Title: What I Did For Love
Written by: Ellen Herman
Directed by: Steve Robman
Aired: April 29, 1991
Log Line: Maggie dreams of Joel’s death in a plane crash as he prepares for a trip back to his native New York. Maurice continues a long-time affair with an astronaut groupie.
Listen to the podcast of the episode here.
In 2.4 “What I Did For Love,” Chris describes people as being trapped “in the merry-go-round of time,” and in this moment he is describing the annual coming of Founders Day, but this moment also extends to the annual arrival of Ingrid, Maurice’s occasional mistress, and also of the snowshoe hares and birds that seem to arrive every year. However, when we think of a merry-go-round, an interesting observation is that we always return to the beginning, all around, again and again. This episode is like that amusement park ride, returning us to the very beginning.
As we discussed in last week’s post about “All Is Vanity,” Northern Exposure often draws on previous episodes and we as viewers feel the tug of familiarity as we return to a moment we have experienced before. This week’s episode, 2.4 “What I Did for Love” is no exception. It is this moment, of all episodes so far, that recalls the first episode of the show, “The Pilot.”
Like that episode, we see a new Jewish doctor arrive in Cicely from New York; we have the presence (via telephone) of Pete Gilliam, the man who sent Joel to Cicely in the first place. We again visit Maurice and become involved in his romantic life (in the process revisiting the metaphor of space travel to love, only this time the references to rockets involves lots of sex). We even have the recreation of the final scene of Ed and Joel at the Summer Festival, with Joel eating a mooseburger for the first time (in 2.4, they both have a mooseburger “medium well” and sit at a booth at The Brick).
The set up of the two episodes invites comparision, but the show does something more interesting: setting up parallels then diverging from the tracks at crucial corners. Joel expects the first narrative, of a Jewish doctor from New York being exactly like him (“I am guys like him,” he says to Marilyn) and so anticipates the new doctor having the same shocked and disappointing reaction to the small town of Cicely. However, instead of meeting his own doppelganger, Joel encounters a new, improved version of himself: open, friendly, blond, handy, eager to learn about the town and its Native cultures. In fact, instead of a mirror image, Joel instead meets a perfect alter ego. Himself, but better than himself. Instead of insulting the town and calling it “a hole in the wall pigsty,” Dave calls Cicely “a city boy’s dream come true,” and proceeds to charm everyone from Marilyn, to the town’s children, to Ruth Anne (who even bakes him oatmeal cookies, which, we suspect, Joel has never tasted). In the It’s a Wonderful Life-inspired fantasy sequence, Joel is literally in black and white, while Dave and the townspeople are singing in a Technicolor musical, looking very happy. Joel is not only jealous of the new doctor, but his arrival evokes his fears of being replaced, of not being missed, not mattering at all.
Other alter egos also appear in this episode. Maggie transforms in dream life into Miss Scarlet from the game of Clue, a seductive woman who seems much more straightforward and honest with herself than the real Maggie. Similarly, we see Joel literally put on a new hat, the black fedora, and transform into someone about to meet his doom. We also have other representations of other selves, like Maggie’s skeletal figurines made from melted-down crayons that represent her dead ex-boyfriends.
Upon realizing that everyone expects him to die, Joel finds himself in a kind of purgatory: not being able to go back home to New York, the city that loves and derives his identity from (among the few items hanging in his office before Dave’s arrival was a prominently-placed framed poster of New York), and not belonging to the town he’s lived in for the past 10 or so months. Of course, seeing a complete stranger loving the town and being accepted by the townspeople is no balm either; Dave has literally redecorated and made himself at home in the two days since he’d arrived. Perhaps seeing how Dave interacts with the Cicelians, and seeing how he makes an effort to get to know the town and its cultures, Joel sees a different way to be. By the end of the episode, he realizes that he actually means something to the town that he hated (and it doesn’t hurt that some residents think he’s “cute” and Maggie might have “thoughts,” “feelings,” or “impulses” for him), and perhaps he will see himself as part of something instead of being apart from something.
Themes/Recurrences: Death, death, and more death; love; time; fate/free will.
The Good: The Clue dream sequences and musical daydream scene are particularly nice, as are the wonderfully-realized dioramas for Maggie’s dearly departed boyfriends.
The Bad: The sudden, unexplained appearance of children in the town. Where did they come from? The best we can tell, they are likely meant to soften the blow of another death-focused episode by representing life. Maybe. (That said, we do like the touch of naming the man the boy’s grandmother is marrying Mr. Skinner, B.F. Skinner being the originator of operant conditioning. Earlier, Maggie referred to her “Pavlovian response” to Joel, with Ivan Pavlov being the discoverer of classical conditioning, sometimes called Pavlovian conditioning. Still, who marries someone for a microwave?)
The Notable: This episode includes several echoes of 1.7 “A Kodiak Moment”, which includes Maurice mentioning the board game Clue to Chris, looking to parenting models on Bonanza (in 2.4, when Joel learns that Michael Landon is Jewish, he says “Little Joe?”, Landon’s character on Bonanza), and admitting that Malcolm and his father had “the right stuff”, while he was merely “Spam in a can” (in 2.4, he admits to Ingrid that he’s a “second string” astronaut and we see his obsession with the Mercury Seven astronauts depicted in Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff when he asks Ingrid about the bedroom habits of Mercury Seven astronauts and has her read to him from Wolfe’s book).
On’s Rating: 9 out of 10
Shane’s Rating: 8.5 out of 10