This The Simpsons review contains spoilers.
The Simpsons: Season 29 Episode 21
The first clue that The Simpsons season 29, episode 21, “Flanders’ Ladder” is a parody of Sixth Sense, the film where a young child goes to a therapist to deal with the fact that he sees dead people comes early and might be a little hard to spot: while in the very suggestible state of coma, Lisa suggests to Bart that he sees dead people. There may have been a red doorknob or a sweater sometime before that, but almost everything in Bart’s room is red, from the knobs on his dresser to his Radioactiveman doll.
The episode begins on a dark and stormy night. This isn’t scary by itself, but when the lightning takes out the Wi-Fi, the Simpson family is plunged into a nightmare of flammable board games and video tapes. Video tapes used to go into a machine called the VCR, people used to record shows they’d never watch on them in the days before everyone binged everything as a stream. The premise is set when Bart pranks Lisa with a pop-up genius IQ maze and posts her epic fail online as she gets pwned. It looks like The Simpsons animators started drawing the sequence in 2004, but it doesn’t matter because “Flanders’ Ladder” doesn’t lead to a virtual reality world. It leads to an astral realm.
But before we get there, Homer uses the ladder in a very funny visual gag where he can’t get up past a few steps because he’s too fat. First the rungs bend almost to bursting, then the ladder itself becomes further and further wedged into the ground. It’s a classic, not only because it’s an old joke from some hit show that launched no one’s career, but because it’s actually a set-up for the later observation that Homer’s ghost is actually only slightly lighter than his living body.
The ghosts are all in Bart’s mind, put there by his vengeful sister. The scene where she infiltrates his no-girls-allowed left hemisphere is a cranial study in abstract. The gifts only exist in the comatose state but the triggers play in real time. The suggestions come faster, much much faster, than Homer can walk nine blocks. There are documented cases of people who come out of near death experiences with a little something extrasensory popping out of their subconsciously collective third eyes. Bart goes through about half of a stage of grief before accepting his gift.
Bart isn’t happy with his newfound gifts. His first encounter is the late Maude Flanders, the holier-than-all-a-thou dead wife of the even holier-than-them Ned Flanders, the neighbor whose router caused the problem in the first place. Stupid Flanders. Bart lines up his treehouse with the horrors of a dead messiah on a cross. It’s not because he’s had a spiritual awakening, he doesn’t believe in some dopey religion, it’s because only those crosses and the power of Homer’s socks can compel the vile dead to leave.
But like the sad but creepy kid in M. Night Shyamalan’s horror classic, Bart comes to grips with his death defying prowess quicker than you can say “stuttering Stanley,” skipping numerous openings for Springfield Elementary torture. Instead, Bart helps the endearing departed get closure. He starts with Millhouse’s child psychiatrist, who committed suicide to make his clients feel bad, including Bart, who could have saved him if he’d only have shown up on time for his appointment. He even promises to whack Johnny Tightlips and Louie Doublecross for a mob vendetta.
Bart gets to everyone but the first person who contacted him, Maude Flanders, and possibly Frank Grimes, whose death on The Simpsons marked a then-highpoint for animated television cynicism. Grimey died because of Homer Simpson, but so did Maude, who’s been kept waiting long enough. She also wants revenge on Bart’s father, the man who moved out of the way of a lethal T-shirt cannon, leaving her fodder. Hello fodder, goodbye mudder to Rodd and Todd.
Homer’s death sets up a Poltergeist moment, as Homer struggles not only with his weight, but to get into the light. The scene triggers the happy ending, with Bart returning to consciousness by the loving concern of his sister, and the familial bond he has with his father. Homer of course isn’t thrilled having to go back and labels his son a “lifesaving, heaven can waiting” disappointment, worthy only of parental strangling. The family is happy again.
The show’s coda is a prediction for the future. Ralph Wiggam will grow to be King Joffrey on Game of Thrones, choking on the wine little Ralphie gives him. Principal Seymour Skinner will live to the age of 119, where he will die on account of prank pulled on him by Bart, who will die at the age of 59 pulling it. He dies at the same age as his father, who leaves Marge to become one of the many wives of Ned Flanders before dying at age 84. Lisa Marie Simpsons will discover the meaning of life at the age of 98. She will realize it’s all a waste of time and that will just kill her. Maggie, of course, will never die. She’s played by Elizabeth Taylor.
The Simpsons’ “Flanders’ Ladder” is a happy rebirthing. It’s laden with passing jokes, sight gags, and even provides one more Simpsons-did-it episode for Family Guy, which saw Peter fall into a coma and see god and atone for his sins, just a half hour later. Bart’s tangle with the afterlife and Lisa’s mental manipulations make for cosmic comedy that almost kills.
“”Flanders’ Ladder” was written by J. Stewart Burns, and directed by Matthew Nastuk.
The Simpsons stars Dan Castellaneta as Homer and Abe Simpson, Julie Kavner as Marge Simpson, Nancy Cartwright as Bart Simpson, Yeardley Smith as Lisa Simpson. Hank Azaria plays Kirk Van Houten, Chief Wiggum and Moe. Harry Shearer is Seymour Skinner, Kent Brockman, C. Montgomery Burns and Waylon Smithers.