Monday, January 16, 2012

Northern Exposure - S1E3

Check out the big brain on Ed!

“Soapy Sanderson,” Season 1 Episode 3, originally aired July 26, 1990
In the last review I touched on how much of a formative impact Chris had on me, especially during my adolescence. The truth is that many of the characters from the show influenced me in some way. This is almost to be expected: a well-told story will have characters that the audience can identify with in some capacity – if not sympathize with – across the board. During the run of an ensemble television show, though, we tend to glom onto one or two characters. Frequently this takes the form of the oft-mocked “shipping” between the de facto romantic leads, as that lends both a dynamic tension and an element of consistency: seeing the characters weather something together, aside from whatever the episodic storylines might be. There is not much of this to be had in Northern Exposure, as it’s pretty clear from the pilot forward that Joel and Maggie are destined for some sort of romantic entanglement. So the tension there is more of a “when, when, when?”

This third episode further develops a few series-spanning elements that have helped serve as a touchstone in my memories of the show: the relationship between Joel and Maggie; the use of Chris to reflect on the themes of the show; Ed’s love of and interest in film. It is this last that held the most relevance to me. It’s not so much that Ed is a cinema geek, or a wannabe filmmaker, or even the closest to me in age at the time, that caused me to identify with him more so than Chris – though these signifiers certainly helped. There’s something in his nature: earnestness, sensitivity, and sometimes naiveté but coupled with a desire to learn. To use an analogy from one of my favorite movies: just as I may want to be like Ferris Bueller, I know I am like Cameron Fry (who that movie is about, anyway). Same thing with Chris and Ed. Or, to put it another way, and more directly reflecting the themes of the show: if Chris is the font of knowledge, perpetually sharing music, literature and other arts (including his own works), and is sometimes used as a device by the writers to impart wisdom, then Ed is the student, not only the youngest but also the one who is actively learning, about the themes that come up in the series, who finds something to be passionate about and begins exploring his interest – which is just as much of a device. What makes Northern Exposure special is that these characters-as-devices are normally used in a pretty organic manner, so that we believe both of them as aesthetes. (Never was a show as concerned with the idea of and evocation of beauty.) We see when Ed’s interest in film turns from relatively passive to active, and this evolves in a clever way throughout this episode.
The titular character is an old man (John McLiam) that lives in an even more remote part of Alaska. Maggie visits Soapy by plane to bring him back to Cicely, to see Joel about his broken hip. We don’t get to see much of Soapy, just a nice conversation with Maggie that reveals the mythology of her boyfriends all meeting untimely deaths (Soapy tells her “You have terrible taste in terms of longevity”), and the office visit, where he has a knowing laugh as he hears Joel and Maggie argue. He seems to leave in good spirit. Then Ed comes in to the Brick with a note from Soapy to Joel, summoning both he and Maggie to his cabin. They find that Soapy has killed himself. 
Their relationship, distilled.
From here the episode branches out to its two plotlines. Soapy leaves his 100 acres and team of champion huskies to Maggie and Joel, who of course fight about what they should do. (Soapy also leaves cash for Holling’s bar, and his country western records to Chris.) Joel chides Maggie about her wish for the land: “An animal preserve? So all the Alaskans can have a good place to get back to nature?” When Joel is offered $50,000 by Chief Ronkonkoma (Nick Ramus) for the land as a tax shelter, to be developed, the next scene is Joel being nice to Maggie at the Brick, the Get out of My Contract light bulb again flickering over his head. With Maggie impressed/placated by Joel’s idea to give the land back to the natives, he places some hurried phone calls to his fiancée Elaine.
A documentary crew, Laurie (Christa Miller [!]) and Kim (Darryl Fong), arrive from Kenyon College, because Doctor Sanderson was a professor of theology and mythology there, as well as a major benefactor. Ed greets them and acts as their guide and assistant, gradually becoming more involved in the shoot, until he’s holding the camera and giving directions. They interview the townsfolk (Chris, Shelly [Cynthia Geary finally gets some lines in her “talking head” and in a brief scene earlier], Maggie, Holling, Maurice) for their recollections of Soapy, and are equally concerned with the Alaska-ness of the town. In their segment with Chris, they ask him to speak of the “real Alaska,” and he relates a story by Robert Bly about a man who knowingly ventures into a forest from which no return, sees a hand come up from a lake and take his dog, and looks up to the heavens and says “this must be the place,” which is how Chris feels about Alaska. 

The time on her watch? When young Eric was imprinted. "Oh, strong-willed brunettes for life? Got it."
Maggie visits Joel in his cabin, and the two end up having a fireside dinner over a bottle of Lafite Rothschild 1975 that Soapy had in his collection, and just when things might be going Joel’s way (without his knowing), he panics about the inevitability of her finding out his plans for their land, and in a comedy of errors she feels self-conscious about hitting on Joel. It is this intimate evening that makes what comes later so much harder for Maggie.

