This American Dad review contains spoilers.
American Dad Season 15 Episode 12 Review
“Smile for what? A photo that I can look at in thousand years when you’re all dead!?”
A lot of the time American Dad chooses to have fun with the wilder and more outrageous aspects of Roger’s alien genealogy. If you have an alien on your show where you’re allowed to basically rewrite the rules on their limitations, then why wouldn’t you take advantage of that? So while some episodes of the series get mileage out of Roger’s resistance to violence or his unique anatomy, “OreTron Trail” instead decides to mix things up and go for the heartstrings. Accordingly, this episode of American Dad uses Roger’s unusual nature to touch on life, death, and some of the harder decisions that he’ll inevitably have to come to terms with down the road. This might be a little heavier than the typical American Dad installment, but it’s a story trajectory that works quite well for both Roger and the series. Plus there’s also some innocuous pointlessness where Klaus opens up a convenience store in the attic if Roger’s existential woes ever get too emotional. This episode thinks of everything.
“OreTron Trail” begins when one of Roger and Steve’s classic sleepovers warps from fun and games into a surprisingly somber night together. An innocent game of Oregon Trail on a vintage Macintosh computer stirs something strong within Roger after he acquaints himself with the bleak nature of the computer game. Out of the many things that could trigger Roger’s feelings on mortality it’s kind of brilliant that it’s this frustrating retro video game that prompts all of this. It’s a good thing that Roger has never played Dark Souls.
These pent up feelings lead to Roger ruining family photo day and all of the stylish denim outfits that the Smiths carefully accessorize tragically go to waste. What’s impressive about this episode is that as soon as it establishes its premise, it immediately turns that idea on its head. An episode that seems like it’s going to all be about the family’s attempts to make Roger comfortable with their inevitable deaths instead turns into a very impressive look at how the Smiths mourn the loss of Roger.
Roger gets stuck in a deadly situation and decides that this is as good a time as any to say goodbye. Furthermore, this will also save him some heartbreak down the road. The episode then catapults to a year in the future and shows the many ways in which the Smith family has internalized their grief over Roger’s death (the mustache that Stan grows, and butters, may be favorite of their coping mechanisms). This all happens while the credits are still rolling, which should give an indication of this episode’s relentless tempo. At the same time, “OreTron Trail” knows when it’s important to slow down and it allows the more emotional moments in the episode to breathe. It’s a very well paced installment and this is an episode where that sort of thing is particularly important.
The Smith family may be an especially dark hole, but Roger actually seems to be in the prime of life. That’s right, of course Roger’s not actually dead. The eventual reveal that Roger is still out in the world and developing a healthy love for motorcycles isn’t exactly a surprise. What’s important here is that Steve and company believes that Roger’s dead and the episode gets to chronicle how both parties function without each other. These guys are lone wolves now who have no need for sidecars. In that sense, “OreTron Trail” is still very much a meditation on death, but it becomes an even deeper examination that gets to touch on feelings like denial and acceptance.
Roger rebirths himself as Renee Gade, a loner drifter persona that cribs as much from Lorenzo Lamas’ The Renegade as possible. It makes sense that if Roger decides that he can’t have a family then he’ll go completely in the opposite direction and become this drifter with no roots. While the character beats here are familiar, Roger’s Renegade storyline remains to surprise and still acts as a creative form of therapy for the character. Behind all of Roger’s macho silliness there’s something very real going on with him.
Back at the Smith house, Steve finds himself caught in some familial nightmare that feels like if Samuel Beckett and Bret Easton Ellis wrote a stageplay together. Everyone is completely off the rails, but they all justify their radical behavior as part of their grieving process. Meanwhile, when Steve puts together the very obvious evidence (ie. bills) that Roger is probably still alive, the family attacks him for not moving on. It’s yet another clever twist to the typical dynamics that would be in play here. It’s also always great when Steve is forced to be the voice of reason for the family.
Steve manages to locate Roger when he figures out that his biker path is actually the same as the Oregon Trail route. This functions as more than just a cute coincidence and it actually leads to some pivotal information when Roger reveals that he briefly landed on Earth one time before his arrival in Roswell. Roger had to deal with love and loss through a former family back in the pioneer days and all of this comes full circle in the process. It’s nice to see Steve call Roger out on the inconsistencies of all of this, but the flashback still achieves what’s necessary here. The only real drawback to all of this is that American Dad has shown Roger with several other families before and it’s never seen like their possible deaths ever weighed too heavily on him.
The episode’s final act moves in another insane direction where Roger needs to work through his issues while the Smiths are trapped in virtual purgatory. There’s a rather vicious death montage that reiterates how difficult Oregon Trail is to beat, but as over the top as this conclusion is, there’s a great deal of thought that’s gone into all of this. The solution involves the Smith family needing to beat Oregon Trail so they can print out the certificate of completion, which they can then use as an SOS message to warn Klaus because the episode has previously established that Klaus has a printer in his bodega. The installment surely doesn’t have to jump through all of these hoops to find an ending, but it’s appreciated that it works so hard to bring all of this together.
“OreTron Trail” attempts some very big things, but the fact that it anchors everything to a strong emotional core helps make it work. The episode is able to take a standard Roger story and push it to some very unpredictable places. Each time that that the stakes get raised here it’s in a satisfying way and it actually takes the effort to put together a solid ending. Klaus’ woes with Friendly K Liquor & Grocery are mostly there for laughs, but it’s still a strong, dark runner that gives “OreTron Trail” something else to play with, too. It’s pretty hilarious to see how quickly the stress of this business wears down Klaus and starts to tank Friendly K’s quality. The power and responsibilities turn Klaus into a paranoid wreck who’s not beyond murdering his customers.
Maybe Klaus could funnel that aggression into some old Macintosh computer games. Motorcycle Mayhem is a riot.