Cesspool on the Potomac: The Ironic Bite of ‘Mr. Lisa Goes To Washington’

Revisiting the first few seasons of The Simpsons brings some surprises. While the first nine or so seasons are hilarious, the first three bring a lot of heavy emotion into play early on. In season one the family have to convince Homer not to commit suicide, and season 2 has some of the most upsetting moments of the show – Bart’s breakdown in ‘Bart Gets an F‘, Homer dealing with imminent death in ‘One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish‘, and Grandpa gaining then losing a companion in ‘Old Money‘. Season 3 is a sort of transition into the golden era of the show, and as the straight-faced realism starts to give way the episodes get funnier, but are still rooted in morality. The fact that the show was doing this in the early 90s, before adult humour and mature themes became more prevalent in animation, is pretty damn brave. There’s no timidity in ‘Mr. Lisa Goes To Washington‘, and even when it seems to shy away from real satire, it does something special.

Homer takes an interest in the Reading Digest magazine after a copy is sent to the Simpson house. In the magazine, he notices an ad for a children’s contest in which an essay must be written about what makes America great. Lisa chooses to enter, takes a trip to Springfield Forest, and is inspired to write her essay when she sees the forest’s natural beauty, a bald eagle landing on a branch nearby. It’s sweet and clichéd in a way that will only reinforce the tragic turn later in the episode. Lisa’s speech is so good that the judges assume she must have received help from her father. One of the aspects of the show that works so well for me is the relationship between Lisa and Homer, and while this isn’t a focus this episode, the connection between the two despite their obvious differences is consistent. The episode starts with Homer being repeatedly fooled by a phony advertisement, something that neatly segues into the main plot but also contrasts him with his daughter, and this is epitomised when one of the contest judges tries to determine whether Homer helped her or not. Homer doesn’t understand or find excitement in any of the things Lisa does, but he still fully supports her and encourages her intellect.

mr lisa goes to washington homernosemr lisa goes to washington homerlisa

Lisa is one of the finalists, so the family travel to Washington D.C. where she will make her speech again. Senator Bob Arnold agrees to take a bribe from a representative of a logging industry to demolish Springfield forest, before being interrupted by Lisa looking for a photo with him. When he tells her that there are quite a few female senators, she happily retorts that there are only two. It’s a small moment that shows her political awareness, but also the show’s understanding of poor representation in American politics, as at the time there really were only two female senators – Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas and Barbara Milkulski of Maryland. We see this meeting transcribed as an article, marketed as a senator “Never Too Busy…”. It’s good press concealing shady dealings, and its effects on the average Springfieldians is shown:

Moe: Aww, isn’t that nice? Now there is a politician who cares!
Barney: If I ever vote, it’ll be for him!

mr lisa goes to washington moe

Full of excitement and optimism, Lisa rises early for the competition to visit the Winifred Beecher Howe memorial, a 20th Century Women’s Rights Activist (likely a stand-in for Susan B. Anthony). Just as she is cheerfully admiring the scene, she witnesses the second meeting between the congressman and lobbyist as they finalise the deal to demolish the Springfield Forest. To add insult to injury, the two men remark on the suffragist statue “What a pooch!”, and walk away in laughter. The scene of natural beauty that inspired her to write about her country is being destroyed by the very same system she praised, and the man who is a part of these corrupt dealings is the same man that posed with her at the height of her optimism. In what would become a recurring theme in Lisa episodes, we see her naivety and positive outlook brought down by harsh reality. Crying, Lisa rips her essay to shreds and leaves.

mr lisa goes to washington tear mr lisa goes to washington roots

How can I read my essay now? I don’t believe my own words

She visits The Lincoln Memorial, believing that “Honest Abe” will show her the way. Instead, her voice is drowned out by the hundreds of people also looking for answers to their troubles. She announces that “My name is Lisa Simpson, and I have a problem”, and we see a close-up of the statue’s face. While the show allows for bursts of fantasy, where ghostly images appear and provide guidance, here the statue remains inanimate with no reply to her pleas. And by time she sees a vision of Thomas Jefferson, she’s too disillusioned to stick around for the pep talk. Dejected, Lisa sits on the steps of Capitol Hill, watching the politicians talk and laugh with one another. The scene transforms into a caricature of American Capitalism, and we see literal fat cats scratching each others’ backs, suited pigs eating dollar bills from troughs. “The truth must be told,” she declares. When the time comes for her to take the stage, she storms into the room and starts a new, more incendiary speech – “Cesspool on the Potomac”:

The city of Washington was built on a stagnant swamp some 200 years ago, and very little has changed. It stank then, and it stinks now. Only today it is the fetid stench of corruption that hangs in the air. […] And who did I see taking a bribe, but “the honourable” Bob Arnold! Don’t worry congressman, I’m sure you can buy all the votes you need with your dirty money! And this will be one nation under the dollar, with liberty and justice for none.

