Cartman would be stuck in a relationship with her.
They wanted to see how he would behave in a real relationship, which is never a rosy thing.
Previously on South Park...
The previous episode ended on a cliffhanger, teasing a soft remake of South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, with a military alarm being set off and the children being herded into the gymnasium. PC Principal and Vice Principal Strong Woman stay behind to 'check classrooms', exchanging some nonsensical dialogue as they come to a door they're both afraid to open, opening up their romantic tension, and setting off a montage. The montage to "Hold My Hand" is hauntingly beautiful, as the kids are herded together and Garrison begins a nuclear assault, which seems to destroy Canada as Kyle watches in horror, realizing the impact of his actions, ending on a teasing shot of PC Principal and Vice Principal Woman looking at each other in front of the door... what might happen?
The new episode does not resolve these cliffhangers firsthand, evidently taking place at least a day or two later. The tension around whether or not the door might be opened, whether or not PC Principal and Vice Principal Woman will act on their emotions, Kyle holding Terrance and Phillip hostage... none of those situations are really resolved. There's a certain degree to which it's forgivable, as I'll discuss more below, but then it begs to question why we were supposed to care about them in the previous episode...
The biggest weak point in this episode is, ultimately, how it tries to connect to the preceding episode. A lot of fans have decried continuity in this season as much as the preceding ones, but only two episodes from the season really come into special focus -- "Sons a Witches" and the preceding one.
There is one scene early in the episode where Kyle is confronted at home by Ike with his actions, and he exhibits clear guilt and fails to justify his actions, causing his brother to insist he's playing a victim. The last few episodes built up an interesting arc for Kyle, but there's no follow through here -- for the rest of the episode, he's mostly back to his usual self, with no reference to his issues with Canada save a passing reference to how he might be responsible for Ike's later actions. I believe this is another unfortunate example of the show teasing a radical character development and then walking it back immediately without even a proper reset.
We finally come to Garrison, whose decision to bomb Canada last week sets off the episode's plot, but the connection drifts in and out of focus. Most of the characters are concerned first about Garrison's presence in town and how that affects them, but few of them seem very concerned about Canada itself, and even reference to reprecussions is mostly limited to the town itself. At the very least though, Garrison seems to be suffering for his actions for most of the episode.
Co-Workers to Lovers
PC Principal's relationship with Vice Principal Woman is another key focus, again brought on from a lot of tension in the previoius episode -- we left off wondering if they might come together, and we don't recieve a clear answer at first, as they meet with concerned parents and evidently possess the same tension. What happened back there? They acknowledge their feelings while going out to dinner with Butters, but despite groaning about having to keep their relationship a secret, they discuss it in front of a child who is a known gossip? I actually found that forgivable right away and it's an amusing scene setup though.
Still, once again, there's not much proper follow through on the story. They are later discovered in the woods having sex, exposing their secret and leading to a long exagerrated gag of characters vomiting, wondering why any co-workers would have sex. I certainly appreciated the way they tried to tie the plots together, but while last episode drew its satire from the involved characters being in conflict with their own feelings, here the subtltey is gone, and the constant reduction of the issue to "co-workers" only muddies the waters further.
The satirical point seems to suggest it's normal to romance co-workers at work, but most of the instances in the news when these episodes aired, such as Harvey Weinstein and Charlie Rose, specifically involved men using higher positions of power to abuse people they had superiority over in the workplace. It has come out, for example, that Weinstein refused work for those who refused his advances. PC Principal is unqestionably the Vice Principal's boss, but the episode walks around this, treating it as two schoolteachers on equal terms -- which isn't a problem. This has a feeling though, of using a petty reductionism to make its point. (There's a reason satire usually involves exagerration, after all.)
So, it feels a little there that the show teased where the relationship would go, only to mostly reduce it to a gross-out gag here and not really bring it to an emotional conclusion.
Early on in this episode, we're introduced to a new family - the Whites. Their youngest daughter, a preschooler named Crystal, is terrified at the President's appearances outside her window, but her father Bob (voiced by Trey) angrily insists it's that new school's liberal agenda. While the show has primarily used the 'redneck' characters, such as Skeeter and Jimbo, to represent conservatives in previous episodes, the Whites seem like good counterparts, representing the sort of midwestern, white collar conservatism the show usually has only alluded to in incidental characters.
Their conversation with PC Principal and Vice Principal Woman is rife with tension, with Bob's wife (voiced by April Stewart, similarly to Betsy Donovan's voice) getting her main line of the episode as she notices the song that represents it. Bob declares the Whites have "been here since the beginning" and won't be ignored any longer, a point that becomes much more interesting when we notice he is accompanied not only by daughter Crystal, but a familiar fourth grader... Jason!?
