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Northern Exposure 1×05 – ‘Russian Flu’ – TV Rewind

Dreams unwind again in this week’s episode of Northern Exposure. Last week, the dreams were metaphorical; they were wishes entirely of the waking world. This week’s episode, “Russian Flu,” is the start of Northern Exposure playing in the unconscious world of dream imagery and symbolism.

Is “Russian Flu” in its entirety a dream? Whose dream is it? Is it Joel’s (Rob Morrow)? Is it Elaine’s (Jessica Lundy), Joel’s visiting fiancé? Is it the flu-stricken town’s collective dream? The episode aired on August 9, 1990, very close in time to shows that either hit the reset button on a storyline or concluded their tenures with the trope of the series being “all just a dream” of one of the characters. Perhaps the cleverest and most memorable of these was the series finale of Newhart, which aired not three months prior to “Russian Flu.” Northern Exposure creators Brand and Falsey’s previous creation, St. Elsewhere, which aired its final episode almost two years to the day before the Newhart finale, ended with the suggestion that the series had been the imaginary creation of a child looking into a snow globe. The timeliness and pedigree for Northern Exposure dream sequences is strong. However “Russian Flu” is more about dream elements becoming real and a dreaming of fictitious relationships among events occurring in the real world than a dream as a mirage or falsehood.

In the external story, Joel (Rob Morrow) is eagerly anticipating a visit from his fiancé Elaine (Jessica Lundy) who is flying in from New York. As fate would have it, Elaine’s visit coincides with a flu outbreak in the town. Joel is called to attend to sick patients and accused of Soviet collusion by the fevered townspeople when he mentions that the flu virus could be of Russian origin. Marilyn (Elaine Miles) concocts a tribal remedy called hio hio ipsanio that looks and smells like moose dung, but seems to cure the afflicted. While Joel deals with the medical crisis, Elaine spends time with Maggie (Janine Turner), who then becomes an object of focus in Joel and Elaine’s conversations.

One remarkable sequence in the episode is Joel’s fast-asleep, standard night dream, complete with juxtaposed images and relationships and illogical incorporation of elements of waking life. A later scene is not quite a dream, but certainly a dream-like reimagining of the show’s images. Overall, though, the episode segues between waking and dream worlds with surrealist elements connecting the story.

The most prominent recurring theme is illness and infiltration. The flu virus has infiltrated the town, first intruding on Joel’s planned weekend with Elaine. The first patient that Joel sees with the flu happens to be the pilot that Joel has hired to fly Elaine from Anchorage to Cicely. When Maggie, who is well, agrees to fly to Anchorage and back to get Elaine, she starts to become involved—an intrusion—in every aspect of Joel and Elaine’s weekend. She becomes an intrusion in absentia when Elaine mentions her every time she and Joel begin a conversation.

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How did Elaine get sick? The people with whom she’s been in contact—Maggie, Joel, Ed as a visitor at Joel’s—are three out of the four people (Marilyn is the fourth) that haven’t gotten sick. This is unassumingly presented but unusual; Elaine has been confined in Joel’s cabin for the entire episode, not mingling with virus-carriers. Something infiltrates her domestic abode. Even more interesting is Elaine’s containment. Why would she not go into town with Joel when he has to go to his office? This is rich subtext considering the larger Russian history subplot and metaphor of the flu epidemic.

The town imagines that this flu could be a desperate attempt at domination by the now-crumbling Soviet Union, which, at the real-world air date of this episode, had little over a year left in existence. “Russian Flu” could refer to this accelerating decline in the real world as well as illness as an infiltrating force within the television narrative. Restrained hilarity emerges at the all-town meeting, at which time Joel is accused of being a possible KGB operative (“Your parents marched in candlelight vigils for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg!” one ailing lady accuses Joel.). Ed tells Joel he learned a lot at the meeting, expressing wonder at his new knowledge of the power struggle in the Kremlin when Andropov died. This infusion of Soviet history as comedy is fascinating at this point in real, historical time. Attribute the paranoia to the feverish symptoms of the flu sufferers, but the idea of Russian infiltration runs through the episode in subtler, more imaginative ways.

