Feels Like the First Time
(a recap by Will Kaiser)
Title: A Harvest of Friends
Airdate: September 11, 1974
Written by John Hawkins and William Putman
Directed by Michael Landon
SUMMARY IN A NUTSHELL: Having relocated to Walnut Grove, Charles falls out of a tree, and an evil Irish stereotype cheats him.
RECAP: First things first: THE OPENING CREDITS! It’s quite exciting to imagine what it was like seeing them for the first time.
I suppose there’s no point describing the sequence for you. It’s just as it lives in our memories: Charles driving the wagon, stealing loving glances at Ma; Caroline taking forever to stuff her hair into her bonnet, then straightening up and nodding primly at the kids; Jack, Laura and Mary joyfully running downhill; Carrie taking her tumble. (My wife Dagny says she always believed one Greenbush twin hid in the grass, and popped up when the other fell so both could be in the opening credits. As wonderful a thought as that is, if you look closely you can see it’s not so.)
Musically, there are a couple of things to mention. One thing I noticed recently is the arrangement of the theme is different every season. I’m not sure why they rearranged it so often, since the changes were always minimal. But I suppose even the greats struggle to see their own perfection, tinkering their work to death if not reined in by editors, producers, publishers, and the like. (You should see me when I’m trying to finish these recaps!)
Anyways, here the orchestra, with its snappy trumpet riffs answering the melody in the strings, sounds pretty much as it will for the rest of the series . . . but underneath is an iconic seventies combo: a bouncing electric bass and a “waka-chicka” disco guitar! The funk is very pronounced in the mix, and seems a weird choice for this most un-funky of shows. But what the hey, it’s fun, and it reminds us we’ll be stuck in the 1970s for a good long while.
Sadly, this arrangement does lose points for what isn’t there yet: the melodic swoop when Carrie falls. (You know the one; we sometimes sing “There’s CARR-ie!” along to it in my house.) Those of you who love it like I do will have to wait for it, till 1975 at least.
Also, we also have for the first time the convention of crediting the supporting cast who appear as “The Town.” A whole bunch of familiar names are listed for this premiere, but we’ll wait till we’re into the story to meet them.
Let’s get on with it, then! We open with a close-up of a wooden door opening. Laura and Jack step out and the camera pans back to reveal a small stone shelter built into a hillside.
“If I had a remembrance book,” Laura says (and if you’re like me you rolled your eyes and thought, “If she says that every time, this is going to be a long 207 episodes”), “I would surely write about the day we came to Plum Creek, and first saw the house in the ground.” She doesn’t mention the state, but of course it’s Minnesota. One thing: The title’s a bit of a spoiler, isn’t it? Oh well, just pretend you don’t know the Ingallses wind up with a bunch of friends at the end and we’ll continue.
Laura looks up a hill and sees Pa talking and shaking hands with a stranger, revealed to be the bemustached Lars Hanson. You know, it’s always struck me how little facial hair we get on this show, considering how in both the 1870s and the 1970s, men wore very elaborate mustaches, beards, sideburns, etc. Check out the real Charles Ingalls’s own, for instance:
But I suppose if people were used to seeing facial hair every day on the 1970s streets, having a lot of it on the show might erode the illusion of a different time period. Or maybe Michael Landon just thought they looked sloppy and would hide his handsomeness.
Mr. Hanson is of course very nice; he makes a deal with Charles and they shake hands again. Charles looks pleased as punch with himself when he goes to tell his family about the development. He really is a goofy young man at times in these early stories.
Laura, Mary and Caroline have been soaking their feet in the creek; Carrie isn’t anywhere to be seen. It’s not super-clear, but apparently Mr. Hanson’s sold Charles the property on which the “soddy” stands. “We’re home?” Caroline says, doubtfully. “We’re home,” he replies. Seems we’ve heard that somewhere before.
