Thursday, April 18, 2024

South Park Provides a Profound Parallel in Toxic Relationships

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Season 21 Episode 7 Review: “Doubling Down”

The South Park season thus far has been a strange mix of tepid pseudo-preaching, hilarious situational comedy, poignant social commentary and offensive one-liners. Now that I think of it though, that pretty much sums up our current societal climate in a nutshell. Episodes like “Doubling Down”, however—episodes when South Park advances their modern dystopian narrative through outrageous humor and metaphor, when they explore human relationships, when they bring characters to actualize their flaws only to uncover all new patterns of self imprisonment—are what make it such a successful and brilliant television show.      

Heidi & Cartman Forever

Is it finally happening? Is Heidi finally freeing herself from the clutches of her poisonous relationship with Eric Cartman? The episode teases another breakup and insists (don’t fall for it) this one is finally the real deal. She’s had enough. It’s just not working. It’s done. She’s done. They’re done.

Heidi: You called me a whore and pushed me in front of a car.

Cartman: I was in a bad mood!

Alas, Cartman reels her back in by blaming his terrible behavior on another feeble excuse: his low-blood sugar. Heidi has been suggesting a healthier lifestyle for Cartman and as a last ditch effort to give him yet another chance, Cartman agrees to go vegan. For Cartman, it isn’t about changing, or solving a problem; it’s about having an excuse. Perfect.

In order to keep up appearances with the fellas, he (of course) suggests that Heidi is nothing more than a controlling bitch and this whole vegan thing is just another example of her keeping him locked up. While the rest of the guys just shrug Cartman’s wailing off, Kyle can’t help but want to get to the bottom of this toxic relationship once and for all.

When Kyle approaches Heidi about her relationship with Cartman, she immediately gets defensive and shuts Kyle’s questioning down. Hydie, who is getting judged from all angles, just wants the freedom to make her own choices and follow her heart. She’s invested so much time and care into Cartman and is having trouble dealing with fact that she made a terrible, terrible mistake. But that won’t stop her from using her morals to try and help someone she cares about, someone she believes in:

“If blood sugar is the problem Eric, then maybe you need to change the way you eat.”

So Cartman becomes a vegan in the most Cartman-y was possible: writing the word Beyond on boxes of fast food in order to pass off terrible processed meat as vegan food.“You can’t even tell the difference.” he tells her as he stuffs mashed potatoes and gravy in her face.

“I can’t believe you’re going to eat this garbage I’m about to spoonfeed you!”

It’s a win-win for Eric, who can avoid eating vegan while at the same time subject Heidi to an unhealthy living style to bring down her mood and try to lower her self-esteem. Genius! Despite Stan’s insistence that everyone should just let it go (I feel like Stan a lot lately), Kyle presses the issue because he has to do what he feels to be the right thing.

“I don’t get it, I just really don’t get it…how is she still supporting him? He clearly sucks, she has to know he sucks!”

Cut to: The President is being a Jackass

It’s no secret that these times are trying and confusing and divisive and even dangerous, and though I understand exactly why Trey Parker and Matt Stone gently stepped away from political discourse (I cut it out of my life for several months too and don’t regret a day), their voice is an important and typically morally-sound one. I’m glad they decided to bring politics back if only for a while.

Not much has happened in the President Garrison plot—just more of the same. How do you comment on one specific issue when politics as of late has been a whirlwind of irresponsible decisions, finger-pointing, and mishandling of tragic events? Well, what if they have Mr. Garrison keep his cabinet in line by brutally sexually assaulting them for the audience’s enjoyment? That way he can continue reveling in his pig-headed bigotry as he goes mad with power? Perfect. That ought to get everyone back to speed.

“I promised I would fuck everyone to death, that was my oath to office remember?” Oh I ‘member!

I’m glad that Stone and Parker give absolutely no fucks about what people think of their show or their political views. When they decide to “step away from issues” it isn’t because they abandoned their audience or principles. It seems to be because they actually took the time to assess current events and social trends in order to arrive at a moral conclusion on important subjects, rather than jump to reactionary impulses to say something stupid or shallow in order to get the “hot take”. (There were like a thousand vapid articles and videos I could have linked to in order to reinforce my point, but I prefer hot-cakes to hot-takes, so there.)

