In the second episode of the second season of Northern Exposure, two characters in two separate stories each search for something foundational that is lost. Ed (Darren E. Burrows) looks for information about his parents, essentially his origin story. The tribe that raised him offers many versions. Soon, a 256 year-old spirit called One-Who-Waits (Floyd Red Crow Westerman) visits Ed and takes him on a spirit quest to find his parents. In the end, Ed doesn’t find his parents, but he does seem to feel better about his origin and place in the tribe for having searched.
‘The Big Kiss’ of the episode is Chris’s (John Corbett), but it refers to the larger fairy-tale theme of a kiss breaking a spell. In this instance, Chris lost his voice when he became enchanted by a beautiful woman passing through Cicely. Stories abound of men losing something essential to their life’s calling through enchantment with a woman and reclaiming it through another act of “magic” bestowed by a woman. Even Maurice tells Chris the story of Sir Gawain losing his courage to a beautiful sorceress.
One Who Waits, who can’t be seen by white people (presumably because they are disbelievers), tells Ed that losing one’s voice to beauty is a very old problem and says that Chris has to capture the spirit of the most beautiful woman in the village to get his voice back. The modern-day men (Ed, Maurice (Barry Corbin)) interpret “capture the spirit of” as “have sex with.” Chris identifies Maggie (Janine Turner) as Cicely’s answer to his problem. Maggie ultimately devises her own method of giving Chris back his voice: kissing him; hence, ‘The Big Kiss’.
As the town DJ, Chris is the voice of Cicely. The town is bereft without his presence on the radio, an idea that evokes similar community response as when Maurice fired Chris in the second episode of the first season and the town mutinied. Ruth Anne (Peg Phillips) declares that there is a big hole in the center of Cicely. The town’s goings on and history take shape in the presence of Chris as the narrator and storyteller. Ed’s story more concretely involves the importance of place for a person or group’s history. Ed’s adopted family members at the bingo hall describe particular, if contradictory, places in his origin story (“up by the meadow,” “down by the river”). One-Who-Waits tells Ed about specific locations in town and what previously existed in those spots. He even tells about the precise place where he met his wife. Although both stories in the episode are oriented in fairy tale and legend, both also illustrate that human history is situated with a particular place or person. *Where* something is matters.
On the metaphysical plane, both Ed’s and Chris’s stories raise the question of the nature of experience. Is it spirit, or is it psychology? Is there something there? Not only Ed but also Marilyn is able to see or at least sense the presence of One-Who-Waits. Chris does lose his voice after an encounter with one beautiful woman and gets it back after a kiss from another. Both phenomenon seem supported by evidence.
On the other hand, both Ed’s quest and Chris’s predicament are beset by belief: Ed believes that nature is alive and that the spirit world is imminent; Chris believes in the power of beauty to take his voice and to return it. He also believes in the reality of dreams as subconscious communications. Both scenarios brim with expectation. Chris regaining his voice and Ed meeting someone that could be his father could be fulfillments of expectations. Interestingly, Joel (Rob Morrow) is a “Doubting Joel” character in both stories, concerned for the psychological welfare of both Chris and Ed, whereas even Maurice believes that Chris could lose his voice to a beautiful woman.
A point of incongruity with previous episodes: Chris losing his voice to a beautiful woman seems unlikely, as Chris already has a history of happening upon attractive women in remote locations. Floyd Red Crow Westerman plays One-Who-Waits in a respectful and authentic manner, making the character a person rather than a character type. Westerman played a similar character, Albert Hosteen, with similar grace on The X-Files.
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The episode ends with the song “When I Grow Too Old to Dream,” captures the ongoing and omnipresent theme of dreams, the callback to Chris’s telling of his youthful dream at the beginning of the episode, and the the idea that some particular experiences might outlast dreams (“When I grow too old to dream, I’ll have you to remember,”), which coincides with One-Who-Waits telling Ed that he no longer sleeps (and thus presumably is too old to dream), but he remembers the story of his wife.
Are you a fan of Northern Exposure? Let us know what you think of this episode.