In the first two seasons of Northern Exposure, the quirky supporting cast of characters largely play second-fiddle to the goings on in the doctor’s office. Often, these supporting characters and their pratfalls ended up being more interesting, more endearing, and they definitely help flesh out the general setting of the story, as we learn not just about these specific people but the types of people who populate remote Alaska towns. With the later season side-lining of Dr. Joel Fleischman as the main driving force in the story, these characters become ever-more-important, and they end up making Northern Exposure the wonderful and enduring show it remains to this day.
Maggie O’ Connell is introduced in the Pilot when she approaches Joel about the cabin she owns (which he will be renting) and he mistakes her for a hooker propositioning him. It’s kind of a perfect introduction to the relationship between Maggie and Joel—a will-they-won’t-they screwball dynamic in the classic mould—except underneath the apparent differences Maggie has a lot in common with Joel. Maybe that’s why they’re strangely drawn to each other whilst being simultaneously annoyed by each other’s more abrasive characteristics. Maggie, like Joel, is an outsider, having followed a boyfriend to Alaska, staying on in Cicely as a pilot-for-hire. They’re both very opinionated and have a tendency to become overly dramatic when things don’t go their way (Joel in more of a whiny child-like sulky way, Maggie in an over the top bombastic fashion).
The big difference in their personalities derives ultimately from their differing ambitions. Joel wants nothing more than to get back to the familiar cosmopolitan delights of New York, far away from the wilderness of Cicely, and is thus miserable because he is being effectively held against his will. Maggie, extending teen rebellion into a lifelong pursuit, is trying to escape the middle class life her mother wanted for her in Grosse Point. She sees herself as more of an adventurous Amelia Earhart figure. Despite this self-image, she seems to yearn for nothing more than to find herself a man—albeit a man who’ll let her wear the trousers half the time and disappear for days on end to fly a mail plane—and settle down. This goal is somewhat hampered by all her boyfriends coming to unfortunate ends—all of her last 6 boyfriends have met the “O’Connell Curse” and died in tragic circumstances. This lends her a desperate, romantic yearning, but also in a way adds to her slightly skewed enjoyment of her own loneliness and independence. She’s not happy per se, but at least feels in charge of her own destiny. She loves Cicely precisely because the town is full of independent pioneering types who are pursuing their own weird destinies, just like her.
Whilst Northern Exposure did focus a lot of its attention on the motley cast of characters that just ended up in Cicely somehow, Marilyn Whirlwind, along with Ed, was one of the true locals, and remained a steadfast if subdued moral centre for the show. She could keep Joel, and occasionally others, in line with seemingly little more than a glance, a gesture, or a single short sentence. Marilyn was the only regular female Native American character, and although the stoic, braided character she inherited was a little stereotypical, Elaine Miles (who got the role almost accidentally) imbued Marilyn with such a force of will and personality that gradually the character grew into one that was almost universally loved by fans. Given more free rein with the character after the early seasons, we got to see more of Marilyn; she talked a little more, although never more than needed, and she got to lose those braids. We learn that she is the best dancer in town, and can even bring tough guy Holling to heel. The episodes that focused on Marilyn—her romance with the Flying Man, her trip to Seattle with Joel in pursuit—all have something in common with the character: a particular charm, fierce independence, and sense of whimsy that are part of what make her loved, respected (and sometimes feared) by everyone in the town.
We discussed Chris Stevens briefly in our introduction to Northern Exposure. Though he didn’t have a speaking role in the Pilot, Chris rapidly became a core character, providing the philosophical backbone of the show and acting as a Greek chorus in his role as morning radio host and philandering ne’er-do-well with a heart of gold. Chris holds an odd place in the town as priest-confessor, and general life-coach to all and sundry, despite his past as a small-time crook and the fact that he lives in a trailer by the lake. Maybe it’s one of the aspects of small-town Alaskan life that the show actually gets right: that people’s pasts aren’t important, and nobody asks or cares. In a small community who you are now is what matters. In the early seasons Chris is an affable presence in the show, always willing to help people out in a spiritual or moral crisis, guiding them and us the viewer with some choice quotes, usually broadcast via the radio in a kind of wilderness Thought of the Week. Chris is often too happy to guide others, though he often struggles himself, sometimes creatively, such as in the superlative Season One episode “Aurora Borealis”, and in the equally excellent Season Three episode “Burning Down The House” (the one where he decides he needs to fling a cow):
The thing I learned folks, this is absolutely key: It’s not the thing you fling. It’s the fling itself. Let’s fling something, Cicely!
Later, he also struggles with his quest for philosophical and spiritual enlightement, as seen in “Revelations” (S4E12). By this point Chris’s character has become a little tired, a little more of a caricature, but the original writers left at the end of Season 4, so it may simply be a case of them running out of things to do with him or losing interest generally. Maybe there’s only so much philosophising you can find cute from a part-time DJ who lives by a river, before the bubble bursts and you just start to find his mid-life philandering and cocky swagger a little annoying.
