Capital & Labour in 'The Simpsons' - A review of 'Last Exit to Springfield'
The Simpsons is not known for its political or socio-economic commentary. It is rightly regarded as one of the funniest shows of all time and a perfect satire of American life in the late 20th century. Its unique ability to recognise the ridiculousness of its time gave it a powerful and insightful comedy unparalleled by the other pop culture of its time. Whilst it presents an image of timelessness as it characters haven’t aged in 30 years, The Simpsons was very much a creature of American society, producing its best episodes in the context of Ronald Reagan’s ‘Morning in America’ and the social upheaval of the 1980s and 1990s. Many would argue that because of this, the show lost its relevance long ago, and is now chasing its former glory in a futile effort to remain of the time. However, the world we live in today is very much the world The Simpsons inherited at the beginning of its run in 1989.
In just 24 minutes The Simpsons was able to combine big laughs and touching stories with a not-so-subtle critique of the new political and economic model of the 1980s which is still with us today. Last Exit to Springfield deftly balances hilarious gags and a wicked sense of humour with an exploration of the timeless and never-ending struggle between capital and labour as it was in the time of Thatcher and Reagan. The episode pairs our aversion to dentists with a swipe at the American healthcare system and measures the balance of power between workers and employers and reflects our frailties back at us in the context of a seemingly ridiculous labour dispute. With a brilliant incorporation of eternal cinematic classics like The Godfather, The Grinch and even a nod to Jack Nicholson’s Joker in 1989’s Batman, this episode contributes a rich and thoughtful appraisal of our politics and through all the laughs asks the audience, is our system working? And if it is, for whom does it work?
“A Hero named Homer and a Devil named Burns”
Last Exit to Springfield opens with a satire within a satire as we watch a scene from the new ‘McBain’ movie, a thinly-veiled rip-off of Arnold Schwarzenegger. McBain is infiltrating a corporate dinner party which has an air of Eyes Wide Shut to it as the rich and powerful celebrate the creation of a drug ten times more addictive than marijuana and dream of rivers of gold. As the lead corporate hack cackles like a mad man the cartoon-camera zooms out of the Simpson’s television as Homer says to Bart, “Don’t worry boy, there’s no one that evil in real life.” Cut to a familiar villain, the owner of the Nuclear Power Plant Charles Montgomery Burns as he rhymes with the TV villain, laughing while a window cleaner holds on for his life, dangling just above his office. His devoted but much maligned disciple Smithers distracts him from this delight and reminds him that they have to renegotiate their labour contract. Burns, remembering his time as a child touring his grandfather’s factories and feeling nostalgic for a time before organised labour, demands a blood-sacrifice from his workers and eliminates the plant’s dental plan from the labour contract. In compensation, he gives his workers a free case of beer at their next general meeting, which, unbeknown to them, has a spy camera built into the tap.
Before the union meeting of the plant workers, Marge takes Lisa to the dentist in a fantastic sequence which made laugh until I couldn’t breathe. We cut from Lisa and Bart in the waiting room to the dentist’s room, with little Ralph Wiggum in the chair. The dentist, in a perfect mechanical and devious German accent asks “How often do you brush Ralph?”, “Three times a day sir” Ralph replies, fidgeting with a look of pure terror in his eyes. The dentist’s face contorts in a beautiful mix of superiority and control as he drawls, “Why must you turn my office into a house of lies?”. The dentist’s over-dramatic and menacing tone and Ralph’s fear of being found out will be all too-familiar to anyone who has ever had their teeth looked at.
After Ralph’s confession, the dentist proceeds to pull out ‘the Big Book of British Smiles’ which sends Ralph mad with horror as he cries “that’s enough!” like a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay. After seeing Lisa, the dentist terrifies Marge into agreeing she needs braces with him by showing her a disturbingly hilarious animation of Lisa’s teeth growing through her face. But, with the dental plan struck off Homer’s employment contract, Marge can’t afford anything functional and Lisa is given something which more closely resembles an instrument of torture in the Dark Ages than a piece of dentistry equipment. There’s a fantastic reference to Tim Burton’s Batman as Lisa is covered in bandages after her procedure and demands the mirror, only to smash it against the dentist’s tools while she laughs like Jack Nicholson’s Joker, driven mad by her own face.
At the plant, the union is just seconds away from willingly sacrificing their dental plan for a keg of beer when we zoom in on Homer’s mind as the phrases “Lisa needs braces” and “dental plan” play over and over again as he masters a hilarious vacant expression. Suddenly, it clicks and Homer launches into a spontaneous defence of the dental plan and becomes a champion of organised labour, vowing to fight Burns for a better contract. His union rewards him by electing him as their president and he is sent off to deal with Burns. The negotiations begin with a brilliant comedic flourish as Homer mistakes Mr Burns’ efforts to buy him off as attempts to seduce him, completely oblivious to the fruits of corruption which lay before him. The funniest line of the episode comes when Homer ends the negotiations when Burns winks at him saying, “Sorry Mr Burns but I don’t go in for these backroom shenanigans. Sure I’m flattered, maybe even a little curious, but the answer is no.”
From this point, the dispute intensifies as Homer is dragged to Burn’s mansion by ‘hired goons’ and stalls the negotiations by going to the bathroom, making Burns think he’s some master tactician in the mould of Napoleon. The union eventually goes on strike and Burns retaliates by cutting the town’s energy supply, which is under his complete control. Riots and comical civil unrest follow as Springfield goes dark, but instead of rioting the workers sing together in solidarity. Like the Grinch Burns leans in and listens from atop his balcony, and realising he cannot win, gives Homer the dental plan in exchange for his resignation as union president.
