Title: The Three Amigos
Written by: Robin Green and Mitchell Burgess
Directed by: Matthew Nodella
Aired: March 2, 1992
Log Line: The death of a rugged hunting companion sends Holling and Maurice into the wilderness to make good on a promise to bury him miles from civilization at a paradise called No-Name Point.
Listen to the podcast discussion of the episode here.
“Sight and scent became remarkably keen”
Throughout “The Three Amigos”, we see shots of Holling and Maurice on their adventure to bury Bill Planey paired with passages being read aloud on KBHR from The Call of the Wild by Jack London (aka Chris’ “main man”). In our podcast discussion, we mentioned that this was done surprisingly well (and speculated that the episode must have been based around passages from the book rather than searching through the text for appropriate passages to illustrate the scenes). One of the elements that was done particularly well is the idea that Holling’s and Maurice’s senses are heightened while they’re in the woods, something we hear referenced in one of the passages Chris reads only after we’ve seen how much more acute Holling and Maurice feel their senses of sight, scent, taste, and sound are. In fact, the way they determine that Bill needs to be buried relates to his odour. This moment also echoes when Holling asked earlier, “You smell that?” when they set out on their trip. We begin with the scent of life (via the sweet odour of pine) and end with the scent of death.
Framing Bill Planey’s Body
On the podcast, we mentioned that Bill Planey is a spectral presence throughout the episode, appearing only through the stories we hear about him. We find out what he was like as a man, mainly through Holling and Maurice, but also from Solvang and Ruth-Anne. Bill is also a physical presence in the episode. Besides learning how his body morphed from tall and thin to become more plump in his final three years, we see the transformation played out before us through the modifications made to his coffin. We also see his coffin or his body foregrounded or framed in the centre of the screen in quite a few shots, oftentimes literally making him the centre of attention.
Framing Holling and Maurice
This episode is very much about friendship, especially the friendship between Holling and Maurice. It’s even structured differently than any preceding episode: we only have one main storyline, with no subplot; plus, neither Joel nor Maggie appear in the episode. There are several scenes that consist of conversations between Holling and Maurice, often taking place with them sitting side-by-side. The first scene that shows the two of them alone together and talking is one of the most interesting ones, largely because of how it is shot. This is the scene that occurs when they have to change a tire. It’s filmed as a long take with no cuts that lasts about two and a half minutes. Initially, Holling goes to change the tire, but his back goes out and Maurice takes over. They talk to each other across a distance — Holling in focus in the foreground, and Maurice out of focus in the background. When Holling asks Maurice where he wants to be buried, Maurice suddenly comes into focus and Holling becomes blurry. Here, Holling and Maurice are having a meaningful conversation, each taking his turn communicating. When Maurice comes to sit beside Holling, they are both in focus, but they’ve stopped talking to each other. Instead, they are each wrapped up in their ideas. They stop talking when the other person is speaking, but their reply is not a direct reply to the other person. It’s a technique we’ve seen on Northern Exposure before and it’s used well here.
This brief moment of disconnect heightens the later moments of connection we will see, particularly the ones around the campfire, where we see remnants of the adventures that Holling and Maurice used to have together, when they were younger men and could endure more wear and tear. We also get the sense that as much as they are enjoying their time in the woods, they are also reliving moments from a shared past. This is also noticeable during the wonderful closing montage that features the song “Hands on the Wheel” sung by Willie Nelson. Midway through the song we realize that this is a love song to friendship. (We’d argue that this moment occurs when Willie sings, “And with no place to hide / I looked in your eyes / And I found myself in you.” These lines are heard during footage of Holling and Maurice making eye contact and smiling.) We are seeing Holling sift through his memories of the trek to bury Bill, now a jumble of brief, crystalline moments. One of the nice touches here is that we see the moments appear associatively rather than chronologically. One moment suggests another moment that segues into yet another brief scene, until we’re left with the two aging men riding their horses towards the horizon. We’d be lying if we said this montage didn’t trigger strong emotions in us.
Themes / Recurrences: Death; friendship; aging; stories/memories.
The Good: “The Three Amigos” successfully deviates from the typical structure of a Northern Exposure episode. We like the chances it took (e.g., basing it around passages from The Call of the Wild), the montage at the end set to “Hands on the Wheel”, and found the ribald character of Solvang intriguing.
The Bad: While there is not much wrong with this episode, one of us would say that this episode is a little to ‘macho’ for her taste. There’s tire-changing, horseback riding, gambling, and bar fight to boot – perhaps it’s a little too stereotypically ‘male’?
The Notable: While the episode does feature only one main storyline that is interspersed with Chris reading passages from The Call of the Wild, we do have a single separate scene that occurs back at the Brick: the moment between Shelly and Chris, where she wishes Buck had gone back to his home in California. Chris tells her about White Fang, which has the opposite trajectory: wild to tame, and this is the way this episode ends, with Holling and Maurice returning to their domestic lives (especially Holling, who stands in for Buck in this episode) in Cicely. As with the passages from the Call of the Wild, Chris’ words segue into footage of Holling and Maurice’s adventure and comment on it.
On’s Rating: 8.0 out of 10.
Shane’s Rating: 9.0 out of 10.