How invested should we be in Moe’s happiness? Springfield’s worst barkeep and intermittent stalker creepo is traditionally played for a joke, specifically as a collection of disreputable businessman tropes and depressive, lonely guy dark comedy. “Looks like it’s suicide again for me,” might be Moe’s motto, going back as far as anyone can remember, with season 24's “Whiskey Business” being the most recent—and most sustained—reemergence of the idea that Moe Szyslak is The Simpsons’ walking embodiment of the phrase “better off dead.”
As with nearly every character in The Simpsons’ teeming population of recurring stereotypes, however, 30 seasons have seen the writers turning to Moe often enough that the poor schlub has developed sufficient layers to qualify as something of a tragic hero in his own, very occasional A-story. While never losing sight of his innate creepiness, venality, and general lack of businessplace hygiene, the show has used Moe as comic counterpoint to his own, scabrous image for both big laughs (Moe’s secret history of reading classic literature to the sick and homeless results in the all-timer threat “If this gets out, the next words you say will be muffled by your own butt.”), and surprising pathos. There’s a grudging respect for Moe’s resilience running through the series that makes him something like a defiantly noble antihero at times, his dogged determination to persevere against a world in which he’s the butt of every joke lending him a certain grubby grace.
Hank Azaria’s performance is key, of course, his infamous failed Al Pacino impression morphing over the years into a gravelly symphony of lowest expectations. And when used right, Moe’s lovelorn aloneness can be awfully affecting in its unlikely, ham-handed delicacy. The last great “Moe in love” episode was back in season 26, when a visiting African princess’ unexpected kindness saw the gobsmacked Moe’s inner thoughts turn from his incessant catalogue of gripes and muttered threats to a sweetly poetic bit of awestruck, low-key Goodnight Moon doggerel. The conclusion, “Goodnight beer/Goodnight mice/Goodnight princess who treats me nice” still gets to me, the homeliest sentiment of the homeliest man in Springfield.
But “From Russia Without Love” isn’t on that level, as Moe is both made too immediately nice to his accidental new Russian mail-order bride, and too oblivious to the implications of, well, having a mail-order bride. To be fair, the young woman, Anastasia (voiced by Orphan Black’s Ksenia Solo), wasn’t ordered up by Moe, but by Bart, Nelson, and Milhouse, in response to Bart’s latest, uninspired phone prank fizzling out. “Mistakes are how we learn, young fella,” consoles Moe on the phone, having sussed out Bart’s tired “Ima Buttface” gag. Heading to Herman—Springfield’s Moe without the sweet side—Bart and the boys get on the dark web and, with the help of Clippy-like crowbar helper icon, Hacky (voiced by Jon Lovitz), hijack PayPal (which can’t be happy at the anti-product placement) and send Anastasia to Moe’s.
For Moe, the conflict that arises is less about the whole “borderline sex trafficking” aspect of the arrangement, or Anastasia’s plight in proming herself to a deeply unimpressive stranger online, than his long history of heartbreak. A flashback shows his first crush leaving him on the doorstep of her home for an entire change of seasons before revealing she’s been dating a jock and just using the back door. We see glimpses of old girlfriends like the diminutive Maya (who Moe also met via the internet), and Broadway trouper Laney Fontaine, who, it turns out, won a Tony for her one-woman show about their breakup. But, here, there’s no room for Moe’s infatuation with Anastasia to function as anything other than a contrivance, as he goes from mopey rejection, to heartsick longing (once she starts dating Krusty), to an abortive wedding, scuttled when it’s discovered that Anastasia’s actually a scammer from Cleveland. (She bolts for Willie once she discovers that Moe is perpetually broke. Anastasia might not be the world’s best chooser of marks.)
There’s just too little investment in the script (credited to Michael Ferris) in either the emotional side of Moe’s dilemma or the potential dark comedy inherent in the whole mail-order plot. Weirdly, I was put in mind of the early-run Aqua Teen Hunger Force episode (called “Mail Order Bride”) on the same subject, where at least that intermittently brilliant show’s grimy chaos felt at home to the latter theme. (Moe-esque gross sad sack Carl Brutananadilewski’s “It don’t matter. None of this matters” when confronted with the mercenary nature of his intended’s plans still haunts me.) Here, “From Russia Without Love” tries to go light and dark at once, and can’t manage either.
- An abandoned side plot sees Marge and Homer disinviting Moe to their overstuffed Thanksgiving gathering, with Moe delivering the pitch-perfect objection, “This is how you tell me? In person, politely, and with plenty o’ notice?”
- Nelson now claims his absent dad is on Mars. He greets Bart’s eye-rolling acceptance of the fact with a mocking, “Haw haw—you’re an enabler!”
- And the episode tag sees Nelson on Mars? So his dad can run (well blast) off on him again? What are we doing here? Let’s fold that useless minute back into an already-thin episode, howsabout, Simpsons?
- Same goes for the opening caveman Homer and Moe bit. Again, why?
- Moe tells Anastasia that he’ll have to send her back to Russia, adding sadly, “I’m sorry to say this—but on Delta.”
- Moe, noting Anastasia’s spruced-up Moe’s: “I haven’t seen this many flowers since my mother’s funeral. She got hit by a flower truck.”
- Anastasia claims that the translation of her assessment of Moe (“nightmare face”), is actually “gentle heart that no one sees.”
- Bart’s addiction to the dark web sees him buying a “Sumatran breeding rat” before being found out and punished by Marge. Probably for the best.
- Carl, Lenny, and Homer egg Moe on to win back Anastasia, calling their story akin to “the kind of movies Tom Hanks used to make.” Muses Homer, “How many captains can one guy play?”