In 6 seasons and 110 episodes, it’s almost impossible to pick ten that stand out above the rest. But this is what we’ve tasked ourselves with and so we’re going to do it, come to hell or high water…or blizzards…or aurora borealis…or a man-eating bear named Jesse…
Here is our entirely subjective list of the Top 10 best episodes of Northern Exposure. Sound off in the comments below with your thoughts!
10) S2E2: “The Big Kiss”
Ed searches for his biological parents with the help of a Native spirit guide (played by Floyd Red Crow Westerman) whom only Ed and other Natives can see. Meanwhile, Chris loses his voice to a beautiful woman, and must sleep with an equally beautiful woman to regain it…leading him to the one person in town he thinks can help him.
The beauty of this episode comes from Ed’s storyline, which is so sensitively and beautifully done. In a time when POC are still searching for equal representation on TV and film screens, seeing the “A” plot from a major network TV show in 1991 feature a Native American storyline is refreshing. Westerman is wonderful in the role of One Who Waits, and I love the way the ending gives Ed what he wants, in a way.
9) S3E10: “Seoul Mates”
It’s Christmas in Cicely and Maurice is stunned to discover that he has a biological son after all—but he is not who Maurice expects. Joel reconciles his Jewish upbringing with his deep-seated desire for a Christmas tree, which he gifts to Maggie following the news that she’s “homeless” for Christmas. Shelly misses traditional Catholic Mass. Backgrounding it all, the Raven Pageant takes centre stage.
It’s hard to like Maurice in this episode. His in-your-face racism is stomach-churning, especially when you consider all the implications of his affair with the young Korean woman and the fact that she raised their son alone and he was oblivious to it. His acceptance (I won’t go so far as to call it an embrace) of Duk Won is hard-won. On its own, that story would have fallen flat, but as it stands surrounded by the traditional holiday celebrations of the community—Joel’s Judaism, Shelly’s Catholicism, and the traditional Tlingit ways of knowing—and how they fit and merge and blend together to become something wholly unique, the story feels more poignant somehow.
8) S4E1: “Northwest Passages”
Maggie is turning 30 and decides to spend the weekend alone in the woods to reflect, and gets way more than she bargained for. Marilyn seeks driving lessons from Chris, and Maurice annoys everyone with his tape-recorded autobiographical musings as he prepares to write his memoir.
Three characters reaching milestones—Maggie’s thirtieth, Marilyn learning to drive (ostensibly an adolescent accomplishment) and Maurice’s reflective memoir—ground the episode in the idea of the passage of time and its effect on people. But the best parts belong to Maggie. In trying to enter mid-life with a clean slate, she—unknowingly stricken with appendicitis as she ventures further into the woods all alone—hallucinates her dead boyfriends and receives their harsh criticism in a fantastic “dream” sequence. Joel and Ed arriving in the nick of time and saving Maggie’s life adds necessary fuel to the “will-they/won’t-they” drama, but even without that, this is a fine episode and a good study on aging and the passage of time.
7) (tie) S4E22: “Kaddish for Uncle Manny”
When Joel’s Uncle Manny dies, Joel is faced with the urge to observe the traditional Jewish kaddish, or prayer for the dead, and the town rallies to find ten Jewish men to help Joel complete this particular requirement. Meanwhile, Chris and Bernard resume an old feud with a band of brothers from Chris’s early days.
The beauty of this episode is somewhat dampened in light of later episodes and Joel’s continued resistance to truly become one with the town, but in this story his embrace of his fellow Cicelians—with whom he sits shiva rather than the ten strangers, owing to his familiarity with them and the love the feel for one another—is a lovely thing to behold. If it had signalled true and sustained growth for Joel going forward, it could have been a high-water mark of the series. As it is, it’s still a very moving hour of television.
– S2E5 “Spring Break”
The town of Cicely is awaiting the arrival of Spring, the long wait symbolised by the moment when the winter ice first breaks. The anticipation and pent-up emotions send the townsfolk a little crazy. Joel and Maggie struggle with their libidos, Chris reverts to his old petty criminal ways and Holling takes to picking fights with everyone he sees. Maurice becomes obsessed with Barbara, a police officer he calls to investigate his stolen radio, and Ed assumes the role of town detective tracking down the thief.
The episode gives everyone the opportunity to play their characters to the maximum, fleshes them out a little more, and pokes at the realities beneath the exaggerated behaviour.
Finally as the ice breaks, to symbolise the release of pressure, the men of the town strip off their clothes and run naked through the streets of Cicely. Joel, initially shocked and confused by this behaviour, shrugs and does the same. It’s a great moment of acceptance from Joel, only tarnished by what becomes a pattern of the show failing to develop these cracks in Joel’s own permafrost.
6) S3E20: “The Final Frontier”
A mass of Japanese tourists descend on Cicely to procreate beneath the Northern Lights. Holling learns that his nemesis, Jesse the bear, has died. And a mysterious package with postmarks from all around the world lands in Cicely with no explanation.
Holling’s fear of Jesse is very real and tangible, and his despair over losing his chance to kill the bear himself sets him off on a long journey to uncover the whys and wherefores of Jesse’s life. At the other end of the spectrum from death is conception, as the Japanese tourists who hope to conceive gifted children beneath the auroras represent. In between is the ruddy stuff, the hard stuff and the inspiring stuff, the heart of life, and that’s most beautifully seen in the mystery of the package and the eventual discovery that childlike wonder is what sent it on its journey years before.
5) S4E15: “Learning Curve”
Marilyn takes a vacation to the big city of Seattle, and Joel worries for her safety when she doesn’t check in to the hotel he arranged for her, eventually dashing off on a misguided but ultimately sweet journey of his own to “rescue” her. Meanwhile, in Cicely, Holling attempts to earn his high school diploma and Maggie learns that women come in all kinds of packages.