We never see inside the soddy, though presumably that’s where they’re going to be living for a little while. This is a replica of the actual Ingalls soddy in the real Walnut Grove, Minnesota:
Next, we get a panoramic view of Walnut Grove’s main thoroughfare. In order, we see the blacksmith’s shop, the Post Office, the Feed & Seed, Oleson’s Mercantile, the church/schoolhouse in the distance, and finally Hanson’s lumber mill.
Cut to Charles at the mill, sawing a two-by-four on a table saw. (I couldn’t decide if I preferred that sentence or Cut to Charles at the mill, cutting a two-by-four on a table saw. Repetition either way, you see.) In voiceover, Laura informs us of another part of Hanson’s deal: Pa is being paid in lumber so he can build them a house. She says he traded Pat/Pet and Patty for a “span” of oxen because the former weren’t strong enough to pull the plow. (I suppose that’s because they were mere ponies . . . though Laura calls them “horses” here! Gah!) She doesn’t mention what happened to P&P’s foal, though. (Probably long since eaten by Mr. Edwards in Kansas.)
Charles works at the mill during the day, and begins building the house at night. Laura says, “Because it happened mostly in the dark, our house grew like the mushrooms we found in the woods.” (A witty image . . . once again I thought it was maybe a line from the book, but no.)
One day he finishes it, and the camera pans back to reveal the Little House in full glory!
Charles sweeps Caroline off her feet to carry her over the threshold, and Laura and Mary climb up to the loft to make their beds. Here’s a charming floor plan for the house I found online (drawn up by the rather amazing Iñaki Aliste Lizarralde):
Everybody goggles over the place’s amenities, which include glass windows and a locking door. Caroline says the latter makes her feel safe from wolves. (Wolves? Has she already forgotten the home invaders in Kansas?)
Charles says he’s glad to have it done, but they still need some goods before they can begin farming. Caroline nods. “A plow, a harrow, and seed,” she says, suddenly sounding so British that I thought the phrase might be a Shakespearean allusion or something. (I googled it; it isn’t.)
(“I thought she said a heroin seed,” said Dagny. Ha!)
Ma continues being British for another few seconds, scolding Carrie for climbing the ladder to the loft. Maybe it’s because Karen Grassle studied acting in London on a Fulbright fellowship? I know a few Americans myself who in the nineties came back from a semester in the U.K. “accidentally” trying to talk like Hugh Grant.
Charles follows Carrie up the ladder and admires the girls’ new room. I like how he sits on the bed with them and talks so naturally; for all the many stories we’ll have where Laura perceives him as liking boys better, you’d never think that to see him with his daughters.
The next day he struts into town, shouting a familiar halloo to the blacksmith and basically acting like he owns the place. He’s about to be taken down a peg. He heads into the Mercantile, where Nels Oleson, here a nervous-seeming man with a light-bulb-shaped head, greets him with some pleasant chit-chat about his building project. But Nels isn’t his problem. When Charles declares that he wants to buy a plow and seed on credit, Mrs. Oleson emerges from dusting the corner to shoot down that idea, fast.
She explains that credit is only available to longtime customers, with Nels adding they need capital to maintain their inventory and the like. “I understand,” says Charles, smiling his Landon-iest like-me smile. “Cash on a barrel. And that’s the way I like to deal and wheel.”
(Note: Cash on the barrel, or barrelhead, is a fine expression for the place and time, but it’s unlikely wheel and deal predates the 20th Century. Deal and wheel, while a rare variant, is not unknown.)
“Just as soon as I get that first crop to sell,” Charles says. He still thinks they’re going to agree; but he’s missed the point.
Harriet Oleson, having decided Charles is a numbskulled turnipseed who needs things explained very slowly, says, “Mr. Ingalls, do you know how many families move out here and plant their crops, and run up more bills than they can hope to pay for, and then skip out in the dead of night?” Charles huffs that he understands and storms out, leaving Nels to splutter an apology after him. Nels and Harriet glance at each other unsympathetically; they seem unhappy here.
