Title: Up River
Written by: Diane Frolov and Andrew Schneider
Directed by: Michael Fresco
Aired: November 14, 1994
Log line: Ed sets out up the river to retrieve Joel, who has settled there in a primitive native village, while Chris wrestles with his own domestic troubles when he has his trailer remodeled.
Listen to the podcast of the episode here.
“Time is but a river I go fishing in” Henry David Thoreau, as quoted by Chris in “Fish Story” (5.18)
When we think about this episode we are reminded of the above quote in which Chris channels Thoreau, comparing time to a river. In “Up River,” time moves strangely, forwards and backwards, and goes into little wonky tributaries.
For some characters, time stands still, as we see Ruth-Anne stuck in the purgatory of waiting for Walt, vacillating between accepting her love for him and actively fighting against it. Similarly, Chris ends up in a limbo of his own as he embarks on renovations at his Airstream trailer. We see him getting more and more frustrated as he waits and waits for a contractor who never arrives. For both Chris and Ruth-Anne, it is only when they give up struggling that time moves again: Ruth-Anne sends a message to Walt, imploring him to come home, while Chris lets out a primal scream and surrenders to the universe.
However, both Ruth-Anne and Chris are thinking ahead to the future. Ruth-Anne finally fall head-over-heels for a romantic partner (after declaring herself too old for romance with Gillis in “Midnight Sun” 4.2). Chris transforms from grasshopper to ant by thinking about a permanent home. Chris even imagines his future self: “Check it out, it’s the middle of July, I’m kicking back right here, in the easy boy, listening to the skeeters slam into the screen…”
Time is more complicated in the case of Joel. We have the present Joel who tells Ed about a time two weeks prior. But the present Joel is seemingly living out of time, without electricity, plumbing or any technology whatsoever; he’s living in the same manner that people have lived for hundreds of years. He has let go of his past and who he was, and is transformed into a more peaceful, easygoing man. Yet there is an extra strangeness to the present Joel, as it is highly unbelievable that he would have mastered a Native language, cultural traditions such as hiding and spear fishing in just two weeks. Plus, he’s got his own dog sled team, though he admits that he needs “to find a couple of line-savvy wheel dogs.” Time is out of joint here.
There are other minor inconsistencies, like when he narrates the scene between him and Chris, where Chris declares, “You know, you gotta lose your mind before you can find it. Universe whacked my house, it was really whacking my mind, you see. Let go. Give up, man.”
Here, Joel is somehow already wearing the sweater vest that Maggie will give him in the next scene, when she breaks up with him.
And the scene where both Chris and Joel record their handprints in the wet cement…what does it all mean? Is it a gesture towards permanence? An attempt to make time stand still?
Much of this episode is strange, but in quite an appealing way. We see that time is not a river that flows just one way. Rather, it’s a river with dips, still moments, and rocks that disturb its currents.
Songs from the episode’s original airing:
- “A Summer Place” – Percy Faith Orchestra [replaced in the DVD version]
Ruth-Anne daydreams as Maurice is in the store.
- “Falling in Love Again“ – Marlene Dietrich [replaced in the DVD version]
Final scene where Walt appears.
Themes / Recurrences: Letting go; time; women and men.
The Good: We both loved the charming storyline involving Ruth-Anne and Walt. Though there were some inconsistencies, we liked the idea of the new Joel, and really enjoyed some of the scenes between him and Ed, particularly their emotional goodbye at the end.
The Bad: There were far too many things crammed into this one episode. A transformed Joel, the breakup with Maggie, the mystery of their intimacy causing guns to go off, Chris becoming an ant (rather than a grasshopper), Ruth-Anne being lovestruck. Plus, the episode is told through flashbacks, so we have an added layer of complexity. If Joel’s transformation had been more gradual (or been the only storyline in this episode?), we would have been more on board with it.
