“The Canine Mutiny” (originally aired 04/13/1997)

In which Santos L. Halper destroys his credit history…

Bart Simpson represents an ever-present challenge for The Simpsons’ writers. He’s always walking a fine line between Dennis The Menace and The Bad Seed, and only through careful balancing does Bart come across as a mischievous, rebellious kid who occasionally lacks empathy but never lacks heart. When that balance isn’t achieved, Bart becomes a sociopathic, yellow demon spawn with neither awareness of nor interest in the havoc he creates around him.

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In the final stretch of season eight, Bart leans toward the character’s darker, more vindictive side, which is a matter of how the episodes are sequenced. “The Canine Mutiny,” which features some of Bart’s unkindest moments, comes so closely on the heels of “My Sister, My Sitter” and “Grade School Confidential,” two more episodes in which Bart’s devil horns are at their longest. Bart fully redeems himself in the season eight finale, “The Secret War Of Lisa Simpson,” but “Mutiny” is the episode in which Bart first begins to show some genuine remorse for his actions.

The first two acts of “Mutiny” don’t foreshadow Bart’s pang of conscience at the episode’s end. In fact, the entire story is rooted in Bart’s selfishness: Marge does the morning mail call, sorting through the bills addressed to the grown-ups, then handing Homer the latest issue of Car Toons, and Lisa her German verb wheel from the Foreign Language Institute. There’s nothing for Bart, so Marge gives him the junk mail, unwittingly enabling his latest dastardly scheme. He fills out a pre-approved credit card offer, applying under Santa’s Little Helper’s name, and after six to eight weeks, Bart has a credit card in the name of Santos L. Halper.

Santa’s Little Helper is seen within the first seconds of the episode, when the mail arrives and the mediocre mutt runs straight into the door. As its title suggests, “Mutiny” is as much as Santa’s Little Helper episode as it is a Bart episode. And like most Santa’s Little Helper episodes, it’s about the family’s mistreatment of their transient greyhound. Matt Groening has talked about SLH much in the same way people talk about responding to pre-approved credit cards offers. It seems like a great idea at the time, but leaves you saddled with responsibilities you wish you’d never accepted. SLH was introduced in “Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire”as the family Christmas present that salvages the Simpsons’ lean holiday when there’s no money to devote to gifts. Once the dog was written in, Groening says, the writers were stuck with them despite not having a ton of ideas about what to do with a family dog.

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The show’s treatment of SLH reflects the writers’ indifference towards the family dog. SLH only recurs, and when he does, it’s usually to show Simpsons neglecting or ignoring him, or to show how taking care of him puts strain on the family by being essentially impossible to train. “Mutiny” features a rare instance of a Simpson celebrating SLH, even if it’s Bart, who is thrilled the dog facilitated his credit card fraud, then coughed up a quarter for good measure. The rest of the family is equally grateful for SLH, though indirectly; Bart uses Santos L. Halper’s credit card to buy everyone gifts from the Covet House shop-at-home catalog, including a study aid for Lisa and a musical skillet for Marge that plays the Kinks.

Bart buys a few items for himself, of course, including Laddie, a $1200 collie so handsome and well-trained, the Simpsons immediately fall in love with him. “Mutiny” comes early enough in The Simpsons’ run that its facile, letter substitution parodies (see: Mapple) hadn’t begun to look lazy yet, so Laddie makes for an absurd riff on Lassie’s super-intelligence and gives “Mutiny” some of its funniest bits. Laddie is exceptionally trained, gathering a goodwill pile of fruit on the lawn in his inaugural act as family pet, then using the toilet and flushing on his own. Those jokes land, but it isn’t until Bart continues his slide toward the dark side that Laddie really starts to demonstrate his value.

After Bart ignores repeated harassing phone calls from Santos L. Halper’s creditors, a team of repo men show up on Evergreen Terrace to take back Bart’s ill-gotten gains. When one of the repo guys mistakes SLH for the dog he’s supposed to take back, Bart sacrifices SLH in favor of keeping Laddie, and unlike in most of Bart’s schemes, he’s immediately wracked with guilt. That’s when the really good Laddie jokes come, once the rest of the family, neighborhood, and entirety of Springfield begins its love affair with the world’s most wonderful dog. Homer dons a tie to impress Laddie, while Marge touches up her make-up. Even Kent Brockman and Mr. Burns take an interest.

But it’s Milhouse who steals the episode with his recollection of the time SLH devoured his goldfish.

Bart’s love for SLH only intensifies when he realizes no one loves SLH except for him, while Laddie becomes increasingly irritating in a solid deployment of the “perfection is the worst” trope. With the family’s blessing, Bart tracks SLH, but the mission gets complicated when Bart finds the family dog under the care of Mr. Mitchell, a blind man in greater need of a companion than is Bart. Bart can’t muster the nerve to ask for the dog, so instead he dons his finest all-black burglar get-up and breaks into Mr. Mitchell’s home to take SLH back. It’s hard to call the ending “sweet,” with Mr. Mitchell hauled to jail for the marijuana Laddie discovers after the police arrive. But “Mutiny” is a sweet episode overall, one that betrays Bart’s human side by showing he can be as loyal to his dog as his dog has been to him. Of course, Bart’s conscience comes in cycles. “Mutiny” writer Ron Hauge took his next credit on “Miracle On Evergreen Terrace,” the season nine Christmas episode wherein Bart burns down the Christmas tree and all of the family’s presents. The Telltale Bart: He’s fun while he lasts.

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Stray observations:

  • The ending credits sequence is easily among the top five Chief Wiggum moments of all-time:

  • Hopefully Lisa discontinued these:

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  • Homer, on the return of SLH: “Well crying is going to bring him back, unless your tears smell like dog food. So you can either sit there crying and eating can after can of dog food until your tears smell enough like dog food to make your dog come back, or you can go out there and find your dog.”

Next week: That troublemaking girl! No, not Emily Stephens, it’s Lisa, as referred to by a broke and chastened Mr. Burns in “The Old Man And The Lisa.”