TV Discussion

Northern Exposure’s ‘Seoul Mates’ – Looking back on the Christmas special

At the core of ‘Seoul Mates’, the tenth episode in Northern Exposure‘s third season, is Cicely’s annual Raven Pageant; an allegorical Christmas story of unspecified Native American extraction that combines the images of trickster figure and redeemer. The town is decorated in raven ornamentation, from actual bird carvings to raven lights and ornaments on the Christmas trees of the townsfolk. 

When New York Dr. Joel Fleischman (Rob Morrow) is sent to small-town Cicely Alaska to practice medicine as his end of the deal to pay back medical loans funded by the state of Alaska, he is dropped into the midst of a cast of eccentric individualists, townsfolk that are either native to the area or that have deliberately or serendipitously come to the town to exercise their freedom of thinking or living outside of the norm. The uniqueness of the town’s character does not preclude – and, in fact, lends itself well – to a year-round series of traditions and festivals that celebrate and commemorate the pageantry of life going by, with more than an occasional nod to the inherent spiritual proclivities in the human and natural world.

In addition to the unique spirit of the town, what matters is the characters’ journeys within the episode. Ex-astronaut and self-fashioned town patriarch Maurice Minnifield (Barry Corbin) laments the loneliness of the Christmas season for a single man without a family of his own. Moments later, he learns that he has a Korean family, with a son he fathered when he was a young man during the war. His reception of his new, unexpected family is less than heartwarming. Joel, who is Jewish, talks incessantly about the fun and festivity of Christmas trees, but is conflicted about having one of his own, despite the fact that other non-Christian townsfolk (Dave (William J. White), the cook at the local eatery, is an Animist) have Christmas trees in their homes.

READ MORE: A Charlie Brown Christmas – Enforced Merriment vs Seasonal Melancholy

Maggie O’Connell (Janine Turner), who left a debutante life in Grosse Point, Michigan to be a bush pilot in small-town Alaska, dreads her inevitable yearly holiday receipt of a plane ticket home to be with her family for Christmas. When she receives instead a letter telling her that her parents are going to St. Thomas this year, she lapses into denial and depression. Shelly Tambo (Cynthia Geary), former beauty contestant and very young girlfriend of 63-year old tavern owner and former hunter Holling Vincoeur (John Cullum) misses the Catholic Christmas Midnight Masses of her youth. Shop owner Ruth Anne (Peg Phillips) has a unique take on her own atheism, which precludes neither belief in a supreme being nor a subscription to The Christian Science Monitor. Chris Stevens (John Corbett), the town’s reformed ex-convict, spiritually philosophical DJ, observes all of these dramas, reads “The Raven,” discusses ravens in literature and ravens in the town’s Christmas pageantry as transcendental symbols, and tells about his own unique Christmas revelation when he was a child. 

In this excellent episode of Northern Exposure, Christmas blessings come first as challenges. Maurice learns some measure of acceptance and genuine community with his Korean family. Maggie and Joel find the right balance of giving and receiving their own traditions when Joel, who had hosted a Christmas tree in his living room with great reservation through most of the episode, decorates it and gives it to Maggie, who is uplifted from her disavowal of Christmas cheer. In the most moving scene, Holling decorates the community church/meeting hall as a Catholic nativity and sings “Ave Maria” to Shelly while she worships. The scene works as a stunning character piece of love and empathy. It is helped by John Cullum’s background as a Tony-award winning Broadway actor and singer. In the final scene, all of the characters attend the Raven Pageant. Joel’s quietly sage medical assistant/office manager Marilyn (Elaine Miles) has the starring role and narrates the story of the Raven, the final words of which, “From then on, we no longer lived in darkness,” move with the scene from the illuminated faces of the pageant-goers to quiet snowfall on a totem poll outside. 

READ MORE: A very ‘Supernatural’ Christmas – looking back on the classic seasonal special episode

I was absolutely enchanted with “Seoul Mates” when I first watched it in 1991. For many years, it was my go-to viewing on Christmas Eve and expressed, to me, both the individual meaning and communal fellowship of Christmas. The characters practice their own beliefs, but it is their acceptance and participation in others’ beliefs that frees them to fully practice their own. The story has spiritual power, but the religion and spirituality are allegorical in the story of the Raven and infused into the characters’ journeys. It is lyrical and personal; traditional for the season, yet a set of traditions unto itself. I have watched “Seoul Mates” at Christmas with my mom and grandmother and with friends many times since 1991, but I have neither seen it nor sought it recently. I don’t know why.

In rewatching this year, my memory for all of the events and details was intact. I remembered the trajectory and outcome of each character’s story. What had escaped me was the wonderment of all of those individuals living their lives as a community, accepting each others’ differences and, dare I say, oddities, and forgiving each others’ transgressions. “Seoul Mates” is the perfect Christmas story for people that want to be imbued with the spirit of Christmas, as well as for those that like ravens: those dark, decorative birds peppering the Cicelian Christmas landscape and ultimately bringing light to its people.

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