Title: Crime and Punishment
Written by: Jeff Melvoin
Directed by: Rob Thompson
Aired: December 14, 1992
Log line: Chris’ past finally catches up with him and he is apprehended and tried for breaking parole in the state of West Virginia many years earlier.
Listen to the podcast discussion of the episode here.
On the podcast, we mentioned several themes that appear in this episode (rebirth, truth, the past, identity, etc.). One aspect of “Crime and Punishment” that we didn’t focus on is its undercurrent of violence. To begin with, the episode’s title alludes to Dostoyevsky’s novel of the same name (which Chris’ doppelganger, Kit, enthused about in the episode “Cicely”). In it, Raskolnikov commits a violent murder and is eventually (spoiler alert for this 148-year-old novel) punished for this crime. In the Northern Exposure episode “Crime and Punishment”, Chris has not committed a violent crime; rather, he has violated the conditions of his parole after serving time for Grand Theft Auto. This crime is, we learn, in marked contrast to violent crimes committed by his relatives in the past.
The first event Chris mentions on KBHR at the start of the episode involves a moose that has been shot.
In the next scene, Holling likens Chris to prey being stalked.
When Mike and Chris initially discuss his case, violence is alluded to both directly and indirectly. After referring to a family feud that predates the Civil War (one of a few wars mentioned in this episode), Chris states that his family resembled the notorious outlaws Jesse and Frank James.
Clearly, Chris’ family is full of hell raisers, a heritage he has managed to escape, as Mike argues by being “reborn beyond the West Virginia horizon under Alaskan skies.” One of the reasons that references to violence might pervade the episode is that they highlight the dark past that Chris has managed to, like Maggie’s flung piano, slip “the bonds of gravity.”
One of the best-known parts of in this song refers to suicide: “Sometimes I have a great notion / to jump into the river and drown.” And the last lines before the song’s final chorus are “And if Irene turns her back on me / I’m gonna take morphine and die.”
In response to this comment, Chris asks Mike what size he is. And the size he mentions happens to correspond to the calibre of a well-known handgun: 44. (Okay, there are quite a few calibres for guns, so this suggestion might be a bit tenuous.)
Shortly after this, there is a discussion about whether women or men are nicer that includes some fairly loaded language.
Later, Maurice will refer to the Nuremberg trials after World War Two for war crimes.
In his peculiar conversations with Bernard, Maurice will also allude to knives and axes. (Yes, the reference to axes isn’t about axes per se; it’s about pronunciation, but it seems to be part of a larger pattern in this episode. Plus, an ax is the murder weapon Raskolnikov used in the novel Crime and Punishment.)
Interestingly, the two characters who are most associated with weapons are Ruth-Anne and Judge Percy.
The stories and language of violence that pervade this episode are in marked contrast to the crimes that Chris has committed. Along with the Joy King, he stole a ’71 Firebird, which they destroyed. Chris served 18 months in prison and may be required to serve another two to three years in jail for breaking his parole. This raises complicated questions about the best way to reform people who have committed crimes, a topic we discussed a fair amount on our podcast episode. Still, we can’t help but see the undercurrent of violence here as a way of highlighting the large gulf between Chris’ fairly innocent transgressions and the life-and-death cases that are alluded to, including when Chris quotes the last words of Billy Budd (the character) before his execution: “God bless Captain Vere!”
Themes / Recurrences: Rebirth; truth; justice; the past; identity.
The Good: We loved every moment of the trial, which manages to recall memorable moments from the show’s history without being over-the-top or routine. We enjoyed seeing how characters perceived the experiences that we only earlier observed. Chris’ defence is crazy creative, and we particularly found the interchange between Maurice and Bernard about race and speech hilarious and brave.
The Bad: For one of us, there wasn’t enough emotional resonance in the episode (although for the other one of us, it was deeply moving).
The Notable: The episode contains only one storyline, which is rather unusual for a Northern Exposure episode (the other example we can think of is “The Three Amigos” in the third season).
On’s rating: 10 out of 10.
Shane’s rating: 8 out of 10.