Heading up the radio station (and, let’s be honest, most of the town) is ex-astronaut/wealthy entrepreneur Maurice Minnifeld. His grandly titled Minnifield Communications Network encompasses the station and a local paper. Maurice was an early landowner in Cicely and dreams of making Cicely the jewel of the Alaskan Riviera. Despite being, on the surface, a bigot, a racist, a misogynist, and an all-round pompous ass, it’s hard not to find Maurice entirely lovable. He is so terrible at being mean that you feel sorry for him mostly, and his outward abrasiveness seems to mask a deep loneliness and love for both the town and the townsfolk.
As far as I’m concerned, after a hundred years carrion becomes memorabilia.
For me, some of the best moments in Northern Exposure are when the storyline puts Maurice out of his comfort zone and forces him to confront his prejudices and pomposity. In Season 3’s “Seoul Mates” he discovers he fathered a son with a Korean woman when he was a young man over there in the war. Maurice’s gradual course correction from suspicion and bigotry to begrudging acceptance is a delight to watch. Of all the characters, Maurice is the one who I never tire of watching over the course of the seasons, and possibly the character who—whilst maybe not growing too much—reveals more of himself slowly, becoming more complex and less of a caricature than when he is first shown.
Ed Chigliak is the first Cicelian Joel meets upon his arrival. Orphaned at birth, he has been raised by the local Tlingit people and identifies as part of the Bear Clan. Soft-spoken and deeply thoughtful, Ed longs to be a filmmaker, and spends much of the first few seasons working on various film-related projects, culminating in his screenplay, which makes the rounds in Hollywood before being picked up by a local Native American elder and millionaire; Ed abandons the project altogether when it is revealed that the wealthy benefactor will only produce it if Ed ceases dating the man’s daughter. Thus, Ed reveals his true character—he is a romantic at heart. Even though he is on first-name basis with several big-name Hollywood directors (a fact that constantly surprises Joel), Ed is most at home in the Cicely wilderness, working towards his other goal of becoming a shaman and medicine man. Either goal is worth pursuing, and Ed is talented in both areas; his future professional success at the end of the series is virtually guaranteed, whether he pursues filmmaking or medicine.
His relationships with both Maurice and Ruth-Anne are worth mentioning because they both exist as parental figures for him. Ed works part-time at Ruth-Anne’s general store in town and also does odd jobs around Maurice’s home. Maurice, for all his gruff exterior, has quite the soft spot for Ed, though he doesn’t always show it. Ed regards him as little more than an authority figure/quasi-boss who must be respected (even though Maurice doesn’t always deserve it) but by the end of the series, the two men seem to have come to a good place in their relationship—Maurice softening towards Ed, and Ed breaking down in front of Maurice, apologizing for taking advantage of Maurice’s home while housesitting (S6E12, “Mi Casa, Su Casa”). Ed’s relationship with Ruth-Anne is decidedly less strained; as stock boy and general help down at the general store, Ed and Ruth-Anne get along famously, and have a warm rapport throughout the series. Maurice’s treatment of Ed often raises Ruth-Anne’s ire, showing her dedication to Ed and the care and feeling she has toward him. Together, this little trio represents a kind of non-traditional family unit that speaks to the nature of Alaska—a place where wanderers gather together around the hearth regardless of blood ties.
Holling and Shelly Vincoeur are the owners of The Brick, the popular Cicely eatery and bar that serves as the meeting place for the area residents. Shelly is a blond twenty-something from Saskatoon, brought to Cicely by Maurice after he fell for her during her run as Miss Northwest Passage shortly before the start of the series; Holling is a sexagenarian descended from French Huguenots and Quebecois fur traders, who falls for Shelly and steals her away from Maurice. The tension in this love triangle makes up a good portion of their storylines for the first few seasons, but as Maurice’s attachment to Shelly wanes, we are shown the loving and tender side of Holling and Shelly, as they get married, settle down, and start their family together.
Each one of these wonderful characters are given standout moments to shine, whether in the real world (as in Ruth-Anne’s case, in S5E15’s “Hello, I Love You”, when she and would-be beau Walt are stranded overnight in the wilderness and she gets to show her true grit) or in the show’s trademark dream sequences (as in Shelly’s case, in the same episode, when she “meets” her daughter at various ages throughout the course of a few trips to the laundromat, and finally realizes she’s ready to be a mom). These beautiful golden threads weave in and out of the six season tapestry of Northern Exposure to show us, bit by bit, that even in the extreme darkness of a northern winter there are still glimmers of joy to be found.
…since we’re talking about northern winters, join us next Friday as Lindsay dives into what makes that town of Cicely unique, as both a setting and a character, throughout Northern Exposure‘s six-season run. Don’t miss it!