There is no sufficient synopsis for an episode of Northern Exposure. In our era of ‘previously ons’ and AV Club recaps of Thursday night’s biggest draws, submitting a truncated version of each ebb and flow of an outing in Cicely would be like trying to use a single breath to outline every running joke in Arrested Development; even if one could manage, no one would gain anything of value.
Although that’s not to say the general TV populace at the time didn’t try. Premiering in the summer of 1990 as a six-episode filler series, less than 2 years later Northern Exposure was must-watch award winning television, with every grocery store line in America getting a collective once-over by Chris Stevens’ arresting glare. But for all my faith in the fine folks of the old-school TV Guide, I simply can’t imagine how they fit such complex ideological, metaphysical and psychologically profound concepts into a blurb smaller than a tweet. (Jayden Smith wasn’t around yet. Had he been, who knows where we’d be.)
Take for example, Death — a friendly neighbour in Cicely, Alaska. The way He was treated exhibited a connection with reality seen far too infrequently in storytelling. Our introduction to the concept was early and convivial when Joel Fleischman, the displaced upper-east side doctor, paid a second-episode visit to a native medicine man, Mr. Anku:
“Everything’s under control”, Anku says. “It’s just a little prostate cancer.”
Joel, dressed in a conservative sweater vest, finds Anku sitting nude in his sauna and is faced with an old, knowledgeable human peacefully approaching the end of his life. Joel struggles with the moral implications of allowing an individual to accept their own inevitability. “You’d rather die than lose face? Nobody would rather die.”, laments Joel. “It’s just pride, Anku. It’s just stupid pride.” Their disconnect on the topic is highlighted by their wardrobe choices; Anku is connected to nature and is accepting of his mortal being, while Joel looks to protect his shell for as long as possible.
Exploring the idea further in the third episode of the first season, Maggie O’Connell (Cicely’s answer to Amelia Earhart) introduces Joel to Soapy Sanderson, an old hermit with a recently injured leg. Recounting Soapy’s current condition of nerve damage that will require rehabilitation, Joel is once again met with resistance to the expected standard.
“Soapy, I’m serious. I just looked at your hip and you’re not getting any better.” says Joel. “You have to start thinking about your future, please.”
“You know, you’re right.” Soapy retorts. “It’s time to go home, and think about the future.”
When Joel next meets Soapy, he’s shaved, cleaned the house, dressed in his best suit and tie, and dead in his bed with a gun slumped at his side. An unfazed Maggie recognizes the intent immediately and is incredulous at Joel’s unease with the whole situation.
“Look, Fleischman — Soapy lived the way he wanted to live, he died the way he wanted to die.” she says. “Let’s get him and his stuff into the plane.”
This then, is the core value that separates Cicely from nearly every other fictional locale since time immemorial — the idea that the community at large so strongly respects freedom and individuality that Death is a blasé liberty. (Years later, Frank Reynolds in a Sunny Philadelphia would embrace the same value with his character’s apotheosis phrase ‘When I’m dead, just throw me in the trash.’) Cicely so resolutely upholds everyone’s right to die with quiet dignity, no questions asked, that even when a mysterious stranger turns up dead in the middle of town, the locals take turns guarding the body outdoors until a proper burial can be organized. Chris Stevens, the town’s omnipotent philosopher, radio DJ, artist and ex-con-turned-bohemian-preacher, gives an epitaph.
“The fact that we don’t know this man isn’t important really.” Chris says, addressing the crowd. “Because his experience is our experience. And his fate is our fate.”
Maggie then reads Shakespere’s Sonnet 116 to the nameless man:
Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken
Love is an ever-fixed mark, and Death is one fucking hell of a tempest.
Maggie would know all about tempests. By the third season, Maggie in her late twenties has seen five of her lovers die, each in their own interesting way. Steve, hit by lightning. Harry, ate tainted potato salad. Bruce, nondescript fishing accident. Glen, accidentally drove onto a missile test range. Dave, napped on a glacier. And Rick, crushed by a falling satellite. (Ed: “Boy, Rick sure was lucky.” Joel: “Lucky? He’s dead.” Ed: “Yeah, but how many people get to get hit by a satellite? I’ll bet he makes the guinness book of world records.”)
