Last week’s episode of Northern Exposure dealt with themes of separation and death, actual death in the suicide of Soapy Sanderson (John McLiam) and death to one life in the interest of finding another life in another place, separate from the expectations of the former life, among the other residents of Cicely, Alaska. This week’s Northern Exposure is about courtships and connections, those that are successful and those that fail, in business, personal relationships, to nature, and of the characters to themselves.
Maurice (Barry Corbin) guides Joel (Rob Morrow) into pursuing traditional means of building a business relationship with the Japanese businessmen Mr. Chiba and Mr. Masuto (Lenny Imamura and Michael Paul Chan), a plot that ultimately fails as Maurice realizes that Mr. Masuto, whom Maurice thought spoke no English and was therefore unaware of Maurice’s culturally insensitive remarks, speaks perfect English. The episode leaves unclear whether Mr. Chiba and Mr. Masuto had sincere interest in doing business with Maurice, but they are successful at least in one-upping their arrogant host (Maurice) and in finding a compliant fellow golf enthusiast in Joel.
Maurice fails also in courtship. His long-held dream that Shelley (Cynthia Geary) will realize that he is the “better” man than Holling (John Cullum) and return to him is dashed when Shelley asks him to sing at her wedding to Holling. The failure of that courtship is a relief, because Maurice is genuinely creepy in an older-powerful-man-lusting-after-a-young-girl stereotype of an extreme May-December romance. Maurice is at least able to express his distress in song, carrying the last two episodes his adoration of show tunes with a tone-deaf rendition of ‘Hello, Young Lovers’ from The King and I: “Don’t cry young lovers, whatever you do, Don’t cry because I’m alone….” Considering the age of the would-be groom, 62-two-year-old Holling, this is somewhat hilarious.
Holling and Shelley fail to connect when they play by conventional expectations and conventions. At Maggie’s (Janine Turner) advice, Shelley straightforwardly tells Holling that she is pregnant. Holling drops a tray of glasses and walks out. Shortly thereafter, he returns, proposes to Shelley, and even asks Shelley’s much younger father, Gorman Tambo (Anthony Curry) for Shelley’s hand in marriage. He fails to show up for the wedding ceremony, however, and when he returns days later, Shelley throws glasses across the bar at him. More thwarted convention, more broken glass.
Only after Holling takes Shelley outside the church—the center of tradition—and pleads his genuine fears and feelings about marriage and being left alone do they connect and understand each other. Ruth Anne (Peg Phillips) watches from the church window with all of the other peeping townspeople. She declares the occasion “the most beautiful non-ceremony I ever saw.” Holling and Shelley subvert the stereotype of an older man-younger woman relationship in bringing in Holling’s fear that he will outlive 18-year-old Shelley and in the devotion and loyalty of each one to the other in their unusual relationship.
Though not the focus in the episode, Maggie fails to court Joel’s attention. She is belligerent toward Joel, which is increasingly her defensive way of trying to pull her toward him by blaming him for who he is at least as much as what he does. It’s a poor strategy, but apparently subconscious. In addition, Maggie, thinking she is an appreciator of nature, uses the natural world to further complain about Joel’s behavior. She may well care for the natural surroundings, but her concern over the artificial turf golf course, which was actually Ed’s (Darren E. Burrows) idea, is another way to criticize Joel.
Maggie is also at odds with her own nature. She is completely absorbed and interested in the decor and propriety of wedding preparation, yet denies that this is part of herself. She is defensive because it is not in keeping with her independent bush pilot persona. She claims that she is only doing her due diligence as Shelley’s maid of honor, and criticizes Joel for his perceived lack of concern. Joel as well as Maggie are actually the characters sensitive to both Shelley and Holling, neither of whom seems overly concerned with the details of wedding etiquette, but Maggie is unable to see this.
Shelley, on the other hand, knows herself. The first three episodes of the series feature Shelley as a curiosity, the girl that has hooked up with two men much, much older than she is. This episode gives her much more depth as a person. She acknowledges her youth to Holling, but also tells him that she knows how people are supposed to treat each other. She’s wiser than her visiting father, who has little class and speaks disparagingly of Shelley, Holling, and himself. She also bests Maurice in class and self-knowledge. When Maurice appeals for Shelley to come back to him by saying that he’s so much better than Holling, Shelley acknowledges that that may be, but tells Maurice that Holling is better for her.
Ed is the character most connected to himself, paradoxically by being aware of his surroundings and by not focusing on himself. He’s also the most connected to nature, acting with nature but not aggrandizing it. At the beginning of the episode, Joel sees Ed as wandering aimlessly onto the golf course, but as the viewpoint changes from Joel to Ed, Ed acknowledges that he saw the ball heading toward him and saw it hook to the side. He knows exactly where the lost golf ball landed across the field in a tangle of branches down a slight ravine.
The idea of loss and leaving is a concern in all of the stories. Last week, leaving one place behind was a positive thing, an exciting adventure (perhaps not for Joel) of coming into one’s own true nature. This week, being left is negative and fearful; people are left out of things most desired. Maurice is consumed with Shelley having left him over a year ago, so much so that he loses the business deal. Joel has left New York in person but not in his mind; losing the business deal compounds his loss of his New York life. Holling fears being left alone because of his family’s past history. Though not explicitly stated in the episode, Maggie is afraid of being left by her boyfriends consistently dying. Shelley’s father even calls himself a “four-time loser” in marriage.
The characters that deal with leaving and loss and that can metaphorically let go of the traditional expectations that bind their behavior and perceptions are the people that make successful connections. Holling accepts that committing to love Shelley means that he might one day be alone again. Shelley accepts that Holling is good for her even if he’s not a traditional marrying man. Ed is present where he is and accepts the interaction of the human world and the natural world.
The episode is titled ‘Dreams, Schemes, and Putting Greens’, none of which comes to pass. Joel dreams of reducing his term of service in Alaska and getting back to New York and to Elaine. Maurice dreams of a business deal that will make money and expand the commercial potential of Alaska. He also dreams that Shelley will want to return to him. Joel and Maurice scheme to make a deal with the visiting Japanese businessmen. Holling plans to marry Shelley. Maggie, in her own way, schemes to get Joel’s attention by provoking him into arguments. Joel constructs an artificial turf golf course that molds in the rain because it has no drainage system, no other way out. The usual plans go awry.
Joel disconnects himself at the end. He backslides on the self realizations of the last two episodes in his zeal to get a break in Maurice’s deal with the businessmen. His driving desire to get out of his contract and go home to New York is the overriding temptation in all of his decisions. He complains about where he is; he complains about where he is not: in New York. He is separating himself from the town, but he is also becoming separated from his former life. The party for Holling and Shelley is in full swing at The Brick, but Joel separated himself to call Elaine, from whom he is separated, by himself in his office. He calls Elaine back at the end of the scene, but he is connected to her answering service. Joel then walks into the dark outside, where he encounters his doppelgänger moose, who is also traversing the streets of Cicely by himself.
This is an interesting and melancholic ending to an episode in which the rest of the town, unseen to the audience, is partying in celebration of the non-marriage of their 62-year-old mayor, Holling, and his 18-year-old beauty queen life partner, Shelley. It is an unusual ending to a series in which almost every life passage will be celebrated with a fete or jubilee attended by all manner of characters. Though the episode is entertaining and highly amusing in many parts (Maurice’s singing come foremost to mind), the ending in rewatching plays like a harbinger of separations yet to come.
Thus the cycle of separation and connection comes around by the end of this fourth episode of Northern Exposure.
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