Now, the love/hate relationship this show enjoys with the character of Mrs. Oleson is one of its long-term delights. In this first season, or the early part of it anyway, it’s mostly hate. Katherine MacGregor plays Harriet very hard in these initial episodes: She’s gaunt and stiff, with glittering dark eyes and a mean stare. She’s halfway between Mrs. Danvers and Lady Macbeth here, whereas later she’ll mellow out and be more Mrs. Slocombe crossed with Lady Elaine Fairchilde.
And while I know we’re supposed to join Charles in hating her here, of course she is right. The Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest at the University of Washington put out a list of prices for basic goods in 1870 U.S. dollars. I’m sure I’ll refer to it again and again. It gives the cost of “plows, cultivators, field equip.” (i.e. plow, harrow and seed) as $325. (Yes, I did hear Charles say to Caroline they don’t need a harrow, let’s just leave that aside for the moment.)
The dollar in 1870 was worth about $20 in today’s money, meaning Charles is attempting to purchase about $6,500 worth of goods on credit in a community where he is a stranger. Mrs. Oleson is probably not exaggerating when she says they’ve been burned before. When Charles stumps off, in fact, she is starting to open a drawer, no doubt containing the Oleson blacklist. (I like to imagine her updating it through the series, adding in all the child abusers, racists, rapists, psychopaths, addicts and so forth we’ll meet. Not to mention tobacco chewers like Jonathan Garvey!)
So Charles walks slowly back through town, looking the opposite of the cockeyed optimist he seemed just moments earlier. He gets even slower as he approaches the Walnut Grove Feed & Seed, Liam O’Neil, proprietor.
Charles is attracted initially by a plow that’s parked out front – he reaches out and strokes it with longing.
He looks over at the damaged part of the building, then turns and starts toward the front door, the proverbial spring back in his proverbial you-know-what.
Liam O’Neil meets him there. He’s a big mean Shifty O’Crafty Irishman stereotype in a derby and polka-dot arm garters. (The actor’s name is Ramon Bieri, which doesn’t suggest Celtic heritage to me.)
Long story short, Messrs. Ingalls and O’Neil concoct the following deal. Charles will take the plow and seed he needs. In return, he will repair the Feed & Seed’s caved-in roof, and stack dozens of heavy seed sacks up against the . . . heavy-seed-sack barn or whatever, with all work to be completed within three weeks. Since Charles can make no down payment, and since O’Neil will provide all tools and the like for the repair, the latter demands collateral in the form of ownership of the Ingallses’ oxen.
Now, Dags and I debated whether Charles is getting an acceptable deal. I thought O’Neil’s terms seemed harsh, she felt they were more or less fair. So, let’s look at the numbers. Charles has essentially purchased $6,500 worth of goods on credit. In return, we shall see him work six hours a day five days of the week, and probably twelve hours on Saturdays. (He actually works twelve hours a day every weekday too, but six of those hours are for Mr. Hanson.) For three weeks, that adds up to 126 total hours of work. We have seen that Charles is a very capable handyman – he built two houses in the span of two episodes – and so would surely be justified charging top dollar for his hired-hand services . . . say, $80 an hour or more in today’s money? Yet we also know from his financial dealings on this show, Charles is a generous-minded, slightly naive businessman who might undercharge people out of pure niceness and faith in humanity. So let’s say he bills on the lower end, something like $55 per hour. Calculate that out, Charles is using $6,900 worth of his time to pay for a purchase of $6,500. Pretty close!
And as for the oxen, which thanks again to the Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest, we now know are worth $3,000 (i.e., not even half the purchase price), they seem a reasonable addition, again, given Charles is a stranger with no cash, on a barrel or anywhere else. So despite O’Neil’s sleazy demeanor, which perhaps makes the deal seem worse than it is, I think in the end it’s actually a pretty fair bargain.
(I’ll confess I originally came to the opposite conclusion, because I forgot roughly half of Charles’s time goes to Hanson, not O’Neil. I woke up this morning having realized my mistake; Dagny said, “Do you think the ghost of Michael Landon came to you in a dream to set you straight?”)