'The Simpsons’ and Neoliberalism
I find it incredible how much The Simpsons was able to pack into an episode only 24 minutes long. There’s a reason that Last Exit to Springfield is listed as one of the best episodes the show has ever produced. It deftly mixes humour and reality to create a unique blend of satire which has a wider meaning outside of the entertainment it provides. Last Exit to Springfield contains a thinly-veiled critique of American neoliberalism in the 1990s as it documents a seemingly endless struggle between capital and labour provoked by the inadequacy and heartlessness of the American healthcare system. The cause of righteousness and fairness finds an unlikely ally in Homer Simpson who unknowingly uses hidden talents to deliver a better quality of life for his child. Even though the episode is short and the issues simple, it never deals with these grand dilemmas in a way that feels flippant.
Last Exit to Springfield points the finger directly at the modern relationship between capital and labour and the American healthcare system. Homer spends almost the entire episode fighting for something which many would consider a basic human right. In the process he is tempted by corruption, tested by his employer and faces civil unrest as Burns effectively shuts down the city to avoid losing face. In 1993 when the episode was first broadcast, America had experienced 12 years of Republican rule as Reagan and Bush emerged as the champions of small government, slashing taxes on the rich, freezing the minimum wage and cutting government spending. America’s already struggling welfare state was brought to its knees as the government put the final nails in the coffin of Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty as the Great Society was replaced by the Greedy Society.
A tight control of the money supply and dire monetary policy saw interest rates rise to 20% in 1981 and unemployment spike to 11% in an effort to bring inflation under control. The result was a widening of the gap between rich and poor as the wealthy and the prosperous were rewarded with more economic and political power and the poor and disadvantaged were left behind. Despite what the governments of Thatcher, Reagan and Bush promised, the returns of neoliberalism did not trickle down to the disadvantaged and instead of lifting all boats, a tidal wave of individualism and greed just upgraded yachts to super-yachts as the weak were swept away.
This is painfully reflected in Last Exit to Springfield as the Simpson’s socio-economic position remains hopelessly stagnant, and immovable wages and disappearing public services have eliminated any real possibility of fiscal aspiration or advancement. In the meantime, Burns’ wealth seems to expand more and more, as his power eclipses that of the hapless elected official, a satire of America’s paralysed and corrupt political class. Not only can the Simpsons not afford basic good-quality healthcare for their child, but the American system treats access to a decent standard of living as a bargaining chip, instead of a basic human right. Instead of providing equal access to all citizens, the government discards its responsibilities and sells them off to the ‘free market’, creating just another battle in the endless war between capital and labour.
Instead of relying on government or even his employer to guarantee a decent standard of living, Homer is forced to put his job, his livelihood and the livelihoods of his family on the line and strike. In a display of the imbalance of power between capital and labour, Homer’s union is almost powerless and consists of a sad rump of workers with poorly made signs and a human umbrella of slumped shoulders defined by expressions of exhaustion and resignation. They are belittled and mocked by Burns as he attempts to use the full might of his power to squash Homer and the union “like a bug”. And this is where the ultimate conflict of the episode presents itself, as an abandonment of government responsibility provokes a David and Goliath battle between the all-powerful Montgomery Burns and our “upper lower middle class” protagonist, Homer Simpson.
In 24 minutes the episode paints a picture of a broken system as the middle class is squeezed by the realities of life on one side and by a heartless corporate villain on other. The champion and beneficiary of free markets is paradoxically a monopolist who possess an iron stranglehold on the energy supply of an entire city whilst the celebrated individual, supposedly the ultimate winner of neoliberalism, is torn apart by the cost of living. Simplifications they may be, but the fact is that an economic system, real or imagined, that can play the necessity of decent healthcare against employment protections, decent conditions and fair wages must be broken. And if is somehow working, it’s working for the wrong people.
The episode is also drowning in corruption and moral turpitude as Mr Burns offers Homer countless kick-backs and perks in return for selling out his members. Even his predecessor as union president is found buried in a shallow grave on a football field. Indeed, if our hero was a touch more present, the story may have been a much darker one, with the champion of the collective seduced by the fruits of the poisonous tree of individualism. We should also not forget, that our happy ending is not the final triumph of labour over capital, our conflict is not resolved by the dramatic and craved intervention of government, is it not even the revelation that capital has a heart; Mr Burns simply grows tired, gives them their dental plan, and starts looking for other toys to play with.
After Mr Burns gives the workers their dental plan back, the members go back to work and Lisa gets her braces, I couldn’t help but wonder how long it would be until Mr Burns takes something else away from them and whether or not the union could win once more. In one scene when Homer and Burns are debating on the local news, in a throwaway line the anchor describes organised labour as “a lumbering dinosaur”. That might have been putting it lightly, as at least a dinosaur is still living, despite being past its time. All over the western world, the unionisation of the workforce has declined dramatically ever since the 1980s, falling from 20% in 1983 to just 10% in 2019 in the United States and from 40% to 14% in Australia over the same period of time. This has corresponded with stagnant wages, increasing cost of living pressures and an erosion of blue-collar industries.
The episode is able to say all of this in a way which is never dull, pious or reductive. It simply reflects the failures of its time and is more persuasive and resonant than any book, lecture or thesis. The majesty and magic of The Simpsons is on full display in Last Exit to Springfield as instead of using the usual tools of facts, figures and graphs, the show employs satire, humour and heart to shine a bright light on the ugliness of neoliberalism and the human cost of “popular capitalism”. Although it is fantastically funny and ruthlessly entertaining, something of the depth and purpose of Last Exit to Springfield never feels like just another story.