The Simpsons is doubling down on Halloween this year, and, while next week’s annual “Treehouse Of Horror” should be a reliably inventive exercise in non-canonical Simpsons fun, this week-early Halloween episode, “Halloween Of Horror” is going to be a tough act to beat. An impeccably directed, character-driven story about children’s fears and grown-up responsibility, the episode, credited to writer Carolyn Omine, is one of the most assured, human, and outright best Simpsons episodes in years.

In it, Homer and Marge are busy delightedly turning 742 Evergreen Terrace into “Everscream Terrors,” complete with coffins, tombstones, entrails, and possibly Santa’s Little Helper in a Yoda costume. When Bart discovers that their plastic skeletons have melted into a Cronenberg-ian amalgam of limbs and skulls, they head to Apu’s popup Official Halloween Headquarters—Homer choosing it over the plain old Halloween Headquarters across the street—where he runs afoul of the trio of seasonal employee layabouts Apu has hired to help him stock his knockoff Halloween merchandise, who Homer promptly get fired for stealing. (This from a store selling suspiciously copyright-free McDonald’s-esque costumes “Striped Hamburger Thief” and “Restaurant Meat Clown.”) When the family’s trip to Krusty’s typically irresponsible haunted house results in Lisa being terrified into near-catatonia (necessitating her reunion with the ratty animal tail she calls Tailee that comforted her as a young child), Homer and Marge strip the house of everything Halloween-y, while Marge takes the furious Bart out to trick-or-treat in the ritziest neighborhood in Springfield. And then the menacing, masked trio from the store comes calling.

Event episodes can be fun—the “Treehouse Of Horror” episodes have certainly provided some of the most memorable Simpsons moments of all time. And a great Simpsons episode can set out to accomplish a lot of different things, from broad, outrageous physical premises (Springfield gets a faulty monorail, Sideshow Bob hijacks a nuke), to surprisingly emotional character comedy (Grandpa loses his girlfriend, Lisa has a great new substitute teacher), to every permutation of the two. But what the show does best—and what has been only spottily in evidence for a long time now—is tell even the nuttiest, most outrageous stories through the characters. In some ways, it should be easier to accomplish that after 26 seasons—viewers have cared about these characters for most, or even all of their lives, so they’re willing to follow them anywhere (space, show biz stardom, Loch Ness), as long as the episode in question doesn’t make viewers feel foolish for getting invested. Too often, a modern Simpsons episode takes that affection for granted—and as license to use the characters as mere pretext for the plot. Or, more damaging (to the show’s legacy and viewers’ patience), it twists them out of shape for the sake of cheap, lazy gags.

“Halloween Of Horror” seems poised for the latter when, early in the episode, Flanders asks Homer if all the Simpsons’ Halloween fever means they’ll be sitting in their treehouse and telling scary stories, to which Homer replies, contemptuously, “Eh, we’re doing it next week.” Yuck. (I can count on two hands the number of self-referential gags like that that haven’t make me roll my eyes.) But the episode, instead, turns into a funny, lovely, and, yes, scary episode of The Simpsons, where the characters’ motivations all scan, the plot makes sense, and the callous, reality-breaking gags are nowhere in evidence. (The seeming late-episode appearance of Kang and Kodos on the Simpsons’ lawn brings disheartening echoes of the disastrously conceived “The Man Who Came To Be Dinner,” but it’s just Carl and Lenny trying out their scary alien costumes).

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The main story hinges on Lisa and Homer, a pairing that’s been the source of some of the all-time most effective family-centered Simpsons episodes. In 26-plus years, every member of the Simpson family has suffered some character derailment, but Omine’s script focuses on the fact that Lisa is—for all her precociousness—most effective when she’s allowed to be a kid. And that Homer—for all his boundless selfishness and stupidity—loves his daughter. When the creepy home invasion plot kicks in (the invaders’ masks, seasonally appropriate or not, clearly recall movies like The Strangers and Them), both Lisa’s terror and Homer’s protective instincts (and, sure, terror) are all the more effective because of how the episode reestablishes that relationship beforehand. Throughout the episode, Lisa is touchingly childlike, acting out her plan to tell her classmates how going to the haunted house was no big deal, before jabbering excitedly, “But it’s gonna be a really, really big deal!” And her breakdown at the gory, age-inappropriate terrors therein—as she goes fetal and trembles before leaping into Homer’s arms and weeping—is genuinely upsetting. Yeardley Smith’s performance tonight is among her best ever, and the animation (especially the use of shadow) adds to the sense of real menace throughout, but it’s the fact that the act break comes without a joke, but just with Lisa crying and Homer helplessly trying to comfort her, that truly sets up what comes next.

And what comes next is really frightening. We don’t know what the three ne’er-do-wells actually have in store for the trapped Homer and Lisa (they break stuff, sure, but the way they chase the two out of their attic hiding place and onto the roof suggests real malice). So, when Homer, desperate to break Lisa out of her catatonic flight to the fantasy that what’s happening isn’t real, levels with his daughter, it’s one of the most powerfully moving restatements of their relationship ever:

Honey, I’m your dad. I’ve lied to you more times than there are stars in the sky but I gotta be straight—this is real. But you can’t let fear shut down your brain because between the two of us you’ve got the only good one.

