“Will this horrible year never end?” There are many reasons that the earlier season of The Simpsons are fondly remembered and often viewed as timeless. Yet, given the type of year we’ve had, for “The Trouble with Trillions” to begin with such a lament makes it more apt than it was when it first aired on April 4th, 1998. Casual viewers and Simpsons fanatics will no doubt remember this episode as the one where Mr. Burns was found to have stolen a trillion-dollar bill from the American government. They will also recall this episode as the one featuring Homer’s hilarious, albeit short, meeting with the late former-President of Cuba; Fidel Castro. It goes without saying that Mr. Castro had a powerful impact on world affairs as the one of the last remaining Cold War strongmen. He survived over 600 assassination attempts and reigned over Cuba during an embargo that lasted nearly 60 years, decimating much of the country’s economy. Mr. Castro was a complex figure, revered and reviled in equal parts. This is not the forum for an evaluation of his character or policies, but rather to mark the enduring persona that was Fidel Castro and the one time he made us all laugh.
The looming figure of Castro was no stranger to Springfield. Years earlier, in the seminal “Bart vs. Australia”, he had a “blink and you’ll miss it” cameo poking fun at the CIA’s never-ending attempts to have him killed. By the time that Homer, Mr. Burns and Smithers arrived in Cuba, a pop cultural zeitgeist had emerged around the Cuban leader and his relationship with the US. Those American hoping to visit Cuba must have been there for one of two reason; to smuggle cigars or assassinate El Presidente. Much like those tourists that became enamored with the facade that Cuba presented, our band of misfits splurged themselves on donkey meat and reveled in the classic motif of an island frozen in time. Unsurprisingly, Homer and Burns are eager to remain in their “socialist paradise” even if the poster using Che Guevara to advertise Duff beer hints that it may be more capitalist than it let on.
It is fitting that the fictional Cuba reflects its real-life counterpart in its economic woes as Castro begrudgingly admits their nation would have to abandon their Communist “mumbo-jumbo” in the wake of embedding bankruptcy. The fictional Castro didn’t take his failed assassinations to heart, willing to concede defeat to Washington, even if he was less than pleased with his namesake. Using their trillion dollar bill as leverage, would-be Springfield oligarchs manage to gain an audience with Castro. True to form, Mr. Burns was unaware of that Batista had been, in fact, been overthrown and instead settled for negotiations with El Comandant himself. Even Castro himself is taken aback by their desire to remain in Cuba, knowing the mask it wears on the international plain. As always, a fool and his money are quickly parted when Burns, urged by an all-too trusting Homer, relinquishes the bill. Like Vladimir Putin’s response to accusations that he stole Robert Kraft’s super-bowl ring, Castro’s reaction to being asked to return the trillion-dollar bill is classic strongman. “Give what back?”
The Simpsons, at its best, is an extremely clever show that can be enjoyed on many levels. Its not just that the show pokes fun at capitalist culture by having Burns be given the trillion-dollar bill on the assumption that his wealth made him trustworthy. Its not just the shows ability to capture an absurd, but accurate facsimile of political leaders past and present. Its the confidence in which he switches from family comedy to dry satire that has made it endure over its nearly thirty years lifespan. Its political humour often flies above many heads, but its understanding of the cultural perception towards Cuban-American relations, when pitched to the right audience made for one of its finer moments. Of course, if anyone ever asks, I think you can trust the President of Cuba.
PS. Please end soon.