Elaine is very colorful in dress and in the pleasantness and unassuming quality of her personality, in contrast to Joel and in contrast to the flu-induced state of illness and confusion in the town, and in contrast to the gray image of Bolshevik Russia. However, the episode has a profusion of red. Elaine first appears wearing a bright red jacket, which she wears again at the end. “Red” is the name of the pilot that Joel originally hired to fly Elaine to Cicely from Anchorage. Ed, encouraging citizens to call in with requests when he fills in for Chris on the radio, looks at a bright red telephone that is not ringing. Joel protests spending their evening with Maggie, telling Elaine that Maggie’s boyfriend comes from a long line of Cossacks. The Cossacks were part of the White army that fought the Bolshevik “Red” army in the Russian Revolution.

Many other repeated dreamlike images, related phrases, and symbols pepper the episode. Joel mentioned or imagines chicken soup no fewer than five times, each time with increasing unreality. First, he names his bubbie’s chicken soup as a remedy for the flu. He tells Dr. Serrano (a possible play on “Cyrano”—Joel is clearly at a point of conflict in his relationship with a woman), whom we hear over the phone, “I need vats of chicken soup airlifted from Brooklyn.” Later, he tells Elaine that he’ll ask someone from The Brick to bring her a big bowl of chicken soup. He comments that the soup from The Brick is oily, which gets to the consistency of the substance, an idea he reinterprets in his dream sequence when Elaine tells him she’s cooking chicken soup. In the dream, Joel replies, “No one makes a hio hio ipsanio sauce like you, Elaine,” reimagining chicken soup as the episode’s other curative substance, the mysterious tribal remedy hio hio ipsanio.

Marilyn won’t tell Joel the ingredients of hio hio ipsanio and tells him that he doesn’t want to know. Joel asks Marilyn three times to tell him, and she smiles and ignores him. The number three seems significant, although it is eclipsed by the dung-like properties of this curative. The number three in dreams often represents the wholeness of mind, body, and spirit. It could indicate whole health in this instance, something for which Joel is unknowingly striving. The name “hio hio ipsanio” even sounds like a dreamlike, magical substance, especially when repeated, and particularly in the dream sequence that is the absolute treat of this episode.

All of the prominent characters from Joel’s life in Cicely are in Joel’s dream of New York. They’re in altered but similar forms to their Cicelian selves. Chris is guest hosting for Larry King. Maurice, in full astronaut regalia, is in town for a fundraiser. Holling, the doorman, is a gracious host, and respectful to Shelley, a colorful call girl. Ed is the elevator operator and new collaborator of Woody Allen, whose biography on Kierkegaard Ed is currently reading. Marilyn is apparently Joel’s maid. The outside dream scene has classic images and locations in New York, with added elements inspired by the state of Alaska and the flu. One store has a sign reading “Russian Gifts.” Maurice is hosting a walkathon along the Iditarod Trail to raise money for the Russian emigres.

Inside the apartment, the decor is Native American, with fish images, totem poles, and Joel’s dream children dressed in fur coats. Joel calls them “little Eskimos.” Elaine is in the background in the kitchen just as she is in the background of the episode, rather domestically stirring a pot of liquid. A large, chocolate moose head with red eyes—red for the Russian component as well as for illness—is in the foreground. Elaine tells Joel they’re having a can of chicken soup and a chocolate moose, a clever play on both chocolate mousse, which Joel and Elaine might equate with their dream of life in New York, and the moose dung that Joel suspects comprises the poo-like substance hio hio ipsanio. “No one makes a hio hio ipsanio sauce like you, Elaine,” Joel says proudly. Elaine tells Joel that he’s a sweet brother, echoing the remarks (“Give my regards to your sister”) made by Chris and Maurice outside the apartment. Standing on the bed in a flight jacket and goggles, wind blowing, effecting an Amelia Earhart countenance is Maggie, who is Joel’s wife. Dream Maggie has intruded on Dream Joel’s expectation of his domestic life and is the wild and unexpected element in dream Joel’s existence.

Real-life Joel wakes up on the couch next to the flu-ridden Elaine, no doubt befuddled and between lives. This is Northern Exposure’s first dream sequence, and it is a near-perfect non-linear combination of the elements of Joel’s life and subconscious. He continues to pursue a conscious domestic existence, but he’s living in wilder times in his dream. As in previous episodes, Northern Exposure tends to extol the unexpected, wild life as more authentic than the traditional domestic.

