Randy, thankfully, is almost completely MIA this time around, making way for an episode very firmly centered around Stan, Kyle, and Cartman. And in many ways, this is a very classic old-school South Park plot. Cartman hatches a plan, it gets out of hand and Stan and Kyle are dragged into his mess. Between that, cameos galore from former supporting characters and the return of a certain controversial ex-president, this special really feels like a throwback to the show’s climax.
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That’s all well and good, but this throwback to a simpler South Park era wouldn’t have worked if it hadn’t been for a deeper goal behind it. And this is where “The Vaccination Special” really clicks. The main theme here is that as far as we all want things to get back to “normal”, this is neither realistic nor even really very healthy. There is no resumption of that wasted time from 2020, and there may not be any mending of relationships that have been damaged as a result. In terms of tone and plot, this special shares a lot in common with Season 15’s “You’re Getting Old”. This time around, Stan isn’t the only one facing existential discomfort and wondering how long still he can endure the same old routine.
This sometimes played for a laugh with all the scenes of the three ex-friends trying to work out a custody deal for Kenny. But that aside, there is a real sense of melancholy under all of the wacky antics of “The Vaccination Special”. Much like in “You’re Getting Old,” there are sense creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone working on some of their own issues with the show and wondering out loud if it’s time to move on. . Not that we should necessarily assume this special will turn out to be an unpublished series finale (the series has been renewed until 2022), but there is no doubt that there is a real creative drain that comes from working on a project for 25 consecutive years. South Park doesn’t always thrive when the humor becomes meta and self-referential, but in this case, it works and gives the story a more honest and personal quality.
Then there is what is easily the best thing about this fake return to normal. Mr. Garrison is back. As entertaining as Garrison was during this phase of becoming the show’s replacement for Donald Trump, it has also forced him to the periphery for years. It feels good to have Garrison back in South Park and get back to his old shenanigans. It’s hilarious to see Garrison’s character arc bring him full circle for the second time in the series. He’s back to teaching. He found Mr. Hat. He even has a replacement for Mr. Slavic in the form of a poor Mr. Service without pants. The only thing that has changed is that everyone in town really, really hates him.As the title of this special makes clear, this episode also aims to ridicule the QAnon movement and the way their bizarre conspiracy theories play into the current “debate” over vaccination. This episode doesn’t necessarily make fun of QAnon as you might expect. In reality, Real QAnon members seem pretty excited about the extra level of exposure the series gives them. But at one point, it’s hard to get past the real-life absurdity when you talk about a broad conspiracy theory involving a cartel of bloody liberal elites and child traffickers. Rather than trying to concoct something even more ridiculous, this episode wisely focuses its attention on Garrison’s absurdity as QAnon’s “Chosen One” and the big payoff the QTies are fighting against the Kommunity Kids. And, being South Park, there’s a fun and added wrinkle thanks to the revelation that the QAnon conspiracy is actually true and Parker and Stone themselves are the all-powerful elites that dominate the citizens of South Park.
In short, “The Vaccination Special” is a much more complete and coherent episode than “The Pandemic Special”. At this point, no one is sure if the series will continue to return via these standalone promotions rather than traditional seasons. But anyway, there’s a lot to build on now as life begins to return to normal, but Stan, Kyle, and Cartman face their brother’s collapse. Hopefully the series continues to follow its own continuity enough to venture down that path.