There’s an old storytelling conceit that the best villains are those that don’t realize they’re villains, the ones who see themselves as the heroes of their own stories. Hugo is the clearest example of that principle on Bob’s Burgers. He’s convinced the grand story of this world is his doomed romance with Linda, and Bob is just the disgusting jerk who stole her away from him. Worse than that, Bob has the audacity to torment Hugo with his flagrant disregard for the most basic tenets of restaurant hygiene, making Bob’s entire existence an ongoing affront to all Hugo cares about. The narrative logic is there for Hugo to be the show’s best villain, so why is he… well, saying he’s the worst feels strong, but he’s always been more just annoying than ever particularly compelling.

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Perhaps the explanation is that Hugo is the precise wrong mix between powerful and pathetic. He can screw over Bob at a moment’s notice for the pettiest of reasons, yet he lacks that eccentric joie de vivre that makes the same sort of thing fun when it’s Mr. Fischoeder doing it. Hugo may have his own reasons for his actions, yet he often comes across as the worst embodiment of the show’s occasional tendency to make Bob miserable for no damn reason. That can be funny, but it’s a tricky tightrope to walk, and the show’s track record is mixed at best in its use of Hugo.

There are ways to make Hugo work. You can turn him into a nudist (though that’s probably only going to work that one time.) You can play off his relationship with Ron, his de facto conscience and the one person who legitimately cares about Hugo despite otherwise being a perfectly normal, sensible person. And, as tonight’s episode does, you can have Hugo care about something beyond making Bob suffer. Sure, his life-and-death power over Bob is what lets him insert the Belchers into his mad scheme of showing those jerks at the FDA, and his general disregard for Bob’s welfare helps fuel some of the humor. But once the episode gets beyond the initial confrontation between Hugo and Bob over the latter’s unwitting purchase of horsemeat, their mutual hatred is put on a low simmer in favor of the sting operation. Hell, Hugo even lets slip an inadvertent compliment of Bob when he says Jimmy Pesto would be too dumb to involve in the sting, even if he is gorgeous or handsome or whatever it is people say these days.

“They Serve Horses, Don’t They?” is one of the show’s most simply structured stories, not even pretending to bother with a subplot or any major narrative complications until the very final section of the episode. When Linda suggests they follow Jimmy Pesto’s lead and look into the cheaper meat option, it’s easy to assume Bob is going to push back, prioritizing the quality of the meat over monetary concerns and thus creating conflict between him and Linda. But the Belchers remain more or less on the same page throughout tonight’s episode, which lets the jokes take centerstage. Louise, Gene, and Linda all slip into their ideal roles as wisecrackers on the sidelines, with Bob remaining in his usual place as guy suffering for somebody else’s misdeeds. The nice twist tonight, though, is that his family does pretty much nothing to worsen the situation, with Bob sabotaging himself with ridiculously unnatural acting and ill-timed chest scratching. I don’t mind situations where Linda and the kids prove Bob’s undoing, but it’s a nice change of pace for everything to be Bob’s fault for once, at least once you get past the bit where this is all the fault of Jack Conway, horsemeat vendor.

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Conway is a fun character, in that he almost refuses to have a character for the entire episode. He’s like a friendlier, less evil version of Bob Odenkirk’s insurance adjuster, complete with inviting the Belchers to his birthday party—although at least this time it’s as guests, not caterers. The show isn’t exactly trying to get us to doubt that he is selling horsemeat, but Ken Marino is so resolutely affable in his performance that it’s hard to know quite what to make of him. As Bob puts it, Conway seems like a genuinely nice guy, apart from the whole being a criminal bit. The turn comes late in the episode, as Bob’s act finally becomes so transparent that Conway—who proves himself to be far from a criminal mastermind—realizes the trouble he is in. His protests are wonderfully ineffectual, as he halfheartedly denies selling horsemeat before promising he can get Bob actual beef just as soon as he finds a beef vendor.

What makes all this work is how resolutely low the stakes are. In that regard, Hugo is indeed the perfect antagonist to build this episode around, as nothing he takes this seriously without turning over to the proper authorities could ever be important. The episode has fun from the outset playing around with that fact, as first we get the sight of Hugo and Ron shaving Bob’s chest with chili sauce and using a child’s toy as the wire, only then for Bob to lean ever so gingerly on the fourth wall and point out that there’s no way this is something they ought to be doing. The episode gets a nice character moment out of that for Hugo, then barrels along into the more general stupidity of a vastly unqualified sting operation trying to catch a deeply unimpressive criminal. All the details are perfect for Conway’s attempt to intimidate Bob, as he blasts ska music and chases him through the birthday party. The episode gleefully keeps going back to that slip and slide, using it both as the method of Bob’s vaguely successful escape and Conway’s later emotional solace. Indeed, it’s a nice final touch that Conway is justly punished without being too hurt by the family’s actions. He’s a criminal and a weirdo, but he’s not necessarily all that bad a guy.

Well, don’t tell Tina that. The episode’s emotional core rests in Tina’s utter outrage at the idea of horses being sold as meat, which, yes, is pretty much a perfect Tina motivation. “They Serve Horses, Don’t They?” would have been well within its rights to take the Tina story easy and just let her seethe with righteous anger the entire episode, because that’s already more than funny enough, but the episode goes a step further by entangling Tina with a sunburnt, hot dog-craving Jimmy Jr. It’s always fun to see a new dimension to Tina’s infatuation with her butt-having neighbor, and it’s a clever twist for Tina to prioritize protecting Jimmy Jr. from horsemeat even if she knows it’s annoying him. Tina doesn’t necessarily get her big revenge moment against Conway, though she does at least get to give him a little piece of her mind, which is probably more in keeping with this episode’s sense of stakes anyway. A Hugo-driven episode like this isn’t going to be about the big, sweeping moments. It’s all much, much sadder than that. But that can still be plenty funny and plenty good.

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Stray observations

  • I’ll admit I’m a little disappointed we didn’t get to meet Dmitri, Bob’s regular meat guy and one of the show’s great unseen characters.
  • Of course Teddy would end up addicted to horsemeat. That’s just the most Teddy outcome imaginable.
  • I can’t imagine any work of literature that wouldn’t be improved by having Alan Alda read it to me.

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