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It’s a sweet, funny (especially thanks to the prime Homer-ism “I may not be the smartest dad, or the bravest, or the smartest…), and moving moment, and it’s just what Lisa needs to come up with a plan (they use Homer’s massive stash of holiday decorations to signal for help), and to finally give up Tailee so that Homer can light the bottle rockets they need to call for help. Yeardley Smith hasn’t won an Emmy for Outstanding Voice-Over Performance since “Lisa The Greek,” but she has never been better than here, Lisa’s emotional arc in the episode giving Smith the best chance in years to show what depths she can bring to her most famous role. Handing over the one thing she’s clung to to make the world safe, Lisa’s line, “This ratty piece of polyester has been soaking in face oil for eight years. Light him up. Goodbye, Tailee” is, in Smith’s delivery, everything you need to know about Lisa Simpson in just a few words. It’s Lisa, and Smith, at her best.

For all the emotional resonance at hand, “Halloween Of Horror” is also consistently funny, both Homer and Lisa and Marge and Bart’s stories landing joke after joke. Distracted by Homer’s offer of “puzzle Wednesday” instead of Halloween, Lisa’s delighted description of the puzzle he offers (“A tabby and a calico? I wouldn’t want to be that ribbon!”) is just right for the character, and Homer’s anger at the thought of giving up his decorations is, too. (“I’m the Mozart of Halloween decorations and tonight’s the Super Bowl!”) When Marge, turned away from the swanky gated community party, tries to bribe the guard with a Groupon for a zip-lining outing, Hank Azaria’s guard responds regretfully, “Zip-lining is everything to me, but…” Marge manipulates the reluctant Bart into coming with the entreaty, “Honey, I knew that you’d be upset and think only of yourself…,” before sealing the deal with the promise that, yes, the E.T. impersonator there will indeed have to repeat his name, even if Bart says it’s a swear word. (Driving by later, the poor bastard is heard intoning, “Hello, Scrotum.”)

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The seasonal store-only thugs (voiced by guest stars Nick Kroll and Workaholics’ Blake Anderson), thwarted by Homer and Lisa’s gambit, curse him, warning, “Sooner or later, you’re going to have to buy Thanksgiving decorations, and we’ll be waiting for you by the Indian corn!” Even the Rocky Horror-inspired musical number, “NC-17 Halloween” (which, I confess, had me worried), is both cleverly done, and in keeping with the Halloween theme, as Springfield’s downtrodden adults croon a saucily costumed paean to the one night a year when they can cut loose, singing, “Our lives are awful and weary, so tonight were going way, way, way, way, way too far!” (Plus, if you ever wanted to see Superintendent Chalmers in Sean Connery’s Zardoz costume, then this is your episode.)

In a world where I routinely have to find new ways to express disappointment about where The Simpsons is now, it’s a joy to conclude with this— “Halloween Of Horror” can stand alongside the best of them.

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Stray observations

  • Homer tries some nonchalant whistling to distract Lisa from their plight, his mind settling on the theme from Halloween.
  • Even the tag works tonight. The revelation that the charred Tailee seems to be a regenerating mystical talisman—which hinted the episode was going to taint a good thing—turned unexpectedly successful in execution as Maggie, clutching her new security blanket, simply stares at us for the rest of the credits, John Carpenter’s actual Halloween theme tinkling menacingly while the camera zooms ever so slowly into her pupil. Taking the time to set up and execute such a still, eerie sequence is the sort of thing that sticks in the mind.
  • “How can you reject a holiday where you can serve candy from a salad bowl?”
  • Dan Castellaneta, too, is on fire tonight. Cluelessly confiding the workers’ plan to steal stuff to Apu, Homer’s conspiratorial “Don’t tell Old Man Slushy about it—we haaate him,” is classic slow-on-the-uptake Homer.
  • Lisa, trying to maintain in the face of another haunted house monstrosity: “That’s really anatomical—lot of anatomy there.”
  • Too often the animation and direction gets overlooked on The Simpsons, so I’ll just say that this is an exceptionally directed (by Mike B. Anderson) and beautifully animated episode of television. (Homer and Lisa’s panicked scramble on the stairs is especially precise and hilarious, and the switch to “handheld” as Homer runs into the house after Lisa is truly unnerving.)
  • When Lisa’s spirit has been broken by her fear, her hair points droop ever so slightly.
  • After Lisa emerges from her ordeal, she repurposes her Frida Kahlo costume as Zombie Frida Kahlo.
  • Marge, too, is on-point, explaining to Bart, “Your sister has a tummy ache in her courage.”
  • “Look, I don’t wanna be rude, but you sad losers should go suck somewhere else.”
  • Homer, trying to call the cops: “Ahh! They took my cell phone! And they forgot to pay my phone bill!”
  • “Sexy drunks, stop them!”

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