I’m going to tell you today about a semi-dark, conspiracy theory themed episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. I saw this when I was like six years old, and until I watched it again for the second time last night…I sort of thought it was just part of my dreamtime memory, in a way, archetypal shapes residing in the depths of my subconscious.
But no, it’s all real.
Airing on May 23, 1980, “Windstorm In Bubbleland” (link to episode here) was an in the form of an “opera”—a musical, basically, taking place in The Land Of Make Believe. The show had several operas in its long run, and even to my extremely young mind they were always cool but also always EXTREMELY WEIRD. And by “extremely weird,” I mean they had deeper meanings than the usual content of the show. Adult meanings, sometimes, but not in a sexual way…just “adult.” Even at six I could pick this up, and these episodes would leave me thinking about them for weeks, months…until they just sort of fell out of my memory completely and rested in the Dreamtime.
“Windstorm In Bubbleland” took place in…well, Bubbleland, an idyllic town filled with soothing bubbles. The motto of Bubbleland was: “There’s Never Any Trouble Here In Bubbleland.” And this super-happy, positive attitude was “enforced”—enforced—by the town itself, particularly in the form of their media propaganda division.
I’m not reading too much into this episode and adding these adult interpretations…the episode literally opens on a media propaganda effort, through a TV news show hosted by “Robert Redgate.” Obviously an allusion to Robert Redford, keep in mind the types of paranoid, conspiracy-type movies Redford had starred in by this time: Three Days Of The Condor and All the President’s Men.
Redgate declares to the viewers: “There is never any trouble here in Bubbleland.” The only news he has to give is good news…and more good news.
But when he does an on-air ad for “Spray Sweater”—a sweater-in-a-can, basically—Betty, manager of Betty’s Better Sweater Company, bursts into the broadcast and shouts over Redgate:
“Spray Sweater is a FRAUD!”
And she does this with the urgency of like…Kevin McCarthy at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. For a show geared towards the youngest of viewers (too young to even watch Sesame Street)—this is INTENSE.
Betty the whistleblower reveals that there is no sweater in Spray Sweater—it’s all an insidious lie. And the bigger implication is, the media is being used by its corporate owners (the National Bubble Chemical Company) to push a product to the public that is fraudulent and (as we will find out later) even harmful.
But the paranoia and conspiracy hijinks doesn’t end there. Because a few minutes later, Hildegarde Hummingbird (played by the witchy-looking puppet Lady Elaine Fairchilde in a full bird outfit) bursts into the studio in a manner very similar to Betty, declaring that a “windstorm” is coming.
Everybody in the newsroom—even Betty—scoffs at this notion. And they scoff because they have been indoctrinated with the belief that “there is never any trouble here in Bubbleland.” And that’s their only defense to the bird’s claims—the propaganda they’ve been fed.
Hildegarde is humansplained by Redgate:
“Don’t let rumors of windstorms ruin your peace.”
She responds: “I’m just doing my job, why won’t you listen to me?”
And the entire crew answers her, in unison: “BECAUSE WE DON’T WANT TO.”
Hildegarde: “You mean I can’t tell the truth in Bubbleland?”
And so she decides to exile herself. And everybody’s like: “BYE!” Of course, the whole name Bubbleland brings up the idea of people living in a “bubble” of their own reality tunnels. They are willing to see Hildegarde leave rather than disturb their “beautiful minds.” And even Betty the whistleblower won’t open her mind to anything beyond her own personal bubble.
Anyway, I’m six, watching all this. This is some heavy shit.
Then the scene changes to the waterfront, where the Banana Boat Captain notices a wave in the sea…which he interprets as wind coming. This confuses him, because like everybody else, he has been indoctrinated to believe that “there is never any trouble here in Bubbleland.”
Can he trust his own senses, when they contradict the propaganda?
Now we switch to the boardroom of the National Bubble Chemical Company. Betty wants to show Redgate that her conspiracy theory is true. The typically villainous president of the company laughs as she exposes his fraud using the bottles on the conference room table.
“All that’s in these cans is just plain air!”
“Hee hee! It’s our company’s little joke! And you were the first to figure it out!”
It turns out that the air from the cans are causing the windstorm—and that the windstorm will blow all their precious (I’m assuming, life-giving) bubbles away.
Further: Hildegarde was right!
Then the president of the company turns into a wind-demon (!) and flies away, cackling.
I’m six, watching this. The wind-demon scares the shit out of me.
Now Redgate & Betty seek Hildegarde out, and explain they were wrong. They need her help, but she basically says she prefers animals over stupid asshole humans. However, eventually she gives in & says “okay, I’ll help you asshole humans.”
Everybody gathers at the waterfront. One character declares:
“There hasn’t been a windstorm here in at least 2000 years!”
Apocalypse/Book of Revelations much? The fact that they used “2000” for the # of years is very telling.
They build a wall out of boxes and sweaters to keep out the encroaching wind. The wind-demon arrives, and he fights Hildegarde (who is “as strong as the wind” because of her wings). The bird falls, then everybody flaps their arms to build their own stream of air.
The wind-demon is defeated. Hildegarde seems dead on the floor (I’m six watching this), but revives and then tells everyone that while bubbles are cool, humans can do anything.
In an epilogue, Mister Rogers tells us that maybe one day the bubbles will go away and the operas too and yeah probably humans too—but we will always have memories in our minds (I guess, in our new light-bodies after World War III nukes the planet) forever.
On one level, “Windstorm in Bubbleland” can be read as a straight-up environmental allegory, with the spray cans and the ozone layer etc. But there was Cold War tension building in 1980, so it could also be read on a more urgent, darker level regarding nuclear war.
And then there are the elements of conspiracy theory, paranoia, media propaganda, and so on that were so much a feature of the films immediately proceeding it. It’s like a pint-sized version of All The President’s Men, The China Syndrome, Network, and so on. I would also point to 1978’s Superman, with Jor-El warning the Kryptonian council about the impending apocalypse, and being ignored.
Rewatching this after…almost four decades…it is shocking to me how much it all flooded back, and what an impact this episode had on my developing Silly Putty-like psyche.
And yes, that was a dolphin as the weather-man.