The classic Simpsons episode “Lemon of Troy” is an epic in the truest meaning of the word. Taking its cues from Homer’s The Iliad (as in the ancient Greek poet, not the buffoon cartoon dad), it’s a tale of honor, revenge, war, and journeying into the unknown. Bart Simpson is its Odysseus, a hero out to avenge the insult done to Springfield when kids from Shelbyville, their rival town, steal Springfield’s fabled lemon tree—the town’s patriotic sign of all things right and good.
Does this tale sound familiar?
Shelbyville isn’t just Troy to Springfield’s Sparta—it’s a strange, inverted world where everyone and everything resembles Springfield one parallel universe over. The fire hydrants are yellow, the beer of choice is called “Fudd,” and every Springfield resident has their own bizarro Shelbyville double, serving as both an antagonist and a mirror. Bart’s primary foe throughout the episode is a skateboard-riding, graffitoing punk leading a band of grade-school miscreants—a slightly altered version of himself. The narrative of their struggle is a reflection of the broader conflict between the two towns, and is written into the folklore of both Springfield and Shelbyville.
But in the middle of that grand saga, there’s a short scene that gives one of The Simpsons’ many background characters his moment in the sun. Milhouse Van Houten is perhaps the world’s most recognizable fall-guy; a mawkish, bespectacled geek whose likelihood of ever being accepted as an equal by his peers diminishes the more he craves it. But in “Lemon of Troy,” he stumbles across his Shelbyvillian doppelganger—also named Milhouse, also the nerdy subordinate to his town’s charismatic main kid—and though the initially clash (as shown in the above lead image) the flash of recognition between the two is like lightning.
“But I thought I was the only one!” Springfield Milhouse exclaims.
“A pain I know all too well,” Shelbyville Milhouse murmurs.
In that moment, each seeing himself in the other—eternally relegated to the role of sidekick, the nerd, never to be cool or popular or the center of attention—Van Houten puts words to the ache that binds them together: “This is what it feels like when doves cry”.
That unexpectedly poignant scene is what came to mind when watching the vice presidential debate on Tuesday night. Democratic Virginia senator Tim Kaine faced off against Indiana governor Mike Pence at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia, and, as was perhaps to be expected, they didn’t exactly bring the fireworks the way their potential future bosses frequently do. Kaine may have been so eager to nail down Pence that he interrupted him more than 70 times in the 90-minute debate, but it was mightily tame compared to what Clinton and Trump have dished out so far—and are likely to in the future.
The debate highlighted an odd sideeffect of this race: how the vice presidential candidates have been rendered irrelevant. In a normal presidential race, the two veep nominees are a major part of both sides’ campaign strategies and can make or break a candidate’s chances. Sarah Palin’s pick as John McCain’s unlikely number two famously shook up the 2008 campaign, and speculation was rife earlier in the year that Clinton would anoint progressive firebrand senator Elizabeth Warren as her seconder to win over disaffected Bernie Sanders supporters.
Pence and Kaine have been made the Milhouses of their own stories. But this isn’t a normal presidential race. The singular personalities and profiles of the two presidential candidates have overshadowed everything else; last Sunday’s debate between Clinton and Trump was less a set of conflicting policies and visions than it was a weigh-in between two cage fighters. Compared with that, these two middle-aged, ruddy-faced career politicians are old news, and have little chance of making their mark on the race—in fact, over 40% of Americans still have virtually no idea who Kaine and Pence actually are.
They know it, too. In his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in July, Pence sadly joked that he was the “balance” to Trump’s charisma and forceful personality, and introduced himself to “those who don’t know me, which is most of you.” Kaine’s lack of charisma is best captured by how he’s satirized in The Onion compared to his predecessor, Joe Biden. Onion Biden is a badass who gets thrown onto the White House lawn out of passing cars in the middle of the night and lines up sweet summer gigs installing above-ground pools. Onion Kaine is a hyperexcited child who runs off into cornfields and eats campaign stickers.
All of which inspires something resembling sympathy for these two dull, serious men. In less exciting times they would have been perfect presidential material, but they’ve been upstaged by two people whose candidacies would have been unthinkable not so long ago. No matter whether Clinton or Trump takes home the lemon tree in November, neither Kaine nor Pence will come out on top. Their position on the ladder has been set fast—they’ve been made the Milhouses of their own stories.
In the aftermath of their uneventful, ignored debate, maybe Tim Kaine and Mike Pence took a quiet moment to recognize the common irrelevance they’re now forced to embrace. As the grandest saga in American politics rages around them, hopefully this pair of unnoticed bit players found a small moment of solidarity and peace together. Two Milhouses, both alike in lacking dignity.