Credit: FOX

Sunday’s installment of Family Guy, “Send in Stewie, Please,” sent viewers into the mind of Stewie — and by episode’s end, they re-emerged with fresh insight into the tyke of terror, not to mention a chill down the spine.

The intimate installment of the animated Fox comedy drilled down on the indignant world-dominating enfant terrible, spending almost the entire half-hour in an epic therapy session. Dispatched to the office of the school’s child psychologist, Dr. Pritchfield (voiced by Sir Ian McKellen), after he pushed a classmate down the stairs, Stewie delivered a monumental monologue in which he expertly eviscerated the shrink, deducing the details of his privileged-yet-still-lacking life via a framed photo of a boyfriend and other objects in the office. (At five-and-a-half minutes in length, the rant almost made Peter’s interminable recitation of canceled Fox shows seem like a tossed-off quip.) But through an economy of words, the gently pressing Dr. Pritchfield was able to guide Stewie through a journey of self-reflection, spurring a rush of epiphanies and introspection about Stewie’s insecurities (including a fear that people won’t like him), sexuality, and British accent, the latter of which turned out to be, as he said, “a coat of armor to get me through the day… an image I cultivated so I could feel special.” (Turns out, Stewie’s real voice sounded like that of an innocent little American boy.) Oh, and Stewie also turned in a snotty, emotional performance of Hamilton — or at least what he knows from the Hamilton soundtrack. “It’s a glimpse behind the Clockwork Orange that is Stewie,” says Family Guy executive producer Alec Sulkin, while fellow showrunner Richard Appel sums up: “Stewie probably learns more about himself in a 25-minute analysis session than Woody Allen has learned in 25 years.”

Longtime Family Guy writer Gary Janetti, who pitched this script as a freelancer, was looking to do something decidedly different with the fan-favorite trouble machine. “I’ve always wanted to go deeper with Stewie,” he tells EW. “I’ve always wanted to write a really long monologue for Stewie, and it never naturally happened. I had just worked with Ian McKellen in London on the show Vicious, and I wanted to bring him in. I thought, ‘Well, what better way than to do a therapy session? It’s just Stewie talking to Ian for a half hour, where he can just talk to somebody in a way that he has never talked to somebody before.’” (For the record, McKellen was game from the get-go. “It was a very easy sell,” notes Janetti. “He said, ‘I’d love to do it! I love Stewie!'” He even played along with a “Mom. Mum. Mummy” joke within his own character’s backstory during the show’s lone flashback. )

Clocking in at five-and-a-half minutes, the monologue “ended up being longer than even I intended,” shares Janetti. “But it was just to let something really breathe. If he was given the opportunity to really vent his spleen when somebody innocently says, ‘I think I know you,’ and he gets to show his intelligence, and to unfurl his wings, as it were. I just wrote it stream of consciousness, and let it end where I felt it was going to end.”

In unpacking the enigma of Stewie and peeling away the veneer that he was hiding behind, Janetti also decided that the episode should delve into the mystery of his (fake) accent, something that would require the approval of Seth MacFarlane, who created Family Guy and voices the character. “I didn’t know if Seth would go for it,” says Janetti. “[But] when he read it, it was hilarious, because he instantly read that voice that he does in the episode, which is this normal kid voice, and it’s very disarming. It felt very true. I didn’t want to do anything unless it felt true to the character because I’m very protective over him. Like all kids can, when you feel like you’re an outcast, and you feel like you don’t fit in any place, you construct a bit of a façade to protect yourself from the world. His is just extraordinarily sophisticated. What would that mean if he could release it and be more authentic — and himself? Does he want to?”

That accent revelation caught the Family Guy showrunners pleasantly off-guard. Appel notes that one of the reasons he loved Janetti’s script was that “in my head I hadn’t even assumed it was an affectation. I just figured this is who Stewie is.” Adds Sulkin: “I was surprised by the whole turn of it, but to hear it somehow made sense: ‘Stewie has just been pretending, because he wants to seem smarter than everyone else.'” (The bonus joke? Pritchfield, played by McKellan — “the most quintessentially British actor that we have with that fabulous voice,” notes Janetti — is unable to detect Stewie’s British accent, which is “galling to Stewie.” )

During the brainstorming process, there was some discussion about resolving the question of Stewie’s much-speculated-about sexuality, but it soon became clear to all that this episode aimed to transcend reductive revelation to explain the wonder — and horror — that is Stewie. (Also, he is just a baby, so perhaps it’s a bit premature to be definitively answering such a question.) “When we were talking about this early on, there was a lot of talk like, ‘Do we write something where Stewie comes out? Is that what this episode is going to be?'” says Sulkin. “And then we all decided it would be more interesting to leave that door open for many interpretations. I think the way that Gary does it is much more interesting, and leaves us with many more places to go, so we don’t always have to lean in on a Stewie-is-gay joke.”