So, they shake on it. Back home, Caroline’s not thrilled with the arrangement, but Charles reassures her it’s only three weeks. “I can do it,” he says, taking her hand. “I believe you can,” she replies. And so do we; we all share her faith in Charles, but fortunately for the narrative the showrunners of course has some tricks up their sleeves.
The next morning, Charles tries to skip breakfast, but Caroline shoves some hoecakes or johnnycakes or something into his hand. He forgets his lunch too, but Laura runs and catches him. The scene’s not really of much interest, except when Carrie slurps “I want molasses!”
On his way to town – he seems not to be on a road, but rather taking a shortcut over the hills – Charles encounters a broken-down carriage. Who’s the driver? Why, it’s none other than Doc Baker! Unlike most of the cast, he does not look noticeably younger than he will later in the series.
Charles diagnoses “rim trouble,” adding “I can wedge it for you.” “Not without putting a ring on it, Mister!” Doc replies. Just kidding. Charles fixes the wheel, and says the only payment he’ll take is a ride into town. Doc happily accepts, and nicely does not ask for any collateral to seal the deal, unlike some Irish stereotypes I might mention.
His carriage or buggy has rather jolly-looking red wheels . . . and in a nice touch of authenticity, its design seems to match that known as a “physician’s phaeton” at the time.
(How it’s specially suited to physicians’ needs I couldn’t say.)
Then we see Charles working on the Feed & Seed roof under a hot sun. He stops to eat what looks like a baked potato wrapped in a hankie, then crosses the street to guzzle water then pour some over his head in front of Hanson’s mill. Doc Baker suddenly reappears with a crate of chickens and some hokey old-timey blather about his patients paying him in live poultry; his character’s a little overwritten in these early episodes.
He also uses the expression “Quicker than scat,” which strikes me as a little distasteful. Scat is shit, right?
The chickens are a thank-you gift for Charles. Charles tries to decline, thinking the “gift” smacks of charity, but Mr. Hanson emerges from the mill office and persuades him to take them, characterizing Doc out of nowhere as “old” and “a fraud.” As we’ll see, the first-season production team clearly thought it’d be larfs galore to have Baker and Hanson be bitchy frenemies constantly snarking at each other. Here Doc says Hanson is a “billy goat” who can’t tell time, and Hanson says Doc is cheap, and so old, watches weren’t yet invented when he graduated medical school. (For the record, in real life Karl Swenson was twenty years older than Kevin Hagen.) Doc is about to swear, but Hanson “bleeps” him by blowing his work whistle, haw haw haw haw haw haw haw. This scene is fairly tedious and goes on a long time, but don’t worry, they’ll drop this approach to the two characters soon enough.
Back at home, Laura hears the whistle, and Karen Grassle does her cute Ma-walk out to the barn to get the plow ready for Charles’s return.
When he arrives, he takes the oxen out to till the soil, working well after dark; watching from her bedroom window, Laura makes a note for her remembrance book.
We then skip ahead at least two days, to Sunday. The whole family rises to go to church, only when they’re ready to go, they find Charles has fallen asleep again in his tie. Cut to the debut of another familiar face – it’s Reverend Alden at the pulpit, frowning and slamming his Bible closed.
Like Caroline, Doc Baker and Lars Hanson, this Rev. Alden is sort of a first-season alternate universe version of the character we know. Here we’ve caught him mid-sermon/rant, and in a bad mood. He’s castigating the congregation in a way usually reserved, in my church growing up anyway, for special occasions like Christmas and Easter. His theme: unworthy parishioners who skip church.
“I must say I’m distressed,” he says. “Now, I see many familiar faces. But I also see the absence of many others. I see many wives here without their husbands.” He goes on at some length on this theme. During his speech the camera pans across the congregation, which of course is full of people we’ll never see again (including at least three mustache-wearers, so maybe I spoke too soon about that). Eventually it arrives at Caroline and the girls in the back, and sure enough, they’ve left Charles behind.
