In this year of our confinement, 2o2o, anything that happened before this February is colored golden in hindsight, but December 17, 1989 was an undeniable lifetime ago. Especially in TV time, when a show lasting 31 seasons and some 684 episodes is a truly vertiginous thing to contemplate in its entirety. Seriously, try placing a single Simpsons episode in that sort of context in any meaningful way as see how your legs hold out. So evaluating “The Way Of The Dog” (episode 684) is made all the more complicated since the episode follows one character’s story all the way back to the very beginning.
Santa’s Little Helper was the focus of that very first Simpsons episode, a consolation prize for the family from Homer, whose variably depicted lower-middle class poverty saw him unwisely betting his family’s holiday happiness on a long shot sports bet, and gaining a new family member instead. Throughout the show’s long history, Santa’s Little Helper has been a reliable go-to for sight gags, satirical takes on Amercians’ relationship to their pets, and even the occasional stone-cold classic episode. Here, as The Simpsons wraps up its, again, hard-to-imagine 31st season, he’s the unquestioned star of the show (sorry, illustrious guest get, Cate Blanchett), as we get an unabashedly sweet and sentimental look at what goes on inside the mind of a beast beholden to the Simpsons’ ceaseless misadventures for its happiness.
Or, rather, it sure looks that way at the start, as Santa’s Little Helper’s behavior goes from his signature untrained rambunctiousness to fear-based unpredictability, culminating in the genuinely shocking moment when the dog actually bites Marge, drawing blood. (To be fair, Marge is shown manhandling the poor guy to put on a Santa hat.) Badgered by Lisa into taking the clearly traumatized pet to a renowned visiting dog psychologist (Blanchett), Homer and Marge find themselves in the heart-rending position of having to dodge the vet-reported Chief Wiggum and the animal control squad who are bent on euthanizing Santa’s Little Helper, leaving Blanchett’s Elaine Wolff to uncover just why the poor guy’s turned into a shivering wreck.
As a mystery, the story (penned by the always-engaged and energizing Carolyn Omine) plumbs the hazy depths of the dog’s mind, Santa’s Little Helper’s dreams and memories peopled with figures whose tones he can understand, even as their words emerge as emphatic gibberish. (The joke that Grampa’s real-world speech is also gibberish is pretty solid.) Throughout the episode, we get literal flashes of stormy images (a spotted stain, a Santa hat, grasping hands) that are, in the animation and sound design, fittingly unsettling. Wolff’s line about barking once for “yes,” and twice for “That’s too simplistic a view of canine psychology” toys with the necessity of a climactic catharsis, but, as effectively as the story sets up the stakes for Santa’s Little Helper and his human family, it’s effective when it comes, nonetheless.
The Simpsons used to have more of an edge to its jokes about the Simpson family’s individual and institutional foibles. One of the most potent jokes in the benchmark early SLH episode is Homer’s fed-up response to the dog’s destructive chewing, “We never had a problem with a family member we can give away before.” Here, the entire family (even the bloodied Marge) is immediately all-in on doing everything they can to save, treat, and fix the poor thing (Homer grumbles a little), a touching solidarity that yet turns much of the episode over to the dog-loving Wolff’s efforts to get to the root of the problem. There’s some shadow of conflict in Homer’s initial decision to banish the dog outside (Bart enlists Mr. Burns to boss Homer into letting him sleep alongside Santa’s Little Helper in the literal doghouse), but as soon as the specter of euthanasia enters, everybody’s aghast. Again, I’m not remotely against The Simpsons being earnest. It’s just that an episode like “The Way Of The Dog” shows how conflict on the show is more often external than meaningfully character-based these days.
But that’s less of a problem than it could be thanks to how resolutely the episode sticks to what TV Club Classic reviewer Nathan Rabin once cited as the show’s wise choice to traditionally keep Santa’s Little Helper “spectacularly unspectacular.” Even when voiced by sometime Scooby Doo himself, Frank Welker, Santa’s Little Helper’s contributions to the show were usually confined to refreshingly authentic canine-level mentality. (Dan Castellaneta is the longtime current dog-voicer.) Here, Wolff explains how a dog’s comparative reliance on smell rather than sight, allowing us a vision of how Santa’s Little Helper’s perception of a lamppost offers up a parade of wordless sight gags the show’s human characters never got to experience. There’s a lovely restraint to these sequences from the dog’s point of view here, the understated music keying us to respond with something like wonder to the whole other world SLH is living in. When jarred by less benign sense memories, Santa’s Little Helper’s psyche is shown to be affectingly and evocatively shattered.
Indeed, “The Way Of The Dog” sets us up for something truly traumatic. The three circles in the stain he spots on the wall is revealed to be his nursing mother’s nipples, with the newborn Santa’s Little Helper shown having to assist the helpless runt of the litter to feed. When SLH is snatched away to the greyhound track, the very real possibility of that little guy’s death hangs ominously for a while. And once Wolff and the Simpsons track down the dog-racing breeder who plucked SLH away for his abortive racing career, there’s the gnawing anxiety that his promised reunion with his Bambi-idealized mother (Shebiscuit) is heading for a true, Seymour waiting for Fry gut-punch of a tragic ending. That the episode ends with Santa’s Little Helper and his still-alive mom cuddling happily on the family’s couch at the episode’s end isn’t an ending anyone could really object to—I’m not a monster—although layering on a version of “The Way We Were” shades things into a mawkishness better avoided. Still, Santa’s Little Helper is, in all his untrained verisimilitude, a very good boy to hang a sweetly satisfying season finale on.
- The suspiciously Moe-like breeder is given just enough humanity (he tears up at the mother-son reunion) to keep him from being seen as a total monster. His dudgeon in protesting, “Suddenly the guy who tortures dogs is the bad guy!” does open up the theme of everyday cruelty behind animal racing and breeding practices that carries impressive sting.
- The Airplane!-style joke of the family waiting in line to slap the crap out of the greyhound breeder is still pretty satisfying, though.
- Homer, seeing Wolff and SLH returned, thanks the shrink for bringing back their dog, or (stage whispering), “a dog who looks just like him.”
- Quibbles about too-comfy family solidarity aside, it’s affecting that noted vegetarian Lisa tearfully tells the fleeing Santa’s Little Helper that the salami in the snacks she packed is from her.
- Lisa has another fine moment of selflessness when she brings in Bart to read her plea for the dog because, as she notes, Homer has “difficulty hearing the female voice.”
- And yet another when she (through Bart) states her admiration that Homer eventually does the right thing, but that, in this particular crisis, “eventually might be too late.”
- And this longtime Lisa stan was there for the moment when the furious Lisa, balling her fists and taking off her pearls, tells the reluctant Wolff, “Help our dog or let’s do this.”
- Also on the mawkish side is the family pulling a collective Flanders and kneeling to pray for their dog’s safety, although Homer’s introductory statement to Bart almost saves it. (“I know this isn’t the kind of thing a father says to his son, but let us pray.”)
- The introductory video to Wolff’s dog therapy facility touts its pile of “wet, dead leaves,” and complete lack of fireworks.
- Blanchett’s welcome, of course, with Wolff getting an out-of-left-field subplot about a long-lost suitor (inexplicable but also welcome Simpsons regular Michael York) eventually proving her suspicions that dogs are indisputably better than people.
- Hey, The Simpsons A.V. Club reviews are back! For the finale! After being discontinued for two whole episodes! But I kid the powers that be. Will we be back for Season 32 along with The Simpsons? I just work here.