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The Magic of “Aurora Borealis” and the Best Episodes of Northern Exposure

For the legendary show’s 25th anniversary this week, we’re reminiscing about its greatest hits and what they meant.

July 15, 2015

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As an eight-episode summer replacement show in 1990, Northern Exposure, which we’re dedicating some time to discussing had a simple premise: big-fish city doctor lands in small-town Alaska, and hilarity ensues. The first season gently builds Cicely up as a quirky, funny community you might just want to disappear to forever. The first seven episodes, while thoroughly enjoyable, are also undeniably ordinary. But in “Aurora Borealis,” the season’s eighth and final episode, the show lifted its feet off the ground and never again quite returned to earth.

“Aurora Borealis” opens on a striking full moon, the frame lit with a deep, otherworldly blue. The camera pulls in, slowly, to a warm room lit by the red neon KBHR light — the now-familiar radio station inhabited by Chris Stevens (John Corbett). Chris waxes philosophical about the haunting, ever-present blue moon. Red and blue pop up time and time again through the episode — blue referring to the unknown and to mystery, and red beckoning warmth and familiarity. What’s out there is out there, and what’s in here is in here. But the “out there” and the “in here” become delightfully intertwined in “Aurora Borealis,” the show’s first real marriage of fantasy and reality. (Northern Exposure couches it in Van Morrison.)

Throughout the episode, Chris constructs one of his many art projects — a giant rusty metal sculpture wrought out of sheet metal triangles and bicycle spokes. He calls it “Aurora Borealis.” He’s rapidly trying to finish it in preparation for the arrival of the Northern Lights in a few days.

Meanwhile, lead character Dr. Joel Fleischman (Rob Morrow) faces his own mysterious unknown when he discovers an enormous bare human footprint while practicing his golf swing. Ed Chigliak (Darren Burrows) explains the footprint likely belongs to “Adam,” a mysterious local bogeyman who is described anywhere on the monster spectrum from Bigfoot to Frankenstein. No one has ever seen him, but he’s alleged to be a perennial poltergeist around town, most recently accused of stealing a woman’s Cuisinart and her Holy Bible. Joel’s building fear of Adam is temporarily quelled as he’s sent on a house call to a forest ranger on a remote mountain. On his way back, night falls, the frame once again filled with that eerie blue light from the full moon.

Joel, the incredulous outsider, is played up throughout these early seasons as a clueless fish out of water. Chris, on the other hand, is the ultimate laid-back dude. An ex-con reformed by a passion for philosophy and literature, he’s constructing the first of his many art projects: a giant rusty metal sculpture wrought out of sheet metal triangles and bicycle spokes that he calls “Aurora Borealis.”

Back in Cicely, a new stranger who has just rolled into town, the enjoyable Bernard (Richard Cummings Jr.), an accountant from Portland, Oregon, who just sold his condo, bought a bike, and started driving north. At the Brick, Bernard and Chris meet and immediately fall on the same wavelength at the Brick while talking about the collective unconscious (bonus points to delightfully ditzy waitress Shelly’s earnest question, “Do they tour, or just cut records?”). Bernard immediately understands Chris’s obtuse metal sculpture, and they begin to build it together. When they finally decide to get some sleep, they experience a bizarre shared dream that makes them realize they had the same father — a traveling salesman who spent long stretches of time away from each family to be with the other. Against all odds, they are brothers.

CLICK HERE TO SEE THE REST OF OUR NORTHERN EXPOSURE RETROSPECTIVE!

Under the same blue moon, Joel’s car breaks down and a hulking man (Adam Arkin) approaches, taking Joel to his cabin in the woods, filled with the same warm red light filling the buildings in Cicely. The foul-tempered man is in the middle of preparing a delicious meal and reveals himself to be the infamous Adam. At turns impeccably gracious and incredibly hostile, Adam makes Joel a gourmet home-cooked meal while simultaneously berating him.

Chris and Joel tap into something deeper in this episode. Some kind of flirtation with the otherworldly that plays both as funny and longing. Chris quite literally meets his other half in his  brother Bernard, and Adam’s peevish demeanor is perhaps the first and only in the series to rival Joel’s. Each meets someone who walks him, slowly but surely, away from reality as he knows it. Chris and Joel’s encounters in “Aurora Borealis” are funny, but they play equally as longing. Both of them are clad in both red and blue by the end of the episode, signifying their journey from the worldly to something just a bit more.

Joel is devastated when he returns to Adam’s cabin — eager to show Cicely’s locals he exists after all, only to find the place abandoned. But all hope is not quite lost when he finds pieces of metal on the forest floor that turn out to be the two pieces of a garlic press. Joel brandishes the garlic press with absurd delight, and it’s both a funny and deeply touching symbol of Joel’s first real foray into the surreal. The show would tap into this magic many times again. As Chris advises Bernard on the aurora, “you can see them one out of every five days down there. You just gotta perceive them.”

“Which five days?” asks Bernard.

“You never know,” says Chris. “You just gotta keep looking.”

Northern Exposure kept looking and kept finding. The aurora arrives at the end of the episode, shimmering in the sky above Chris’s sculpture, which it’s now apparent represents the jagged mountains and floating stars. The aurora becomes the perfect representation of what’s taken place in this episode. It’s “high-speed protons and electrons trapped in the Van Allen radiation belt,” as Chris puts it. As Bernard puts it, it’s also “some kind of weird psychic something.” The particular combination of real and surreal in this episode would become a defining of the series’ most memorable episodes. Without question, “Aurora Borealis” was the template.

The most iconic episodes of the series all had, in their own way, the same otherworldly yearning as “Aurora Borealis.” While “Aurora Borealis” might be the essential introductory episode of Northern Exposure, here are some more excellent episodes that fully capture the spirit of the show.