It also must be noted, from what we’re actually shown on camera, the “many” wives attending church without their husbands, including Caroline, amount to exactly three individuals. Unless the young daughters accompanying them also have missing husbands? I guess considering we’ll see both Mary and Laura married off as teenagers, it’s not that far-fetched.
Finishing up his diatribe, Alden chooses “Come, Sinner, Come” as the post-sermon hymn. It’s a pretty gentle tune, but from the dark way he announces it you’d think it was called “Church-Skippers, Rot in Hell!” The text is as follows:
Come, sinner, come!
Come, sinner, come!
Why will you longer delay?
Jesus loves you:
His love is true;
He will not turn you away.
Now, the weird thing about this is, while there is a hymn known as “Come, Sinner, Come” (though most hymnal-heads call it by its first line, “While Jesus Whispers to You”), it has neither the tune nor the text of the one they sing here. There’s also another, lesser-known hymn called “There’s a Beautiful River of Water So Pure” that contains both the lines “Come, sinner, come” and “Why will you longer delay?”. . . but it has literally nothing else in common with what they’re singing. This is odd, right? In the end I think there’s only one possible answer: This “Come, Sinner, Come” is a Rev. Alden original. Probably the hymnal publisher had a contest for the best hymn containing those two lyrics . . . and while Alden’s version lost, he still inflicts it on his captive audience whenever he’s pissed off.
(Oh, and you can just ignore what somebody posted in the “soundtracks” section for this episode at the IMDb about it, they’re referring to “While Jesus Whispers.” So much for user-generated content!)
Anyways, the best thing about the song is Carrie tries to sing along despite not knowing the words, as little kids do.
Walking home, Laura and Mary casually remark that Pa seemed a target of Rev. Alden’s sermon. Caroline says oh no, the Reverend meant people who never go to church at all, not those who need to rest. But as they near the house, they see Charles is actually no longer resting – he’s out plowing the field! Ma practically pants with fury, and she sends the girls straight into the house so they won’t witness the carnage to follow.
Making a beeline across the field (accompanied, oddly, by music imitating the Mission: Impossible theme), she screams Charles’s name and, taking a leaf from Alden’s book, tears into him about how the Lord’s Day is for church and/or rest, period. “I’ve got a field to plow,” says Charles dismissively; “now God isn’t going to plow it for me.” “That is sacrilegious!” Caroline yells, though I’m not sure it really is if Charles means it literally.
“Well, to you maybe, but not to God,” Charles smarts back. “He understands farmers.” Before she’s able to say another word, he shouts “Hyah!” to indicate Conversation Terminated, and resumes what he was doing. I should try that sometime. Something tells me I couldn’t pull it off.
Actually Charles doesn’t pull it off that well either, since Caroline is left heaving with rage and baring her teeth as if to bite the heads off their new chickens.
And to a true believer, I suppose Charles’s is a weak argument, though he certainly wouldn’t be the first person to pick and choose from amongst Christianity’s rules, for better or worse.
That night Caroline punishes him by reading the Bible in bed with a ferocious expression on her face. But of course, he apologizes, and she immediately softens. “Time spent being angry with you is such a waste,” she says. (What message are we supposed to take from that? That women should never challenge their husbands? I asked Dagny for her view, and she said no, the show’s point is women shouldn’t challenge charming husbands like Charles Ingalls as played by Michael Landon. “He could have killed a man that day and she would have said the same thing,” she said.)
Long story short, Caroline apologizes, then Charles apologizes again, then they smile at each other meaningfully, then she puts the Bible down, then she turns the lamp out. And yes, I think it’s fair to say that then, they do it.
The next time we see him, Charles is putting the finishing touches on the Feed & Seed roof. He smiles at his workmanship. (Or maybe he’s just fondly recalling the makeup sex.) And he’s finished just in time, as a cart bearing a heaping load of seed sacks pulls up to the door. It’s worth noting Charles really doesn’t seem much worse for the wear to this point. He’s cheerful and jumps from one task to the next.
