After a disastrous “dream within a dream within a dream of another character on another show” premiere (even in context, it’s ridiculous), The Simpsons has quietly had a very good season. There’s been one stone-cold classic (“Halloween of Horror,” the show’s first actual Halloween episode), a nice showcase for Apu (“Much Apu About Something”), and a Boyhood homage that used Richard Linklater’s Oscar-nominated movie as the framework to tell a coming of age story for Bart (“Barthood”). There’s no mistaking season 27 for season six or even season 12, because the jokes aren’t where they used to be, but there are decent stories left to tell. Last night’s episode was a surprisingly touching example of this: Waylon Smithers finally came out (sort of).
The suppressed romantic feelings of Springfield’s most devoted Malibu Stacey collector for his boss, Mr. Burns, has long been a running joke on The Simpsons. In the eighth episode of season one, after Mr. Burns tells Smithers that he loves him, his loyal lackey replies, “The feeling is more than mutual, sir.” Smithers has fantasized about Mr. Burns popping out of a birthday cake, naked, and when he thinks the world’s going to end in “Lisa the Skeptic,” he plants a kiss on Burns’ lips. Smithers might date around — he and John have a history (“So, this is your sick mother?”) — but his heart belongs to one man.
In “The Burns Cage,” after nearly dying in a skydiving mishap, Smithers finally professes his love for Burns. Or at least he tries to. Burns interrupts him mid-sentence, and a spurned Smithers later breaks into a song about “living half of my life living half of a life.” Homer (a former homophobe, you’ll recall), Lenny, and Carl overhear the impromptu musical moment, so they try to set Smithers up with someone. It’s for partially selfish reasons — if Smithers is depressed, then he makes them work harder, and if there’s one thing they hate about work, it’s working — but there’s also no uncomfortable sniggers at setting a man up with another man, or other easy, lazy gay jokes. Smithers needs a lover, dammit, and that lover ends up being Homer’s former roommate, Julio.
Set to a montage of Al Gore’s favorite song, Smithers and Julio have dinner together, run together, get drunk together, and apply for a fishing license together, all at the time-consuming expense of Mr. Burns. His inexplicable love no longer blinding him, Smithers quits his job and travels to Cuba with his boyfriend. He thinks he’s finally happy for the first time in years, but he’s not — everything reminds Smithers of his “Look at All Those Idiots” partner, including Julio’s “Buzzard of Death” mask, and they break up. It’s a little rushed, but the episode needs Smithers and Mr. Burns to reconcile, and the ends justify the means. Mr. Burns offers Smithers $1 million and a lifetime of Broadway show passes to return to his old position, but he doesn’t care about any of that — he just wants to hear from Burns why he wants him back.
Burns: “Well, the thing is, you really care about me, don’t you?”
Smithers: “Maybe, a little. Still.”
Burns: “All right Smithers, there’s one thing I’ve never given you. I kept it bottled up inside all these years and here it is: your performance review. It’s… excellent.”
Smithers: “Amazingly, that’s enough. Thank you, sir.”
It’s a sweet, simple scene that ends with the two men hugging, a silent acknowledgement that, deep down, they love each other (it’s just that one happens to be in love with the other). It’s a far cry from an undignified joke earlier this season, where Mr. Burns instructs Smithers to “come up through my rear and grab me” (it involves a statue). There’s no actual “coming out” scene in the episode. At no point does Smithers ever tell Mr. Burns those three simple words: “I am gay.” He doesn’t need to. These are two characters who know and understand each other so well that, like Brad and Sue on The Middle, unsaid acceptance speaks louder than words ever could.
“The Burns Cage” is proof that The Simpsons is still capable of, if not greatness, at least something occasionally approaching excellence. That’s all we can ask for in season 27.