“A Milhouse Divided” (Originally aired 12/1/96)

Wherein Marge knows about that poker shack in the swamp but still loves you…

The men of the Van Houten family are Springfield’s designated losers. While Homer and Bart are often figures of fun and/or not that bright, by most episodes’ end, they’ve been redeemed, their position as stars of the show, and The Simpsons’ essential forgiving nature, allowing them some manner of growth and enlightenment as to the error of their ways (even if they’re right back to square one by the next episode). Those Van Houten boys—stuck on the periphery as they perpetually are—are a different story, though.

Milhouse is Bart’s sidekick, and happy—more than happy—in the role, his eccentricities (and comical food allergies) marking him for the role even more permanently than those Coke-bottle glasses. There’s always a tricky balancing act with poor Milhouse, his peerless comic victimhood against the need to keep him from utter, Meg from Family Guy degradation. It’s funny to watch Milhouse suffer indignities (up to and including being framed for murder) because we know that’s his role, just as we thrill to his tiniest victory. I always think of the lemon tree episode, where mild-mannered Milhouse—incensed that a Shelbyvilian has stolen his catchphrase—clenches his fists and, shaking with rage, shouts, “I’m gonna explode here!,” causing Rod (or was it Todd?) to worriedly take a single step back. It’s the tiniest of gestures, but it gives Milhouse a sliver of agency in his own life—which is really all he’s ever going to have. The secret of Milhouse’s character is that he’s so predetermined to lose that losing is his baseline for existence. We’re only conditioned to empathize with the poor guy so much—which is why the repeated intimations over the years that he’s going to end up with Lisa (in any capacity) strike such a viscerally unpleasant chord. We might feel bad that Milhouse is having a hard time of things—but any Lisa/Milhouse pairing means that Lisa Simpson has fallen a long, long way.

“A Milhouse Divided” does a lot of things exceptionally well, but its most affecting and illuminating achievement may be how it casts Milhouse’s lot in life in a new light through his parents’ breakup. We’d seen Kirk and Luanne Van Houten over the years up to this point, but, suspiciously similar as their appearances are, they were just another pair of silly Springfield parents. The Van Houten’s identical need for corrective eyewear marked them as, perhaps, conveniently nerdy, but we didn’t know much more about them. By making the choice to reveal the Van Houtens’ marriage as a disastrously loveless one, the creators both shed a lot of light on Bart’s best pal/whipping boy and provide an illustrative contrast to Homer and Marge’s equally fraught, but much more loving one. There are a lot of laughs in this episode, too (don’t worry, we’ll get there), but the episode’s structure is a bold and unusually perceptive one, making use of theretofore essentially disposable background characters to provide Homer and Marge with one of their most touching (if necessarily silly) reaffirmations of love.

Kirk Van Houten’s a jerk. When he and Luanne come along to Marge’s meticulously planned fancy dinner party (“Bart, go put doilies under the coasters!”), their escalating, mean-spirited cruelty is like Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf, except that Kirk’s not as entertaining or erudite a dick as was the film’s Richard Burton. (Hank Azaria shines in this one, Kirk’s hoarse fury and self-pity shading in the character perfectly throughout.) Sure, Luanne gets in some harsh zingers of her own (mocking Kirk’s cowardice when some kids—presumably Nelson and his cronies—threw eggs at their Bonneville), but, the more we get to know Kirk (and see how Luanne’s prospects improve once he’s out of the picture), her resentment makes a lot of sense. Starting out by mocking his wife (Luanne apparently has to draw on her eyebrows) to ingratiate himself with his hosts, Kirk’s dickishness culminates in the after-dinner Pictionary game, where he becomes insufferably sarcastic when Luanne can’t identify his utterly incomprehensible doodle. (It’s dignity.) When Luanne finally rises up and lays out the living hell life with Kirk has been for all to hear, Maggie Roswell (given a rare chance to shine) makes her pent-up resentment painfully real.

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Not that Homer gets it. After yelling at Kirk to “let the woman talk!” his immediate “Boring!” when Luanne starts her story is the episode’s best-timed laugh. (He perks up at her accusation of “managerial impotence.”) Homer blithely assumes his marriage safe from the sort of meltdown playing out in his living room, even when Kirk—sitting in the gutter after his “new special lady” (Tress MacNeille’s indelible Starla) steals his car and trashes his demo tape later on—enumerates all the reasons why his marriage failed. Homer responds to each epiphany (“I could have taken just a little time to make her feel special”) with a full-throated but patronizing agreement (“It can’t just be sex—it can’t!”) that simply glances off of his impenetrable Homer blitheness. When that confidence is punctured—by the echo of Kirk’s tale of thawing hot dogs in a gas station sink sitting in his own kitchen once he’s blown off Marge’s date night—Homer’s overcorrections are typically stupid (no husband should cut his wife’s hair without asking). But his instincts are to fix things by giving Marge what she wants. Sure, as Bart noted in “Grampa vs. Sexual Inadequacy,” “No offense, Homer, but your half-assed under-parenting was a lot more fun than your half-assed over-parenting.” And, sure, he can barely force himself to choke out the arts center presentation he’s signed on for (“Voices Of The Elderly…Poor”), but Homer Simpson, for all his inconsiderate, lazy thoughtlessness, loves Marge Simpson enough to make a sacrifice once in a while. Even if he has to sit through an evening of Philip Glass music, or get them a quickie (one-party) divorce so that his surprise second marriage party will be more meaningful. (Apparently, that’s a Springfield thing.)