Spring Break (Season 2, Episode 5)

Like many of its most excellent episodes, this one riffs off a natural phenomenon affecting everyone in the town. In this case, spring has sprung, the ice is about to crack, and everyone is on edge. Like the alien pathogens that maddened crew members in innumerable episodes of the Star Trek franchise, this episode gets at the id of the main cast in a way we never saw before. Joel and Maggie finally give in to their building sexual tension and have their first kiss after bickering about Jell-o. Chris reverts to his criminal past and starts stealing car radios. In his iconic confession, he says, “Sometimes, Ed, you have to do something bad, just to know you’re alive.” A fantastic episode from the whole cast that leaves you with a little more depth to each character.

Jules et Joel (Season 3, Episode 5)

The first pure-fantasy episode of the series. Joel is accidentally concussed and the entire episode takes place in his imagination. His imaginary twin, smooth-talking loan shark Jules (the original Tyler Durden?) shows up to town and starts living it up in ways Joel can only dream of. It’s a very funny episode and one of the more innovative installments in the series. But more than that, it’s perhaps the first glimpse we get into Joel’s inner life, all his insecurities playing out as we see his other self acting out all the things Joel knows he can’t do. The combination of fantasy, laughs, and introspection make this classic Northern Exposure.

Seoul Mates (Season 3, Episode 10)

The show gets non-traditional and it’s beautiful in all the right ways. It’s nearing Christmas time, and everything is decked out — not in Christmas lights, but in raven decorations for the Raven Pageant. The raven pageant is a beautiful thing, but it’s not everybody’s cup of tea. Shelly pines for the midnight mass of her childhood, and Maurice laments his lack of family. But he’s in for a surprise — an elderly Korean woman shows up with her middle-aged son in tow, who also turns out to be his son, fathered during the Korean war. The whitewashed nuclear family American Christmas is anything but in this episode, which brings out the best in all the characters as they yearn towards something different and something more. Oh, and it’s directed by legendary television director Jack Bender, who went on to direct many episodes of Alias and Lost, and will direct episodes of Game of Thrones next season.

Cicely (Season 3, Episode 23)

The episode that won the series its second Peabody award and a glowing New York Times review from legendary critic John J. O’Connor, “Cicely” explores the inception of the town, which is revealed to have been founded by two progressive, cultured lesbian artists named Roslyn and Cicely, who came to Alaska to escape persecution and found their own artists’ colony. The series regulars stand in as members of the town, which is shaped and reformed by Roslyn and Cicely’s influence. They reform the largely lawless town into a place where people of different backgrounds celebrate and accept each other’s differences. There’s also a hilarious turn by Rob Morrow as Franz Kafka, who comes to Roslyn and Cicely for inspiration. With excellent period costumes, an innovative premise, and extreme idealism, this episode reveals the simultaneous beauty and improbability at the center of the Cicely’s utopia.

The Quest (Season 6, Episode 15)

The story goes that Joel became less and less important to the series as it became more about the town of Cicely. Rob Morrow was involved in hostile negotiations regarding his contract over the last two seasons, so his role was reduced over time. After he was effectively written off the show in the Season 6 episode “Up River,” though, his absence is deeply felt. Joel is the undeniable heart of the series, the character Cicely most needed to work its magic on. But in “The Quest,” Joel’s farewell episode, everything went very, very right. On a surreal trip brimming with literary references and during which he and Maggie finally saw eye to eye, “The Quest” pulled out all the stops and finally gave Joel the closure and the farewell he deserved after much stunted character growth. In his surreal exit, he surrenders to the magical possibilities that have sat in front of him for all these years.

Outcryer will be reminiscing more about Northern Exposure this week. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter for updates! In the meantime, feel free to tell us your favorite episodes in the comments below! Thanks for reading.

Join the Discussion (5)

Join the Discussion 5 comments

  • Billy Sargent

    As brilliant and delightful as the series was, Spring Break was also our first experience with the writers, producers and directors abominable habit of introducing something; theme, character, a significant recurring event in the borough of arrowhead county… & never mentioning it again.

  • Rob

    Most excellent writing and analysis! Thank you.

  • karl f. sauerbrey

    I loved how “Northern Exposure” trusted the viewers to laugh and to notice themes without adding to the cast’s lines. When Holling is all stopped up because of Shelly’s redecorating: “Tell Shelly you want your stool back.” Also, I would have loved to see the collaboration between writers, directors, etc. To get moments like “I know what a child looks like” from Maggie to Joel two seconds before Chris and Maurice go storming by in the pink Caddy, there must have been some healthy proactive interaction before and during filming. Remarkable series. My favorite.

  • David Forbes Brown

    This was a lovely read. God, how I still love this show! Just Leonard alone would garner a kajillion words. Remember this?: MARILYN: “The Eagle wasn’t always the Eagle. The Eagle, before it was the Eagle, was Yucatangi, the Talker. Yucatangi talked and talked to keep the Wolf away. It talked so much it heard only itself—not the River, not the Wind, not even the Wolf. The Raven came and said, ‘The Wolf is hungry, if you stop talking you will hear him. The Wind, too, and when you hear the Wind, you’ll fly.’ The Eagle. The Eagle soared, and its flight said all it needed to say.”

  • Kevin K.

    One of the most fun and heartfelt shows ever on the air– full of wonderful characters with charming actors playing them, intelligently written, beautifully shot, and loaded with great music. When is this going to come out on blu-ray? And more importantly, when is Shout! Factory going to put it out on blu-ray, with all the original music intact? This is most certainly a show deserving of the full de-luxe treatment!

    I’ve been waiting for this show for decades now, as i refuse to buy the dvds, with their replacement music.

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