Nuclear anxiety is a hell of a drug. In recent months, Americans have found themselves reckoning with news many had only ever read about in history books. Fiction often suggests that nuclear annihilation would have a way of revealing the preciousness of things we otherwise take for granted; if the bombs are falling, you make that call to the estranged family member, spend those last hectic, desperate hours entangled with your unrequited crush, and so on. That’s the romantic effect we’d like to believe the promise of doom would have on us.
Mostly, however, we freak out and do nothing. “Put It Down,” the strong second episode of South Park’s 21st season, encapsulates the unsexy banal sort of suspended tension that’s become everyday life in a regime built around reckless threats. There’s nothing so cinematic about the way President Donald Trump has nudged us all closer to the apocalypse: Upon reading his latest tweet challenging North Korea to an atomic dick-measuring contest, we can’t run out of work and go meet our lovers for one torrid final afternoon together. This is because, like Cartman constantly threatening suicide as a craven bid at getting a little bit of attention, we know deep down that today isn’t the end of the world. It could be, but it probably won’t, and we’re all gonna have to show up at work tomorrow. It’s a thoroughly crap take on armageddon — all of the stomach-tangling unease, none of the flouting of consequences.
Tweek, we’re made to understand, has been feeling these effects in a particularly harsh way. Already defined by his perpetual edginess, he’s grown obsessed with refreshing Trump’s feed on Twitter and clocking just how close we’re inching to hour zero. He’s the nightmare extreme of a condition we’re all getting a little too familiar with: We’re all guilty of diving headlong into the K-hole of alarmist Trump news, so he’s just a disturbing illustration of what it’d look like if we never surfaced. America’s new doctrine of brinkmanship and intimidation does a real number on Tweek, his obsessive panic alienating him from his boyfriend and family. It’s a plausibly real scenario of distinctly modern drama and a weirdly canny portrait of the national psyche in crisis, until Trey Parker and Matt Stone find the comedy in the situation by pushing it one ridiculous notch forward.
I have often wondered if I’m the only one who has dreams — has nightmares? — about waking up to learn Trump has angrily @-ed me as I slumber. “Put It Down” confirms that I am not, as Tweek’s sanity gets pushed to its snapping point when Trump singles him out and begins shooting off threats to Kim Jong-un, his military arsenal, and his mother’s private anatomy on his behalf. Getting thrust into the middle of a megaton-scaled Mexican standoff is the only way Tweek’s nerves could have frayed even further, and he approaches a total mental collapse once he’s conscripted as the poster boy for escalation. All of which causes a lot of frustration for his dutiful boyfriend, Craig, who wants nothing more than to chill his partner out. Parker and Stone, however, recognize that self-care doesn’t have the same definition for everyone.
While some people certainly find reassurance in the knowledge that various geopolitical factors would place a preemptive strike outside of North Korea’s best interest, others just want a receptacle for their freakouts. Craig slowly learns that for Tweek, emotion can’t be governed by logic, and so those are the terms in which it must be spoken to. It’s a politically charged continuation of the same principle previously posited by “Farmers Market” on Parks and Recreation, in which the irrepressibly upbeat Chris must adjust his can-do attitude to accept Ann Perkins’s complaints rather than solve them. “Put It Down” is similarly astute about how our most intimate emotional processes often put us out of sync with those closest to us. It is just as difficult for the logic-adherent personality to conceive of impotent kvetching as productive, even in a therapeutic capacity, as it is for the feeling-adherent personality to find comfort in reason.
The episode manages to take both approaches while it works through the horror of knowing Trump has his finger on the big red button. Parker and Stone lodge a number of wholly reasonable rejoinders to North Korea’s destructive ambitions, and for those privileging emotion, the half-hour ends with the cathartic gospel-choir clarion call to stop tweeting: “You can do lots of damage when you’re on your phone.” These are words we can all take to heart in the months to come, regardless of right-brain/left-brain dichotomies. There may not be any medical evidence to support this claim, but all the same, I am certain that spending less time on Twitter poses a net good to one’s personal health. Your eyes are brighter, your skin less slack. (Same goes for Slack.) Put down the phone. Go be with your loved ones, if only for a half-hour.
• After watching the episode, I learned Cartman’s anti-suicide song was intended to spoof a performance by a young man monikered Logic at Music Television’s Video Music Awards. I gave the genuine article a listen, and have but two things to say in response: One, that I feel 10 million years old, and two, that back in my day, real hip-hop was [thousands of bats fly out of mouth].
• The brief flash of a sign-language interpretation of Cartman’s song that appears in the corner, rendered with live action, is a nice touch.
• Poor Gary Borkovec, just the latest casualty of someone reading the Drudge Report. Of which I assume there have been many.
• Tweek gets prescribed a fidget spinner to calm his nerves, and then three more when that first one doesn’t quite do the trick. The fidget spinner, so conceptually stupid and preordained to a short shelf life, should be dream fodder for Parker and Stone’s brand of mockery. We’ll see if they’ve got more potshots to take over the course of this season.