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The Simpsons (Classic): “The Secret War Of Lisa Simpson”

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“The Secret War Of Lisa Simpson” (originally aired 5/18/1997)

In which Lisa gets a medal

Season Eight is the last great season of The Simpsons. There’d be great episodes to come, and seasons which managed a consistent level of good to not-embarrassing episodes throughout, but Season Eight feels like an ending point; the high-water mark where the writers were still able to juggle experimentation and deconstruction against the warmth and humanity which had made the show such a massive success. It’s become easy over the years to resent the series for its dips in quality, but honestly, eight years of greatness (well, okay, six years of perfection, one year of greatness, and one year of hey-we’re-just-figuring-this-out fun) is a remarkable run for any work of art, televised or otherwise. As frustrating as it’s been to see something that was once the pinnacle of its form devolve into a routine, if pleasant and occasionally inspired, institution, that shouldn’t detract from the achievement of that pinnacle-hood.

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Considering the ambitions of season eight, then, and how often the show was able to reach those ambitions (whatever my personal issues with “Homer’s Enemy,” it’s still a razor sharp, and “The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase” is just remarkable), there’s something unexpected in how low-key “The Secret War Of Lisa Simpson” really is. There’s nothing in this episode we haven’t seen before, at least not in the basic concept. Bart is a troublemaker; Lisa’s intelligence has made her an outsider at school; circumstances temporarily place them at odds with one another, but ultimately find them working together as a team. The details are different than what we’ve seen in the past, but the relationship arc doesn’t hold much in the way of surprises.

That’s all to the good. The simplicity and fundamental sweetness of “Secret War” make for a lovely grace note to a collection of episodes which often pushed the boundaries of cynicism and stable world-building. If “Homer’s Enemy” represented an endpoint for the writers’ darkest frustrations, this finale is a return to what keep the show working at its core. Terrific joke writing and flights of absurdist fantasy need a core of emotional authenticity to keep from floating off into the ether, or becoming actively unpleasant, both problems that the show would struggle from in the years to come. By coming back to such a relatively straightforward story, with a clear, easy to empathize with situation, the episode is both modest and satisfying, and an impressive reminder of the varieties of tone The Simpsons was capable of pulling off.

And man, about that empathy. Going into this again for review, I remembered the broad strokes (Bart pulls one prank to many, gets sent to military school; Lisa decides she wants to join him; Lisa is ostracized; they bond), but I wasn’t prepared for how deep the episode gets into Lisa’s situation. Given her intelligence and preciousness, the danger with Lisa is always making her too smart for every room; the solution is to constantly remind the audience of just how painful such a situation can be, especially for someone who, for all her brains, is still a child. I’ve seen people dismiss Lisa as a boring know-it-all, but to me, the balance is always in the character’s fundamental loneliness.

“Secret War” references this without overplaying it. Public schooling isn’t providing Lisa with the challenges or the peer group she needs (one of the better jokes late in the episode: “If only I were in Springfield, all of my friends would be cheering me on! Oh god, I’m delirious.”), and the crisp discipline and intellectual rigor of Rommelwood Academy (“A Tradition Of Heritage”) appeals to her. So she convinces her parents and the school’s commandant (a perfectly cast Willem Dafoe) to let her enroll, only to find her presence as the only girl in an until-now all male institution just makes her an outcast once again. The episode doesn’t strain too hard to get this point across, conveying Lisa’s isolation largely in terms of absence; after some goofily brutal hazing, Bart is welcomed into the class with open arms, while Lisa is left to fend for herself. The episode doesn’t stress how hard it is for a woman (or a girl) to find a place in institutions traditionally dominated by men, but the point is made in a way that makes it difficult to ignore.

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Still, this wouldn’t be as effective a half hour as it is if it weren’t for Bart. While the story is told largely from Lisa’s perspective, Bart provides the catalyst for that story’s emotional climax. Lisa episodes often bring out the best in Bart, showing him both as a freewheeling agent of chaos and as a kid who, when the chips are down, really does love his sister an awful lot. “Secret War” shows both these sides, as it needs a pretty spectacular Bart prank in the opening act to motivate the rest of the narrative, before creating some moderate suspense as to whether or not Bart will choose his sister over his new friends by the end of the episode. That suspense isn’t as sharp as, say, “Lisa On Ice,” which means the climax isn’t quite as powerful; Bart’s distance from Lisa at Rommelwood is a sympathetic distance, not an antagonistic one, and his decision to cheer for her as she struggles to cross the Eliminator isn’t all that surprising. But it’s still a sweet, satisfying conclusion, and there’s something to be said for a story that presents a conflict between siblings as low-key (and believable) as this one.

