The first half of the South Park: Post–Covid special painted a pretty bleak picture of the future, ravaged by a neverending pandemic prolonged by endless variants (sadly, it proved to be pretty prescient with the emergence of Omicron).
The second half, The Return of COVID, sees most of the jokes from the last special repeated and elaborated on; South Park has a habit of reusing jokes until they’re way past their sell-by-date, but hey, at least they’re pretty funny.
The town has become a hyper-capitalist hellscape of brands collapsed into other brands, consolidated under Amazon’s umbrella, and sold to lonely consumers under the illusion of intimacy.
This is highlighted by the toxic, artificial girlfriend “Alexa,” who transforms into a tendrilled Terminator when Stan or Kyle don’t express interest in her product recommendations. Hence, the boys are desperate to go back in time and prevent the pandemic from happening, so they can escape the dystopia they’ve grown up in.
Kenny’s time-traveling research might just offer a way to do it – but first, they need Butter’s help, seeing as Kenny and Butters seem to have remained close for several years, unlike the rest of the gang.
Butters, however, has spent so many years grounded in his bedroom, his brain has become warped enough to embrace NFTs, and the naive boy grew into a slick Silicon Valley conman, hilariously locked into a mental asylum due to his penchant for selling million-dollar pixel art to suckers.
South Park leans into the NFTs joke pretty hard, showing Butters brainwashing the townsfolk into throwing their life savings into energy-intensive digital receipts, so that they can pretend to own a piece of objectively bad digital art (seriously, why is NFT art always so hideously ugly?). Butters’ sales patter is hilariously close to the strange, cultish manner in which NFT enthusiasts discuss their passion for pixelated emoji poops and randomly generated apes.
Butters even uses pieces of tupperware to frame NFTs as a pyramid scheme, placing himself and his potential customers as the ones sitting on top. Through the con, Butters has managed to make himself rich beyond his wildest dreams, and has funded Kenny’s research.
Cartman, however, is very aware of Butters’ strange power over people, and uses him to sabotage Kenny’s lab, in an attempt to stop Kyle and Stan from changing the past. Cartman is genuinely happy with his Jewish family, and doesn’t want to risk losing them by tinkering with time; his newfound faith wasn’t actually a long con, as long time viewers might expect.
Indeed, it’s heavily implied that Kyle’s presence seems to drive Cartman back to his old sociopathic ways, and that he can only find happiness away from him.
It’s soon revealed that the coronavirus pandemic is unstoppable, a fateful event that cannot be rectified through time travel; Kenny, it seems, became more interested in repairing the boy’s broken friendship, which shattered during the initial vaccine rollout, several decades ago.
But Cartman has become so obsessed with stopping Kyle’s plan that he sends Craig, an anti-vaxxer unsatisfied with four decades worth of scientific research, back in time to assassinate Kyle. It doesn’t take long for the reformed Cartman to realize that he doesn’t want his family to see the monster he used to be – he embraces his faith and believes that his family will always remain, even if the gang does manage to change the past.
Stan and Kyle travel back to stop the assassination, and only succeed with Cartman’s help. After stopping their friendship from shattering, time shifts, and the future alters into a far more tolerable, post-pandemic landscape. Stan and Kyle’s futures have improved immeasurably with the time tweaking, but Cartman, tragically, has become a miserable trainwreck; it’s the future one would expect for the character, but it hits unexpectedly hard.
This is one of the few times Cartman has ever acted heroically, and he is brutally punished for it; it seems that the natural laws of South Park dictate that Cartman cannot be happy in a universe where Kyle is too, and vice-versa.
The special concludes with a heavy-handed message that everyone should stop arguing about health restrictions, breaking friendships and starting fights with strangers, and just get high together. It’s pretty milquetoast, centrist stuff, but not a bad message at all.
Weed, South Park assures us, will get us through the pandemic, and NFTs will keep us laughing in the meantime.