Matchsticks

Everything we build is matchsticks.

That’s how I felt recently, watching the residents of Walnut Grove blow up their beloved town with dynamite in the final episode of the “Little House” TV series.

I originally that episode – the two hour movie billed as “The Last Farewell” – close to 40 years ago now, and found it depressing.  Watching it again today for the first time, it’s cathartic.  It’s bittersweet.  As my daughter put:  Sadisfying.

I appreciated how the town was destroyed in silence, with no violins or other music blaring.  You could almost feel a real, silent town there:  nothing but wood and wind.  And the buildings shot from such a distance, they looked so fragile, more real than in their glory days when they were shot up close and lovingly.

I’ve had a similar experience with the first of the three end-of-series movies, “Look Back To Yesterday,” which four decades ago was just sad.  Now, I see that Albert wanted to spend his last days living, and it seems like the most logical thing anyone could ever do.

And season 9, the final full season of one-hour episodes, has hit me in a totally different way.  Back then I just couldn’t accept that the Ingalls had left Walnut Grove.  I really didn’t, or couldn’t give the new season a chance.  But I’m finding now that the writers really gave it a good go. 

There’s retread material in Season 9, but also some fine content, particularly around Mr. Edwards, who gets to shine now in a way he couldn’t when the Ingalls were front-and-center.  See for example that speech he gives in the church protesting the decision to send Matthew away – a speech in which he doesn’t merely stick up for someone who’s different but angrily questions the very idea of normal.

The Carters, intended surely as a replacement for the Ingalls, do not feel to me like mere Ingalls copies.  The kids are boys, for one thing.  Stan is a good deal grumpier and sharper than Charles.  Sarah, with her profession and a certain moodiness about her, does not resemble Caroline. 

Jenny Wilder, also surely intended as a fill-in for the younger Laura, does not feel like a fill-in.  She’s just not Half-Pint, and I don’t see her even trying to be; any attempt to do so would have been cringe-worthy.

Jenny’s story with Dr. Marvin is a reprise of many such stories that Laura had – all based on the “Silas Marner” template – but for my money this one was the best-written and most sensitively done.

Mr. Edward’s May-December romance is a retread of an earlier story with Dr. Baker, but it gives Victor French a lot more to do and hits harder.  The confrontation between him and Half-Pint is honest and genuinely moving, largely because Mr. Edwards is such an authentic character.  There may be modern things about him as presented in the show, but of all the characters he feels the most authentically from the time period.  Moreover, he’s not pious or all-forgiving if he can’t be, and that’s pure gold in a show like this.

Mr. Montague is a totally new kind of character for the series.  There’s no attempt to make his accumulation of talents realistic, but that’s the beauty of it:  the writers just go for it, and they come up with someone hilarious but substantial, a character with unrealized potential.

The story with the three brothers of the Older Gang harks back to some other episodes done by Michael Landon, who has some familiarity with the Western genre, but this is the funniest of all, Landon stepping in to write the story and teaming up with Victor French who does a great job as director.

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There are many things I see now that I didn’t as a teen watching this show for the first time.  Adults and kids always appreciate and see different things, but in some ways I’ve just changed. 

I mean, for one thing, I now appreciate good comical work rather than getting impatient with it, as I used to do.

I also appreciate now Caroline’s role in a way I didn’t before.  Back then it was all about Pa for me.  But Grassle did fine work, and her next-to-last episode, set in the camp beset by a probable ancestor of Covid-19 (“A Faraway Cry”), was one of those “how did I not notice this before” moments.

Back in the 80s it was clear to me that in the opening credits, if you saw “Directed by Michael Landon,” it was sure to be a well-written but sad episode.  Today I think the episodes directed by him include the most melancholy stories but also the funniest and most self-deprecating.  For example, “Look Back To Yesterday”, not directed by him, doesn’t make fun of Charles Ingalls in the least; but Landon does have some fun with the character in the movie that he directs, “The Last Farewell.”

There were certainly episodes in which Landon took himself too seriously; and he made himself out to be a hero all too often.  That was clear even back then.  But now I notice that the episodes that poke the most fun at the character are written by Landon himself – such as the stories around Laura’s romance with Almanzo, where Charles is presented as comically jealous as well as too quick to throw a punch.

I find it very interesting that Michael Landon wanted to adapt the “Little House” books – in which the family has only daughters – right after he finished “Bonanza,” in which the main family has only brothers.

The “Little House” series is being praised during this past year as woke, for its episodes about race; and timely, for its episodes about quarantines and epidemics.  (This is all happening at the same time as the books have come in for criticism.)  Its treatment of race is an aspect I didn’t pick out back in the 80s.  To me, what the show was offering in terms of race just felt straight out the times we lived in:  perfectly normal.  The episode about Dr. Baker’s unconscious racism didn’t stand out for me as radical, but today, when we are struggling everywhere to cope with institutional racism and most people accept the existence of unconscious bias, it feels like a TV show ahead of its time. 

Yet the fact that what seemed normal to me back then feels woke to our culture now may indicate the degree to which we’ve gone backward in some respects – or the degree to which much progress that we thought of as an accomplished fact has become fragile and under threat in recent years.

But definitely, though I still call “The Lord Is My Shepherd” my favorite episode, the one that I appreciate the most as an adult is “Barn Burner”.  No happy ending for the gripping story of race told in that episode.  And the speech by Joe Kagan about the need for impartial justice, even for bigots – even though he’s seen so many of his own people hanged for doing much less than burning a barn – well, I recognized that even back in the 80s as the very best of the “Little House” series, and it will be a highlight of the show in any time period.

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