Another season of “South Park,” another finale with unresolved plot lines. After last year’s election upset threw the season into turmoil, the 2017 run aimed to avoid similar complications by steering clear of predictions, overly serialized plots, and the president in general. No, creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone weren’t ever going to leave Donald Trump out of “South Park,” but they weren’t going to make him the sole focus — not again.
In the finale, this decision felt more defeatist than freeing, as casually incorporated parodies of “It” and “Stranger Things” couldn’t overcome a final message that mirrored their premiere, minus the bite, and felt like a collective shrug: The Whites are America’s problem, and there’s no telling what they’ll do next.
[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “South Park” Season 21, Episode 10, “Splatty Tomato.”]
Following last week’s Kyle-inspired nuking of Toronto, the Season 21 finale picked up with a country in disarray. The president is hiding out in South Park, scaring little kids by asking for information on his approval numbers, which are in the tank because of his ego-fueled attack on Canada.
The citizens agree they want the president out of town, except for one family: the Whites. The Whites feel like they’re being left behind by a society who doesn’t care about them anymore. They still support the president because “he’s still better than Hillary” and “at least he’s trying to save Christmas.”
With the adults unable to get anything done, it’s yet again up to the kids to save the day. Luckily, they know just what to do: “We all need to go out into the woods and save the town from evil set to some kick-ass ‘80s music,” Stan says. How do they know that’s the solution? Because they saw “It” and “Stranger Things,” of course. (Neither are prominently parodied in the episode, but the red balloon reading, “Make America Great Again” is a pretty solid touch.)
After some dreadfully bad period music (aside from the ’85 Chicago Bears classic, “The Super Bowl Shuffle,” which I get is still meant to be bad music), a hunt through the woods, and some soul-searching by Heidi, the president is captured and brought into town by Ike, the Canadian hero. Heidi wisely breaks up with Eric after coming to understand who she really is, but with the townsfolk distracted by Principal P.C. and Vice Principal Strong Woman hooking up, the Whites steal the sheriff’s gun and the president gets free.
“He’ll be even more desperate now. It’s going to be worse,” Randy says.
“We can’t destroy him, can we?”
“I don’t know. I guess it’s up to… the Whites,” Randy says.
Ending on a line that starts with “I don’t know” is rarely a good sign for a series as outspoken as “South Park.” Its point is well taken: Common sense needs to get through to the white men and women who keep allowing Trump to let loose, whether it’s a manipulated fan base or a feeble Republican party.
“Bob, come on, you know it’s not safe to have him here,” Randy tells Mr. White. His tone is dejected, his voice tired from repeating the same thing over and over again. Nothing seems to get through to the Whites, and that’s certainly a relatable frustration, but it’s not scathing social commentary or cathartically satisfying comedy.
In the first episode, “South Park” took a strong stance shortly after a protester was killed in Charlottesville. It outlined how America harbors white supremacy; a difficult idea for a lot of people to wrap their heads around, but one thoroughly conveyed during the episode — as opposed to Episode 10. Why half of a divided country would continue to back the blubbering Cheeto-in-Chief is a less complex argument to make; this is a country where sides are drawn, no one wants to be wrong, and power is coveted more than principles. Of course people are still defending a powerful man, even when he could get us all nuked at any moment. He’s still the “better option” for some of them, no matter how crazy that sounds to a growing majority.
The only challenging idea brought to the finale was about victimhood, and that point became clouded by a lack of focus and a problematic C-plot. “I let being a victim become a way of life,” Heidi said, right before breaking up with Cartman. While her responsible decision to hold herself accountable was meant to be taken in stark contrast to the Whites’ utter refusal to back down from their perpetual claims of being forgotten, ignored, or mistreated, the denouncement of victimhood still felt poorly timed to current events.
Wednesday morning, victims of sexual harassment were celebrated as “The Silence Breakers” in Time’s “Person of the Year” issue. “South Park” isn’t blaming them by any means, but pointing out that playing the victim and being one is a fine line to walk and the episode stumbled a bit. Now might not be the time to talk about victims so much as it’s the time to point out that frustrated white voters are frustrated for the wrong reasons.
Adding further complications to the final point was Principal P.C. and Strong Woman’s coupling or, more accurately, the reaction to it. As soon as Strong Woman entered “South Park,” she felt like a ticking time bomb. Parker and Stone have been honest about how their show “marginalized” women in the past, so they weren’t going in blind. But Strong Woman’s biggest joke still played into a male perspective; she chided Principal P.C. for interrupting her; she embarrassed him in front of the students; she turned into his object of desire and — despite her early rejection — came to lust over him uncontrollably.
When the townsfolk found out, they couldn’t stop vomiting. The show’s point is clear: Yes, office romances happen, and yes, they’re unavoidable. But is anyone really overreacting to them? Is P.C. culture smothering relationships? To make fun of people being overcautious during a time when sexual harassment claims are flooding every industry seems poorly timed. Did anyone really need a reminder that sometimes love is pure, even at work? And did they need that reminder more than once about how men in power often take advantage of it?
One could argue the Principal and Vice Principal were also falsely embodying victims; that “South Park” was mocking their perceived need to hide something that could be cleared up with a few honest discussions. But even if that’s the intention, it isn’t exactly a vital cause.
Parker and Stone have always skewered everyone. They’ll go after the easy targets, like Trump, and the hard targets, like P.C. culture. Over 21 years, they’ve proven themselves incredibly smart and savvy satirists, and Season 21 had plenty of shining moments. (The premiere and “Hummels & Heroin” stand out.) Perhaps expecting answers to unanswerable questions is too much to ask from an adult cartoon, but it seems fair to expect more than a shrug.
“South Park” Season 21 is streaming now on CC.com and Hulu.