Maggie and Rick’s post-death relationship becomes a major theological exploration in season 3, episode 4, when Rick is reincarnated and returns to Cicely in the form of a dog. He had egregiously breached Maggie’s trust when, after he died, it was revealed he kept dozens of girlfriends at any given time without her consent. And yet despite their past hardships, Maggie and Rick reconnect in a big way; reminiscing, giving each other gifts and even going so far as organizing a picnic date in the park (one of the series’ absolute highlights is a possessed dog and a dolled-up Maggie O’Connell frolicking in the park while Aretha Franklin’s ‘Natural Woman’ plays).
Forgiveness, self discovery and the validity of eastern religious beliefs are all themes that run through this storyline, but the main highlight in regards to Maggie’s sonnet recital is why Rick came back — he missed her. They missed one another and they wanted to reconnect, and damned if Death is going to stop them. Love continues its unalterable state.
Chris Stevens, the aforementioned philosophizing radio DJ is also paid a visit by the macabre-but-cheery Cicely resident Death in Season 4. Not often one for major emotion, Chris is even more particularly unencumbered with any sense of grief when a dear old friend of his turns up in town, ice-cold in a box, having mailed his own dead body to Alaska. They had made a pact early in life to bury one another however they saw fit should the hour ever come, and once it had, Chris sprang into action deciding how to provide Tooley with the send-off of a lifetime. No wasted breath, no tears spared, no questions asked — Tooley lived, Tooley died, Chris has to show him one last time just how much he was loved.
“I’ve got a big problem here, Tooley. I mean I got options but the pieces don’t wanna fit. Cremation? You’re a well travelled guy, where am I going to spread ya? Burial at sea, that’s a nice choice, but there’s seven of ’em, how am I going to choose?”
Chris’s conflict in choosing the best possible send-off eventually becomes a major issue, what with having a dead body hanging around and all. He’s forced to go against his better judgement, organizing a customary Judeo-Christian funeral for his life’s biggest hero, only to walk out in the middle of a speech attempt and wander out into the forest. Maggie finds him later laying at the bottom of a grave he’d dug, lamenting over his inability to give his friend a suitable burial. Whether by design (based on her experience with Rick) or coincidence, Chris admits that part of the reason he’s having such a difficult time of things is because it’s nice having Tooley in his life after years apart. He doesn’t miss him in death, he’s missed him in life. “The spirit taking wing, the heart shutting down, it’s all so biological — I can handle that.” waxes Chris. “But releasing Tooley, letting go of the man, it’s hard. I like having him around again.”
In the end, Chris comes to terms with letting go, albeit quite literally; strapping Tooley’s coffin to a giant catapult Chris had built in an earlier season (then, to ‘let go’ of Maggie’s past material possessions after a house fire). The town is enamored with Tooley’s penchant for adventure after Death, and Chris is satisfied with giving his friend the ride of his Life.
The only death ever mourned with the societal-norm of silent despondence in the town of Cicely was that of its co-founder and moral essence, Cicely herself. A young, educated prairie woman who arrived in Alaska in 1909 with her companion Roslyn, she was the driving force behind a cultural shift in the town — from a lawless, dirty, uneducated settlement to a community of artists and thinkers, inhabited by people with bravery and respect and accepting of the individuality and freedom of each and every citizen.
She dies in defiance of a force that opposes every loving value she and Roslyn had built, and in doing so she imparted a century-long tradition of compassion in the face of Death.
In Cicely, there is no duality in Love and Death. They are one and the same, and one practices both simultaneously without forethought or judgement.
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom. If this be error and upon me proved, I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
“In this tiny corner of Alaska, the human spirit has triumphed. We hold in our hands the most precious gift of all…the freedom to express our art, our love.”