(SPOILERS AHEAD, so proceed with caution, South Park fans!)
Season 17, Episode 3: “World War Zimmerman”
Written and Directed by: Trey Parker
Now that’s more like it. After a disappointing season premiere and a slightly improved second episode, “World War Zimmerman” feels like the official kick-start to South Park‘s 17th season. It had all the ingredients of the show’s greatest episodes: timeliness, subversion, a sophisticated plot, and loads of explosive laughter.
We open with Cartman at school, randomly complimenting Token, asking if he wants to hang out, while Kyle and Stan wonder if he’s “doing it again.” After an outburst in the classroom, Cartman sees Mr. Mackey and unloads his deepest fear: that Token, the school’s only black student, is a “ticking time bomb.” Sleep-deprived, Cartman battles a reoccurring nightmare: He himself is a child version of Brad Pitt from World War Z, with a cookie-cutter wife and two kids; after getting stuck in a traffic jam, they turn on the radio and hear about the not-guilty George Zimmerman verdict, which elicits a riot of outraged African Americans in the streets. The family is chased up the side of a building, where a zombie version of Token lunges at Cartman — just as he wakes up in a pool of his own sweat.
Back at school, Cartman tries to keep friendly with Token (asking, yet again, for a fist-bump), but after another outburst, he’s called back into Mackey’s office, where he confronts Token face-to-face about the Zimmeran verdict — he thinks, of course, that Token blames him for the outrageous outcome. At Mackey’s request, Cartman reads him a non-rhyming poem to express his feelings, and the air is cleared.
For awhile, at least. At a pep rally, Cartman performs a pseudo rap version of his poem, backed by Butters’ awful beatboxing. He attempts to get Token to clear the air (in hype man style), and when Token gets angry and addresses the crowd, Cartman freaks out and runs home, where he brandishes his Brad Pitt Survival Guide (including gun, fake beard, and scarf) and hi-jacks a car…and then a plane. “There’s no Denver left to go back to,” he says in action movie style, noting the “outbreak” of enraged black people. (While the episode’s initial exposition is a bit slow-footed and repetitive, the World War Z parody stuff finally adds some momentum.)
Air traffic controllers are scrambling to figure out what’s happened with the hijacking and “outbreak.” And they find their answer with Cartman’s Survival Guide, which features drawings of black zombies. Cartman clearly thinks this is the Zombie Apocalypse, and he’s convinced the entire plane of the same. Needing a second to think, he barges into the men’s room, where he finds a black gentleman on the toilet. Cartman traps him inside, and when he groans (trying to push his way out), the passengers are convinced he’s a delirious zombie, and madness ensues. (Side note: South Park has set the bar for hilarious animated death: One dude commits suicide by opening the side hatch and flying out at the sight of the black “zombie” passenger.)
After gunshots are fired, the plane plummets to a fiery crash. Token is simultaneously in Mackey’s office, where he’s lectured about not ranting at a school assembly (and encouraged to express his feelings through, naturally, poetry). Cartman encounters the dying pilot, who tells him he has to stop the Zombie Apocalypse by finding “Patient Zero, the person it all starts from.” Cartman is told he must kill Token to save the world.
And here’s the point where “World War Zimmerman” transcends to a near-classic episode.
As news spreads of Patient Zero, Cartman and his new female friend head to Jimbo’s Guns, where they’re educated on the puzzling intricacies of the Stand Your Ground law — Jimbo tells them that in specific states, you can shoot someone for the mere fear of being threatened. Cartman takes a new approach: Instead of killing Token, he’ll appease the black zombies by killing Zimmerman. So he hijacks another plane (en-route to Baltimore), and it quickly crashes as another conflict with a black passenger ensues.
Meanwhile, as Cartman’s new friend is struck and killed by a truck, he paints on black-face and approaches the the Zimmerman household, where, inside, an idyllic family scene unfolds — identical to the one in Cartman’s dream sequence. At the door arrive FBI agents, who inform Zimmerman that he’s needed by the government to come out of murder-retirement and shoot an African American. Since, ya know, he’s an expert.
“I gave that up,” he says, like a grizzled, hard-boiled cop.
“You’re the best, Zimmerman,” they plead.
After hearing a scuffling sound, Zimmerman takes out his gun and shoots at the black-faced Cartman in the lawn. “You did what you had to,” says the FBI.
“Wait, this kid isn’t black — he’s white!”
Zimmerman is immediately put on trial and convicted of murder, killed by the electric chair (repeatedly), and the Zombie Apocalypse is officially declared over. Token, disillusioned, confronts Cartman in the street; angered by the Patient Zero business, he’s calmed down by Cartman and convinced to give him a fist-bump, so he calmly approaches. Cartman, who spray-painted a red circle around himself, shoots Token on the basis that he stepped into his circle. (He even adjusts the body position so that Token is inside the circle.) It’s rare that South Park actually gets this violent — particularly with its main cast. Seeing poor Token’s lifeless body on the street was a bit of a shock, even in a show this notoriously irreverent.
Back in class, Cartman has another awful daydream — but this time, it’s about the terrible ending to World War Z. He feels no remorse about shooting Token (who is alive, waiting in Mr. Mackey’s office). When Mackey agrees with Cartman that Token was asking for it by invading Cartman’s circle, Token gets outraged and starts yelling, which terrifies Cartman. “Ahh, here we go again!,” he screams.
And we cut to another plane crash.
After a series of opening episodes without much sense of cohesion or edginess, “World War Zimmerman” was a triumph. A stellar return-to-form for the show, churning out huge laughs from dark material.
Naturally, South Park episodes are either “high stakes” or “low stakes,” depending on the timeliness and sensitivity of the targets. “Let Go, Let Gov” attempted to be a “high stakes” episode (with its NSA-driven plot), but it ended up falling flat with a weak pay-off and clumsy structure. But “World War Zimmerman” took the same “high stakes” approach and succeeded, finding brilliant ways to maneuver its multiple plot threads. This episode crammed a lot of ideas into its 24 minutes: the outrage over the Trayvon Martin/Zimmerman trial (along with the feeling of racial tension throughout the country), the controversial “Stand Your Ground” law, the Zombie Apocalypse (only a matter of time before they went there), and the absurdity of World War Z. It could have been an absolute mess (like “Let Go”) — instead, it was dangerously close to a classic.
Now for some random thoughts and my favorite moments of the night…
“Why doesn’t standing your ground apply to fucking white people?” — Token
“I promise. I won’t let the black people riots destroy the world.” — Cartman; “Wait, what?” — Pilot, before dying
“My wife, Token! That’s my wife!” – Cartman
“Anne Hathaway — Hot?”
“Let me hear ya say, ‘I don’t blame the white people!” – Cartman, rapping at the pep rally