“Blood Feud”, the 22nd and final episode of The Simpsons’ second season, contains two gags nearer and dearer to me and countless other fellow members of The Simpsons Generation (can we call Generation X the Simpsons Generation? Yes, we can. I just did) than just about any memory from my childhood or adolescence.
In the first, Homer, apoplectic with rage after Bart’s blood donation saves Mr. Burns’ life yet nets Bart a mere thank you card, dictates a letter to Mr. Burns in which he says he’s glad Mr. Burns enjoyed his blood and thanks him soooo much for the lovely card before sputteringly proclaiming, “In case you can’t tell, I’m being sarcastic! You stink! You are a senile bucktoothed old mummy with bony girl’s arms, and you smell like an elephant’s butt.”
About 60 percent of the time I employ the rhetorical device of sarcasm, something I find sooooo useful, because sarcasm is such a great, not at all played out or overused conceit, especially not on the Internet where it has so not become an obnoxious default form of communication from people just way too cool to care about anything or anyone, I am tempted to end a sarcastic line with a helpful/redundant, “In case you can’t tell, I’m being sarcastic.” It’s a killer line and arguably the episode’s most important piece of dialogue; it’s also eminently quotable and maddeningly repeatable.
In the episode’s second other all-time-great gag, Homer tries to get back the aforementioned hastily composed missive from the post office by pretending to be who he refers to as “Mr. Burns.” When the mail clerk asks him for his first name, Homer pauses for just a moment before admitting with the perfect note of dim-witted obtuseness, “I don’t know.” The rich, they are different from you and me, but they are, at the very least, expected to know their names. They may not be expected to know much more than that, but that’s the bare minimum.
“Blood Feud” is a Simpsons-style morality play, pitting greed against altruism and selfishness against selflessness. Like so many of the show’s best episodes, it’s quietly filled with profound moral queries. Does it degrade the giver to expect something in return for a much-sought-after donation? If we expect something in return for a gift, then aren’t we participating in a barter system more than engaging in charity? Can you put a price on human life?
Thankfully, “Blood Feud” deals smartly with these weighty issues without getting bogged down by them. “Blood Feud” finds Mr. Burns in desperate need of a blood transfusion from someone with his very rare blood type. The stakes couldn’t be higher; Mr. Burns will either get the transfusion or die. Homer assumes he’s stumbled into the payday of a lifetime when he learns that Bart has the same rare blood type as the wealthiest man in Springfield.
Homer lives in feverish anticipation of untold riches and is understandably distraught when he discovers the reward for Bart’s only-theoretically-selfless act is a mere thank-you card. A lousy, no good thank-you card. In a rage, he fires off the letter mentioned earlier and is unable to keep it from reaching Mr. Burns.
As has been established, Mr. Burns is a petty, petty, mean-spirited man, so the insulting nature of the letter means infinitely more to him than the minor matter that Bart’s delicious young blood saved his life and that if it weren’t for the fruit of Homer’s loins, he’d be a dead husk of a man, instead of a just barely living husk of a man, a sad old vampire of an old man who quite literally needs the fresh blood of a virgin to stay alive.
“Blood Feud” has a great throwaway gag that riffs brilliantly on the conventions of super-villainy where Mr. Burns gazes malevolently out the window and hisses that revenge is a dish best served cold so he’d wait and carefully bide his time before deciding, fuck it, there’s no real reason he shouldn’t go ahead and squash Homer like a bug as soon as possible.
Homer holds onto his job and precarious place in the neurotic middle class only through Smithers’ intervention, though, as Marge notes at the end of the episode, it’s hard to tell exactly what moral we’re supposed to take away from the story. Then again, part of the genius of The Simpsons’ early years is that the show refused to serve its morals and lectures up on a silver platter, a la South Park. The Simpsons end up getting rewarded for Bart’s good deed, but like the Rabbi’s anecdote about the dentist in A Serious Man, the conclusion didn’t really clear up any of the confusion or resolve any lingering moral queries; it was just another tricky curveball in an episode and season full of them.
It’s fitting that the second season of The Simpsons would end on such a fascinatingly ambiguous note, with a long-overdue gift from Mr. Burns, whose meaning and significance remains a mysterious to its recipients. What does it mean? Does it make up for his earlier ingratitude? Who the hell knows? In the words of A Serious Man, it is, perhaps, best to simply embrace the mystery. Heaven knows, the second season of the greatest television show of all time is full of mystery and wonder, but the show was only starting to hit its peak. We have untold riches in store as we approach season three, which kicks off next week here on TV Club Classic