Title: Northern Lights
Written by: Diane Frolov and Andrew Schneider
Directed by: Bill D’Elia
Aired: March 1, 1993
Log line: Maurice befriends Cicely’s first homeless man; Joel goes on strike when his vacation is denied; Ruth-Anne, Chris, and Holling perform their various winter rituals.
Listen to the podcast discussion of the episode here.
In this episode, the final, transcendent moment looms large. Chris quotes Goethe, Dylan Thomas, and the Bible before turning on the juice so his latest artistic work can bathe the residents of Cicely in what they have been missing: light.
One thing that is less obvious in the episode is the function of food. It even works as a supplement for light, with “free chocolate for all” at the Brick. Bernard mentions that it raises “the body’s serotonin levels and thus the spirits as well.” And we certainly see a lot of chocolate in this episode.
Immediately after the introduction of chocolate as a mood elevator, we see Ruth-Anne considering the colour value of ketchup. We will soon learn that it is for one of the paintings she is working on. Besides being a simple condiment, ketchup introduces us to Ruth-Anne as a painter.
Throughout the episode we will often see food (and drink) revealing something deeper within a storyline or a character. For example, when Bernard offers Lance a piece of blackout cake, he is extending a gesture of kindness, a glimpse of the sort of empathy he later admits to wanting to have for Cicely’s only hobo. (On the podcast, we mentioned a 1991 New York Times article on Ebinger’s that discussed blackout cake, as well as a recent NPR piece on making blackout cake.) (On a side note, doesn’t ‘blackout cake’ sound like a euphemism for knocking someone unconscious? ‘He was was looking woozy in the ring when Boom Boom Mancini finally delivered him a piece of blackout cake.’ Okay, we’re using that euphemism from now on. Feel free to join us.)
Similarly, Maurice collects donations for Lance, which mainly consists of food including shiitake mushrooms, and he prepares breakfast for him, inviting him into his home. He is literally breaking bread with him. These are meaningful acts.
We will also see Chris ask Lance for a “hit” from his brown-wrapper concealed can of beer. Lance obliges. We get the sense that Chris could use a sip of beer to slightly ease the sense that the sculpture he’s been working away at is a “monstrous screaming zero.” But we also get a sense that he is treating Lance like he would anyone else who sat beside him; he’s inviting him into the fold of Cicely to a certain extent.
Later, we see Ruth-Anne sit beside Joel in the Brick and order a cup of coffee. He can’t believe that she acts as though nothing has happened, that she wasn’t a part of the lawsuit against him. Here, we see the casual way Ruth-Anne orders coffee, incensing Joel. This act seems to symbolize for him the town’s nonchalance towards suing him.
When Joel is living outdoors, we see him trying to roast what appears to be a Vienna sausage. If it were a marshmallow or a hot dog at the end of his stick, the image would immediately have connotations of a pleasant camping trip. Instead, we see a shivering, bundled man with a meagre piece of meat smaller than a marshmallow who seems to have a terrible roasting technique. He looks pathetic and hungry, and the food on his roasting stick serves to emphasize this fact.
By contrast, the champagne-like organic sparkling cider that Maggie brings to Mike’s place clearly signals an event or a celebration. Even Mike recognizes the associations with such a beverage, especially when paired with a spruced-up Maggie. Cue up kissing and Mike’s boy scout-like reaction, “Oh, boy!”
Throughout the episode, we hear about Holling’s hibernation. It is only when he awakens and is famished that we feel the weight of his time away from the world and Shelly. He is ravenous. The shots of him stuffing himself with food in both of his scenes in “Northern Lights” perfectly convey how long he has been away from the land of the living. As with other instances in this episode, there is a richness to the way food functions in these scenes. It illuminates moments and characters.
And, of course, we can’t end a post about “Northern Lights” without including a few screengrabs from its ethereal conclusion. In an episode that quotes and alludes to Gertrude Stein, it’s worth noting that Chris’ final words may be nodding to Stein’s famous statement that “A rose is a rose is a rose” (a phrase which we discussed on a previous podcast). The last three words before the visual fireworks begin are “light is light.”
Songs from the episode’s original airing:
- Highway 101 – “Baby, I’m Missing You“
At The Brick, Shelly is frazzled, and Ruth-Anne is searching for the perfect red.
- Patty Loveless – “Nobody Loves You Like I Do“*
At The Brick, Shelly talks to Dave, as Joel denies a patient treatment.
[*Thanks to Chris Valley for the identification.]
- Buckwheat Zydeco – “Buck’s Nouvelle Jole Blon“
At The Brick, Joel asks Shelly and Ruth-Anne why they have turned on him.
- Enya – “Ebudae“
Final scene where Chris unveils his new art piece.
Themes / Recurrences: Light/dark; artistic process; desire; knowledge/ignorance; taking risks.
The Good: We always enjoy Chris’ art-making, and this is no exception. After the triumph of the Northern Lights sculpture and the trebuchet in earlier episodes, it was surprising how absolutely brilliant his latest artwork is. It’s accessible, yet superbly heavenly.
The Bad: One of us did not care for the town’s reaction in suing Joel. It seemed like these betrayals were completely out of character.
The Notable: Shelly’s earrings are always a standout, but this week they seemed particularly harmonious with the episode, from the Hawaiian hula figures, sunglasses, lightbulbs, to golden sun disks. Bravo.
On’s rating: 8.5 out of 10.
Shane’s rating: 7.5 out of 10.