Christmas is one week from today. Merry Christmas Weve? No matter what you call it, ‘tis the season for Christmas specials! TV shows often have their best, most memorable episodes at Christmas time. Seinfeld’s Festivus for the rest of us. 30 Rock’s Luda-Christmas. The Office’s Margarita-karaoke Christmas. And some shows choose to make traditions out of specials for other holidays, like Friends with Thanksgiving or The Simpsons with Halloween.
However, The Simpsons did land at least one Christmas episode winner in my book. In “Marge Be Not Proud,” Bart shoplifts a video game that he wanted for Christmas but was told he wouldn’t get because it’s too expensive, too violent, and too much of a distraction (“Those are all good points; the problem is, they don’t result in me getting the game.”). The real story of the episode is the tension between Bart and Marge, as they both struggle with what it means for Bart to be growing up. It’s an exemplary episode from the era of The Simpsons when they were capable of being not just irreverent, but also genuine, of having not just hilarious visual gags and cynical social commentary, but also honest character exploration and heartbreaking emotional moments.
I was shocked to discover while looking back at this episode that it didn’t air until the seventh season. One reason I may have thought it came in an earlier season is that, incredibly, it was only the second Christmas episode ever done by The Simpsons. The first Christmas episode was also the show’s first episode ever (25 years ago yesterday! Let’s all shake our fists at Father Time!), and tells the tale of how they got the family dog, Santa’s Little Helper.
Before I dive into the meat of “Marge Be Not Proud,” I need to talk about the video game references. First, the game that Bart wants is called Bonestorm. His intense desire for the game originates from an in-your-face TV ad urging him to tell his parents, “Buy me Bonestorm or go to Hell!” (Which he does.) Bonestorm is pretty clearly a spoof of Mortal Kombat, a famously violent and gory one-on-one fighting game that first arrived in arcades and home consoles three years before this episode. It was a very popular video game (and a fantastic one; I still remember the blood code for the Genesis version), so Bart’s excitement for Bonestorm is completely legit at the time. Even though the Mortal Kombat franchise is still alive and producing new games on today’s consoles, the modern equivalent of 1995’s Bonestorm in terms of cultural significance would probably be a spoof of Call of Duty called something like Hail of Shrapnel.
But, wait! There’s more. One of the most memorable lines from this episodes comes courtesy of another video game reference. When Bart is moments away from stealing Bonestorm, his conscience speaks up in the form of crude imitations of popular video game characters: Mario, Luigi, and Donkey Kong each urge him to take the game (“It’s the company’s fault for making you want it so bad!”), Lee Carvallo (of Lee Carvallo’s Putting Challenge, a spoof of Lee Trevino’s Fighting Golf) puts up the only resistance by questioning how stealing the game will help Bart with his putting, and finally Sonic the Hedgehog screams the memorable, apparently coke-fueled, “Juuuust take it. Takeittakeittakeittakeit! TAKE IT!!!” Good times.
Back to Bart and Marge. I am a man who, time being what it is, was once a boy of Bart’s age (10), and who, blessings being what they are, grew up with a present, loving mother, and so I can knowingly attest that this episode perfectly captures those wretched, mixed emotions when both mother and son come to terms with the fact that the son is growing up. In the episode, it starts when Bart says he’s too old to be tucked into bed. Marge dismisses reality and maintains her vision of her “baby boy” until later on, when she sees the security footage that confirms Bart shoplifted Bonestorm from the Try-N-Save store, and that vision of hers is shattered in front of a gaggle of onlookers. There are a few heartbreaking moments in this episode, but one that consistently gets me is when the family is back home from the store. After Homer comedically blows his gasket on Bart, Bart turns to Marge, who is in the adjacent chair staring silently at nothing.
Bart: “Mom, I’m really sorry.”
Marge: “I know you are.”
Bart: “Is there anything I can do?”
Marge: “I don’t know. … Why don’t you go to bed?”
It’s emotionally jarring to see your mother rendered unresponsive to something that you did. The normal routine of childhood is you do something rotten, because you’re a kid and rotten things are fun, then Mom yells at you (or, in my case, speaks sternly) and you’re briefly punished, then on to the next thing. When Mom is so hurt and disappointed that she can’t even look at you, it’s a horrible, horrible feeling. There’s a moment later in the episode, after a series of scenes when we see Bart left out of family activities because of Marge’s fear that she’s babied him too much, when Bart is walking home and hears laughter up ahead: “Oh hey, that’s Mom! She’s happy again!” There’s a uniquely rotten feeling to being responsible for your mom’s unhappiness. And we all know that, or else their guilt trips wouldn’t be so effective.
One of the things that makes this episode (and many others from its era of The Simpsons) so great is its realness. For a cartoon with plenty of cartoonish silliness, the actual situations are very relatable, and that feeds the sentimental moments their genuine emotional heft. Would I ever have shoplifted at Bart’s age? It’s easy to say no, because I never have, but there’s two ways to look at the question. Would I have thought, “I’m going to shoplift,” and then done it? Definitely not. But if there was a video game I really really wanted, and it seemed there was no way I was going to get it because my mom didn’t want me to have it and I could never scrape enough money together to buy it myself, and I happened to be in a store (in Bart’s case, “Maybe if I stand by the games looking sad, somebody will feel sorry for me and buy me one”), and I happened to see the video game case was unlocked and opened with nobody watching me, and I had just seen kids cooler than me shoplifting and getting away with it, and the game was just sitting right there in front of me and I knew there were only seconds before the store employee would come back, then, yes, I might have shoplifted. For a kid, especially in a snap judgement, the desire for short-term benefits usually win out over the fear of long-term consequences, and The Simpsons captures this just right.
By the end of the episode, Bart reconciles with Marge in a unique and sweet way, and as The Simpsons often does, things are wrapped up with a 1-2 punch of emotion and then humor. It’s that combo that creates the nostalgia I have for this episode. Growing up and away from your mom can be a rough time for both people, but it’s a welcome price for growing up with a mom in the first place.