Last week, Joel’s (Rob Morrow) plight, or rather plights, were on full display. He had a visiting fiancée who became ill with the same exotic flu that overwhelmed the town, the sick townspeople accused him of facilitating a Soviet conspiracy in the form of a Russian flu, and his relationship with his fiancée seemed doomed in Alaska. On this week’s episode of Northern Exposure, the other characters have their turns in the spotlight, and Joel is the sounding board and sympathetic advisor in everyone else’s stories. This is a new role for him, and it’s an interesting complement to his medical practice in this episode.
The stories in ‘Sex, Lies, and Ed’s Tapes’ all relate to developing a more mature, truer viewpoint. In each of three character pairings, one character is at odds with another for his lack of vision.
Shelley (Cynthia Geary) receives a surprise visit from her—surprise!—husband, Wayne (Brandon Douglas), a twenty-year old hockey player and fat-burger enthusiast. Shelley argues that Wayne is immature even as she describes her former relationship with Wayne as “having a crush” on him. She’s also forgotten that she’s married, a revelation that creates moral complexity for Holling (John Cullum). Holling isn’t a jealous person (“I’ll let you young people catch up on old times,” he tells Shelley and Wayne), whereas Wayne is clearly envious of Holling, several times referring to him as an old man. Shelley holds a teddy bear in scenes when she is visited by Wayne and then Holling, highlighting her youth in either relationship.
In the end, Holling realizes he should support Shelley as she goes through a divorce with Wayne in spite of his personal moral misgivings about living with someone else’s wife. Shelley realizes that she probably should have remembered her marriage to Wayne and mentioned it to Holling, especially when she and Holling were almost wed two episodes previously. In the midst of this, Shelley finds out that she’s not pregnant, after all, but that her body believed itself to be pregnant, and she manifested the symptoms. Joel counsels Holling on his relationship with Shelley (“You and Shelley love each other”) and tells Shelley and Holling that hysterical pregnancies are extremely rare.
In the episode’s other relationship story, Maggie’s (Janine Turner) boyfriend Rick (Grant Goodeve) gets a physical for insurance purposes to renew his pilot’s license. He seems the specimen of physical health, but Joel discovers a small growth and biopsies it to test for malignancy. Rick worries that he is to be the next victim of “The O’Connell Curse,” Maggie’s history of having boyfriends die while dating her. While Maggie and Rick await the test results from the lab, Rick leaves town in a panic. He lies and tells Maggie he’s going away on business. Joel sympathizes with Maggie (and also gives no credence to “The O’Connell Curse”), and invites her to the Native festival at which Marilyn will be dancing. Joel tells Rick and Maggie that malignancies of the type of growth that Rick has are extremely rare. When Rick’s test results come back clear, Maggie accuses Rick of blaming her and running away (“You ran like a rabbit”). Unlike Holling and Shelley, they end the episode split. It is Joel who reaches out in sympathy to Maggie, despite her less than welcoming responses to his attempt at friendship.
Meanwhile, Ed (Darren E. Burrows) is trying to write a screenplay. His relationship troubles are with Hollywood (“I don’t think me and the new Hollywood should be in bed together.”). This realization comes to him after three daydreams in which he envisions scenes in Cicely as played out as Hollywood films, with Chris (John Corbett), Maurice (Barry Corbin), Joel, Shelley, and Wayne in movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Midnight Cowboy. In each of his imagined narratives, Ed’s vision is more central to Cicely and less dependent on the Hollywood film that is filtering Ed’s view of the world, but he is still stuck within the constraints of someone else’s viewpoint, the worldview of the Hollywood blockbuster, driven by Maurice’s advice to “give the stud a gun” and “throw in a good-looking woman.” In contrast, Joel advises Ed to look to Woody Allen, who is loved by Hollywood even though he doesn’t make blockbusters. Joel says Woody Allen writes what he knows, and he encourages Ed to do the same. At the end of the episode, Ed comes into a more mature storytelling imagination, writing a story about the life in Cicely as it is, without spectacle.
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So much of the maturation in each story relies on characters making unobvious or untraditional choices. Shelley and Wayne are of similar age, have similar speech patterns (although Shelley is better equipped in the grammar department), and similar backgrounds. Holling and Shelley have nothing in common on the surface. Maggie and Rick are both rugged and outdoorsy, independent, and share a profession. Ed would have so much of a simpler experience if he could throw his creative lot in with the Hollywood concept films of his time.
One interesting subtext of ‘Sex, Lies, and Ed’s Tapes’ is the presentation of people’s bodies in terms of physical value. Rick is, or thinks he is, a perfect specimen of health. Wayne describes Shelley’s “bod” as having “more curves than the Stanley Cup.” Shelley nonchalantly tells Joel that Holling says that her nipples “are as hard as sapphires.” Physical conditions, in both cases, growths, lead to examinations of relationships. Also in both stories, the medical condition turns out to be false.
This is the first episode of Northern Exposure to directly address Native American culture. Previous episodes had characters, ideas, or practices from Native life, but these were not shown as a potential contrast to the surrounding population. The episode opens with Maurice and Chris arguing about Indian music: Chris says it’s very melodic and has its own specific lyricism; Maurice says it sounds like people throwing garbage cans. Marilyn (Elaine Miles) has to tell Shelley that her dance contest is Indian dancing when Shelley asks Marilyn to teach her the hippy hop. Maggie questions Joel’s interest in attending a Native dance festival. These are the first indications of cultural differences that could be clashes between the Native and white populations. But, as Ed says in his screenplay, “Everyone here gets along pretty well together.”.
In ‘Sex, Lies, and Ed’s Tapes’, Joel takes a supportive rather than primary role in the storytelling, coming in as the mediator in the other characters’ stories. This provides opportunity for the other characters to develop and deepen, but not having Joel as a crux in a story makes the series of stories seem a little less fundamental to the overall show. Fortunately, the thematic threads running through the stories and Ed’s narration through his artistic struggles make the episode cohesive.