Season two of Northern Exposure begins with an episode that shows characters’ life dreams projected onto screens, a television screen in Shelley’s (Cynthia Geary) story and a movie screen in Joel’s (Rob Morrow). Both are windows into the characters’ worlds.
Joel has received a breakup letter from his fiancé Elaine on the eve of his visit to her in New York. Elaine reports that she has met someone else—a much older retired judge. She even tells Joel that the judge has retired to work on his watercolours, as though she were gabbing to a pal about her new beau rather than abruptly breaking up with her fiancé. Joel’s mind casts him in a trench warfare scenario—still reading the letter—in a World War I film. Stunned, Joel leaves the letter in his office and drives off. Later in the episode, Joel is sitting alone in a dark movie theatre when he “sees” projections on the screen from a former junior high girlfriend scolding him for his noncommittal ways and a former version of himself, who scolds him for his need for external affirmation and emotional insufficiency. The final movie projection is a dream, based on Ed’s (Darren E. Burrows) reference to The Graduate, in which Joel’s bangs on a church door, calling “Elaine! Elaine!” as Elaine is marrying a much, much older man.
Meanwhile, Holling (John Cullum) has purchased a satellite dish for The Brick so that Shelley can see the world from the comfort of their home and life together. While all the bar patrons lean in to the television to watch programs from around the world, it is Shelley, usually social and engaged, that sits alone, transfixed by whatever crosses the screen. Soon, Shelley is watching and imitating her favourite programs, memorising the schedule of everything from Puerto Rican soap operas to American game shows to nature programs and classic films. She shirks work, is cross with Holling, whom she alternately ignores or blames for not paying attention to her multitude of programs, and spends the $4000 she and Holling had saved for their honeymoon (for the marriage that never happened, a fair point Shelley makes) on Home Shopping Network items, such as a diamond studded tiara, a phone that resembles a hotdog, and a Chia Pet. When Holling suggests to Shelley that she has a problem and can’t go without watching for five minutes, Shelley has a meltdown and goes to see Chris (John Corbett), Cicely’s closest thing to a priest (Shelley is Catholic) to hear her confession of television addiction.
In Joel’s story, the movie screen shows Joel’s inner world of emotional experience. He is cowed by his insecurity as much as by the loss of Elaine. Following the three dream or reverie movie manifestations, Joel tells Ed that he does not have closure, which he explains to Ed as the last fifteen minutes of a movie. Ed, of course, understands any concept based in movie lingo, and recruits the town, specifically Maggie (Janine Turner) and Holling (John Cullum), to help give Joel closure, the final fifteen minutes of his movie with Elaine. Joel’s movie is his personal unconscious, his obsession with his inner thoughts and feelings that keep him in a crisis state until Ed, Holling, and Maggie, in an odd, whimsical, and apparently effective recreation of Joel’s best moment with Elaine, help him complete his “movie” and move forward.
For Shelley, the television is the window to the outer world that she wants to experience. Instead of bringing the world to Shelley, the television, or Shelley’s use of it, takes her out of her life, out of any life. She becomes obsessed with the outer world of things and the lives of people she doesn’t know (“Merv Griffin says no one has ever turned letters the way [Vanna White] turns the letters, and he owns hotels in Atlantic City.”). The television is used as a sort of manifestation of collective consciousness in the town, but unlike the other residents that gather to watch together, Shelley compulsively watched alone until she confessed her problem to Chris and sought Holling’s help in regulating her television exposure.
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That the closure of Joel’s story is enacted like a movie is a fitting ending, from Ed’s opening narration of the scene on a New York sidewalk to the scene cutting out at the end before we see Joel and Maggie go inside The Brick to have a beer. Interesting in parallel is the end of Shelley’s story, in which the turned off television is the last image as the episode fades out. In both instances, the stories continue, but our access to them ends with the end of a scene.
With the end of season one, Northern Exposure becomes more like a collective dream. “Goodbye to All That” presents television itself as a collective dream, following nicely from Chris’s discussion of the collective unconscious in “Aurora Borealis” last week. Watching has changed from discovering and observing the characters and goings on in Cicely to being immersed in some of the stories of their lives; it is no longer the sense of watching a separate tv show. In the ways that both Joel’s and Shelley’s stories end, the characters move back into their own lives, their “closure,” to borrow a concept from Joel’s drama, the end of what we see of them, but the stories are told in such a way to give the sense that their lives go on beyond our screens.
Interesting points in viewing:
Everyone in town knows about (and mentions) Joel being left by Elaine and about the letter. Chris even mentions that the letter was barely legible.
Shelley is wearing husky slippers when she dances on the bar to the “It’s a girl thing” music video.
Shelley says the $4,000 she and Holling set aside for their honeymoon was just sitting there, waiting for oil prices to go up. It’s interesting that Shelley, who in the last episode thought that the collective unconscious was a band, knows about the oil industry. She is surprisingly wise at times and young at other times.
Jessica Lundy, who played Elaine in season one’s “Russian Flu” is a missing presence. Although we only hear her voice, the actress that voices Elaine lacks the warmth and emotional connection that would make Joel’s loss of Elaine truly poignant.
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Chris is reading Freud when Shelley comes to see him to ask him to hear her confession.
In her letter, Elaine says she is with a much older man, and Joel’s dream sequence shows her wedding to a considerably older and seemingly feeble man. Contrast this with Holling and Shelley, whose considerable age difference is becoming a healthy part of their relationship as an aspect that presents differences and obstacles and for them to overcome together.
The television provided by Holling when he purchases the satellite dish is an equalising influence. Maurice had sole control and authority with his satellite dish at his home, but with The Brick’s satellite dish provided by Holling, Cicelian residents don’t have to rely on Maurice’s sole proprietorship of television for news and entertainment. Maurice realises that not only has he lost control, but he has self-made his own loneliness.