This The Simpsons review contains spoilers.
The Simpsons Season 32 Episode 22
The Simpsons Season 32, episode 22, “The Last Barfighter,” is a perfect mix. It’s got secret societies, booze, and a big, old, ugly head. Since time immemorial, this unholy trinity has come through for the series. The Stonecutters cemented the dank and seedy underground of Springfield into the minds of the series’ fans. The Olmec relic of Xtapolapocetl proved even Mr. Burns could be gracious. And, of course, alcohol is the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.
“You’ll never believe what they laid on me tonight: Crappy marriages, crappy jobs,” Moe says as he sits on what we discover is his usual stool. Even bartenders need bartenders, and when Moe needs to unwind and throw back, he’s got a mixologist who’s got his back. Ian McShane’s Artemis is the bartender’s bartender, it is immediately apparent. Before Moe even pulls off his helmet and bellies up at the bar, we’d like him to pour us a drink.
Moe belongs to “something bigger than himself, and super weird,” another winning combination. He drinks at The Confidential, a secret club even speakeasy regulars couldn’t get in at the time. Members don’t have a special knock. There are no peep-holes. They need a special key. This is ancient. It is exclusive, historic, and they only serve the usual. They live by a sacred code, and this is the place where someone will “listen to the listeners.” It makes it sound so noble, you almost want to buy one of Moe’s pickled eggs.
But it’s a crystal skull which binds the story. Krusty cancels his show after his afternoon animal entertainment escapes in the studio, endangering dozens. This leaves the clown to drown his sorrows in tongue at the local deli, and Bart and Milhouse with useless tickets. They go into Pedro “Bumblebee Man” Chespirito’s Noches de Abejorro show, a Spanish-language almost-equivalent to Krusty’s show, and Bart keeps his cool long enough to win the coveted Calavera Gritando, or Screaming Skull.
The head is designed to look like a relic of the Day of the Dead, the 3,000-year-old Meso-American ritual honoring deceased loved ones. It is really a knockoff of George Clooney’s knockoff tequila Casamigos, which he “accidentally” founded. I always imagined while drunk on the tequila, which brings us to Carl. He’s an inventor, and a pretty good one, but he’s never filed a single patent. We are always getting fascinating tidbits about Carl and Lenny. Though it was even more revelatory to learn Barney got fired from the AutoZone for huffing floor mat cleaner.
Homer recognizes the skull immediately, at least enough to know it is filled with a tequila superior to all other mezcal. Homer has always wanted to drink something “fancy enough to come in a bottle that doesn’t look in a bottle.” But Bart won’t give it up, and Marge sides with her son. Bart says he’s going to “save it for high school,” which is encouragingly diabolical. He’s going to be just like his dad. You can almost hear “Cat’s in the Cradle,” it’s so touching. But it sets off a classic comedy duel. Bart taunts Homer relentlessly, antagonizing him with the forbidden elixir, even dedicating the song “Tequila” to his beloved father during morning drive-time radio. The punchline lands so hard, it sets off the airbags on Homer’s car. Even Lisa pretends not to know her father, that’s how effective it is.
Thus is the curse of the Screaming Skull. Soon, even the Calavera Gritando is tormenting Homer. Urging him with taunts he is “too weak to drink me.” Homer finally cracks, he “may not speak Spanish but I know when a talking skull is talking to me.” We know we’re going to see a Raiders of the Lost Ark parody long before it happens, but it is happily surprising to see how Homer replaces the weight of the skull.
The sequence at Moe’s bar is funny and moving. Moe-centered stories are usually among the best of the secondary character pieces in the series. He has such depth, Lisa once dubbed him a poet. He certainly is a tortured soul. Even the glasses he breaks out to drink from the skull are Iranian hostage commemoratives. When he comes to the other side of the bar and says “So this is sitting,” it condenses a lifetime of upright crouches. When we hear the barflies tell Moe “You’re not our bartender, you’re our friend,” we are touched. When we hear the skull declare “You fool, you’ve ruined a man’s life, and now begins his slow descent into hell,” we’re relieved. Because, from this moment, the entire episode builds a palpable sense of suspense.
We come back when Moe is remembering what happened 12 hours earlier. A time when he was just one of the drunks on the street, instead of putting them there. The sequence of the revelries includes amusing diversions like getting a group photo-booth picture with the skull, and a team teeth-whitening session, including one for the skull. But then things get ugly, and when things get ugly with Moe, that can go pug ugly, fugly, or pug fugly, which is where it goes tonight. He dishes so much dirt, even his crotch rag wants a raise, and it earns its pay tonight. Moe lets loose from the Lovejoys’ sexless marriage to Lenny’s wet spaghetti arms. And just who is the mayor of Greenfield? It’s funny because it’s true, but there’s nothing less funny than an honest drunk.
Moe makes a very astute observation. He is wasted. His bartending friends are drunks. The secret club sends an even more astute signal. Moe has to follow a rat named Kristoff to answer for his broken vows of silence. But the punishment of the society is worse than the curse of the skull. Not only is Moe cast out, but his regulars are cut off. And when a secret society of bartenders calls last round, it’s a serious matter. There’s cranium-splitting headaches, firehouse sweating, and hurricane vomiting involved, they don’t even show the last one, but the reaction shots and sounds are hilariously horrifying. If the bartender sticks you with a needle, you never touch alcohol again. Oktoberfest becomes sober fest.
The peril is real. There is true commitment to the premise and how frightening the prospect is. Springfield’s bartenders become a roving mob, whether from the League of Extra Horny Gentlemen or the Lesbian Rye Curious bar. Moe’s taverners are hunted like dinosaurs. Given the choice between a life without alcohol and one on the run, Carl and Lenny choose flight, a hazardous decision, with sobering consequences. Homer gets it from Dr. Hubbard, who bartended his way through medical school. It is all too horrible to witness. It’s enough to drive you to drink.
Even though it appears life without drink works out good for the quartet – Lenny gets ripped, Carl heads a body-hair-shaving mini-robot startup company, Barney holds the big arrow at the AutoZone, and Homer’s such a good dad even Maggie’s happy – it feels like something out of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Moe is at his lowest, even for Moe, making omelets on demand in a well-lit, non-dank mall shop. He doesn’t even have a shotgun behind the oven. It’s such a sad spectacle, we’re rooting for a break on the wagon train.
The episode ends on a cliffhanger, but we all know how it will turn out. Just like we know how even the water at Moe’s bar is watered down. “The Last Barfighter” is a fun, action-packed, and twisted installment. Secret societies, booze, a big old ugly head, and a Simson on the run. It’s a grand slam best watched on a wall at a dive bar. It leaves us with a subversively comic paradox. Will Homer upset the balance of the nature of Springfield if he doesn’t get re-boozed? It is a beautiful ambiguity, but this is last call for the season. If The Simpsons season 24 opens with Homer doing Smithers’ job or its equivalent, even for one segment, it will be more satisfying than learning Maggie shot Mr. Burns.