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The broad strokes of “El Viaje Misterioso De Nostro Jomer” are very familiar—Homer makes a foolish decision that puts his relationship with Marge at jeopardy, then works his way to redemption over the course of the story—but what makes this episode one-of-a-kind is the execution. Inspired by the works of anthropologist Carlos Castaneda, who wrote extensively about his experience with shamanism, the plot finds Homer embarking on a hallucinogenic spirit quest after eating “the merciless peppers of Quetzlzacatenango,” grown deep in the jungle by inmates of a Guatemalan insane asylum. On this mystical journey, Homer is directed to find his soul mate by a coyote voiced by Johnny Cash, leading him to question his bond with his wife when he returns home to an icy, angry Marge.

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It’s a high-concept episode that delivers some of the most experimental, psychedelic visuals ever produced for this series, offering a distinctly different take on Homer and Marge’s marital woes. The spirit quest sequence is one of animator David Silverman’s finest moments on this show, and he animates it all himself rather than entrusting it to the South Korean studio that handles the rest of the episode. It’s easy to see why; Homer’s trip features some extremely tricky effects, from the warping character models to the lush rendered environments and the incorporation of live-action and computer-generated elements (the clouds and giant butterfly, respectively). It wouldn’t be hard for someone else to fuck it all up, but putting a master like Silverman in complete control makes it a visual high point in The Simpsons’ history.

And then there’s Johnny Cash. He’s the perfect casting choice for Homer’s spirit guide, with a deep, commanding voice that fully captures the immense gravity of the character’s words. When you have Johnny Cash saying something, it sounds important, and that natural authority makes his humorous lines even funnier. He does outstanding work playing the shaman role with his pearls of cosmic wisdom, but he also has a lot of fun leaning into the coyote side of his character. How I would love to be a fly on the wall of that recording studio to see Johnny Cash make gnawing sounds; he really commits to this role, giving a performance that puts him high on the list of exceptional Simpsons guest stars.

As someone who covers Adventure Time on a weekly basis, I can see a lot of that series in this episode, specifically the way it embraces bold, fantastic visuals while keeping one foot in grounded emotional reality. That dynamic has garnered remarkable results on the Cartoon Network series, and it leads to an incredibly poignant episode of The Simpsons by putting Homer and Marge’s love in a metaphysical context. This isn’t just a story about Homer and his wife, this is a story about Homer and his soul mate, the person that he was destined to be with and who completes him on a spiritual level. He assumes that person is Marge, but when she reacts negatively to his return home, he begins to wonder whether or not they are truly meant to be.

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Many of The Simpsons’ strongest episodes deal directly with obstacles in Homer and Marge’s marriage, which are usually put there by Homer. At the start of this episode, Marge makes her husband promise that he won’t drink any beer at the annual chili cook-off because he embarrassed her in front of the entire town last year by getting naked in the cotton candy machine, and while Homer ultimately doesn’t imbibe of any alcohol, his sobriety disappears after he eats Chief Wiggum’s chilies. The circumstances of Homer’s bender don’t matter to Marge when he comes home the following day; to everyone else at the fair, it looked like Homer was once again acting a drunken fool, and Marge is tired of being judged for her spouse’s actions.

The episode does a very good job of showing the scrutiny Marge is under by the other people of Springfield, a scrutiny that is embodied by the tactless, nosy Helen Lovejoy. When she sees Marge alone on the dance floor, Helen assumes that Homer is off drinking, and when Homer freaks out during his chili-induced hallucination, Helen makes sure Marge knows about her husband’s antic before she hears it from “some gossipy neighbor.” This episode has no subplot, instead focusing on both sides of Marge and Homer’s conflict, and devoting ample time to Marge’s frustrations makes Homer’s redemption all the more meaningful.

Because this kind of thing has happened so many times in the past, the viewer can really sympathize with Marge’s feelings, but we’ve also seen the love between the spouses in their best moments, so we want them to find their way back to each other. And they do, because this is truly a love that is written in the stars. No matter what stupidity Homer gets up to, Marge will always be by his side, even when she doesn’t have a great reason to. This devotion becomes questionable in later seasons as Homer became more of a straight-up jerk rather than a lovable oaf, but at this moment in the show’s history, Marge finding her way to the lighthouse is a heartwarming moment that reveals just how well she understands her husband and how much she worries about him when he’s not with her.

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“El Viaje Misterioso De Nostro Jomer” is best remembered for its surreal second act, but the insight into Homer and Marge’s relationship is what makes it more than just a stunning visual experiment. It’s an episode that pushes boundaries as it explores a variation on a common theme of the series, taking a familiar plot and turning it into something fresh and immensely powerful. It brings a mythical quality to Homer and Marge’s marriage, and after 26 seasons, their love really has become the stuff of legend.

Stray observations:

  • Homer’s useless sections of the newspaper: World, Arts, Religion.
  • My favorite background gag at the chili cook-off: “It takes weeks to make Muntz.”
  • Ralph Wiggum is a voice of reason in this episode, warning Homer that he’s about to drink candle wax. I wonder how many times Ralph has drank candle wax in his life?
  • I love that moment when Mrs. Krabappel sounds like a Peanuts teacher.
  • The character design for the coyote does a great job of making him appear alien by giving him a silhouette of hard edges rather than the curved look that is the Simpsons standard. Very smart design work.
  • When Homer calls the classified ad, G.B.M. stands for Gay Black Male, right?
  • There’s a great contrast in the two pieces of music used in this episode: Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen” evokes all of Homer’s melancholy as he searches for his soul mate in vain, and The Royal Teens’ “Short Shorts” moves in the opposite direction to fill the episode’s final moments with carefree joy.
  • “I’m more of a mail tamperer.”
  • “Look at me. I’m a puffy pink cloud!”
  • “Of course everything looks bad if you remember it.”
  • “Eight spices. Some must be doubles. ‘Or-eh-gah-no’? What the hell?”
  • “They say he carved it himself—from a bigger spoon.”
  • Todd: “Daddy, are you going to jail?” Ned: “We’ll see, son. We’ll see.”
  • Dr. Hibbert: “By all medical logic, steam should be shooting out of his ears.” Krusty: “His ears if we’re lucky.”
  • “Note to self: Stop doing anything.”
  • Coyote: “The problem, Homer, is that the mind is always chattering away with a thousand thoughts at once.” Homer: “Yeah, that’s me alright.” (Wind howling.)
  • “Oh honey, I didn’t get drunk, I just went to a strange fantasy world.”
  • “This is just your memory. I can’t give you any new information.”
  • Bart: “Hey, look! Is that dad?” Lisa: “Either that, or Batman’s really let himself go.”
  • Homer: “In your face, space coyote!” Marge: “Space coyote?”

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