The crowd immediately boos her off stage and the judges react with hostility. While Homer and Marge look uneasy, Bart is visibly pleased by the outburst (“Cool! A Ruckus!”). Bart’s reaction can be taken as just his an expression of his love for chaos, but I believe there’s some great characterisation going on here, playing with the contrast between him and his sister. During this “ruckus”, a Senate Page runs to report the important news – “A little girl is losing faith in democracy!”. Immediately following this, Bob Arnold is arrested by the FBI and the House of Representatives vote yes on the expulsion of the corrupt senator from congress. When a congressman asks “Mr. Speaker, I’m all for the bill, but shouldn’t we tack on a pay raise for ourselves?”, the rest of the house shouts “NO” in unison, and the bill is brought to President Bush Snr. for him to sign. The president claims that “this should make my bosses very happy […] yep, all 250 million of them!”. With only a few hours passed, all these events have occurred and been printed in a newspaper that Homer buys. Congressman Arnold even becomes a Born Again Christian in jail, all within the three-hour time frame. Hearing the news, Lisa is pleased to find that “The system works”. Happy ending, right?

It’s ludicrously over-the-top, and a little disarming, to say the least. Watching a few years back I even thought it was the writers shying away from real satire, fearing critical backlash or alienating viewers. The ending is a reset of sorts, presumably to provide catharsis, returning the sitcom to its status quo, and avoid any controversy over being anti-American. However, the ending is so deliberately and comically rushed, and far more outlandish what preceded it, that it can’t be taken completely seriously. It’s a bitterly ironic close to an episode that questioned the government, congress, and blind jingoism. While Lisa’s faith is restored, her queries go unanswered and the allegations made are not defended. It is so tonally divergent from the rest of the episode it calls us to question the context it was written in, where television was strictly policed by the network and the FCC. As Nathan Rabin puts it in his retrospective, the show is able to play it both ways:

It’s cynical and sincere, idealistic and jaded, filled with affection for our country’s virtues and constitution but filled with contempt for flag-waving, jingoism and empty bromides about our nation’s glory. […] In order for the system to work, everyone becomes a saint.

It’s a difficult harmony to reach, and one that the show has struggled to achieve in the years since. They’ve got it right with immigration in ‘Much Apu About Nothing‘, organised religion in ‘Homer the Heretic‘, and Sensationalism in ‘Homer Badman‘, but not always to that degree of success. ‘The Cartridge Family‘ is both very funny and bold in its stance against the NRA and gun ownership, and like this episode it takes a last minute turn when the family are only saved because responsible adults also have guns. Perhaps this was to appease audiences, maybe to avoid controversy, or maybe to shroud its satire in something more manageable. However, its last-minute turn doesn’t have the ironic bite of ‘Mr. Lisa Goes To Washington‘, and so the message becomes convoluted and ultimately trivial. It goes without saying that subtlety in social satire is hard, and even more recent programs such as the It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, a show that’s usually on-point with this material, can struggle with it. Their season 9 episode ‘Gun Fever Too: Still Hot‘ ends up becoming middle-of-the-road fare due to a less resolute approach. At its best, The Simpsons doesn’t waver from its point, and it’s hard to believe there was any uncertainty in the production of an episode featuring this image:

mr lisa goes to washington roosevelt

George Meyer, the writer of this episode, has said in the past that he has a distrust of authority, something that comes through in the better episodes he has written (‘Homer the Heretic‘, ‘Bart vs. Thanksgiving‘). In an interview with The Believer (I recommend reading the whole thing), he said:

I have a deep suspicion of social institutions and tradition in general. I was brought up Catholic and, of course, I strayed and repudiated it. That’s a painful thing to go through, because you have to look back and realize that you wasted a gigantic chunk of your life. It’d probably be healthier to recall my past with wistful amusement, but I just can’t do it. I still feel betrayed. I didn’t want to be an iconoclast. As a child, I tried to play by the rules. I got very good grades in school, I was an Eagle Scout, and I believed in all of it. But I eventually realized that these institutions didn’t care about me.

Reading “Eagle Scout” and “good grades”, it’s easy to think of Lisa – but I think of Bart. In a lot of ways Bart is a vessel for the anti-authority sentiments in Meyer, and many of The Simpsons‘ writing staff. At no point in this episode does Bart seem to care about the issue of government corruption, or engage with anything intellectually, but does that mean he’s behind, or ahead? It’s not as if he doesn’t know his place, that he is the rebel, rather than the one who climbs the ladder:

Marge: Bart, maybe this is something you would like to do too
Bart: Mom, It’s a nice thought, but we both know that this is the pony to bet on

mr lisa goes to washington Bart

He’s lacking in book smarts, but is also someone who is already wary of “the system”, whether it be on the national scale or just his school – it’s all the same to him. When he chants for Lisa’s essay to win (“Cesspool! Cesspool! Cesspool!”) he’s not just enjoying the anarchy, but actively encouraging the cynical, rebellious side in his sister. He tells her “Lis, you taught me to stand up for what I believe in”, a nice thought, even if it is said after he fires his slingshot at the musician on stage.

While Bart may be an ideal of the writers in some ways, Lisa is still the hero of the episode. She stands up against the public’s indifference towards the political system and makes the brave decision to stand up for her principles, even if it meant she was treated with hostility by the majority. Doing what is right as an individual, to better serve the community, is a courageous act. As much as it is teeming with irony, the justice that follows her subversive words is empowering. She loses the competition, but the winner shares the honour with her in his acceptance speech. He points out that her ‘inflammatory rhetoric reminded us that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance’.

I am aware that I have just written over 2000 words on a 22-minute cartoon, but to me that only confirms why the show has had such a lasting impact on television and comedy in general. On the other hand, like Homer says:

Oh Marge, cartoons don’t have any deep meaning, they’re just stupid drawings that give you a cheap laugh

mr lisa goes to washington homerbutt

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