Bob’s Burgers has always walked a fine line in terms of how it has handled Louise’s craziness. The show has long leaned on the littlest Belcher’s willingness to do or say anything to kick its more outlandish plots into motion, particularly in the early days. Back in the first season, Louise was essentially the breakout character by default because she never needed the kind of precise shading or nuance that Bob, Linda, or Tina required; the fun of Louise has always been that she has no limits. In episodes that aren’t specifically Louise-centric—and even a couple of the ones that are—she can veer into plot-device territory, an agent of chaos often more compelling for the reactions she provokes in others than for the motivations that underpin her own decisions. None of this is a concern when Louise’s primary job in an episode is just to be funny—and being funny is pretty much always going to be a crucial purpose of any Bob’s Burgers episode—but it takes a more concerted effort to get Louise to the deeper character moments that the show regularly reaches with, say, Tina.
To that end, one of the most pleasing running threads of season four has been how the show has quietly brought more definition to Louise. Some of this is just down to a greater awareness that Louise, for all her evil genius, really is just a 9-year-old girl, and Kristen Schaal has had some great line readings in recent episodes—for instance, “We’re so little!” in “Uncle Teddy” and “Aw, I’m so poor” in “The Kids Rob A Train”—that emphasize the little kid side of Louise. In concert with that, the show has been more willing to show the limits of Louise’s powers; she can only exert total power over a situation when dealing with other kids, wimpy adults, or those like her parents who have to deal with her on a regular basis. “The Kids Run Away” anchors Louise’s actions in something more than her usual, comically exaggerated willfulness. While her initial hatred of the dentist plays like just another example of Louise’s resistance to being told what to do, her interactions with Dr. Yap soon make it clear that she is motivated by simple, honest fear, even if she’s not willing to admit it until the last possible moment.
Beyond this emotional grounding, tonight’s episode finds some great gags through its keen awareness of what Louise is and is not capable of. The scene in which Louise goes through her go bag pivots beautifully between the absurd and the mundane; after the initial gag that Louise is the kind of crazed child who would preplan for running away, we learn that the 7-year-old Louise thought a candy cellphone would be a vital survival accessory, which in turn the relatively older, wiser Louise now sees as a sign of the innocence of youth. The subsequent scene in which Louise tries to check in for an indefinite stay in the Duchess Suite as a 43-year-old Vietnam veteran helps restores just that little dose of sanity to the proceedings. Louise is terrifying enough to get Dr. Yap to wait 8 minutes before informing her parents that she has bugged out—and he still insists that Bob and Linda not mention he didn’t wait the full 10 minutes—but the receptionist immediately moves to call the police, because why wouldn’t he? As the fried dough guy made clear in last week’s “Ambergris,” there’s no reason any sane adult would humor someone so very small.
These moves allow “The Kids Run Away” to settle into a nicely self-contained bubble, allowing the story to be less about Louise’s wild runaway adventures and more about the relationships between her and the other women in her family. With the focus so squarely on Louise and Gayle, the episode articulates a point that has long been in the show’s subtext: the youngest Belcher’s craziness, if it comes from anywhere, most definitely comes from her mom’s side of the family, something that Linda’s insane cackling as she decides to fight crazy with crazy makes abundantly clear. As different as Louise and Gayle might appear, both have complete, unswerving belief in their own daffy ideas. The crucial difference is that Gayle has been around long enough to realize that there’s no place for her eccentricity in the adult world, so all her creative energy has turned inward and, yes, gotten a bit weird.
“The Kids Run Away” picks up on this idea in a big way with its final act, as Gayle persuades Louise to get her cavity filled. As Gayle points out, her life is dominated by fear, an emotion that Louise is only now really discovering. That rare empathy for Louise’s situation allows Gayle to find a solution, and it’s basically just a spin on Linda’s earlier strategy. If Louise’s mother used crazy to fight crazy, her aunt uses crazy to solve crazy, as she gets the entire family—not to mention Teddy and Dr. Yap, who really is a remarkably good sport about all this—to act out a political thriller with universe-spanning implications. Gayle and Louise’s final moment, in which the latter tells her aunt she’d go on a mission with her anytime, leaves the pair in the happy little fantasy world they created to get through the procedure. It’s a sweet moment to finish on, as it lets both characters enjoy their triumph while still acknowledging that they are both deeply strange people. Honestly, I wouldn’t be shocked if the 9-year-old Gayle was a lot like Louise is now, before life got to her and she rededicated herself to writing poems about magazine clippings of Scott Baio and designing incomprehensible board games like Gayle Force Winds.
And, as always, let’s not lose sight of the jokes; “The Kids Run Away” isn’t quite the show firing on all cylinders, but it’s a consistently funny half-hour of television. As Gayle, Megan Mullally finds some nice tones to play beyond just crazy cat lady; I particularly liked Gayle’s palpable anger with the pound that has until now refused to give her that fourth cat. Tina proves a natural man-on-the-inside because she’s so perfectly unconvincing; anyone else might sound stilted when leading Gayle into the next insane activity, but that’s just how Tina always sounds. But the real comedic stars of this episode are Bob and Linda, even as they remain on the sidelines. Without the kids around to keep them busy, the pair pass the time riffing about parenting books—something Linda is convinced is not actually a thing—and having impromptu sex; it’s a nice affirmation of just how much Bob and Linda really do love each other, even if they’re usually too exhausted by life to notice it. Wisely, “The Kids Run Away” doesn’t keep Bob stuck in the killjoy role for every long. Though he remains insistent that Louise needs to get the cavity filled, and he is quite reasonably taken aback by Linda’s maniacal laugh, he ends up committing just as much as Linda and Teddy do to the absurd scheme. The guy is surprisingly laidback when he gets to be a father at a distance. Now I’m kind of hoping he really did call Linda’s bluff: Here comes Gayle the nanny! (Or not. Probably not.)
- Dr. Yap is distinctly less crazy here than he was in “My Big Fat Greek Bob.” Perhaps being banned from the college has allowed Slow Hands to gain some perspective. Either way, I appreciate that he greeted Gayle like the former lovers they so kind of are.
- He got a few good lines in here and there, but this episode felt dangerously light on Gene. And a light Gene is no sort of Gene I want to see. Free Gene, Bob’s Burgers, free Gene!
- Thanks so much to David Kallison for so ably subbing in for last week’s episode!