Episode: 4.15

Title: Learning Curve

Written by: Jeff Vlaming

Directed by: Michael Vittes

Aired: February 8, 1993

Log line: Much to Joel’s distress, Marilyn goes on vacation by herself; Holling attempts to earn his high school diploma; the regional teacher spends two weeks in Cicely and almost becomes a role model for Maggie.

Listen to the podcast discussion of the episode here.


Marilyn on the bench

In our podcast discussion of “Learning Curve” (4.15), we talked a lot about how much we enjoyed Marilyn’s storyline in this episode. Her adventure is relayed almost entirely via visuals and music. (The song that plays over her adventure in Seattle montage — Georgia Wettlin-Larsen’s “Ojibway Square Dance“ — is especially well chosen and fitting.) Besides showing the landmarks of the city, we get to see several different shots of Marilyn sitting on a bench.

First, she is eating a take away dish with a plastic spoon. It looks like soup. She’s just eating and observing the city around her.


Next, we see people walking and whizzing by her (one blur is on a skateboard, another is on roller blades). She is the calm within the bustling storm.


The passage of time here is shown by using dissolves, an editing technique we discussed in our post on “War and Peace” (2.6). Throughout the shots on the bench, Marilyn’s position does not change. The most noticeable movement is one of her cups and two of her bags, which move to the side. The movement of these items will allow a woman to dissolve into the space beside her.

4-15-marilyn-bench-dissolveEarlier in the montage, we had seen Marilyn interacting with other people, letting us know that this isn’t an entirely solitary adventure. Here, she is chatting with a woman while holding a map of Seattle. It appears to be one of those maps you get free as a tourist that’s filled with ads for restaurants and attractions.


In the next shot, we could expect to see her exploring the city again. After all, she’s just been given directions or gotten a nugget of information about the city from someone, likely a Seattleite. (Yes, that’s the term for someone who lives in Seattle. Hey, it’s less peculiar than Haligonian, which is what you call someone who lives in Halifax.) However, in the next shot Marilyn remains on the bench, and the relaxed way she is sitting almost exactly mimics the man sitting beside her. Contrary to Joel’s recommendation, she is ignoring her bags. And she seems willing to make eye contact. Heck, her purse isn’t even wrapped around her wrist.


In the final shot on the bench, we see her sitting beside an older couple. At the end of the shot, the man turns towards Marilyn, who is looking into the distance. The suggestion here seems to be that she is facing the ocean, something she cannot do in Cicely, and something we’ll see her do in the next couple of shots, most notably when she’s on the deck of a ferry.


The shadow and the skeleton

In his first scene after Marilyn’s departure, we see Joel coming to terms with what he sees as her disappearance. In his preparations for her adventure, he cautioned her to expect the worst, which is what he seems to be doing when Maggie visits him to deliver a package. The first thing to notice about this shot is how it is lit. There is a prominent shadow beside Joel. One way of seeing it is as a visual representation of what Joel sees as his missing secretary.


Throughout the scene, he catalogues all of the things that could have happened to Marilyn, making the shadow take on more of a ghostly presence than it had initially.

4-15-joel-shadow2The framing of Maggie in this scene includes the little skeleton in Joel’s office, an even clearer representation of death.


Even when she is to the right of the frame (as below), the skeleton remains visible.

4-15-maggie-skeleton2All we are suggesting here is that the framing and lighting of this scene provide nice visual cues of Joel’s fears of what may have happened to his innocent secretary.

It’s worth mentioning that in the episode’s opening scene, Joel equated shadows with presence, which may have primed us for the foregrounded shadows in the later scene.

4-15-joel-darken1 4-15-joel-darken2

Going for the kill

Joel’s descriptions to Maggie of what may have happened to Marilyn are quite vivid.

4-15-joel-shadow-senseless1 4-15-joel-shadow-senseless2 4-15-joel-shadow-senseless3

Throughout the episode, there are several instances of violent language, including later in this scene when Joel says “the mask just ripped from [Maggie’s] face” to describe her lack of concern for Marilyn.


It’s worth noting that nearly all of the violent language used in “Learning Curve” comes from male characters. Clearly, this could be seen as related to the debate between Jane and Maggie about whether or not women “have that ‘bloodlust, warrior instinct’ thing.”

