Bart Simpson may be the troublemaker at Springfield Elementary, but he’s definitely not a kid that could be classified as a bully or ruffian. He’s a fun-loving boy with a tendency to be a class-clown at times, and he may not be the smartest kid around, but on the whole, he’s a normal kid like everyone else. However, recent developments have put Bart in the crosshairs of the local school bully, and now he must find a way out of this predicament, unless he wants to have daily school beatings for the rest of his life. The Simpson universe is about to become a warzone with Bart on one side and Nelson Muntz on the other. “Bart the General” debuted on February 4th, 1990, and was the fifth episode written and aired for The Simpsons first season. This episode, alongside “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” and “Life on the Fast Lane,” did not feature any chalkboard or couch gags, probably because the episode ran a bit longer than usual.
We start the episode at the Simpson household where Marge is helping Lisa bake cupcakes for her teacher’s birthday. Here we find out a little more that Lisa is the “smart one” of the family. She studies hard, tries to develop a good relationship with her teachers, and is generally just a more pleasant student than what Bart is in his classes. Bart gives Lisa a hard time for this, calling her a “butt kisser,” an “egg sucker,” and an “honor student.” However, even Bart is kind enough to take it all back and apologize when he’s gone too far, showing that he really does love and care about his sister…even if he does it for the prospect of a free cupcake.
The sibling bond is developed further when a kid takes Lisa’s cupcakes and starts eating them. Bart steps in to defend his sister, threatening to beat up the kid if he doesn’t give them back, but his threats go in one ear and out the other. Bart starts to rough up the kid, unaware that the kid’s superior, and big bully of the schoolyard, Nelson Muntz, has come to step in, leading Bart into punching Nelson in the nose accidentally. Instead of taking him out right there, because school is about to start, Nelson tells Bart that he will take care of him after school. Bart spends the entire day worrying about his fate, having a vision of him being chased by a giant version of Nelson, and even a daydream of what his funeral would be. After school, Bart tries to leave before anything can happen, but he runs into Nelson, who proceeds to give Bart a beating and then stuffs him into a trash can. Nelson remarks that this will now become a daily part of Bart’s life as he sends Bart on a wild ride down the hill, still rolling in the trash can.
When Bart gets home, Marge and Homer learn that Bart is being harassed by a bully and give him advice on how to deal with the situation. Marge tells Bart to either tell the principal or try to talk to Nelson and try to find common ground. Homer scoffs at this advice and takes Bart with him to teach him how to fight back and fight dirty in response. The next day at school, Bart tries to implement Homer’s teachings, but is still completely outmatched by Nelson, and is once again beat up. Lisa suggests Bart talk to Grandpa Simpson, as he is the toughest Simpson alive. Grandpa is enthusiastic to help, but in his old age, is unable to give Bart the advice he needs for dealing with young blood, so he takes Bart to meet a friend of his who may be able to help.
Bart meets Herman, Grandpa’s acquaintance who works at a military antiques store. Herman is quite knowledgeable, and quite obsessed, with the subject of war and turns Bart’s plight into a war scenario. He has Bart round up a number of kids who are tired of Nelson’s tyranny and trains them to take on Nelson once and for all. What follows is a very entertaining montage of Bart training the other kids with obstacle courses, fighting exercises and inspirational march songs. Herman, Bart and his troops gain intelligence on Nelson’s daily schedule and lay an ambush for him with hundreds and hundreds of water balloons.
Nelson and his two cronies are completely overwhelmed by Bart’s assault, forcing Nelson to the ground and his two goons to surrender. Nelson is tied up and captured, but threatens to beat up Bart even more once he gets untied. Bart realizes that Nelson cannot be tied up forever and Herman suggests an alternative method for solving their conflict. Bart and Nelson sign a peace treaty; an agreement that states that while Nelson can no longer forcefully beat up Bart or other children on a regular basis, he can continued to be looked at as a physical threat and menace of the schoolyard. They celebrate their new agreement by sharing a plate of cupcakes with each other and everyone else in the room, ending the story on a peaceful resolution. The actual episode ends with Bart giving a small speech and message to the episode viewers on the subject of war and how it isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be…with the exception of the Civil War, World War II, and the plot of the original Star Wars trilogy. It’s obviously not trying to be a super serious message, but I always found the inclusion to be a fun little joke and nod to those “viewer discretion” messages.
