“At this moment, one thing and one thing only matters: this mural must be restored.”
Through all of their problems, the Smiths love each other. They often don’t see eye to eye, but they are at their best when they all work as a team rather than being at each other’s throats. Many episodes of American Dad pit members of the Smith family against each other, but “The Mural of the Story” feels different in that respect. Yes, this is an episode where members of the family are in opposition to each other, but it’s also got a lot to say on pride and how the community itself can be an enemy. Stan may not be directly against Hayley here, but in an episode that invokes strong “loyntegresty” in us all, he does learn how much stronger they are when they work together rather than apart. After all, that way you’ve got twice as many hands to blow things up.
“The Mural of the Story” features no shortage of things for Stan to be angry at, but the episode begins with Stan already hot after he finds Hayley eating at a restaurant where he has a complicated history. Stan’s logic isn’t exactly sound, but it does prompt the whole “family comes first” theme that barrels down on both Stan and Hayley in this episode.
Stan’s malaise shifts towards an iconic wall of graffiti that’s so patriotic that it would make Norman Rockwell vomit in shame. The patriotism is of course not the problem, but what leaves Stan feeling so deeply defeated is how much vandalism has defaced the monument. This urban piece of Americana represents everything that Stan values about his country, so to see it vandalized is tantamount to failure. Stan is determined to restore the slab of wall to its pristine condition and also hopefully teach Hayley a lesson or two in “loyntegresty” in the process.
Stan proudly takes his fight to city hall where he’s pleased to learn that the rest of Langley Falls is just as broken up over the mural as he is. Stan reminds everyone that this mural is a symbol of what the town is capable of and what it should aspire towards. Whether the painting motivated individuals to never give up or merely posed as the backdrop for their first hand job, everyone has a special mural memory. While this mural has never shown up in the series before, it’s still easy to picture Langley Falls when they first put it up. It’s a piece of history that very much fits the jumbled ideas of the community and it’s not hard to imagine Stan shouting out “loyntegresty” when the time arrives for a slogan.
Stan is quick to co-opt Hayley’s apathy into the fire that’s necessary to fix the mural. If Langley Falls’ beloved art is left in shambles, then future generations will never learn of its message. Stan is terrified of the idea that the community could be overrun with more Hayleys in the future, so he pushes hard for a Mural Restoration Task Force. When the topic of renovation comes up, Hayley has plenty of ideas on how to make the mural more diverse and actually representative of America’s changing ideals. Unfortunately, with Stan in charge of the task force it seems unlikely that he’ll let someone like Harriet Tubman make their way onto this inspirational piece of art.
It doesn’t take long for Stan’s task force to gets whittled down to a one-man job after he blows the project’s entire budget on a business lunch at Benihana’s. Stan left to his own devices on this project is honestly a good sign as it means that there are less heads for him to butt against. In spite of Stan’s negligent methods, Hayley is still proud of his gung ho initiative on the matter.
“The Mural of the Story” owes a lot to its breakneck pace and how much it manages to contain to its story. A simpler episode would see Hayley and Stan work together on the mural for the bulk of the runtime and learn to appreciate each other more in the process. Another basic take on this premise would have positioned Hayley as the one who vandalized the mural in the first place, which would easily give her and Stan conflict. However, the episode takes a much more interesting direction where Stan finishes the mural an act into the episode, but the only problem is that he’s turned the art into a complete travesty. Rather than accept this responsibility, Stan allows the town to rebel against Hayley and turn her into a pariah instead of letting the blame fall on him. It’s an incredibly Stan thing to do, but crazy things happen when you get between a man and his mural.
“The Mural of the Story’s” first half may play things relatively safe, but then the episode really goes off the rails in the best way possible. The final act deserves all the credit in the world. Not only does it veer off into an unexpected revenge fantasy where an incognito Hayley and Klaus team up to blow up Stan’s mural, but it also succeeds in how surprising it is, too. And Good lord, Stan’s facial reconstruction surgery of Hayley is one of the most brutal, gruesome sequences that the show has ever done (and that includes Francine’s “acid face” and Roger’s “elbow drop head explosion”). The cringeworthy humor gets even better when Stan goes through his same “mural fixing” motions on Hayley’s face to disastrous results.
As Stan and Hayley try to get back in the good graces of Langley Falls, Steve finds himself far too excited over his enrollment in the Grimaldi School of Clowning for Boys. Steve’s storyline may be more ridiculous plot of the episode, but it isn’t any less prideful than what Stan and Hayley are caught up in. It should come as absolutely no surprise that Roger is Steve’s prestigious clown teacher. At this point in the show’s run the audience has become just as savvy about Roger’s inevitable personae as the Smith family. A much earlier episode might have actually tried to create suspense out of the fact that Roger is Steve’s teacher, but “The Mural of the Story” treats it like such a foregone conclusion that Steve literally interrupts his own thought over the revelation. Of course Roger is renowned clown instructor, H.J. Rimmins, because why the hell wouldn’t he be?
With Steve’s storyline the gag isn’t that Roger is the one that administers the lessons, but rather that his methods are so over the top and aggressive. Sure, there’s still plenty of horn-corn and gooch in Roger’s clowning lessons, but by the end of it all Steve will also see into his soul and truly know if he can make it in the business. All of this plays as a satisfying riff on Whiplash (if H.J. Rimmins’ name and jacked arms weren’t enough of a tip off) and as ridiculous as a clown-based Whiplash parody should be, this comes together with satisfying results.
Roger continually gets in Steve’s head over whether he actually has any clowning talent or not and he pushes his willing body to the limit. Scenes where Steve honks his clown nose to the point that it’s bleeding or the fact that he makes so many balloon animals that his fingers are blistered and swollen are hilarious, absurd moments, but they also sell the grueling story that he’s found himself in.
When Steve can’t take any more of this he finally hauls Rogers off to what’s essentially the better business bureau for clowning academies. The dichotomy of slapstick clown gags that play out while bureaucracy and heavy business matters are dealt with is pretty entertaining, albeit easy, comedy. The conclusion of all of this again goes down the route where the episode hopes to surprise the audience with a well meaning coda, but the whole Whiplash angle quickly turns into a surprisingly lateral shift into IT territory. American Dad has no doubt done weirder epilogues for its stories, but hey, at least this one seems to imply that Steve grows up to be a college professor (although hopefully he still finds time to do the backseat shuffle in the car).
“The Mural of the Story” is full of bonkers entertainment from the moment it starts and it still finds creative stories to occupy its cast. Francine and Jeff are pretty much non-existent this week, but there’s enough that goes on with everyone else that the episode never feels sparse. The entry’s message gets through loud and clear, but there are also many non sequitur laughs that help elevate this episode into something more impressive. Dr. Weitzman’s apparent sexual attraction towards rams and his penchant for madTV is a highlight, as is Klaus’ prospective idea for a comic, Goofus McDoof, Business Horse.
The many newspaper bylines highlight some pretty large epidemics that are going on around all of the mural drama, too. The peak of all of this is likely the beautiful Olive Garden-esque designs that chronicle all of the mistakes that Stan made and the ways in which he let down his daughter. It’s the perfect apology before Stan and Hayley demolish the whole project…together. “The Mural of the Story” may lose some viewers on its busy, frantic nature, but it’ll win over even more with the risks that it takes and its strong finish.
Oh and by the way, the suspects in that Jehovah’s Witness mass murder at the Langley Falls White Castle are still at large…