Title: A-Hunting We Will Go
Written by: Craig Volk
Directed by: Bill D’Elia
Aired: November 18, 1991
Log line: After grousing about the hunting frenzy sweeping Cicely, Joel sees firsthand what it’s all about by outfitting himself to join Chris and Holling for the primal ritual in the wilds. Holling, however, prefers the home fires to the campfire, while, back in town, Ed fears that Ruth-Anne is being stalked by the Grim Reaper.
Listen to the podcast of the episode here.
Death is certainly no stranger to Cicely. In earlier episodes, we saw the loss of a beloved eccentric character (1.3 “Soapy Sanderson”), experienced the sudden death of a stranger (2.3 “All is Vanity), and lost a recurring and likeable character (2.7 “Slow Dance”). The townspeople found (and lost) the 200 year old body of a Frenchman (3. 6 “The Body in Question”) and the Grim Reaper himself even came into town, threatening to kill off one of the main characters on the show (2.4 “What I Did For Love”). For a show so light-hearted, it’s a little curious that death would be so pervasive. On this blog, we’ve written earlier about how the Northern Exposure mixes tragedy with humour. This week we are going to look at the many attitudes towards death.
The episode 3.8 “A-Hunting We Will Go” is no departure from the other death-filled episodes; there is definitely a lot of death in this one. But strangely enough, it is also one of the episodes that is most full of joy.
Death Comes as Hunter
From the very beginning of the episode, the scene is set for a hunt: Chris tells us of his childhood trips hunting with his uncle Roy Bower back in Wheeling, West Virginia, and he tells us of his upcoming annual hunting trip with Holling. On the most basic level, the objective of hunting is to kill prey. For some people, it is a means for survival, and for others it is more of a sport.
For Joel (at least in the beginning), hunters are “murderers of animals,” and “For a person to derive pleasure out of causing the death of a vibrant living thing – that’s ethically wrong.” He is convinced of this, but his feelings are definitely based on abstract notions of morality rather than from real experience. To his credit, Joel attempts to investigate hunting by first asking people he knows about their experiences, and ultimately decides to go through it himself in order to make up his own mind.
Many characters on the show see hunting on a larger scale, with the view of centuries upon centuries. Holling says that “it’s our natural place in the food chain,” and later Joel rhapsodizes, “we meet the ancient past – the beginning of man, the Paleolithic Age – following the exact ritual as the caveman when he hunted the woolly mammoth.” Chris mentions that humans have evolved to have sharp incisors to tear meat, and Holling states that we have eyes in front of our heads like other predators. Their argument is that it’s essentially a human’s right (and need!) to hunt.
However, hunting comes in play in our storyline with Ruth-Anne as well. Ed is disturbed to find out that Ruth-Anne just had her 75th birthday. He is concerned that she doesn’t even want a birthday party and imagines her just sitting alone, depressed, waiting for death. Says Ed, “You can’t celebrate when you’re being stalked by the Grim Reaper.”
An Instrument of Death
To everyone’s surprise, Joel takes to hunting enthusiastically and with complete abandon. He loves shooting the shotgun, and is determined to kill as many grouse as he can. He even has a dream where he becomes a mass murderer of grouse, complete with an arsenal of weapons: “I had all these guns and muskets and six-shooters and Uzis. I couldn’t miss.” Later that morning, Joel feels elated when he shoots his grouse, yelling and running like a happy little boy.
However, as Chris says, “that shotgun blast delivered a psychic blow, as well.” Joel is overwhelmed with guilt at the idea that he becomes the instrument of death. The hunter quickly transforms back into a doctor, and he is appalled at having taken a life when his whole life’s purpose is to prevent death. As Joel tells Maggie, “”The killing was the best part. It was the dying I couldn’t take.” At this point, the bird is more than an animal, it is a patient, and Joel wants to undo the harm that he did (or, as Maggie puts it, he’s trying “to unshoot it”).
We even get a story of another pair of hands tainted with blood when Shelly explains how she killed her pet angelfish, Angel. To Shelly, the fish was more than an animal, and was her best bud as a child.
It is interesting how fluid relationships with animals are in this episode. They are first idealized as “majestic,” then they become just meat, objects that humans have dominion over. They then quickly become individuals who suffer and are in pain. Even Joel, who we know is not an animal person from 3.4 “Animals R Us,” strongly identifies with the animal kingdom (aided by animal movies like Old Yeller and The Bear).
Everyone Has an Expiry Date
What Joel learns is that he can’t stop death. It swoops in and takes the little wounded grouse under its wing. We learn of people and their lifespans, from Ruth-Anne’s son’s mother-in-law who died at the age of 72, to that of Holling’s grandfather and father (well into the century mark). We learn that one of Ruth-Anne’s grandmothers lived until the age of 99, and that the other one, Grandma Isla, died before she reached 50. Maggie tells Joel that the life expectancy of grouse is 2-3 years. Even Ruth-Anne’s truck battery seems to have sputtered at the age of 14 (the brand is tellingly called “Die Hard”).
As Maurice pontificates, “Fate – fickle and ferocious. It touches us with its icy finger, and then – we’re gone just like that.”
The grouse meet their unexpected ends when they are flushed out from the brush, shot in the midst of flying.
Death comes at unexpected moments, like when Grandma Isla gets hit on the head by her own clogging shoes: “She was clogging. Slipped, went down and took two clogs to the head…For a while, nobody even knew what happened. The Da Yoopers went on playing and everyone went on dancing. And Granny just slipped further and further away. And to this day when I hear a polka I start to tear up.”
Of course, it is the idea that death can strike at any moment that causes Ed fear for Ruth-Anne. He’s suddenly concerned about her broken foot (as a result of ‘old bones,’ he maintains), and is worried that she will have an aneurysm, ovarian cancer, and a whole bunch of other things.
Dancing in the Face of Death
Yet something wonderful comes out in the face of death. The dead grouse and the fears about Ruth-Anne’s mortality culminate in a grand birthday party. The dead bird is roasted and delicious (is it funny that Chris’ advice to “Take the bird inside you” comes literally true?), and people gather to celebrate life, not death. This is why Ruth-Anne enjoys that Cherry Garcia ice cream and that cigarette every other hour.
Ed buys Ruth-Anne a grave. An odd thing for sure, but the gift meets his criteria being both personal and a “gift that keeps on giving.”
“A-Hunting We Will Go” closes with a magnificent and uplifting scene of Ruth-Anne (along with Ed) dancing on her own grave (says Ruth-Anne, “It’s the opportunity of a lifetime, wouldn’t you say?”). What better way to celebrate life than to dance on your own grave? And what better way to celebrate death than to dance on your own grave?
The moment is wonderful, acknowledging that we are all going to die, but even so, we are going to dance towards death. Joyously. Just like Grandma Isla did.
Themes / Recurrences: Death + Life; Animals; Ethics.
The Good: There are so many good moments in this episode that it’s really hard to chose just one. That said, the entire Ruth-Anne and Ed storyline is wonderful, especially the final, emotional shots of them dancing on her grave.
The Bad: There isn’t anything to dislike about this episode. But one of us (On) finds it a tad unrealistic that Joel is such a natural the first time he aims his shotgun at an empty can on a stump — and (On continues) he got a grouse (a moving target!) the third time he pulls the trigger. The other one of us (Shane) really enjoys Joel’s reactions that follow each of these small triumphs. Plus, he’s a doctor and should have good hand-eye coordination.
The Notable: We love it when Holling asks the boys to say “Canada” when taking their picture. Canada!
On’s Rating: 9.5 out of 10.
Shane’s Rating: 9.5 out of 10.