Human behavior is full of little system bugs, compelling us to make life more difficult for ourselves using cockeyed emotional rationales. People act against their own interest all the time, both consciously and in instinctive response to gut feelings and nagging mental voices. Oftentimes, when a friend is dating someone horrible, all efforts to open the friend’s eyes to that fact only cause them to get defensive and commit even harder. I am myself guilty of this folly and still don’t know why people do it; this week’s South Park hazards a couple of guesses, with a pointed episode that once again juxtaposes the personal against the political to varying levels of effectiveness.
As is the show’s wont, “Doubling Down” goes several steps beyond that premise and trains its focus on the psychology of abuse, on the way domineering personalities thoroughly warp the minds of their targets to maintain control. Trey Parker and Matt Stone set up another one of the easy micro-macro allegories that they’ve favored in the post-Trump episodes, where a hubbub with the kids in South Park can simply correspond to goings-on in Washington. This show certainly isn’t the first to compare Trump’s dumbfounding rise to, and retention of, power with an unhealthy relationship, but it’s probably the first one to do so with such a flippant attitude, one that boils down to “Rape: What if it was funny?”
That’s the main gag informing the part of this episode taking place in the West Wing, where Donald Trump keeps raping Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and Mike Pence. Every time the major aides attempt to talk the sitting commander in chief down from his latest geopolitical tantrum (if you were concerned that South Park wouldn’t find an opportunity to drop a smirking mention of the N-word and the F-word, have no fear!), he brutalizes and sexually violates them. It’s unclear whether we’re supposed to find this humorous, mostly because these scenes are just disturbing.
A reporter asking Paul Ryan point-blank, “And is that semen on your black eye?” might get a chuckle, and McConnell admitting that “I don’t know anything, I’m just a turtle” definitely will, but the basic conceit still cracks its jokes at the expense of rape victims instead of in their defense. The episode concludes with a cake commemorating Trump’s first full year since his election to the office of president. The half-hour’s “Gee, ain’t I a stinker?” moment comes from the implication that the rapings have only just begun. It is not what comedy insiders would refer to as a “laugher.”
Stone and Parker trace another connecting line between Cartman and Trump by likening the president’s stranglehold on his Cabinet with Cartman and Heidi’s piteously dysfunctional relationship. Cartman gives Lindsay from You’re the Worst a run for her money in the race for TV’s worst significant other: Heidi’s a sweet girl, and Cartman punishes her for this by tricking the young vegan into eating KFC, making fun of her weight, and repeatedly freezing her out and then begging her to take him back. Like any abuser, Cartman’s entirely dependent on Heidi for his power; watch how he absolutely crumbles when she makes an early attempt to leave him. All the same, he treats her like garbage and everyone except Heidi can see it.
She’s a ready avatar for Trump’s hostage Republican Party and their voting base, refusing on principle to get out of the bed they’ve made for themselves. At a gals’ brunch, Heidi’s friends all pile on Cartman, gleefully laughing over how racist and piggish the boy is. Although they’re not wrong, Heidi still feels honor-bound to protect him, perhaps out of a misplaced lingering attachment. (This is part of why women in abusive relationships do not and cannot “just leave” their tormentors.) She fancies herself a reasonable, empathetic person, and readily gives Cartman another chance when he half-heartedly offers to try veganism because she wants him to be the person she wants him to be. But Cartman is who he is: a boy who responds to generosity and kindness from Token’s family by asking them when they next plan on disrespecting the flag and flipping over cars.
The episode’s most daring suggestion comes in the final minutes, when Heidi turns on Kyle and it starts to look like she and Cartman might deserve each other. Kyle is doing everything he can to get Heidi out of her toxic dynamic with Cartman, even if that means taking her for himself. She’s receptive at first, but later abandons him with an anti-Semitic farewell. There’s a tricky chicken-or-the-egg scenario in the question of whether Heidi’s off-color remarks are a consequence of her poisonous relationship with Cartman, or if that’s what got them together in the first place. They might be a match made in heaven.
Waves upon waves of postmortem articles have probed the psyche of the frustrated white Trump voter, looking for the chemistry of socioeconomic factors — rising taxes, vanishing jobs, gridlock in Washington — that would drive people to cast their lot with a sociopath. Most of these articles operate operate from the premise that voters shacked up with Trump in spite of his fundamental Trumpiness, that the motivators of money and security superseded the more hideous aspects of his personality. But in outing Heidi as marked by Cartman’s same brand of intolerance, “Doubling Down” posits that the ugliest parts of Trump are precisely why people flock to him. Even so, it’s the lone point of reason in an otherwise catastrophically miscalculated episode. Chronicling the Trump base’s repeated foot-shooting may be righteous work, but Stone and Parker do so in the most wrongheaded way possible, using rape as a fulcrum for comedy. Their inability to make any critical point without first establishing that they’re still their same ankle-biting selves has grown frustrating as America’s real-world stakes increase. Are they really this afraid to stand for something?
• You really only realize how many hit singles Rihanna has brought into the world when you spend five brow-furrowed minutes trying to remember the title of “Unfaithful” without Googling. One of this season’s better-scored montages, to be sure.
• As the undercurrents of neo-Nazism in America grow more pronounced, Cartman’s strain of blithe Jew-hate has grown less and less funny. This episode offers us a glimpse into his paranoid imagination, which cross-cuts between archival footage of dancing Hasidim and Kyle as one of Dumbo’s pink elephants, gripping a menorah-styled trident. We’re supposed to take it as a funhouse version of bigotry, but the joke’s gone sour. “Ha ha, what if a kid thought all Jews were out to get him?” isn’t as remote a possibility as it once was.
• Kyle’s got a beautiful head of red curly tresses hiding under that green hat. We don’t get to see that too often. He should show it off a little more!