Everyone in this episode either confounds or is confounded by expectations of others. Marilyn is more than capable of thriving in Seattle, and Joel must accept that his quiet receptionist is more than he thought she would be. Holling struggles to receive his diploma, in the face of self-taught knowledge that is at odds with “proper” pedagogy. And Maggie is forced to reflect on her own fiercely prescriptive feminism. At the end of the day, they all emerge the better for it.
4) S323: “Cicely”
The Season 3 finale shows us the origin story for the town of Cicely in an elaborate and beautiful sequence in which the main characters are recast as the founding inhabitants of the town. From its lawless roots as a bustling northern post to the sophisticated town that founders Roslyn and Cicely (two women who came up from too-conservative Montana in order to lead their lives in peace) help it to become, Cicely’s journey traces a path that resonates to the present day — this is a town for dreamers and schemers and people who want to make the world their own. (And even Franz Kafka has to sit up and take notice.)
3) S3E14: “Burning Down the House”
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!
While Chris struggles to find his next big art piece — he’s looking for something to fling, after realizing that flinging a cow has already been done, and by the Monty Python troupe no less! — Maggie is hit with bad news: her mother and father are divorcing. Not only that, Maggie’s mother, who is in town for a visit, accidentally burns Maggie’s house down.
The metaphor may be a little on the nose, but having Maggie’s world turned totally upside down by her mother’s pronouncement and then having it literally razed to the ground is a powerful moment for a strong female character grappling with her own maturity and adulthood. When Chris finds inspiration in the rubble that was lately Maggie’s home, it seems even more apropos. Because in the end, it’s the fling itself, innit?
2) (tie) S3E16: “The Three Amigos”
The death of an old friend and hunting companion sends Holling and Maurice into the wilderness on horseback, with a coffin, intent on burying their friend in a remote spot where he wanted to be laid to rest. Along the way they encounter their friends frisky widow, get in a bar fight and confront their impending old age. Counterpointed by Chris’s reading of “The Call of the Wild”, this episode gets under the skin of Holling and Maurices old friendship — which was interrupted by the Shelly incident, but clearly not destroyed. There’s a poignancy to their realisation that they are no longer the wild young wildernessmen that they used to be, and a beauty to the silent understanding that they both still value the friendship that they had, and still have. However, Chris’s telling of the “White Fang’ story at the end highlights that they maybe are both a little happier now to be safe and warm in the town of Cicely, with their pack, domesticated, but happy.
– S5E15: “Hello, I Love You”
Shelly is two weeks overdue and Dr. Fleischman wants to fly her to Anchorage for what he is expecting will be a difficult childbirth. Maggie and Joel grapple with their fledgling romance and the fact that they’re each better than the other at “traditional” tasks (Joel with knitting and Maggie with wielding a chainsaw). Ruth and Walt also come to grips with their own waylaid abilities as they spend the night in the bush following the breakdown of their truck.
This beautiful episode showcases the moment when Miranda “Randi” Vincoeur is born (and was the only episode of TV in recent memory to make Lindsay weep like a baby…). In it, Shelly — who is harbouring serious doubts about her ability to be a mother and whether or not her baby will like her — meets various incarnations of her yet-to-be-born child in Cicely’s laundromat. As a young child, a teenager, and finally as a grown woman, Shelly comes face-to-face with Randi’s life and realizes that everything really is going to be okay. Randi’s birth serves as a touchstone for everyone in town, but especially for Joel and Maggie and Ruth and Walt, in their own way.
1) S1E8: “Aurora Borealis: A Fairy Tale for Big People”
This is an episode packed with enough delightful plot threads to fill at least three normal episodes. Underpinning everything is a full moon and the impending arrival of the Aurora Borealis. Chris is working frantically on a metal sculpture inspired by the phenomenon, Joel is perturbed by a local legend ‘Adam’, and a new stranger, Bernard rolls into town who instinctively understands Chris’s sculpture.
Underpinning this episode is the spiritual yearning for the other, the mystery and the unknown that the northern lights represent. Bernard turns out to be literally Chris’s other half, his half-brother, and Adam in many ways is a mirror of the cantankerous misanthropic side of Joel. Soundtracked by dreamy jazz and blues, this is the episode that closed out Season 1 and the one that might finally make you realise that Northern Exposure really had something special.
Honourable mention: S5E10: “First Snow”
This is an episode about longing and understanding and finding a way to fit into the cycle of both life and the seasons, which are intimately connected in ways that Joel, the ultimate outsider, just can’t understand. Here, he loses an elderly patient — this was his first patient to die while under his care — who knew that it was her time to go, in spite of the fact that there was nothing medically wrong with her; it was simply her time to, as she puts it, “wind down”. This challenges Joel in ways he never quite expected, as he struggles to understand that some things just can’t be explained rationally or scientifically. His privileged Manhattan upbringing sheltered him for so many years from the realities of nature; out here in the wilderness, life and death play out over seasonal extremes and are intimately tied up in one another. He is aghast that the town must estimate the number of deaths they will experience over the winter, in order to prepare an adequate amount of graves before the permafrost makes digging impossible. It’s practical and no-nonsense, but it doesn’t jibe with Joel’s understanding of the world, his view on life, and his hero complex. While he comes to grips with this, Shelly and Maurice reminisce about their long-dead relationship, with vastly different results from one another, and as everyone prepares for the first snow of the season, Maggie winterises her home, and discovers that the one piece that she needed was right in front of her all along, in the most unlikely of people…
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