooks". He's just upset about not getting paid for the story, we can be sure, but ever the idiot savant, he's pointing out that manipulating the truth for profit - in the way that lawyers, criminals, the police, advertisers and the news media have done throughout this episode - is the actual crime. For the record, as hammered home by the placement of the executive producers' credit over Homer's face (i.e. an exertion of authority over narration), that's a crime that pays too.
- As in all Swartzwelder-penned episodes, there is a throughline about advertising, and in "Bart the Murderer", his target is clearly tobacco advertising. The chocolate factory trip begins with a video featuring Troy McClure that extols the virtues of chocolate as an early addition to tobacco, and depicts a native very similar to the Cleveland Indians' mascot "Chief Wahoo" smoking. After these endorsements, the urges to smoke carry on, with narratives encouraging Bart to smoke coming from the delivery man ("Hey kid, you look good with that cigarette, kind of sophisticated") and of course, Jack Larson, who can't just say Laramie Cigarettes, but instead says that "a new truckload of Laramies, with their smooth taste and rich tobacco flavour" is on its way to Springfield.
- Troy McClure is famously a B-list actor in the Simpsons universe, and his usual practice of stating the movies he's been in (here, The Revenge of Abe Lincoln and The Wackiest Covered Wagon in the West) is another example of buttressing yourself with a narrative. You might be saying "who's that guy", but once you know which movie he was in, the identifier - his name, perhaps the most inherently powerful piece of narrative - takes on a larger significance.
- Bart's perspective isn't totally absent from the chocolate factory: Lisa speaks for Bart, saying that she thinks Bart would have really enjoyed the trip, but that missing out is the only way he'll learn.
- All the horses in the race were cartoon catchphrases, which puts Bart's in context even if you've never seen the show before: you get the joke once you notice that Don't Have a Cow is racing against horses named Yabba Dabba Do, Ain't I Stinker, That's All Folks and the like. Nice touch, no?