“IIIIIN-GAAAAAAAALLS!” comes a horrible bellowing voice from across the thoroughfare. It’s Mr. Hanson. He does it again. Seriously, I knew this was not Hanson’s final episode, and yet when I heard it I thought, This character must be dying. But no, he’s fine . . . not only that, he has good news: Charles’s debt at the lumber mill is paid off! And, since he did such a good job, Hanson is pleased to offer him a more permanent position in the firm.
Now we come to a weird little subplot: First, there’s what feels like a 60-second shot of Michael Landon walking toward us in a field, smiling.
He gets home, smooches Ma, and generally seems in a buoyant mood. He even hums “What Shall We Do with a Drunken Sailor?”
But then, he’s saddened to learn Caroline has put the kids to bed early. Why has she done this? Well, because he’s been so grouchy lately. What I find weird about it is this: If anything, Charles has seemed remarkably cheerful since the deal started, with the exception of the “God understands farmers” conversation, which admittedly was snippy. But rather than deny it, Charles admits that yes, he’s been a bear. I guess my issue is show-vs.-tell: They’re just kind of summarizing how grouchy he’s been. If it’s going to make for a plot point, why don’t they show it?
Well, Charles apologizes again, and vows to stop being his usual (un-)grouchy self. He climbs up to the girls’ loft and tells them a little story about a grumpy farmer who worked too hard and blah blah blah. During the story, he repeats the phrase “pretty little girls” like nine or ten times, which creeped me out a bit.
Long story short, he’s sorry, but he’s learned his lesson, and to make amends he’s going to take them on an “all-day picnic.”
I don’t mean to make light of it, as obviously it’s a nice scene of warm emotion played to shiny-eyed perfection by Landon, Gilbert and Anderson. It’s just this whole segment feels a little educational to me. (Michael Landon sez: Men, don’t neglect your family for your job. Good advice; not the stuff of riveting drama.)
Then we cut to a weird echo of the opening credits as Mary, Laura, Carrie and Jack come running down a hill, only this time to Bum-Bum-Ba-Dum, better known as the Little House on the Prairie end-credits music! Literally the only differences are that Pa is running with them this time, and that when Carrie takes her tumble, her pantaloons have fallen down when she gets up.
Well, that and the grass looks yellow and dead rather than green and living.
Anyways, it’s the All-Day Picnic! Charles is frisky and smoochy again with Caroline and everyone’s clearly enjoying themselves. He shows off his kite-flying skills, only to get the kite snagged in a tall oak (with a sad little “sorry folks they pulled the plug on us” wah-wah in the orchestra when it happens).
But no worries, right, since Charles can climb a tree quicker than scat, if I may be permitted a coarse Doc-Baker-ism. He gets up quite high, or his stuntman does anyway . . . then he suddenly falls. If you watch it closely, it’s not clear why he falls exactly – he just sort of rolls off the branch he’s lying atop – but it’s a good fun shock.
Caroline screams and they all rush to help, except Carrie, who just looks baffled. She (Caroline, not Carrie) sends Laura running to Mr. Hanson, saying to tell him they need Doc Baker. Why not just send her to Doc’s place directly? The telephone hasn’t been invented yet, so it can’t be that Hanson has one. Maybe he has a special whistle for summoning his frenemy?
Now, there are still plenty of “firsts” to come this season, and here we get an important one: the first appearance of Michael Landon’s nipples and muscular torso.
Charles is in bed, at home. Doc Baker is wrapping him up; apparently he’s got four broken ribs. He’s going to be out of commission – and out of work – for at least a week. Charles protests, but gets smacked down by the virtuoso comedy team of Baker ’n’ Hanson. (What is Mr. Hanson doing there, anyway? Do he and Doc maybe live together at this point? Is there something we should know, Little House?)