When the episode was first released, I spent a long while wondering if Jason's appearance here was simply the use of a background character as a living prop, or an intention on Trey's part. Given his lack of lines or action, there was no indication that the script specified the character... but it was an astute choice, as Jason indeed appeared in "Cartman Gets an Anal Probe" although he didn't return in his modern incarnation until "Professor Chaos". He's been visually prominent on a few occasions since then, often as the least of the boys' extended circle (a role shared with Tweek, Timmy, and Kevin) but only spoken on maybe three or four occasions... but he's been here since the beginning, and this is a great way to embed him better in the show's fabric.
(Trey confirms in the commentary that the choice of Jason is intentional, and that he's excited about it and hopes to use the Whites again.)
During the later scenes among the adults, we see that Bob is a widely unpopular presence with a victim complex who is determined to defend the President, leading to an increasing number of amusing double meaning jokes relating to support for the President - "Thank God for the Whites" chief among them. Coupled with their conservative behavior, it makes for an effective joke combination in that most of the 'Whites' references are to the family, not the race, but the satirical meaning is clear without being overbearing. I only wish we had been given a hint as to their relationships with one another.
Still, they overall look like one of the show's smarter additions over the last few years, adding some texture to the town while still being amusing and managing to connect with an older plot thread. They have more potential than I felt about say, Vice Principal Woman. (see above)
A Pinch of Randy
When the kids all begin to admit to seeing the President in town, they meet up on their bikes and discuss the news -- Tweek, Craig, Cartman, Heidi, and Stan are the main team set up, coming to talk more about "Stranger Things" and "It" than the sightings, and are soon joined by Token, who seems to disappear after this scene and does not figure into their later hunt in the woods. They are also joined in this scene by Randy, who has a couple lines before falling on his mountain bike.
It's easy to be caught up in how Randy has taken over the show over the last decade (remember when he was just Stan's Dad?) and a lot of fans are increasingly tired of him appearing in almost every show, but this scene is an example of why the character can work even now. It's a little cut and a small joke but it works well to add to the scene. The kids still do the lion's share of work, he just adds a little more texture to it.
He plays a much bigger role in the second and third acts of the episode, and takes up a lot of lines, but because he's not the one initating the plot, mostly being brought in to respond to his son's disappearance, it still comes off a lot more softly than his roles in many other episodes.
We see most of the recurring parents in this episode at some point or another, with many of them either in the search party or back at the community center - outside of the usuals, we do see Nichole's parents, the Daniels family, and Heidi's parents are also visually prominent given her role in the episode.
For a few more curious notes, the Blacks return to their old appearances in the community center but have their updated look the rest of the episode, with Mrs. Black even fetching a line. I might note that while the Marshes, Tuckers, Turners, and Tweeks are all obvious choices here, we also see Roger Donovan, the Stotches, the McCormicks, and so forth although their kids are not missing... and Ms. Cartman has no lines, although she's tearing up. (Dr. Mephesto is once again absent from parents' meetings. )
A more curious note, but Mona Marshall provides Laura Tucker's voice instead of Elise Gabriel, so we might want to just accept two alternating voices for her.
Much more curiously than my background details though, the Broflovski parents do not really play any role in the episode, even though Ike is the first child to go missing, they file a police report as we see Officer Stevens putting up a 'missing' poster, and Kyle joins along looking for him not long later! I suppose perhaps they weren't very worried about Kyle. Sheila does speak when they arrive back though, happy they're safe. This feels like a lost thread considering she's been alluded to for multiple episodes, but maybe it's appropriate references to her being a bitch are met with her being little more than sweet and concerned.
It was actually really clever thinking on Trey's part to have the search for Ike and Garrison cross over into Heidi and Cartman's past, revisiting the new bridgem shack and clearing locations we saw over the last two seasons. It's easy to dismiss this smart choice because a lot of fans were tired of the couple, but it's a smart way to have things go out and bring these disparate plot threads together... and we get a few laughs out of Heidi's "skinny bitch" comments and the other kids not caring about her backstory.
An interesting wrinkle occurs when we reach Jimbo's cabin and we reveal that Cartman had brought her there and told her about the events of "Skank Hunt", a moment she suggests was emotionally manipulative on his part, but that we never witnessed in the twentieth season, where his behavior for most of the run was genuine or motivated by a desire to avoid Heidi. This is still eased out later when Heidi reminds Cartman how they used to talk and enjoy each other's company, although not much bridge is offered between seasons' events. (Perhap we should blame the previous season finale, but it's not brought up.)
Still, after "Doubling Down" did such an excellent job cutting away everything else to zero in on the relationship and summarize it so well in a single episode, this episode presents the opposite problem, as it literally hijacks the story from them and leads to lack of resolution for some of the other plot threads. I admire that Trey was willing to set the stakes of the episode on Heidi's soul, but the final resolution of this arc probably should have been its own story, as there's just one or two things too many going on here at once. Any two of the four could've been fine.
