Until this point in the series, Eustace Bagge has been a singularly unpleasant character. We haven’t see what made him the way he is. In this episode, for the first time, we learn his ‘psychological wound’, or the backstory that explains why he treats others so badly. In stories, as in real life, this is simplistically attributed to deficiencies in the mother.
As usual we have an opening shot in which Courage looks momentarily at peace.
Of course this does not last long because of the two people he lives with. Because he is a child (in the body of a dog) he will have to just go along with them, trying to appease them.
Eustace doesn’t want to go see his own mother for mother’s day but he wants to get Muriel off his back.
The opponent is introduced before we see her. Muriel, accommodating as she is, refuses to go visit her mother-in-law, volunteering Courage as a companion instead.
The character archetype is very similar to Bill Henrickson’s mother Lois in the series Big Love.
Like Mrs Bagge, Lois is poor, has tendencies towards vanity, is psychologically abusive (while herself being a victim) and her own son will never live up to her standards.
Lois is a slightly caricatured but nevertheless fairly real representation of this personality type, in a live action TV show made for adults. Over the course of Big Love we also see the ways in which Bill Henrickson is basically his own parents, despite his wish to escape the Juniper Creek compound. While Lois Henrickson is also a Mama Bear who would do anything for her children, I’m of the impression that in a different episode of Courage, with an outside opponent, the abusive mother of Eustace would also turn on a dime to protect her own flesh and blood.
This episode of Courage the Cowardly Dog is a very condensed, highly stylised storyline done differently in Big Love.
In the car on the way, Eustace tells Courage his plan. If Eustace scratches his face, this is a secret signal for Courage to attack the mother. Then they’ll be able to leave early. Eustace makes sure Courage knows how to snarl and growl. He demonstrates it himself.
The plan doesn’t work. We know it’s not going to work the moment the mother greets Courage warmly while ignoring her human son.
The visit is one long miserable family feud. Obviously a long-running enmity exists between Eustace and his mother. With Courage there, who the mother dotes on, the meanness she displays towards her own son is only emphasised.
Courage is stuck in the middle. Only children are particularly likely to find themselves in an awkward dinner table scene in fiction.
The scene of the two feuding adults sitting at each end of the dining table with the innocent and conflicted child character in the middle is a familiar one from the screen.
Mother gives Courage a big, heaping bowl of food with a literal cherry on top. After admonishing Eustace for being too thin, the mother then accuses him of wanting her to provide him food. When she provides the food, begrudgingly, it is two measly rashers of bacon. This is a parody of psychological abuse.
Mother gives Eustace’s teddy bear to Courage, which really upsets Eustace and comically turns him into a toddler.
During the battle sequence the audience is left in no doubt as to the similarities between Eustace and his mother. The scene with the mask introduces every single episode, after all. When turned upon Eustace he is terrified. He can give it, but he can’t take it. Eustace has been temporarily turned into Courage.
The mother is ungrateful for the gifts, which Eustace gives her to try and make peace. She is allergic to flowers and doesn’t even like chocolate, which only proves that this woman is totally lacking in any kind of sweetness/humanity. She does, however, like the mirror gift. This is because she is vain. (One of the deadly sins, which makes it nice and simple and good for comedy villains.)
Courage eats the chocolates himself, which offers the audience a nice visual representation for how sick he is feeling about the visit.
Mother decides she’d like a photo taken. She goes all out to prepare herself for this, even going under a tanning bed, plucking hairs from her chin and so on in a rapid sequence.
When Mrs Bagge tells Eustace that he’ll never be a real man and never fill his father’s shoes (which are literally huge), Eustace challenges her to an arm wrestle.
In a previous episode we’ve already seen a battle carried out via a thumb wrestle, and the writers make much use of common childhood games throughout the series.
It’s significant that neither of them is winning. They are evenly matched, psychologically as well as physically.
Eustace signals to Courage to do something, so Courage retrieves the bouquet of flowers hoping this will cause Mother to sneeze, and lose the game.
The writers foil expectations by having her hair come right off.
The audience has already realised that mother and son are basically the same person. This similarity is underscored visually with the sneeze, and the flying away of the mother’s hair. She breaks down at first, proclaiming that she’s ugly and how could a son possibly love a mother with no hair. We have seen from earlier episodes that Eustace is sensitive about his own bald head, so he is able to identify with his mother’s pain and there is a brief reuniting moment before he leaves with Courage for home.
This is a rare, genuine self-revelation in the Courage series. Usually there is a revelation, but it is not a self-revelation.
However, the self-revelation will do nothing to change Eustace for the better. He will continue into the next episode as mean as he was before.
At home, Muriel has been watching her favourite show. She asks them how it was. Courage produces a photograph, which gives Muriel the impression the visit was far more successful than it actually was. Eustace says grimly that he’ll have to go again sometime soon.
By putting someone else’s hair on a dog the artists also appeal to the sense of humour of its young child audience.