Mr. Hanson says don’t worry, he’ll handle O’Neil. Charles says it isn’t just that, he’s got to finish plowing the field. I wonder how long it took to plow a field with a small ox-drawn plow in those days? You wouldn’t think it would take three Sundays’ worth of work, but maybe it would. Unless I missed it, we don’t know the size of the Ingalls farm, so it’s hard to tell. And presumably this scene takes place on the second Saturday of the agreement, so even if it took just two Sundays he wouldn’t be done yet. (Apparently, in real life the Ingalls farm in Walnut Grove was 172 acres – that’s more than 150 football fields! So I guess that would take some time.)
Cut to Caroline out at work plowing the field. She seems to be making a good job of it, though she is plowing across the grain of the rows that are already there. (Maybe that’s how it’s done?)
Later she serves Charles some soup in bed. She’s clearly in pain from the hard field work, but it’s worth noting she’s not the sweaty mess Charles usually is after similar efforts. Charles doesn’t like the idea of his wife working (though he’s considerably nicer about it than his son-in-law will be later).
Caroline brushes him off; after all, she says, “God isn’t going to do it.” Most people don’t like their own idiocy thrown back in their faces, but here we get Charles’s true measure when he smiles with appreciation rather than getting angry.
But next, a cart carrying Liam O’Neil as a passenger pulls up to the Ingalls place. I know I said we don’t get much facial hair on this show, but the driver has a handsome and full broom-brush mustache.
O’Neil, who really seems to be a giant of a man, crosses the field to talk to Ma. It’s a hot day and both of them are sweatin’ up a storm. Long story short, O’Neil says while he’s sorry about Charles’s injury, it doesn’t change their agreement, and he’ll be takin’ the oxen if you please. He calls to Mustache Man (who in this story is called “Sullivan” and is clearly O’Neil’s personal flunky, though we shall see his role evolve over time), and take the oxen they do.
Caroline rushes to tell Pa, who of course struggles out of bed and starts to get dressed. (Also of course, he wanders around for some time with his shirt unbuttoned.) In some pain, and to some rather jagged and modern-sounding music from the orchestra, he stomps out, followed at a distance by Laura and Mary. (Dagny pointed out their hemlines are a little short for the period.)
Without Doc Baker to give him a lift this time, by the time Charles reaches town he’s drenched in sweat. Speaking of Doc, we see him trying to pay the blacksmith in chickens, but the blacksmith isn’t having it. (The writers do miss an opportunity to have the blacksmith ask for cash on the barrel, though.) They spot Charles and realize trouble’s a-brewin’.
At the Feed & Seed, O’Neil also sees Charles, who by now is shambling like a zombie and clutching his ribs. At the mill, Mr. Hanson sees him too. On the soundtrack, the piano player starts going crazy, with plodding dissonant arpeggios suggesting a murder is about to happen, and it might be committed by Michael Myers.
Laura and Mary come running round the bend. (Given they followed Charles, who slowly limped the whole way, why would they have to run?)
Charles demands O’Neil show him the paperwork from the deal. And here O’Neil reveals himself to be the sleaze-o we thought, in spite of the basic fairness of his deal as I discussed above. For you see, even before producing the agreement, O’Neil admits he collected the collateral, or chattel, due him before the payoff date specified . . . or rather, before the time specified, which is midnight today. He claims he and Mustache Man just happened to be in the Ingallses’ neighborhood, and thought they’d save themselves a trip and take the oxen early; he even tries to characterize it as doing Charles a “favor.” Charles characterizes it as stealing; nevertheless, he says he’ll finish stacking the grain and starts limping towards it.
(Many times during this show I question why Walnut Grove doesn’t have a marshal or sheriff. What would these two do if they couldn’t ultimately reconcile the debt? Who would they go to?)
Charles starts stacking the bags against the wall in what looks like a barn but is apparently open to public viewing on one side. Maybe it doubles as a playhouse in the summertime? Ladies and gentlemen, the Feed & Seed presents The Merry Walnut Grove Town Players!