Once again, I did not see this episode until I owned The Simpsons Season 1 on DVD, but thankfully I have a little more to say than just that. When I initially viewed the DVD in its entirety, this was probably my favorite episode of the entire first season. I just really enjoyed the story, the jokes, and the epic Act 3 montage and conclusion at end. It just really rounded out to be a great episode for me and was probably one of only a few episodes I really got excited about watching in the first season. Since then, I have gained an appreciation for other episodes of this season as well, so is it still my favorite? We will just have to wait and see; not just for the final episode review, but also for the end of the Season 1 retrospective as it is.
“Sorry, Bart. You can push them out of a plane, you can march them off a cliff, you can send them off to die on some godforsaken rock, but for some reason…you can’t slap them. Now apologize to that boy right now.”
I don’t even know where to begin with this one, just because there are just so many great jokes and great moments of this particular episode, so I’m really going to need to narrow things down for this particular section. And please, do not be surprised if this section is quite a bit longer than other sections in these retrospectives. The first thing I want to call attention to are the daydreams/fantasies Bart has in the first act. They just seem so appropriate to what a child would be scared of when being terrorized by a bully. It’s that scary, childhood dream where you are being chased by a monster and you try everything you can to stop it, just to find out that it’s completely unavoidable and pointless. Heck, Bart used knives and a GUN in that daydream and nothing could phase Giant Nelson. The funeral daydream is also pretty humorous too, especially when Nelson shows up to give Bart a few last punches before they bury him.
I also really like the dynamic between Homer and Marge during Act 2 of this episode, how they both try to do everything they can to help Bart, even if their advice falls on deaf ears and doesn’t work. It really shows their two different parenting styles and shows that even though they are married, they can still have conflicting opinions and they don’t back down from their respective arguments. I feel like future seasons kind of overplay the “Marge and Homer have marital problems,” plot line, and heck, we’ll be starting to take a look at some of those plots later on this season, but here, I feel like it works because they both want what’s best for their son and there are merits for both of their sides. Marge is correct in saying that fighting isn’t always the answer, but Homer is also correct in saying that people do need to learn to hold their own and stand up for themselves. Not all parental arguments need to be marriage-ending. And in response to Homer’s advice, I also like when Bart is imagining what Homer is saying to him during the second exchange with Nelson. He reminds Bart of what he taught him, Bart tries and fails immediately, and Homer in Bart’s thoughts shrugs, being out of any other ideas and forcing him to watch Nelson just take him down.
Now we get into all the war stuff, which is definitely just the best part of the episode, in my opinion. Everything during the end of Act 2 and the entirety of Act 3 is just amazing and very well written and directed. First I’ll start with Herman, who was just absolutely hilarious in this episode and who I honestly wish would have been given a bigger role in future episodes. Everything he says is just so over-the-top and hilarious and the fact that he is so obsessed with war, to the extreme of turning this childhood scuffle into one, just works so well here. “The key to Springfield has always been Elm Street! The Greeks knew it, the Carthaginians knew it, and now you know it!” That’s a line that has just always stuck with me just because it is so over the top. And the fact that Grandpa knows the guy is nuts and confirms it to Bart just makes his character even better. They need him to win this war.
Speaking of Grandpa, another line, or speech rather, that I always remember from this episode is during the montage when Bart starts punishing a kid for not wanting to fight. Grandpa stops Bart immediately with a lecture, saying “Sorry, Bart. You can push them out of a plane, you can march them off a cliff, you can send them off to side one some godforsaken rock, but for some reason…you can’t slap them. Now apologize to that boy right now!” That may be my favorite quote of the entire season, just because of how it starts to set up some kind of important message for Bart, before Grandpa just forgets the message, and just tells Bart that it’s wrong to slap someone and to apologize. I remember for the longest time, I actually had that quote as my signature on message boards just because of how silly it is. I also like the following exchange where after Bart apologizes, the kid just remarks, “it’s cool,” when the kid was terrified and scared beforehand, so it wasn’t even a big deal anyway.
