Title: Burning Down the House
Written by: Robin Green
Directed by: Rob Thompson
Aired: February 3, 1992
Log Line: Maggie receives a double dose of disaster when her mother accidentally burns down her house after announcing she is divorcing Maggie’s father. Meanwhile, Chris searches for the “right” cow as part of his new piece of performance art.
Listen to the podcast discussion of the episode here.
In episode 3.14 “Burning Down the House”, Chris says that repetition is the death of art. Interestingly, this episode features an abundance of artistically-used repetition. On the podcast, we mentioned that there are two pieces of music that recur throughout: a medieval-type piece that is associated with Chris and his moments of inspiration and a piano piece that’s associated with Maggie and her mother (we’ve heard this piece many times since it was first introduced in the episode “Soapy Sanderson”). We also hear two songs that are associated with classic films: “As Time Goes By” from Casablanca, which Chris plays on Maggie’s piano, and “The Blue Danube” by Strauss, which is indelibly linked (in the minds of cinephiles, at least) to 2001: A Space Odyssey. They are repeated here, and the episode is richer for their associations with these films. (It’s worth noting that both the song “As Time Goes By” and the film 2001 are associated with time, an important element in this episode.)
We can’t help but associate Chris’ fear of repetition and crisis of originality with a few other writers. The first writer who comes to mind is Gertrude Stein, who didn’t believe in repetition. In “Portraits and Repetition”, she wrote, “Expressing any thing there can be no repetition because the essence of that expression is insistence, and if you insist you must each time use emphasis and if you use emphasis it is not possible while anybody is alive that they should use exactly the same emphasis.” Stein’s work is steeped in insistence. As she famously wrote (on more than one occasion), “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.” (This line is also a predecessor to the opening lyrics of “As Time Goes By”: “You must remember this / A kiss is just a kiss / A sigh is just a sigh.”) And there are many moments in “Burning Down the House” of Stein-ian repetition or insistence. (And the writing of Stein will be referenced later this season.) We were also reminded of Harold Bloom’s theory of the Anxiety of Influence (explored in his book of the same name), in which Bloom argues that major poets misread the work of their predecessors to escape their influence, thereby making their work less derivative. This isn’t what Chris is doing, but he’s worried about being an original artist, rather than a derivative one. Perhaps the poet Kenneth Goldsmith with his theory of uncreative writing would have shifted Chris’ views on originality. Goldsmith’s writing projects often involve no creativity at all. For example, he once retyped an issue of the New York Times, word by word, page by page. (He’s also transcribed traffic and weather reports.) And he is recognized as one of the most important contemporary poets in America. Heck, he was even invited to speak at the White House by Michelle Obama. (Well, this isn’t exactly a marker that someone is a great poet. But trust us: he is an important poet.)
With these thoughts on repetition in mind, we’d like to present a smattering of images culled from this episode that will illustrate some of the ways that repetition is used throughout “Burning Down the House.”
pass, double pass
perfectly green plastic glass
waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting
pow, pow, pow
a pattern of drinking hot lemon water while laying on your back for two and a half years
Katunic + Washington
nothing like a ruined life
Two Bobs who reinvent themselves like a phoenix
groping, visions, poetry, repetition
Repetition is one of the main tools of poets, and in “Burning Down the House” repetition is used poetically. It uses an insistent poetry, even in the final words Chris speaks before the trebuchet launches the piano into the air: “It’s not the thing you fling. It’s the fling itself. Let’s fling something, Cicely.” There’s a music to the repetition of the word “fling” (and the addition of “thing” doesn’t hurt), like the words “groping” and “vision” at the start of his speech. There’s a musicality and an insistent originality to the repetition.
Themes / Recurrences: Creation + destruction; time; art; inspiration; home; death.
The Good: Yes, we love the transcendent moment of the fling. Time seems to stand still while the piano is aloft. There is also the emotional tug of Maggie’s storyline with her mother and Chris’ groping for inspiration — and the right cow. Even the tale of Larry Coe story moved us, largely because Joel seems so oblivious to how he’s upset the applecart of Larry/Bob’s new life in Cicely.
The Bad: We genuinely can’t find anything to fault here. Initially, we were worried about revisiting this episode because it is so beloved and the fling scene and speech are so oft-cited as a high-water mark for the series. But the episode delivers on all levels.
The Notable: We love the small details of Ruth-Anne’s shirt (with cows), Shelly’s earrings (at one point they’re cows), and — best of all — Maggie’s sweater with a tree, house, and cows.
On’s Rating: 10 out of 10.
Shane’s Rating: 10 out of 10.