“Mountain Of Madness” (originally aired 2/2/1997)

In which sitting is the great leveler, from the mightiest pharaoh to the lowliest peasant…

If any point came across from the plethora of content that The A.V. Club delivered over the course of Simpsons Week, it’s that The Simpsons is unquestionably the richest show to ever air on television. (Way richer than Lenny.) From its bench of supporting characters to its reams of quotable material to its ear for crafting maddeningly catchy songs, no other program can lay claim to churning out as much solid content as The Simpsons has. There may be a decline in quality over the years (albeit one with plenty of high points), but that decline is as much because of the transcendent heights the show came down from as it is the natural passage of time, and even an ordinary episode can still stand far above many other things on television.

That’s certainly the case with “Mountain Of Madness,” an episode of The Simpsons’ eighth season that wouldn’t crack any list of best episodes of the series—or even the season—but is still so full of rewarding content it’s remarkable. While not as emotionally remarkable in the same way some of the season’s prior installments are, it’s full of finely quotable material about sitting, rocket sleds, and cheating, as well as my personal pick for favorite Simpsons quote, “Your ideas are intriguing to me and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter.” Furthermore, it’s an episode that plays around with many established character pairings, and intertwines them neatly across the episode’s narrative.

Fittingly enough, the framework for this set of new pairings is a setting utterly foreign to everyone present: Mount Useful, a.k.a. Strategic Granite Reserve. After the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant staff fails to complete a routine fire drill within the industry-standard 45 seconds (Burns: “What’s our time so far?” Smithers: “I don’t know, sir. This stopwatch only goes up to 15 minutes”), Burns orders all of his employees into the mountain for a team-building exercise. Disorder at the power plant isn’t heavily mined topic for The Simpsons at this point—season two’s magnificent “Two Cars In Every Garage And Three Eyes On Every Fish” is the last episode it was given the spotlight—so it’s effective in its role as the narrative device to get everyone out of their comfort zones. And it neatly keeps the full Simpson family in the stories orbit, as it’s 100 percent in character for Homer to think to bring his family along.

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Once they get to the mountain, the employees are split into teams of two, and given the additional motivation that the last team to arrive will be fired. (Second-to-last gets a hilarious “World’s Worst Employee” trophy.) Homer’s gripped with worry, until he realizes to his pleasant surprise that he’s paired with Mr. Burns. Previous episodes have found spins on the Homer/Mr. Burns relationship beside employee/boss before—“Last Exit To Springfield” turned them into professional rivals, “Homer The Smithers” placed Homer at the whim of Burns’s endless idiosyncracies—but this is the first time that the two have been in equal footing as individuals. Interestingly, the episode starts out on that vibe by throwig out some of the established jokes in favor of getting them together, as this may well be the first time Burns has remembered Homer’s name without any prompting from Smithers.

This is only the first step in a different relationship between the two, as “Mountain Of Madness” dares to suggest that when on equal footing, Homer and Burns could actually get along. Homer’s natural suggestibility, already stoked by Bart’s takedown of teamwork, makes him a prime target for Burns’s expertly crafted manipulations, and his enthusiasm for whatever course he’s committed to earns him a rare bit of praise. (“You know, Simpson, you’re not as objectionable as you seemed when we first met.” “No, sir, I am not.”) And the equation flips once they settle into the cabin and have the chance to legitimately enjoy each others company, as Homer shares his experienced laziness by teaching Burns how to cheat that most villainous of obstacles: standing up.

“Mountain Of Madness” also juxtaposes this newfound friendship by adding a bit of dysfunction to a previously established one. After so much time serving as largely interchangeable power plant employees and drinking buddies for Homer, Lenny and Carl spend most of this episode at each other’s throats, displaying a passive-aggressive disregard for the other. (Carl, on being assigned Lenny as his partner: “Aw nuts! I mean, um… Aw nuts.”) It’s an interesting bit of character growth running off to the side of the main narrative, distinguishing the pair as individuals not always in sync.

