The quiet desperation of Marge Simpson has been a steady drumbeat coursing through the first few seasons of The Simpsons. The old line on The Simpsons used to be that the most realistic show about family life just happened to be a cartoon. That hasn’t been the case in ages, but there was a time when The Simpsons took Marge’s existential angst seriously.
Marge’s pragmatic and ultimately very sad willingness to ignore her own needs for the sake of serving a boorish husband who will never appreciate her was a powerful subtext in last week’s episode. Marge’s long-simmering dissatisfaction with her Job-like lot in life takes center stage in “Homer Alone,” an episode largely devoted to her highly public psychological unraveling and eventual healing.
The writers originally intended for Marge to heal at an institute for distressed mothers, but when that died at the table read, the setting for Marge’s vacation became the soothing world of Rancho Relaxo. It was a smart change. After Marge's breakdown, we need the relief of Rancho Relaxo almost as much as Marge does. We need the finest R-rated movies Europe has to offer even more.
“Homer Alone” pointedly ratchets up the white noise of Marge’s everyday life until they’ve built into a raging hurricane of sanity-threatening irritations. Marge’s life is a Sisyphysian endeavor under the best of circumstances: She never gets credit for the impossible feat of keeping the family from spiraling into madness and anarchy, just the blame when one of the 17 plates she’s metaphorically spinning at any given time comes crashing to the ground.
It’s enough to make even the strongest, sanest woman crack, especially when the world seems to be conspiring to make your life as agonizing as possible. For a show about a nervous breakdown, “Homer Alone” is remarkably subtle. All it takes is an added element of hectoring aggression to transform Bart, Homer, and Lisa from garden-variety demanding to monstrous. Homer, like Patty and Selma, seems to understand on some level just how obnoxious he is, yet sees no reason to change. Why should he when he has a woman as wonderful as Marge to love him unconditionally? I especially liked the way Homer marvels at how awful his own children are before conceding, “Let’s face it. I’m no day at the beach either. Marge, can I have another sandwich?”
Marge is in such a state that everyday annoyances become unbearable, whether that means a pair of deliciously deadpan, unhelpful bowling ball-care professionals sending Marge on a wild goose chase apparently out of some strange, passive-aggressive professional resentment they feel towards each other that Marge knows nothing about or the jabbering jackasses on shock radio giggling their way through a phone “prank” that consists of telling a traumatized listener that their wife died a horrible death walking through a plate glass window.
Finally, Marge can’t take it anymore and does what she’s been threatening to do all series: She loses it. The mad housewife freaks the fuck out and causes a major traffic jam. One of The Simpsons’ great strengths in the early going was its ability to create characters with a sense of history despite a minimum of screen time. I’m not sure that we ever see more than just a flash or two of helicopter reporter “Arnie in the Sky” Pie in this episode or any other, but that doesn’t keep us from getting weird, hilarious, and revealing glimpses into his personal and professional life, like when Kent Brockman condescendingly says of Marge’s big public scene, “This is no mere traffic report” and answers Ernie’s indignant response with a gruff, deflating, “Face the facts, Arnie.”
An entire world of competition and professional resentment opens up in the course of a single subtle moment. “Homer Alone” is filled with nicely observed moments that aspire less to big laughs than smiles of wry acknowledgment. Think of the cops' utterly unearned laugh of self-satisfaction when they note (it’s not even a quip really) that Marge's actions suddenly make sense in light of her husband or the empathetic way the police woman taking Marge’s mug shot gives her the sisterly encouragement, “Off the record, ma’am. All the girls on the force knew just how you felt.”
Marge is having her Thelma & Louise moment but rather than fuck a young Brad Pitt and lead the police on a high speed chase, Marge does something equally out of character for her: She treats herself or at least lets the staff at Rancho Relaxo pamper her.
Speaking of trials of the damned, Bart and Lisa are doomed to spend Marge’s relaxing getaway at the mercy of Patty and Selma. Bart and Lisa respond to the unspeakable horror of having to sleep in the same bed as their shrewish aunts with looks of soul-shaking dread. They are suffering the trails of the damned. If a nightmare stint with Patty and Selma isn’t enough to make them appreciate their saintly mother, nothing will.
“Homer Alone” is all about Homer and the kids doing penance for taking Marge for granted. Part of Homer’s karmic punishment entails losing Maggie and calling upon the services of expert omelet-maker Barney for assistance in tracking her down.
“Homer Alone” ends, as these things generally do, with the sanctity and security of the family unit being reinforced and everything returning to normal. “Homer Alone” gets off to a brutal start: It’s unnerving seeing the show’s calm, unflappable spiritual center become unhinged, but the episode grows more and more gentle until it has almost, if not quite, earned its big heartwarming moment at the end.
As always, cynicism and darkness undercut the sentimentality. The H.P Lovecraft-like horror of living with Selma and Patty and lesser terror of losing a daughter are enough to shock Bart and Lisa and Homer into appreciating Marge for once, but you can bet as soon as the lights go out, they’ll go right back to taking her for granted. That’s not just a convention of the sitcom genre; it’s also, alas, how the world works, unfortunately enough for the eternally under-appreciated Marge Simpsons of the world.
- "C’mon, kids! It’s time to rub Aunt Patty’s feet!"
- Two different kinds of cheese? Sign me up!
- We never get to see Barney making an omelet, do we?
- "You think you know fear? Well I’ve seen them naked."
- "It’s a nervous twitch, and I’m a little sensitive about it if you don’t mind."
- “I don’t know what Nicky’s telling you. I haven’t flushed a ball in years."