And with one final shirking of narrative responsibility, a frustrating season of South Park comes to an end. Everything that’s disappointed in season 21 is present in “Splatty Tomato,” though at least this finale tackles the burning matter of Donald Trump in a more head-on capacity than some of this season’s more slight installments. All the same, Matt Stone and Trey Parker have proven themselves once again incapable of standing behind a principle without defaulting to their natural position of “both sides” dismissal. What made South Park widely liked in its earlier seasons — its determined egalitarianism of mockery, its willingness to dish out the burns indiscriminately in all directions — has made it incompatible with an era defined by more clear-cut ethical stakes.
Every time Parker and Stone landed a glancing blow on this year’s meatiest target, they quickly undercut themselves by saving a little blame for the rest of us. It’s inconceivable for them to take a stand on one side of an issue, and so this week’s skewering of Trump’s rock-bottom approval rating has to be offset by a line later in the episode calling out the other side. Except that the other side is … us, them, and anyone sane enough to have some misgivings about America’s pivot toward fascism. The national culture has produced a situation without two comparable and equally valid viewpoints, and South Park isn’t prepared for that. It doesn’t make a lick of sense when the episode ends with the stated koan, “If you always make yourself the victim, you can justify being awful.” Are we really to believe that was the problem in 2017? Too many people playing the victim? It’s a puckeringly sour note to go out on, though one gets the impression the writers saw it more as a parting nugget of aloof wisdom.
At least the scenes leading up to that thoroughly un-stuck landing give us the satisfaction of mocking the most easily mocked man in America one more time. Parker and Stone go for the low-hanging fruit of a politically charged It parody, suggesting that the real Pennywise might be in the White House. President Garrison has been lurking around South Park, jumping out at kids to ask them, “Hey, how are my approval ratings?” A newscast informs us that Trump is currently at Emoji Movie–level scorn among the public — certified rotten, to put it in the vernacular of Rotten Tomatoes. He hasn’t received the news well, stalking local backyards and eating neighborhood pets for sustenance. The townspeople are worried, though not all the townspeople.
And so we meet the White family, one of the more closed-minded households in South Park. (I suspect that the family repeatedly referred to as “the Whites” has been intended as — stay with me here — a stand-in for the white population of America.) When the people of South Park make an impassioned plea to the Whites to do the right thing and stop propping up Trump’s incompetent administration, South Park is calling out to the lowercase-w whites, too. Really makes you think.
Meanwhile, there’s a lot of stuff gumming up the works, included more as resolution to previously established strands of plot than functional parts of a satirical apparatus. Everyone is still dealing with the nuclear fallout resulting from the bombing of Toronto at the close of last week’s episode, particularly Ike, Kyle’s adopted little brother from Canada. This universe’s Justin Trudeau calls on Canada’s sleeper cells to activate, and with that command, Ike transforms into a majestic Mountie atop an adorable sloppy dog. It’s kind of dumb, but then, the best parts of South Park often are.
Less amusing is the lunge at resolution to the ongoing courtship between PC Principal and Strong Woman. Their mutual attraction too strong to deny, they’ve continued seeing one another on the sly, and of course they’re exposed in this episode. In a running joke not nearly as funny as Parker and Stone think it is, everyone who learns of their mutually respectful and consensual relationship begins violently projectile vomiting. It’s not easy to divine just what statement they’re trying to make with this reaction, but none of the possibilities strike the right chord. Nobody is arguing that love can’t begin in the workplace, only that men need to learn how to read a damn room. There are several planets of behavior separating a tentative test-the-water half-flirt with the impropriety that’s made headlines every other day over the past year.
Everything comes to a head in a tense showdown at gunpoint, where both Cartman and the Whites get their just desserts. Heidi finally opens her eyes to the more unhealthy aspects of her relationship and smartly gives Cartman the heave-ho, while Randy Marsh lodges a plea for decency to the Whites, ending with a thud in an extreme wide shot of the United States of America. As ever, Parker and Stone are willing to point fingers at everyone but themselves.
The episode leaves its audience with a note of ambiguity that serves the same purpose as a Rorschach blot. In the concluding bid for sanity from white America, the optimists see a signal that it’s not too late to change while the pessimists despair that the fate of the nation has been left to people who have amply demonstrated that they’re not ready for that responsibility. Parker and Stone might think of this concluding note as faintly redemptive, a rare show of earnestness from a wiseacre series in the service of a public good. But considering their own philosophy, it rings false. Want America to find its scruples and do the right thing? You first.
• One of the scant truths contained within this episode is that some of our ’80s nostalgia may be misplaced; more specifically, that vast swaths of music from the era are unlistenable. The Chicago Bears Shufflin’ Crew’s novelty song “The Super Bowl Shuffle” was the “Gangnam Style” of another time.
• The cut from a mention of a “fox trap” to a decoy Fox News set plopped in the middle of the woods worked real good on me, a lover of corny visual puns.
• The writers of South Park would like you to know that the only reason they haven’t depicted Trump getting shot is that they’re not allowed to, not even in a “coy, satirical” way. This, naturally, is couched in a withering diss to Kathy Griffin.
• That’s a wrap for South Park this year, one of the rockier outings in the show’s run. What sort of world will we be living in by the time season 22 gets up and running next year? Will Trump still be president? Will America still be a recognized nation? In the event that we aren’t all incinerated in a nuclear holocaust, I hope to see you all back again in 2018, and thanks for reading.