Perhaps most disappointingly, the previous episodes pretty openly suggested Cartman was abusive to Heidi, and yet the pivotal point of this episode's conclusion has Heidi express that he is not to blame, and that she is the one who has been playing the victim. While it seems clear that this is more in reference to the two or three episodes where Heidi has behaved like Cartman, it comes dangerously close to suggesting that the abused are not victims, and in the wrong for allowing themselves to be manipulated. I don't really think this was Trey's intention, but he could've been more clear all the same.
It seems customary at this point that the final episode in the season will include some cameos and a few extra touches, and there's not too much of that here, but we do see a few.
In terms of speaking roles, it's nice to see Mayor McDaniels again. The last few years have offered her a strong comeback after her role on the show diminished for a solid five seasons and nearly a fifth of the show's overall run, but she's stuck around, and kept her shiny new office. We also get to see Jimbo again, and even though he only has two lines, they're both very important ones, so he has an extra sense of presence. It's worth noting that he doesn't voice any support for Garrison despite assisting his campaign in "Where My Country Gone?".
During the final crowd scene, we're treated to cameos by a few of their counterparts as well -- Ned's actually hidden in the crowd from larger shots, but more surprisingly, you can see Officer Barbrady in his original uniform, standing right by the Mayor. (Even in a close-up shot of people turning to see Garrison has left.) Mr. Slave is also present, and one can spot the Stoley Parents and some of the young girls when Heidi has her moment.
- "Splatty Tomato" seems to be a reference to Rotten Tomatos. It's a simple joke but I did actually find myself wishing they'd spent more time on it for once.
- The news makes realistic references to the affects of a nuclear holocaust on Canada, but Justin Trudeau seems fine by the show's standard, if a little pissed off.
- Kenny's not present in this episode at all.
- The Kathy Griffin reference was cute enough. Simple and small.
- The previous episode used a generic newscaster named Tom (missed oppurtunity to bring back Mr. Pusslicker) but this one uses news anchor Bill Keegan, who was voiced by Matt for a while, but he's Trey again here.
- Another element emerging from the recent games: a bulletin board is now present in front of City Hall.
- Tweek's legs on the bike look terrifyingly disproportionate to his usual character model. Try not to look too close.
So, ultimately, this is a really amusing episode of South Park, especially by the standards of the last few seasons, and the story crafts some excellent oppurtunities for humor that it runs with, especially the "It..."/"Stranger Things" parody, but even more so than the previous two seasons, it lacks strong resolution. Some of this is intentional, as obviously Garrison can't be removed from office as long as the show desires to mirror real life, and that's actually fine - but there are still many balls in the air, particularly war with Canada... and the sh*tty thing is that excluding romantic relationships, Matt and Trey haven't made a habit of picking up last season's unfinished story arcs. The ads are still out there, the PC bros are still missing, skankhunt42 is still terrorizing the message boards, the boys and girls are still apart, and now we're on the preicipice of war with Canada...
The reality is though, it's probably one of the season's funnier episodes for me, with some of the season's better satire and a really on-point parody that isn't dependent on your experience with the source material. The first act's scenes get a lot more room to breathe than recent shows usually allow, and we get to enjoy solid moments from a lot more characters than usual, and the new elements, such as the Whites, are all strong introductions. The episode only falters in how it relates to the older elements from the previous show, and though very jarring, it results in an episode that stands better on its own, imo, than it does as part of any kind of whole.
Looking back, I think that "SUPER HARD PCness" and "Splatty Tomato" could've both been better as fully standalone episodes, as they both contained very strong standalone elements but mostly suffered where they tried to cross together. You could cut out Kyle's conflict coming to open warfare, and use the extra time to resolve PC Principal's storyline better, and then removing most of that from the succeeding episode, Garrison can play much the same, and you don't even need to deal with Kyle's guilt... and you have some an extra few minutes.
Season in Review
This season reminds me a lot about my feelings towards the ninth and sixteenth seasons -- both of which contained some episodes I really enjoyed, but the whole felt mostly disappointing to me for reasons that are mostly personal. I love the show, and feel that all but a few episodes contain aspects to appreciate, but even some mostly solid episodes can still bring together a lackluster season.
The previous few seasons, at their most and least successful, each had a broad unifying theme behind them - technology, political correctness, privacy - and used episodes to explore different aspects of these themes, initially preserving the value of the individual episodes as well. This season lacked a broad theme, however, instead only featuring allusions to victimization, which didn't prove a very broad theme, limited in scope primarily to Stan's father and Cartman and Heidi's relationship. Maybe a little Kyle?
One of the things that the eighteenth and nineteenth seasons did really well that the subsequent two seasons lost is they both managed to explore a wide array of characters through their themes - it's not only Randy and the boys exploring these themes, but Timmy embraces technology via Handicar, Tweek and Craig are brought together by political correctness, and Gerald's Yelp reviews lead to his trolling later. These different perspectives added a lot more color and texture to the show, but since then, we've seen both succeeding seasons mostly focus on the same handful of characters.
Here's hoping Season 22 focuses on the show's full breadth again, and takes us a little further out from the last two seasons, even for their strengths.
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