Did Last Night’s ‘Simpsons’ Episode Tell Us That Bart’s Finally Growing Up?
In last night’s episode of The Simpsons, “A Mid-Childhood Night's Dream,” the writers teased a seismic canonic shift as, after 34 years, Bart Simpson is (at least in this episode) finally approaching graduation from fourth grade, narrowly missing Billy Madison’s mark by a smooth 17 years.
The episode opens with a flashback to Bart and Lisa’s early childhood when Homer had a head full of hair and a glimmer in his eye by the name of Maggie. In the backyard, the family of four plays with a brand new bubble toy called “Big Bubble From Little China” before the scene bursts into disturbing imagery and we quickly find it to be Marge’s fever dream as she battles a hefty combination of hangover and food poisoning following an out-of-character bender the night before.
As Marge drifts in and out of consciousness, she explores her dreamworld psyche with a projection of Lisa serving as therapist and spirit guide. We learn that Marge’s disastrous drinking episode was triggered by a parent/teacher conference with Bart’s fourth grade instructor Ms. Peyton (played by Kerry Washington, who joined the cast in Season 33 replacing the late Marcia Wallace and Edna Krabappel), in which Ms. Peyton warned Marge that the next day’s “Bounce-a-thon,” an all-elementary-school race on rubber riding balls, marks the end of the school year, advising Marge to prepare for Bart’s graduation into the fifth grade and eventual move to middle school.
Distraught at the thought of her firstborn’s childhood nearly being over, Marge wades through her fears and memories in a tumbling, high-concept, Charlie Kaufman-esque psychological dramedy sequence while uttering devastating reflections like, “I should have treasured every time he held my hand because I don’t remember when he stopped.” Marge comes to the conclusion that she must drag her diseased body to the Bounce-a-thon and capture a picture of Lisa crossing the finish line, because at least her middle child still has some childhood left ahead of her. At the school, Marge passes out in the crowd of parents and is given medical attention by Ms. Peyton, who promises Marge that, despite Bart’s imminent moving on to the fifth grade, his childhood isn’t over just yet and he’ll always be her boy. After Bart finishes in first place and snaps a crude victory photo, he takes his mother’s hand and walks her to a carnival dunk tank where they watch Coach Krupt get drenched.
As for other highlights in last night’s episode…
Best Joke: In the still-not-as-good-as-a-proper-intro-and-couch-gag cold open, dream/memory Marge wanders the aisles of the Springfield Grocery Store as an unenthused checkout worker grumbles through the PA system, “A mother’s love is forever, but Mother’s Love Rat Poison is only on sale until the end of the day.”
What Canon Changed: The Simpsons kids are (maybe, maybe not) finally going to age up one single school year. Bart will, theoretically, enter fifth grade while Lisa goes up to third grade (again). This would also mean that Nelson Muntz and the rest of the fifth grade bullies would enter Springfield’s middle school, which has only ever been depicted through a flashback in the Season 33 episode “Marge the Meanie.”
However, though the entirety of “A Mid-Childhood Night's Dream” revolves around the Bart’s looming transition into the fifth grade, it is all-too-likely that he will continue to toil indefinitely in the fourth grade and the developments in last night’s episode will be abandoned in the swirling void of The Simpsons’ floating timeline like so many hundreds of other unfinished plotlines.
Is ‘The Simpsons’ Good Again?: An extended homage to the classic Sopranos episode “Funhouse” that doesn’t sell out its emotional core for the sake of parody, “A Mid-Childhood Night’s Dream” is experimental and introspective in a way we don’t often see in The Simpsons, even back during its Golden Age. The episode’s always-reliable writer Carolyn Omine takes big risks that pay off in droves as she earnestly explores parenthood’s relationship with the cruel passage of time using the delirious dreams of Marge Simpson as her playing field. This episode had some of the most touching and memorable moments in recent Simpsons history, so yes, this week, The Simpsons was good again.
A Classic Episode To Watch As Well: Season 4, Episode 10, “Lisa’s First Word.” The canon of Lisa and Bart’s younger childhood is, as always, inconsistent and anachronistic, but the best companion for the misty-eyed parenting moments in “A Mid-Childhood Night’s Dream” is Maggie’s classic closing line, “Daddy.”
Semi-Arbitrary All-Time Ranking: 189th out of 752.