“Aurora Borealis: A Fairy Tale for Big People” is a mythic and magical story of the moon, of creativity, of imaginings and meetings, searching and finding. The episode is well placed at the end of season one because it incorporates many elements from the previous seven episodes (dreams, family, dualities, small town Alaska as a place for independent seekers) and introduces two unique recurring characters that add both intellect and heart to the show.
The town of Cicely is either blessed or cursed, depending on perspective, with a prevalent full moon that is granting an excess of light (“This moon is like sleeping with a searchlight on,” says Maggie O’Connell (Janine Turner)) and a passageway to dreams and imagination (“The unconscious is revealed to us through the imagery of our dreams,” Chris Stevens (John Corbett) attributes to Carl Jung). The moon is a real phenomenon that is engendering surreal ideas and strange behavior, or so the residents of Cicely believe.
Another shared belief among Cicelians is the legend of Adam, a mythologized boogeyman-like being that roams the outskirts of Cicely and is thought responsible for unexplained crimes. Joel (Rob Morrow) hears rumors of Adam from Ed (Darren E. Burrows), Ruth Anne (Peg Phillips), and Maggie, and even though they disclaim Adam’s existence, the story builds in Joel’s mind. In true fairy tale fashion, Joel drives into the wilderness (the journey into the unconscious) to make a house call on Ranger Burns (John Procaccino), a park ranger whose sole job is to look for forest fires (a searching motif). Joel is stranded on his moonlit drive home when his truck breaks down (a possible break in consciousness). He is first robbed and then rescued by Adam, who proceeds to cook Joel a gourmet dim sum dinner, teach Joel proper cooking technique, house Joel for the night, and fix Joel’s truck. Adam also tells Joel a litany of extraordinary truths and pathological lies, saying that he was a prisoner of war in Vietnam, living in the bush for 15 years, and that he attended cooking school in Buffalo, New York, contradictorily at the same time.
Though Adam may be real, he lives in an imaginary world of his own making. Adam is also unpleasant and insulting (though a delight to viewers) in a curmudgeonly way. He is, in some ways, the full realization of Joel’s shadow side. Joel is often rebuked by Maggie for lacking human sentiment; Adam plainly tells Joel that he does not like people and, after some annoyance with Joel’s questioning and disbelief in his identity, threatens to kill Joel. Joel is particular about the details and elevated status of his craft, which is medicine. Adam is outright hostile about proper cooking technique, which famous chef stole his gourmet recipe, and details that a culinary peon like Joel cannot grasp (“It’s cumin! Are you satisfied? It’s cumin!”). Both Joel and Adam consider themselves outsiders, unique in their identities and circumstances, refined in their tastes, and with experience in the New York food scene.
When Joel returns to Cicely (the conscious world) to tell everyone that he found Adam in the woods, his revelation is met with skepticism and disbelief. Only Ed, who seems to accept anything as possible and is quite possibly the character least given to judgment, and Maggie accompany Joel on his return quest to prove that Adam exists. This time, the dark area where Adam’s cabin stood is vacant. Joel thinks his journey may have been a dream after all until he finds an overlooked garlic press, a totem of the reality of his meeting.
Adam is one stranger introduced as a half of a pair with one of the series characters. Bernard (Richard Cummings, Jr.) is the other. However, Joel found Adam by going into his realm. Chris found Bernard when Bernard entered Chris’s world, having had a strange dream five nights previous that prompted him to quit his job at the Internal Revenue Service, sell his condo, buy a motorcycle and drive from Portland north, to Cicely, Alaska, knowing neither where he was going nor why he was going there. Chris started his sculpture, “Aurora Borealis,” at the same time that Bernard had the dream to leave Portland. Chris has been working in the daylight and the moonlight on the sculpture in anticipation of the northern lights, but he doesn’t know how to finish it.
Bernard, who is not an artist, knows how to finish the sculpture. Bernard is the missing link in the artwork and by synchronicity (in keeping with the Jungian flair of the episode) happens to be Chris’s twin half-brother, born of the same father on the same day of the same year. A shared dream that plays fully in the realm of the collective unconscious starts to reveal the truth of Bernard’s identity and the irrational yet meaningful reason why he set forth on his journey to Alaska to realize that Chris is the brother he found without consciously searching.
Bernard and Chris have their final conversation under the light not of the full moon, which Chris has likened to a trickster figure (“He’s too much of a kidder.”), but of the aurora borealis, as they sit with their completed sculpture before Bernard returns home to his regular life. The other residents of Cicely stand in front of the completed Aurora Borealis sculpture not entirely understanding what they are seeing. Shelley (Cynthia Geary) doesn’t understand it, but loves it. Maurice (Barry Corbin) doesn’t understand it and judges it. Ed reports an unbiased, obvious observation (“It sure is big.”). The interesting thing about the conclusions of all of the stories is how the different characters respond to their lacks of understanding of the very things they’ve been waiting to see.
To call “Aurora Borealis” a grand ending to the first season of Northern Exposure would be inadequate praise. Its grandeur is under the surface, just as the surreal elements of the story don’t interrupt, but rather compliment and fit seamlessly with the real: Adam is a real human being; Chris and Bernard are biologically brothers. Yet, both instances are steeped in mythos. This is the stuff of which subsequent episodes are made. Most of the episodes of season one develop the plight of Joel Fleischman and the cast of characters in Cicely. “Aurora Borealis” solidly introduces the tone of the “otherworldly benign,” the idea that a surreal, sometimes spiritual reality coexists in harmony with everyday, waking life. Bernard tells Chris, “Nobody could have dreamt this.” The characters and their journeys are made real enough to support the rather Jungian dual-world reality that will infuse the stories in future Northern Exposure seasons.
Additional mention goes to the music of “Aurora Borealis,” almost all of which is about the moon (“Moon River,” “Blue Moon,” “Moondance”) and dreams (“Mr. Sandman”) and most of which carries the theme of searching for someone, exploration, and sight.
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