The Notable: Ed still seems to be interested in films, having just attended a film festival in Banff, where Quentin Tarantino won the top prize. (Clearly, this would be for Pulp Fiction, which was released in 1994.) In 1994, the 19th annual Banff Festival of Mountain Films was held with prizes in six categories, including Best Film on Mountain Culture, Best Film on Climbing, and Best Film on Mountain Sports. Pulp Fiction wasn’t in competition for any of these prizes, not being focused on mountain culture. It’s also worth noting that Ed is clearly a great guide, a quality we’ve seen him exhibit in past episodes. When Maurice sends him to talk to Joel, he says, “You’re gonna need a guide. And take a gun.” We don’t see him with a guide (or with a gun). He navigates the “rough country” all on his own.
On’s rating: 7.5 out of 10
Shane’s rating: 7.5 out of 10
After reading your blog post and listening to your podcast for this episode, I must say that your take on it left me scratching my head. You seem to take issue with the episode for its lack of realism and other inconsistencies. Let me offer a response to some of your concerns.
Joel’s ability to speak the language of the villagers in Manonash is a sticking point for both of you, and yet, there is no evidence in the episode to suggest that Joel has “mastered” the language of the Manonash villagers. Yes, we hear Joel use a few phrases, but the lengthiest conversation we see him have with a village native occurs — by both speakers — *in English* [when Joel examines Theresa’s son, Jimmy, while talking with Ed]. Other than that, we see Joel speak a few, very short sentences in the native dialect during the episode, which, I believe, could have been learned in his two weeks of residency. Anyone who has participated in a language immersion program would agree with me on that. Therefore, I take the exact opposite view here: After two weeks of living in a village with residents who speak English and a native language, Joel exhibits a rudimentary grasp of the Manonash language that is neither unbelievable or unrealistic.
Moving on, let’s talk about time. I do not think seeing Joel wearing the sweater vest Maggie gifted him when he takes the medicine to Chris as a continuity error. Yes, in the story Joel tells to Ed (two weeks later) he sees Chris before he sees Maggie (and therefore before he receives the vest). Yet, the scene with Joel and Chris could, chronologically speaking, have simply occurred after Maggie kicked him out. The reason I say this is because the entire story Joel is relating to Ed culminates when he goes to Manonash on a house call. It is then that “the experiences of the last week coalesced.” That is the turning point and everything in the week prior was building up to that. We do not have to entertain ideas about a time-traveling Joel to simply say the story was related to Ed somewhat out of sequence. I am certainly guilty of doing this for the sake of effect when telling stories. My take: In real time, Maggie throws him out and then the next day he had an encounter with Chris that furthers this “casting off” idea already happening in Joel’s head.
This episode is marks the beginning of Joel’s quest. The abruptness of Joel’s “conversion experience,” so to speak, and the immediate and radical changes it produces in his life *is* the point. He had a life-altering moment and, because of it, his path is forever changed. The idea that this should be gradual instead of instant seems to miss the point of what it means to have an epiphany.
Like most episodes from seasons 5 and 6, it still comes off feeling like something is missing. Episodes from these final two seasons don’t leave us feeling the same way we felt during season 3 and 4. However, that is not due to a lack of realism and chronological inconsistencies. If you want realism, you watch The Wire. If you want a show that explores the human condition framed by the magical and supernatural, you watch Twin Peaks and Northern Exposure. These mystical qualities are not the weakness of the show, they are its charm. Given our difference of opinion on this episode, I am very eager to read and listen to your take on the upcoming episodes “Horns” and “The Quest.” I’ll out myself now and say I think these are excellent episodes and they are excellent because of their very defiance of realism. This episode, however, is quite realistic.
You have a point – we perhaps made too big of a deal on the time/continuity aspects here. Everything just seems to convenient and wrapped up – the new Joel seems really far away from the character we’ve spent time with for years. Something in his core seems to have changed too much in our opinion. Yes, NX is not a hyper-realistic show to be certain, but this season just seems a bit off to us. But totally appreciate your perspective, and I get where you’re coming from!
as always, thank you so much for putting in the original music. such a rich and wonderful component to your reviews. merci!