Title: “Sex, Lies and Ed’s Tapes”
Written by: Joshua Brand and John Falsey
Directed by: Sandy Smolan
Date Aired: August 16, 1990
Plot Summary: Holling is surprised to learn that Shelly is married, while Rick discovers a possibly cancerous growth. Meanwhile, Ed is trying to write his movie screenplay.
Listen to the podcast of the episode here.
In “Sex, Lies and Ed’s Tapes,” the sixth episode of the first season, we take a step back from focusing on Joel and his navigation of Cicely and its residents to explore the relationships between Holling and Shelly and Maggie and Rick. In the course of being tested (literally and metaphorically), one relationship fails, while the other one is stronger than ever. We also learn a great deal about Shelly and Ed, the youngest characters on Northern Exposure. Both of them are 18 years old, though it’s difficult to think of them as being the same age. In this episode, their youth is emphasized and they are shown working through difficulties in their emotional lives.
In the opening scene, Shelly reacts to the thought of giving a blood sample with a needle just as a toddler would, yelling and protesting. (Joel even has to bribe her with a chocolate bar to get her to assent.) We further learn of Shelly’s youth when we discover that she is married, a fact that seemed to have slipped her mind until the sudden arrival of her hockey-obsessed, letterman-jacket-sporting husband, Wayne. Throughout the episode we are provided with indications of her youth, from her bunny slippers to her teddy bear; she speaks about being in love with someone as ‘having a crush’ on them. The appearance of Wayne seems to further highlight how young both of them are, as they bicker over one another’s (im)maturity.
Ed, on the other hand, has been portrayed as youthful throughout, an ever innocent, whose eyes are wide open to the world. In the podcast, we’ve compared him to a Keanu Reeves / Buster Keaton type, a quietly happy young man of few words who’s accepting of everyone and judges no one. He is often shown in scenes just listening or observing, and this episode is no different. In all of his scenes this week, Ed watches events unfold as if in a movie. Like Shelly, Ed is in a crisis, but unlike Shelly, whose difficulties are outward, Ed’s problem is an inward one. He has writer’s block, and is having trouble with creativity. He wants to write a screenplay, but the only scenes that come to him are those from Hollywood blockbusters.
Both Shelly and Ed are shown as consumers of popular culture here; we see Shelly reading a magazine while wearing bunny slippers on Maggie’s couch (in 1.4 she says to Holling: “I watch TV, I read magazines…I know how people are supposed to treat one another.”). Most prominently, we see her affected by the song “Without You” by Motley Crue; it is in the moment when the song first comes on at The Brick that she remembers her old feelings for Wayne; the song repeats in other scenes Shelly is in, as if she is experiencing the world through that one song (most tellingly, the song disappears as soon as Wayne returns to Canada).
Ed clearly dwells with half a foot in the real world and half a foot in the cinematic world. Everyday scenes transform into exciting, big budget Hollywood movies. When he sees Maurice and Chris arguing, Ed imagines a scene out of Raiders of the Lost Ark, with Chris becoming Indiana Jones and Maurice the sword-wielding villain. At the end of the scene, Maurice’s character even quotes another well-known Hollywood film as he aims his pistol at Chris, “Make my day.” Here, we have life blurring into one film that blurs into yet another film.
However, the borders between Hollywood and real life become permeable as we move to the next fantasy sequence, which derives from Midnight Cowboy. Joel and Chris are in the roles of the film’s characters Ratso and Joe Buck and the scene features lots of people and traffic, but we are still clearly in Cicely; Joel references both the contemporary world (saying he will take him to his friend Donald Trump) and his role as a doctor (“‘I can’t wait to get that jerk in the examining room”). In the third and final fantasy sequence, the power of Hollywood becomes even weaker, as Ed uses the generic conventions of a Hollywood Western that he populates with recent events in town; the plot involves the relationship between Shelly, Holling, and Wayne. We are seeing the earliest moments of Ed’s fledgling creativity.
Later, Joel advises Ed to forget about writing a blockbuster. Instead, he should look to Woody Allen (Ed: “Woody’s my man”) and write what he knows. At the end of the episode, we will see Ed writing a script simply called “My Movie” that begins with an unembellished, non-Hollywood description of his life: “An eighteen year old Indian named Ed lives in a town called Cicely, which is in Alaska with a population of 839. There is a gas station …” On the podcast, we also mentioned another important precedent for an alternate cinematic path: Steven Soderbergh’s 1989 influential independent film Sex, Lies and Videotape, which is alluded to in the title of this episode. The ‘Ed’s Tapes’ in the episode’s title likely alludes to his collection of VHS tapes that colour how he sees the world, though it may also gesture towards tapes that he might use to record his own movie.
Themes/Recurrences: The body; past romantic partners; film; lies/truth; games; fertility/birds/milk/rabbits.
The Good – This represents the first episode we have seen that lacks a Joel-focused storyline. We get to spend more time with Shelly, Holling, Maggie, Rick, Ed, and Marilyn.
The Bad – Wayne is overly one dimensional. Sure, he might a beer-guzzling, letterman-jacket-wearing jock who is obsessed with hockey and sex, but does he also need to be grammatically challenged (‘Did you marry me cuz you thought you was pregnant when you was with me?’) and boring (i.e., bragging about how many fat burgers he ate)? There must be a reason Shelly fell in love with (and married) him.
The Notable – Shelly’s earrings, which often underscore an episode’s themes. Here, we see her wear pink flamingos (when she thinks she’s pregnant), green dice (when she learns she isn’t pregnant), and blue vinyl records (when she tells Wayne she isn’t returning to Canada with him). Pink is a vibrant colour and flamingos resemble storks. Dice are associated with chance (the odds of Shelly being hysterically pregnant are extremely low; the odds of Rick having cancer are 1000:1) and green typically suggests jealousy (Holling is jealous of Wayne, especially when he sees them dancing together). The tiny vinyl records are only worn after she has abandoned her thoughts of being with Wayne (these thoughts were partly triggered and reinforced by listening to ‘their song’) and blue is a colour of sadness, surely Shelly’s emotion before she reconciles with Holling by lowering her head to kiss him on the bar while another song plays, Louis Armstrong’s “A Kiss to Build a Dream On.”
On’s rating: 9 out of 10
Shane’s rating: 8 out of 10
Thank you so much for these reviews. I’ve just discovered this show and I’m currently listening to the podcast as well. These reviews are thought provoking and theoretical and I’m really looking forward to watching the next season
Hey Josh, thanks so much for your kind words. We love the show and hope to revive the popularity of the show somehow. We are so glad you are enjoying the podcast and blog. Thanks for listening and reading (as Ed would say, “Well, all right!”).