The storylines converge when Maggie learns of Joel’s true motivation with Soapy’s land. Having already been told by the documentary crew (toeing the line between expository and participatory modes) that she reminded Soapy of his wife, Maggie learns of the development deal; meanwhile,  the documentary crew is in Joel’s office. They have him read from a letter attributed to Chief Seattle in 1852 written to the President (read here by Joseph Campbell), “The President in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land. But how can you buy or sell the sky? The land? […]” The reading transitions from Joel, being taped in his office, to a voice over as Maggie quickly walks down the street. As Joel continues, “whatever he does to the web he does to himself…” Maggie comes in, at first off-camera, and continues the letter from heart “… for destiny is a mystery to us. What will happen when the buffalo are all slaughtered?” The video camera finds her, her face filling the frame with emotion, and watches as she turns the speech back on Joel and continues in her own words, calling him out on his actions and character. Like all great fights, it spills into the street – Ed, to himself as much as to Laurie and Kim, exclaims “That was great!” and asks if they got it on tape – and when Joel catches up to Maggie, we know that she’s not only angry at Joel but disappointed in him, because she allowed Soapy’s opinion to color her own.
There is a scene between Chris and Joel in the DJ booth that plays nice enough but makes text out of the subtext. Chris says to Joel “If you’re here for four more years or four more weeks, you’re here right now. I think when you’re somewhere, you ought to be there, because it’s not about how long you stay in a place, it’s about what you do while you’re there, and when you go, is that place any better for your having been there. Am I answering your question?” “No, not really.” While this is actually the basic theme of the series, in a re-watch it seems a little much.
This is just a great shot.
There are other elements that seem forced, such as the music during the denouement with Joel and Maggie: the score rises and tells us to feel, when all we need is the story and the acting. They make up, in a sense, and spread Soapy’s ashes over the peaks. The final scene is a clever “dialogue” trick that I’ve not seen too often (though its inclusion doesn’t really make sense except for comedic purposes), with Joel and Ed airing their experiences of the last couple of days, but not actually directly responding to each other. It’s like a staccato joint monologue, until Ed has the final line: “I don’t think I’m ever going to be the same after this… she kissed you?!”

Shameless Stray Observations Rip-Off Miscellany Section:
  • “So what do you want me to do? Absolve you?” “Boy, you are a hard nut to crack.” Yeah, but those are the best kind.
  • In a filmic choice by the show’s writers, parts of the letter from Chief Seattle are skipped.
  • When I was a teenager, having not known who Robert Bly was, I thought Chris was talking about some story from the 1800’s. And he is, in a way, as this was originally a fairy tale from The Brothers Grimm, called “Iron John.” But it turns out Robert Bly’s version of the story is from Iron John, published in 1990, and that the book is credited with starting the “mythopoetic men’s movement,” or psychological and emotional self-help through exploration of cultural myths. This is very interesting in regards to Chris and the notion of gender, and how Northern Exposure’s creators might have approached his character – or at least what they had him be aware of. But that’s something to delve into another time… (In my opinion, when Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse turned Lost into a reading list of sorts, it often felt more like “Easter eggs” or even cheats than an integral part of the story or characters.) You can read an interview with Robert Bly and article about his ideas here.
  • How can Laurie and Kim not come up with The Searchers? Ed for the win. This was before IMDb or Netflix, when film knowledge was more hard-earned – especially for a kid in a small Alaskan town.
  • “You were coming on to me… then I stopped you?” Some people graduated but they still stupid.
  • “Soapy did not believe in artificial sweeteners.” I love Shelly’s hesitation at that.
  • “You are the most vile, odious, pernicious waste of corpuscles I’ve ever had the misfortune to lay my eyes on!”
  • “Did he see it as a metaphor of the hero’s journey into the wilderness, to face himself?” “Uh, he thought it was fun.” The show was never afraid to poke fun at itself or expectations.
  • “Soapy used to say that Alaska wasn’t just a state, but a state of mind.” Remember this, folks.
  • “I gotta be honest. That woman and the Hippocratic Oath are having a hard time together in my head.”
  • The teleplay for this is by Karen Hall (who wrote for M*A*S*H, Hill Street Blues, and The Good Wife), and the story co-written with the famous-for-more-than-his-scripts Jerry Stahl. The D.P., James Hayman, was the cinematographer for thirteen other episodes; he went on to direct five episodes, including one of my absolute favorites, the beautiful “The Graduate” from the sixth season. (Reading over the IMDb listings for these first few episodes is interesting, as most everyone behind the camera had long careers in TV and/or film.)
Personal notes:
This should be the start of my return to a schedule. I had some family matters and other pertinent obligations to deal with in the past month, but it looks like I’ll be able to post these once a week again. I thank you for your patience and your continued interest. I’m going to make next week’s a two episode review, to see how I like that format change – and hopefully transition into more of a review for each and less of a recap. That both of the coming episodes are mostly inherently comedic should help. These first few episodes are still laying a lot of groundwork, so I feel more attention is needed to the actual goings-on of the plot. Also, it should be a lot less wordy. Damn.
Now that I know how to do screencaps off of my DVDs, I hope to incorporate more images, and comments on direction and such, as I move forward. The show really does have some beautiful imagery in the coming seasons, not solely because of its location.
I want to give a proper shout-out to a site I came across a few years ago*, and which I now find to be a valuable resource and just a great all-around fansite, with lots of very cool things to offer, beyond anything I could hope to include here: I think I’ll try to attend Moosefest 2012! 
* cough I’ll let you find the information about the DVDs cough


  1. Re: your bit about wanting to be like Chris, yet knowing you were like Ed: Friends and I knew that, while we all wanted to be like Chris, the person we _should_ try to be like was Holling. Steady, thoughtful, deliberate in making decisions, not rejecting what one doesn't immediately comprehend.

  2. My mother and I watched this religiously... now I want to watch it all over! I bought her all the seasons on DVD. Great post! Will be looking forward to more!

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