Title: “Soapy Sanderson”
Written by: Karen Hall (from a story by Karen Hall and Jerry Stahl)
Directed by: Steve Cragg
Date Aired: July 26, 1990
Plot Summary: Maggie and Joel are recipients of a generous inheritance, while Ed discovers the wonders of filmmaking.
Listen to the podcast here.
How We Tell Stories
We tell stories every day of our lives – whether telling a coworker about what we did on our weekend, or rationalizing to ourselves why we ate that entire pumpkin pie over Thanksgiving. These little narratives we tell ourselves may seem inconsequential, but each story involves a series of choices about: what details to include (and omit), who to tell the story to, how to change the facts just a little bit to make ourselves be seen by others in a better light. Of course, most of us aren’t aware of the little additions and deletions we make on an everyday basis, but we are all aware of how one story can change depending on who is telling it.
Episode 1.3 “Soapy Sanderson” makes us aware of narrative framing and makes us question the truth of any given story. Throughout the episode, we are surrounded by people crafting stories, mostly to their own purposes. We have Joel, who turns the back-handed land deal to a story about giving back land to Native Americans. We have Chief Rokonkoma, who crafts an explanation to appeal to both Joel’s greed, and Maggie’s sense of justice in returning the land. Of course, there is Soapy himself, a former professor of Mythology and Theology at Kenyon College, who tries to create a love story between Maggie and Joel from beyond the grave by leaving them his land and making them co-executors of his estate. The most overt instance of story shaping is the appearance of two filmmakers from Ohio, who are making a documentary about Soapy. We clearly see them attempt to impose their own frame to the narrative and even to create their own myth about Soapy, asking residents of Cicely about the ‘real Alaska’ and asking very leading questions (about Soapy’s participation in the Iditarod they ask if is was “a hero’s journey into the wilderness.”)
This idea of framing stories can also be extended to stories of the self. We see Soapy metaphorically ‘rewrite’ his own life as he abandoned the life of a university professor to become a hermit in Alaska. Maurice repeatedly rewrites the story of Cicely from a small town of 815 people to a future metropolis (Alaska, he says, “is not a place to run away from the world, Alaska is the world”). After learning about Joel’s plan to give the land back to its original inhabitants, Maggie transforms Joel from adversary to potential love interest, marveling about his “other side.” (It’s worth noting here the significance of the ‘one-eyed Jack’ – here a breakfast item that Soapy always ordered, consisting of toast with an egg in the middle and cheese on top – but more commonly a playing card; we only see half of the face on the card, suggesting there is another side of a person that is always hidden.)
However, there are always dangers of imposing a narrative on something or someone, and this episode makes viewers keenly aware of the downsides. Maggie is upset after learning of the similarities between her and Helen, Soapy’s late wife; she discovers that they look “exactly alike” and that they “both sang [their] own song,” except that Helen was less defensive and Maggie took more risks (except when it came to men). She is distraught over Soapy, but perhaps also by someone else’s story pressing on her own, and the inevitable comparisons that result. (How can one not disappoint when placed beside an ideal?)
While playing Soapy’s records, Chris states that Soapy loved country and western tunes because of their simplicity and “sense of myth,” because there was always a “hero and villain,” and because the world was black and white. We can surmise that one reason he loved those qualities in the songs is that in the real world we live in is mainly grey. In the scene where Maggie confronts Joel about his land deal while he is reading a quote from the famous speech by Chief Seattle, a bit of shadow emerges from the scene. As we mentioned in the podcast, the famous speech about how the land can’t be owned by anybody is severely suspect the actual words seem to come from the 1972 film Home. We don’t even know what Chief Seattle actually said in that moment. Here, in the climatic moment in the episode’s story where things seem to clearly be black and white, a moment of doubt enters the scene.
In the podcast, we struggled with why the John Ford film The Searchers was mentioned in the episode. On one hand, it fits in the country western theme (songs, sense of myth, and links to episode 1.2 in the connection to John Wayne), but on the other hand it also seems to undermine the hero/villain narrative of the episode. The story of The Searchers is simple: a girl gets kidnapped by the Comanches, and her relative Ethan (played by John Wayne) attempts to locate her, only to find her transformed to a Native. Nevertheless, he takes her home to be reunited with her white family. What makes this reference interesting is to look at the real-life inspiration of the story, which is the story of Cynthia Ann Parker who was kidnapped as a young girl by the Comanches. After 24 years, she is rescued by the Texas Rangers in 1860 and sent back to her family. At this point, she had assimilated into the Comanche culture, marrying a Chief and having several children with him. After her rescue, she had trouble adjusting to her new culture, and after the death of a daughter, she stopped eating and died only ten years after her rescue. What this story confirms to us is the fluidity of identities, but also the dangers of forcing an identity on an individual. This story also complicates the hero/villain mode of thinking, or rather reveals to us the notion that who the hero and villain are is a matter of perspective and opinion. Unlike in Hollywood Westerns, these roles are not clear cut, and the story is not a simple one.
Nevertheless, there is power from creating your own narratives (as we see with Soapy as an example). Perhaps it is fitting that in the final scenes of the episode we learn that Ed has learned this power of creating stories. “I could be the Bergman of the North,” he says almost to himself as a kind of confirmation. He seems amazed that he has the potential to wield this power.
Themes/Recurrences: Reality/Appearance; Mythologies; Ownership;
The Good – The character of Maggie is deepened; she is finally in scenes without Joel, and we see her flying. Ed discovers filmmaking.
The Bad – The musical cues can be a little overbearing.
The Notable – Maggie and Joel are both fans of Winnie the Pooh. She wants to name Soapy’s land Hundred Acre Wood. Christopher Robin was one of Joel’s role models as a child and admits that he “always liked Eeyore.”
On’s ratings: 8 out of 10
Shane’s ratings: 7.5 out of 10