References to Elaine as Joel’s sister continue after the dream sequence. Red Murphy, now recuperated and able to fly Elaine back to Anchorage for her return to New York, tells Joel, “I really like your sister.” One would hope that Red had not seen Joel and Elaine kissing on the lips before he made that comment, although the goodbye scene between them is more a parting in a familial relationship by this time. Even Maggie, visiting Joel after he succumbs to the flu at the end of the episode, says that Elaine would make a great sister. Elements from Joel’s life seem to have made their ways into his dream, and then those elements in his dream escaped back into his waking life in a very dream-like manner.

Projected images referencing movies also play a part in the tone of the episode. The image of Elaine in bed with her legs prominently extended and Joel framed standing in the doorway harkens to themes from The Graduate, the Mike Nichols film about a recent college graduate seduced by an older married woman. The visual reference to The Graduate and the repeated references to Elaine as Joel’s sister give the impression that Joel and Elaine do not have a relationship suitable for marriage.

Further suggestion of the dissolution of Joel and Elaine’s union comes in an unabashedly surreal scene that is an overt Twin Peaks homage, which is itself a fitting and funny response to television critics comparing the two shows for their small-town quirkiness and eccentric characters. The images are so direct—the murky atmosphere, the slow waterfall, the theme music, the snapping sounds, the references to a woman holding a log, coffee, and cherry pie—that the dream-likeness might be received only as a spoof of Twin Peaks. However, Twin Peaks used dreams as presentations of revelation, both to the characters and to the audience, and this Northern Exposure sequence is no different.

Joel likens the scenic overlook to which Holling has taken them to the netherworld. Holling says he is “stymied,” that the place is usually clear and bright. When Holling takes Joel and Elaine’s photograph, the screen flashes a brief afterimage, a photographic negative of their image together. Oddly, Holling talks about creation myths and how what is not seen opens the mind to the imagination. Elaine has probably had a lot of time to imagine, sequestered in Joel’s cabin. In response to Holling, Elaine starts to talk about Susan Sontag’s views on images before Joel cuts her off and tells Holling to take the picture.

Susan Sontag isn’t a dismissible reference in the episode however. In 1978, she wrote Illness as Metaphor, arguing against describing illness (cancer and tuberculosis in that era, rather than the flu) in metaphorical terms. This is interesting given how illness is used in this episode as a metaphor of infiltration. In addition, Sontag, who identified herself as a member of the political left, nevertheless spoke at a pro-Solidarity rally and criticized Communism as an inevitable result and form of Fascism. Toward the beginning of the episode, Maurice equates illness with moral failing. Then, once illness spreads and the town is discussing the flu as a Soviet threat, Maurice mentions that “The whole Commie system is bankrupt,” also equating illness to failure, even though he by then also has the flu.

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Sontag also wrote about photographic images determining what we are able to see, experience, and remember. Images of New York determine Joel’s and Elaine’s memories of their past relationship. The song played as Joel drives into town the day the Elaine is to arrive is “New York New York” by Grandmaster Flash: “New York New York, big city of dreams.” Joel tells Elaine that the problem isn’t them, but Alaska, and proceeds to describe images of New York, of “living the life we’ve dreamed.”

Other references to dreaming and sleep appear in the episode. The show starts with Joel waking up in his bed. Throughout the episode, Joel, Elaine, or both are reclining on the bed or sofa. At the end, Joel is once again in repose, this time sick on the sofa. Ed says that Chris “woke up on the funky side of the bed.” Twice, Maggie says, “In your dreams, Fleischman,” the second time as the final line of the episode when she departs to leave Joel on his own to apply the last remaining store of hio hio insanio to himself.

By the end, Joel is participating in the dream elements of the episode and of the town. Elaine, though missed, has become a separate element. Joel described at the beginning of the episode the familiarity that has begun to grow as he spends more time with the people in Cicely. In the final moments, he, with extreme reluctance and obvious disgust, slathers himself with the hio hio ipsanio that Maggie delivered to him, a personal and cultural exchange between them that is also a sort of really weird fecal baptism into the mythos of Cicely and a separation from his former life in New York.

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