And speaking of players, groaning, grimacing and basically giving a physical performance to rival Buster Keaton, Charles stacks the bags with one arm. Baker ’n’ Hanson shake their heads sadly; Laura and Mary’s faces stream with tears. O’Neil is watching, too.
But when, with tom-tommy drums slowly building in the orchestra, Charles attempts to place a seed bag at the top of an existing seed-bag pyramid, what happens is sort of like this:
When Charles falls, the girls come running. “Pa! . . . Pa!” Laura cries tragically. Ashamed of his lowly state, Charles tells them to go home. Don’t look at me! This whole sequence has the melodramatic sensibility of an old silent film, speaking of Buster Keaton.
Laura has a better idea. You guessed it, they’ll complete the job themselves. So, she and Mary grab a bag and start stackin’.
Suddenly from the thoroughfare we have movement from all sides. An attack squad comprising Hanson, Baker and the blacksmith approaches from the left. They’re joined by a man with a mustache, though I don’t think he’s Mustache Man. From the right comes Nels Oleson fronting a tough gang of six. Sadly, they’re not coming to kick Liam O’Neil’s ass; we wish. Instead, they tackle the rest of the stacking, quickly completing the task while the astonished Charles and his weeping girls look on. (You know, I think maybe it is Mustache Man.)
Liam O’Neil, suddenly realizing the terrible publicity this is for his firm, starts rushing about saying fellers, ye know this is all a mistake, while Mary stares daggers into him (something Melissa Sue Anderson excelled at) and the townies give him the cold shoulder.
“I swear on me mother’s grave I was going t’give the oxen back!” he cries. He looks desperately around, trying to figure out how to win his customers back. (Al Swearengen would simply go, “Half-price pussy, next ten minutes,” but obviously O’Neil doesn’t trade in that line.) But ultimately he just literally backs away, and that’s the last we will ever see of him. Smiles all round from Charles, Laura and Mary.
Cut to Mustache Man (the real one this time – I don’t think the other guy was, in the end), returning the Ingallses’ oxen. Then there’s a cute little scene where Doc Baker and Mr. Hanson reveal they’ve arranged for the community to help finish plowing Charles’s fields. Charles is ever so grateful. They have to ruin it, though, by ending with Doc and Hanson pulling out their watches and Hanson sniffing, apropos of nothing, “You’re still three minutes early!” Not everything’s a dick-measuring contest, gentlemen.
Finally, Charles and company are greeted by Caroline and Carrie back home. “That was our happiest homecoming ever!” Laura says in voiceover. Will every week be the best something ever? Last time it was Christmas, if I recall. Not everything needs to be the best ever, Michael Landon.
“Pa said he was glad we’d come to live on the banks of Plum Creek,” she goes on, “because here he’d harvested a crop he didn’t know he’d planted,” then for any imbeciles still trying to figure out when the title’s gonna come in: “. . . a harvest of friends!”
That’s it, and off we go to the end credits with the first proper “Bum-Bum-Ba-Dum”!
HISTORICAL NOTES: According to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s real-life timeline, the Ingallses actually returned to Wisconsin after leaving Kansas . . . and spent about three years there before moving to Walnut Grove. (In fact, the real Walnut Grove didn’t formally exist until 1879.)
STYLE WATCH: O’Neil’s fancy arm garters. The ladies all look pretty in their church dresses and hats. Charles appears to go commando again.
THE VERDICT: Quite watchable, with Landon’s agonized seed-stacking and the resulting developments satisfying and melodramatic. Loses points for its educational bit in the middle, though. Mainly, fans will find it notable for its introduction (and sometimes odd treatment) of the supporting characters.
As for O’Neil, ultimately he was not the nicest, but he’s hardly the worst villain we’ll meet on this show. And, I must point out that if he hadn’t come early to steal the oxen, Charles would have stayed in bed and would not have completed the job in time. So put that in yer poip ’n’ smoke it, haters.
UP NEXT: Country Girls