4-15-jane-tomahawk1 4-15-jane-tomahawk2 4-15-jane-tomahawk3

Every male character in this episode brings up death or violence. This is even true of the three characters who only appear in a single scene each: Ed, Maurice, and the detective.

Ed segues into a description of what happened in Roman Polanski’s 1988 film Frantic.

4-15-ed1 4-15-ed2 4-15-ed3 4-15-ed4Maurice refers to Joel as being in the “sawbones business”, an antiquated slang term for a physician or surgeon, a term that conjures images of bones being amputated using saws. Yikes.

4-15-sawbones1 4-15-sawbones2

Later, the detective brings up Joel’s suggestion of foul play and mentions that there is nothing preventing Joel from trying to locate Marilyn’s cadaver.


4-15-coronerHolling tells his class the tale of his bloody fighting with Oats, which Jane describes as “vivid.” She’s right about that.

4-15-holling-story1 4-15-holling-story2 4-15-holling-story3 4-15-holling-story4 4-15-holling-story5 4-15-holling-story6 4-15-holling-story7 Even the language he uses to describe trying to write this story is a bit violent.

4-15-holling-whackAnd the story Stuart told just before Holling’s did include a reference to his parents being burnt.

4-15-parents-on-fireAfter Holling gets his high school diploma, he likens it to killing a caribou.

4-15-holling-bow-hunting1 4-15-holling-bow-hunting2Of course, Joel refers to violence in this episode more than anyone else. We’ve already pointed to a number of these occurrences, but one detail we like for its innocuousness is the type of gum he refers to for Marilyn’s flight.


And, of course, there are the repeated references to mugging and purse snatching, including a demonstration of a more secure purse holding technique, which Marilyn ignores in Seattle.


4-15-loop-purseWe also see a possible reason for Joel’s paternalistic (bordering on patronizing) advice to Marilyn: He was mugged himself by two men with a screwdriver.

4-15-screwdriver1 4-15-screwdriver2 4-15-screwdriver3By contrast, the female characters in this episode don’t tend to employ much violent imagery in their conversations. Sure, Maggie and Jane talk about whether or not women “have that ‘bloodlust, warrior instinct’ thing”, but it doesn’t seem to be seeping into their language and thoughts in the same way it is with the male characters. Okay, Shelly does bring up some violent imagery when she mentions questioning her chances when competing in Miss Northwest Passage.


We’re not sure if all of the references to death and violence by the male characters are meant to suggest that they “have that ‘bloodlust, warrior instinct’ thing” or not, but it does emphasize gender roles, which is one of this episode’s themes. And the language characters use is always worth paying attention to, especially when patterns emerge.

4-15-maggie-jane-planeSongs from the episode’s original airing:

  • Percy Faith – “Theme from A Summer Place”
    Joel visits Marilyn before her big trip (first song)
    [replaced in DVD version]
  • Percy Faith – “Where is Your Heart (Song from Moulin Rouge)
    Joel visits Marilyn before her big trip (first song)
    [replaced in DVD version]
  • Vernon Dalhart  – “Prisoner’s Song
    Maggie talks to Jane about women in combat at Ruth-Anne’s store.
    [replaced in DVD version]
  • Georgia Wettlin-Larsen  – “Ojibway Square Dance
    Marilyn in Seattle montage.
  • The Coasters – Searchin’
    Joel looks for Marilyn in Seattle.
  • David Schwartz – “Woody the Indian”
    The final scene as Joel and Marilyn leave the zoo.
  • David Schwartz (?) – “The Ladder” (Thanks to Chris Valley for this one!)
    Opening scene.

Themes / Recurrences: Learning; adventure; goals; feminism; knowing about others.

The Good: The songs selected for this episode are fantastic and fit the scenes extremely well. We really enjoyed Joel’s description of Marilyn, which reveals how much he actually cares about her.

The Bad: We would have liked to have heard Ruth-Anne’s take on feminism and women in combat. She was strangely quiet in that key scene!

The Notable: We again encounter Jo Anderson, who played Roslyn in the episode “Cicely.” It’s a little weird but cool to see her play the independent teacher Jane Harris (though we don’t agree with her opinions about women).

On’s rating: 8.5 out of 10.

Shane’s rating: 8.5 out of 10.



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