In end-of-life care, there’s a concept known as “the good death.” Depending whom you ask, it might mean dying without prolonged discomfort, or in the company of loved ones, or after achieving a feeling of meaningful closure.
In the case of TV death, especially one trumpted in advance publicity, “a good death” has a somewhat different meaning. Is it resonant? Does it close the character’s story well? And–let’s be frank here–did it actually live up to the hype?
It’s possible that on that last score, the death of Rabbi Hyman Krustofski (voiced again by the great, gravelly Jackie Mason) will disappoint those amateur Reapers who were laying odds that Krusty would be leaving us, largely on the basis of the episode title, “Clown in the Dumps.” It wasn’t an Earth-shattering death–and I’m glad, if it means Krusty lives to peddle trayf another day. Because overhyped or not, the episode showed that Krusty is valuable to The Simpsons, not just for the showbiz jokes, but as an entree to a certain kind of story about disappointment and living with one’s limitations.
If “Clown in the Dumps” is not a classic on the level of season three’s “Like Father, Like Clown,” it was still a fitting, sweet conclusion to the story of Hyman and Herschel. There has always been a special darkness to Krusty’s stories–as Lisa once said, he’s like a black-velvet painting come to life–and it’s been rooted in both running from and aching for the approval of his father.
In a TV-sitcom medium that often ignores Jewish experience or writes it in as subtext, that relationship and its details were something special. And there was a brilliant absurdity to leaving Krusty with that Talmudic, torturously ambiguous “Eh”–that most malleable of Jewish judgments–leaving Krusty to decide, on his own, whether his life has been worth it.
What does the “Eh” mean? Over time–with the help of a whiskey funnel, a dream sequence and a comedy rabbi–Krusty finds an answer: that his father really approved of him, even if he could never express it. It’s an answer; it’s not the answer, which Krusty will never get any more than the rest of us will. There may be other answers, maybe even more believable ones (as Lisa suggests, that the rabbi didn’t care for his son’s delivery), but they don’t really matter. The solution–the episode suggests with understated profundity–is in taking the effort to try to find the answer, not in the answer itself.
Meanwhile, the episode tried to parallel the rabbi’s death with the Simpson family by having Lisa become justifiably worried about her own father’s health. It’s heavy stuff, but not too heavy, historically, for The Simpsons. (The first time Homer’s mortality was connected with the rabbi was in “Homer’s Triple Bypass,” back in season four.) There was a lot of potential in linking an older child’s acceptance of his father’s mortality to a younger child’s just becoming aware of it. But as for the execution and payoff of the subplot? Eh. Krusty was the star of the show this time out.
And as for you, Rabbi Krustovski, we’ll see you in non-existent Jewish Heaven. Save me an egg cream and a giant slice of dill pickle.