The rather meta episode does mine that tension and curiosity early in the episode, with Stewie seemingly addressing the situation with both clarity and confusion. (“I’m not gay. This whole thing isn’t because I’m gay, so calm down,” he tells Dr. Pritchfield. “I can already see you licking your chops. I’m sure you live for the coming-out sessions. If anything, I’m less gay than I used to be, not that anybody at this school would care. But do I think that Grant Gustin and I would make the most adorable Instagram couple? Yes, yes we would.”) But as mentioned, Janetti had something bigger on his brain for this psyche evaluation. “The intention for Stewie is never to come out as gay or not gay,” he explains. “He will be forever in this state of confusion, as you would be when you’re that age. Ultimately, it’s more interesting to dig deeper than that.”

Which is why Janetti sought to unspool a relatable story of a self-aware boy who felt alienated because he was different than his classmates — but he also desperately feared being like everybody else. “In many facets, he’s set apart from the rest of kids, the rest of the world, and the rest of his smaller community, which is school,” he explains. “I know I felt set apart when I was really young for being gay. I was super lonely. I think that the truth of that is that all of these things about Stewie probably isolated him and made him really lonely and sad and not able to connect in a way that the other kids can blithely just go around playing with each other. Everything is so much more complicated for him, because of his intelligence. [His sexuality] is just one area that he’s also almost smart enough to realize, ‘This is something I’ll be dealing with later in my life.'”

He also may be dealing with the consequences of one horrible thing he does at the end of the session. After Stewie experiences his breakthrough moment of vulnerability and is relieved to be talking in his real voice, the psychologist happily tells him that he can finally “be just like everybody else.” The dark switch in Stewie reactivates, and he tells Dr. Pritchfield that he doesn’t want that; he wishes to remain superior, and vows that he will never “lift the veil,” so “nobody will ever know the real me.” And when Pritchfield starts to have trouble breathing and asks Stewie to retrieve his heart medication, Stewie sees opportunity to eliminate the one person who knows the truth about him. Instead of helping his new friend and confidant, Stewie opts to watch him die slowly, even though the good doctor warns him that it will haunt him forever. (Stewie rejects this notion, calling it “no bigs.”) For a tyrannical tyke who has done so many horrific things — attempted murder of his mother, actual murder of New Brian — this deed resonated more darkly than any of the previous ones.

“I don’t think it’s the worst thing he’s done,” opines Appel, “but I think the reason it resonates is that it may be the worst realistic thing he’s done. In a way, it’s more chilling than Stewie taking out an entire Gymboree class of 2-year-olds who lay motionless and are presumed dead.” Seconds Janetti: “It’s one of the most terrible things he’s done because it’s more methodical. It’s more real. He actually cared about this man who helped him.” Alas, his sense of self-preservation triumphed over self-realization. “I wanted him to do something terrible, because he chooses the way out that’s a bit fearful,” continues Janetti. “It’s what he knows. It’s the Stewie that we all know. He’s not ready to give that up, and he doesn’t want anybody to know his secret.”

And it appears that no one will. Although he tossed it off as “no bigs,” Stewie has trouble falling asleep that night, prompting him to ask Brian to sleep with him. While he shares that he did “something awful,” he declines to say what specifically. The episode ends with Stewie in bed, in the dark, unable to sleep, eyes open, plagued by feelings of guilt over what transpired. And while viewers may not see the direct aftermath of his (lack of) action in upcoming episodes, consider it to be something to be dealt with one day in his life. “He’ll be 1 [year old] forever for the life of the show,” says Janetti. “This is something that could reappear later in his life, but we’ll never see that part of his life actually. He puts this away. But at some point it’s there.”

By the way, Janetti initially toyed with the idea of Stewie going even further and killing Pritchfield at his apartment. But the act of Stewie choosing not to fetch the shrink’s heart medication seemed like the appropriate dose of culpability. “It felt like something needed to happen that he didn’t actively do, but it was something that he doesn’t do,” he notes. “He doesn’t help him. He lets him die in order to save his secret.”

But it’s that final eyes-wide-open moment after the incident that truly makes this character study interesting. “I wanted us to see perhaps for the very first time that he’s seeing a consequence to his actions, and things are much more complicated than he initially thought,” says Janetti. “When it happens in the moment, and Dr. Pritchfield says, ‘You will regret this, it will be something that stays with you,’ he’s actually even thinking of Stewie, not himself. He knows that he will somehow suffer for having done this. And Stewie’s like, ‘You don’t know me. That’s not going to be an issue for me.’ And we agree with that as an audience. But to see him at night later, he’s very troubled. He won’t even tell Brian. But I think it’s an inkling of his real conscience of what he did — and wishing he didn’t do it. The ambivalence with which it ends I felt was important. I think it’s just more interesting to me — and it makes him more interesting.”

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