As for Rommelwood itself, the concept of sending unruly children to military school is a cliche as presumably old as military schools themselves. “Secret War” steers into the skid by depicting the academy as an institution whose old way of doing business is slowly but surely becoming obsolete. It’s a subtle joke, but the Commandant’s reluctant acceptance of Lisa as a new cadet (“After all, we have female singers. Female motorists.”) is part and parcel of several changes he’s been forced to to accept, along with changing the school’s battle royale final exam to a brutal rope climb (which itself is then banned) and giving a graduation day speech about how the soldiers of the future will spend most of their time taking care of the robots which will fight the actual wars.

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While there’s still plenty of time for Bart to learn to be a killing machine (another great joke has Homer and Marge realizing that maybe a super focused weapon of death Bart isn’t an improvement over the prankster version), the main impression we’re left with is of something that used to be simple and powerful forced to adapt itself to a changing world. Like the subtle undercurrent of feminism in Lisa’s struggles (which use empathy more than didacticism to get the idea across), this isn’t really meant as a lecture. But it does give Rommelwood, and the Commandant, more personality than they would’ve otherwise had, and acknowledge certain inevitabilities about the changing of the times.

Really, it comes back to how damn modest the whole enterprise feels. Much like the low-key rhythms of “Summer Of 4 Ft. 2” (which just so happened to be the last episode of season seven), “Secret War” doesn’t strive for the epic or the outrageous; and while the presence of the Eliminator means this isn’t a story that could’ve exactly worked in live action, everything still feels essentially human and personal, in a way the show would find harder and harder to achieve in the years to come. Even this episode shows some of the fading novelty of the series, as Lisa and Bart’s plight has a definite well-worn familiarity to it—but that familiarity is far more comforting than tiresome. If nothing else, it’s gratifying to watch a half-hour that encourages you to feel warmly to all of its characters. At the end, Lisa gets medal that reads “For Satisfactory Completion Of The Second Grade.” The joke of the thing doesn’t make it any less of an accomplishment.

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Stray observations:

  • The opening act does a great job of hiding what the episode’s actual story while still setting up the plot. There’s some great bits with Wiggum at the police station (“Why can’t anyone in this town take the law into their own hands?”) and Lisa’s class forced to watch instructional, horribly outdated filmstrips; both sequences are funny in and off themselves, but also establish that Bart needs some discipline, and Lisa needs some actual teaching.
  • “Think we’re we’d be with sand.” No springs!
  • Things are so bad in Lisa’s classroom that Miss Hoover actually leaves the school in the middle of a film.
  • When Bart sets off the stacked bullhorns, he sends out a shockwave that appears to break all the glass in Springfield. That includes all the beer in the Simpsons’ fridge, and holy shit, there is a lot of beer in there.
  • “What’s the matter? Don’t girls like doing push-ups in the mud?” “Is there any answer I could give that won’t result in more push-ups?” (consultation) “No.”
  • Lisa is so lonely on her own that she calls Grampa at the nursing home, and listens to him until he runs out of stories.
  • “It was worth it sneaking into town. That was some good corn!” The male cadets who ostracize Lisa are basically jerks, but there’s something so doofy about them that even they end up feeling slightly more human than standard issue bullies. It’s subtle, but it’s there.
  • To get Bart into the car to go to Rommelwood, Marge and Homer tell him they’re going to Disneyland. (Later, when they pick up Bart and Lisa at the academy, they tell them the same lie, only this time the family ends up at the dentist. It’s a fun way to end the episode, and very much in keeping with the show’s increasing reluctance to close on an overly sentimental note. I also like how, intentionally or not, it reinforces that the Simpsons family is fundamentally unchanging. Homer and Marge never use a new trick, but they don’t have to; Bart and Lisa will never catch on.)
  • Next time: Simpsons (Classic) reviews will take a break for the month of May, so that TV Club writers can devote their attention to season finales and the mental preparation required for tackling “The Principal And The Pauper.” We’ll be back on June 7 with “The City Of New York Vs. Homer Simpson.”
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