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An even more rewarding matchup comes when Smithers, left without a partner thanks to Burns’s machinations, finds himself crossing paths with his contacts from the dark days of the Terwilliger administration. Compared to “Sideshow Bob Roberts” his experiences with the Simpson children are much more lighthearted, a classic sitcom plot where someone who typically spends no time around children has to spend time with them, and it frustrates them to no end. Both Bart and Lisa are firmly in character here as Bart’s inability to focus translating to hunts for maple syrup and gold, and Lisa’s empathy for other living things leads her to bring Smithers every wounded shrew she finds. The latter also leads to the episode’s finest punchline when they finally make it to the cabin and Lisa sees the hunting trophy the other employees have used as fuel: “Mr. Smithers, that moose is in fire!”

A burning moose is the least of Homer and Burns’s worries, as one inopportune clink of moderately priced champagne glasses is enough to send an avalanche down on the cabin. Here’s where “Mountain Of Madness” takes the darker shift characteristic of several season eight episodes, as their early camaraderie starts to give way to blaming each other for the avalanches. The craziness of both men is carefully paced, becoming a bit unsettling with Burns’s response to the idea of making snowmen (“We’ll build real men out of snow!”) and then sliding into increasingly more unhinged behavior. Longtime Simpsons director Mark Kirkland expertly frames the nadir of cabin fever on both Homer and Burns, Hitchock-style angles framing each of their internal monologues as they come to the conclusion that killing the other one is the only way to survive.

The heights of the Kaiser snowmen vs. political powers battle are dampened somewhat by the abrupt solution to their problem—a swipe of the poker turns the propane tank into a rocket and the house into a rocket house—but any plot that ends with a rocket house careening down the mountain and coming to a stop smoother than the Simpson family car on ice can’t be docked too harshly. Burns gets the reassurance that his staff has grasped the relative meaning of teamwork, the satisfaction of firing someone, and the job of restoring the status quo with his final message to Homer: “Well, Simpson, I must say, once you’ve been through something like that with a person, you never want to see that person again.” A solid ending to what’s an overall solid episode of The Simpsons.

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Stray observations:

  • This week in Simpsons signage:

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  • The park ranger deserves some recognition in the pantheon of obscure Simpsons characters for being so simultaneously checked out and dedicated to his work. He’ll own up to the fact that “Budget cuts have forced us to eliminate anything the least bit entertaining” (an admission that would horrify Leslie Knope into an aneurysm) yet still take the time to reassure kids before putting on the corpse-handling gloves.
  • Marge doesn’t get a lot to do this week, but her dumbfounded reaction to an archival interview of John Muir is amusingly unsettling in its own right. Plus, I’m in favor of anything that puts Maggie in that adorable star snowsuit.
  • Plenty of great visual gags in this episode: The seemingly never-ending pinball-esque ricochet of the Simpson family car throughout the parking lot, Burns fires the starting pistol and propels himself into the ground, Homer going from door to window to door in the trapped cabin and getting buried with every movement.
  • The entire opening sequence of the power plant staff losing their minds is an early highlight, particularly in the ways they fail to get out the door: Homer refuses to leave without his old-timey portrait, Lenny needs that cup of cocoa first, and one guy bludgeons his way through the halls with a fire extinguisher.
  • One dynamic that doesn’t change in this episode, the quasi-married couple vibe between Burns and Smithers. “Sir, this can’t be right. You assured me this drawing was rigged so we’d be teammates.” “Yes, well, frankly, you’ve been a bit of a pill lately.” “Why do we always fight on vacation?”
  • “And this doorknob, properly turned, will allow us access to the cabin.” “No going through the window for us!”
  • “Hey, maybe there is no cabin. Maybe it’s one of them metaphorical things. “Oh yeah, yeah… Like maybe the cabin is the place inside each of us, created by our goodwill and teamwork.” “Ohhh! … Nah, they said there would be sandwiches.”
  • “No books, no radio, no boardgames. Ah! A Bazooka Joe comic! Ugh, I read that one 75 years ago.”
  • “Look at his eyes. He’s trying to hypnotize me, but not in the good Las Vegas way.”
  • Next week: Due to baldness-inducing stress, Gwen Ihnat is hiring a nanny to help with the review of “Simpsoncalifragilisticexpiala(Annoyed Grunt)cious.” And to pay for it, she’s giving up the A.V. Club’s Civil War re-creation society she loves so much. Auditions are forthcoming for the role of General Ambrose Burnside.

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