This final parallel between the two substandard husbands is instructive, too. Unlike Homer’s dumb gesture—which is born out of effort and a genuine desire to give Marge the special gathering she wanted so badly at the start of the episode (he even hired a hot rock ‘n’ roll combo)—Kirk’s overture to Luanne is the sort of grand, self-centered gesture How I Met Your Mother’s Ted Mosby would make, and expect to get him everything he wants. And not to read too much into “Can I Borrow A Feeling”’s weirdly biological undertones (“glove of love” vies with “jar of love” for unintentionally ickiest image), but Kirk’s appeal to Luanne is all about receiving rather than giving (unlike Homer’s). So when the music swells and the close-ups of Kirk and Luanne swell with it, the payoff is not a traditional sitcom status quo-restoring reunion, but Luanne’s horrified “Uhhh, no!,” followed by Kirk’s sheepish exit at the hands of the patronizingly calm new boyfriend Chase (the “workaday stuntman” and former American Gladiator). Again, Azaria’s performance is great here, with Kirk’s immediately defeated little “Aww” upon Luanne’s rejection topped only by the classic line reading from behind the Simpsons’ closed door, “I’ll be back! Prob-prob’ly…” (It’s such a quintessential brushoff that, upon initial viewing, I honestly thought Kirk had just been written out of the show permanently.) Sure, Kirk wormed his way back into Luanne’s life eventually, but here Kirk Van Houten, even more than his son, is such the Platonic ideal of a loser that it’s hard to feel to sorry for him.

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Stray observations:

This week in Simpsons signage: (Otto’s not wrong—flagrant false advertising)

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  • “Is this the way you pictured married life?” “Yeah, pretty much. Except we drove around in a van solving mysteries.”
  • Marge’s vision for her ideal dinner party is heartbreakingly modest: “I pictured napkins!”
  • The episode looks great, with a specificity in the animation, especially in Luanne’s talk with Marge as she carefully boxes up Kirk’s shirts before very deliberately setting them aflame. (Her little strut as she walks out defines her character as well as any of her lines.) And if someone made an eternal loop of this, I’d watch it for hours, just to relax:

  • Hey, it’s 1996!: Pictionary. So much after-dinner Pictionary.
  • I’ve heard Kirk’s, “Aw, cram it, Churchy!” in my head a lot over the years. It’s such a succinctly mean putdown. (And apparently I‘m constantly surrounded by Churchies.)
  • In the commentary, the writers say that Kirk’s “dignity” doodle was finally chosen because “it didn’t look like anything,” but I can’t stop trying to interpret the damned thing. It’s like a scowling potato? An abstract Danny Zucco? Kirk’s soul? This means something.

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  • “I shouldn’t have served those North Korean fortune cookies. ‘You are a coward’—no one wants to hear that after a nice meal.”
  • This is a light Harry Shearer episode, but there’s such a specific weirdness to the line from Kirk’s ex-boss/father-in-law that makes it stand out through the ages: “Maybe single people eat crackers. We don’t know. Frankly, we don’t want to know.”
  • Even thought the episode bears his name, Milhouse doesn’t get much screen time, but what he has is revelatory. There’s something so perceptive—and unsettling—about how he acts out, driving his undoubtedly new-bought race car destructively around the house while his mom placates her “sweet, sweet treasure.” The “divorced parent/child” relationship shorthand here is brilliant, especially the Kubrickian look on his face while flouting his mom’s absent authority.

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  • The visual gag of Luanne and Chase/Pyro heading off for their date in one of the American Gladiators Atlaspheres (and, yes, I looked that up) should, by all rights, veer too far into absurdity for such a grounded story, but it works. The timing of the reveal is just right (coming after Chase’s macho, “Let’s roll”), and it’s a perfect capper to the escalation of detail about just how well Luanne’s separation from Kirk is going.

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  • “Who likes the Doobie Brothers? ‘Cause we’ve got one of them!”
  • Thanks for reading everybody! Next week, Erik Adams is back to tell you about “Lisa’s Date With Density,” where Lisa is matched up with someone even more disastrous than Milhouse.
  • In closing, best Simpsons’ line reading ever?

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