The training montage is honestly just a really solid scene to begin with though. It has the classic cartoon humor of watching kids trying to perform obstacle courses, and generally not performing super well (because they are only around ten years old here). It has a scene where you watch the kids beat up on a sandbag, while Herman absolutely destroys the sandbag, stabbing it with a bayonet, and ripping it apart saying, “Die! DIE!” And I don’t know what it is about Bart’s military chants, but it’s just so endearing to watch a 10-year old boy try to mimic an army general, and his march rhymes are pretty catchy as well, with most of them being about how he is a subpar student in school and various other child comebacks and sayings (like the “We are rubber, you are glue” saying). Then, the war with Nelson itself, despite being incredibly one-sided, is just worth the entire build-up of the episode. The kids, just being through with Nelson’s bullying, much like us being tired of seeing Nelson beat up on poor Bart, just get complete satisfaction from watching him get paid back, in full, with the wrath of hundreds of water balloons.
And finally, the last thing I want to point out, actually goes back to a little nod that was written in the second act when Bart is being introduced to Herman. The Simpsons is definitely a show where once an episode ends, it’s very rare that they will call attention to that particular episode or storyline again, almost like each episode is starting new without any memory of the previous episode. There are some very obvious exceptions, like when a character is written into the show and has a big connection with another character, or very important lifestyle choices and changes (like Lisa becoming a vegetarian in Season 7). For the most part though, everything seems to find a way back to the status quo. This is why I found this particular moment kind of funny though, because when Bart asks Herman about his missing arm, Herman gives a speech saying, “When your teacher tells you to leave your arm inside the bus at all times, YOU DO IT!” This is a nod to the 3rd episode, “Homer’s Odyssey,” when Mrs. Krabappel tells the children to keep their arms inside the bus at all times because of some kid losing his arm that way. I always thought that reference was cool, especially when considering the prospect of Herman being the kid Mrs. Krabappel was alluding to, just from many years ago. So yeah, I felt like sharing that little reference before moving on, just because I’ve always been fond of it.
As I said before, when I first watched “Bart the General,” it was definitely my favorite episode of Season 1. And honestly, even after many years have passed, it probably still is my favorite Season 1 episode. I do like a lot of other episodes a little more than I used to, but this one definitely hasn’t lost any favor with me either, and if even possible, I like it even more, now that I can see why I like it so much. It’s a good story that doesn’t have to rely on any other plots to keep it fresh, and unlike many of the other episodes so far, I feel like the main point of this episode is dropped on us pretty much from the get-go. In the first act we get introduced to Bart’s plight and actually see some substance to it and how it’s affecting him. In the second act we watch him try to deal with it from a variety of different angles before deciding on a final measure. And finally, in the third act, we watch the final conflict unfold in a very exciting conclusion that keeps you on your toes, wanting you to know how everything is going to go down. Some could argue that the ending of the episode seems very forced and nonsensical, making you wonder if a conflict and rivalry that heated could end so peacefully. But, for the purpose of the show, I can see the logic being used here. They didn’t want to send the message that “all you need is strength in numbers, and you can take down anyone with no consequences,” and they didn’t want to just get rid of or permanently disable the trademark “bully” character either, just because they could definitely use him for future stories and episode plots down the road, which is definitely true considering the future legacy and popularity of the Nelson Muntz character. His “Ha, Ha!” laugh clip is probably one of the most famous Simpson catchphrases, after all the Homer and Bart ones anyway.
So yeah, overall, just a very exciting episode. It has great moments, great jokes, a great story…just everything that makes a great Simpson episode, and this early in the first season as well…that’s not too shabby. I have to say, I’m really pumped now to see what the rest of the season will bring as well, now that I’ve set the bar pretty high for the rest of the episodes to beat this one. I think once I’m done with all the Season 1 episodes, I’ll try doing a post where I personally rank all the episodes of the season in order of my favorite to least favorite. That should be fun in determining, at least, what my favorite episodes are from that particular season, and maybe then, sometime in the future, I can use that list to help determine a much grander ranking if I ever decide to rank all of the episodes (of every season). For now though, I think it’s time to bid farewell to “Bart the General,” and I give my salute on a job well done!
This episode really was so much fun to watch and look at for this post and I think it will put a lot of things in perspective when we start getting to some of the following episodes…for reasons I won’t quite reveal yet. Anyway, as you may have noticed, I’ve stopped doing these once per week and have been kind of on a “one entry per week and a half” pattern as of right now. Things have just been really busy as of late and I’m trying to do as much as I can without stressing myself out too much. Not to mention, I do have a vacation coming up soon, and I want to make sure a lot of my Youtube stuff is taken care of beforehand. That vacation starts on March 31st, so I’m hoping to have the next two entries done before then, but as usual, if stuff comes up, it comes up and the next post will be delayed by a small bit.