Their hiatus from President Garrison gave them ample ammo to unleash their satirical fury in this episode. They touched upon Garrison’s power trip in “Sons a Witches” because it was a convenient out for their fun Halloween episode, but to see them tie in blatant disrespect for foreign diplomats, sexual assault culture, and ‘member berries, all into a new White House narrative was a delight. Yes, they’ve explicitly shied away from politics, but they’ve kept it looming in the background all season. Using the country’s relationship with a power-hungry, racially insensitive narcissist to parallel a story about Eric Cartman’s relationship with Heidi is perfection.

When Love Triangles Work

When Kyle brings his case before the council of girls in gym class, it’s clear that they are way past his line of thinking and have already given up on poor Heidi. She’s hopeless and refuses to change. Why does Kyle care so much? Is he really just out to do the right thing? Or is it out of jealousy and spite? Maybe he’s blinded by his own feelings for Heidi. In either case, watching his desperate attempt to bridge a gap and communicate with a room full of girls while trying to acknowledge sexism without “slipping up” and seeming sexist, himself is absolutely adorable and right on the money.

“You’re all hot on the inside. If we could just see inside you it would be hot. …Oh shit.”

My favorite aspect of South Park this season (and the show as a whole) is their ability to deal with big issues on an interpersonal level. They understand that the world is a tiny neighborhood now, and our private lives are nothing if not larger than life (as we see them), as large as the internet, as large as the presidency itself! The obvious metaphor they’ve woven in here is to use Heidi’s broken relationship with Eric to so many Americans’ relationship with Trump. The toxic behavior Cartman has been exhibiting enables the showrunners to be completely transparent with their metaphor without having to make any outlandish comparisons. It all fits. Kyle hates Cartman as much (if not more) than any of them, but he sees the bullying happening to Heidi, the patronizing, the outright refusal to give her space and come to her own conclusions about her making a terrible mistake.

“You can’t keep saying ‘we told you so’ because if you make her feel dumb, she just doubles down and tries to prove to herself that it wasn’t dumb.”

Pictured: Heidi and all the people that truly listen to her.

I loved the addition of Heidi when she first appeared on the show as a way to rag on obnoxious male feminists and give us another insightful female voice on the playground. I’ve made case that she has taken a backseat this season, but maybe that’s me pushing my own agenda onto showrunners who seem to know what the hell they’re doing. In either case, it’s no coincidence that a Heidi, Kyle, and Cartman-centric episode is smart, funny, and emotionally engaging.     

The entire plot becomes about Heidi dealing with the choices she had made, facing the relationship she has nurtured and the monster she has created. Meanwhile Kyle, the arbiter of reason, is trying to sway Heidi into leaving Cartman for good—falling for her in the process. Heidi keeps thinking her boyfriend will change. She has to believe it. Despite the teasing from her intellectually elitist friends, despite her emotional isolation, and despite the horrible way Cartman treats her, she has always believed that it will all be better if she just works harder to fix it. But Kyle’s been around for far too long to buy that.     

Kyle: We all wrongly see ourselves as the victims sometimes, but Cartman sees himself as the victim all the time.

Heidi: Before we started going out, I was in a really bad place. Then this guy came along and told me all the things I wanted to hear and I just went with it. Does that make me a bad person?

Happy Anniversary, Mister President

As far as Cartman and Garrison are concerned, the lesson is that if you push people far enough, keep bullying,  and refuse to change, eventually you will end up alone. The solution for Cartman is a societal lesson we’ve learned not to do time and time again, but it’s his go-to reaction: don’t look inward and enact change; blame the other. Cartman’s manipulation game has now reached its fullest extent on poor Heidi.

“My heritage is Irish, so I’m prone to being moody sometimes. Your heritage, well, you can be a little sneaky sometimes and not even realizing it.” —Heidi to Kyle

It’s been a year since the presidential election…ummm…happened to us. That seems so hard to believe on the surface. South Park has delivered a morally sound, intriguing episode that really raised the stakes as far as the relationships between the kids go. I think, this being a specific milestone episode where they not-so-subtly unleash the hammer of their nuanced views on post-election blues, means we probably won’t see too much more political satire. But hell, I’ve pretty much been wrong in speculating everything else thus far for season 21 so…

In either case, this was the best episode of the season, and I’m glad South Park continues to add their voice to our frustrating cultural and political climate.

Images courtesy of Comedy Central

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