“Is this the one where they play ‘Old Dan Tucker’ through the whole thing?” “That’s every Mr. Edwards episode.”
(a recap by Will Kaiser)
Title: Mr. Edward’s [sic] Homecoming
Airdate: October 2, 1974
Written by Joel Murcott
Directed by Michael Landon
SUMMARY IN A NUTSHELL: Charles bumps into drunken madman Mr. Edwards in Mankato and brings him back to Walnut Grove. Edwards seduces Grace Snider with a fake letter, but she dumps him when she finds out he’s an atheist.
RECAP: First things first. Yes, there’s a typo in the title.
We open on a rowboat approaching a dock. “Oh, is this the pandemic one?” said my daughter Olive. (I should mention all three of our at-home teenagers joined us for this one.) No, it’s not “the pandemic one,” though that one also features boats.
It’s hard to tell where we are at first, and the fact that the orchestra echoes “Santa Lucia” doesn’t help. (Take note of this, viewer, and enjoy it, because for the entire rest of the episode the soundtrack will be variations on a very different tune.)
The camera pans back, revealing the dock is in a largeish town. We cut to Charles on the street telling some nobody he’s come to “the big city” on business. This “big city” is not Borgo Santa Lucia but Mankato, Minnesota, about eighty miles east of Walnut Grove. Fans know Little House depicts Mankato, and Walnut Grove’s closer neighbor Sleepy Eye, as thriving metropolises, and magnets for vice and villainy. If you’ve ever visited, you know they’re . . . well, not; however, Mankato’s population in 1870 was about 3,500, so it would seem huge to Walnut Grovesters.
Historians remember Mankato mostly as the site of the largest mass execution in American history, where 38 American Indian men were hanged after the U.S-Dakota War of 1862 as a sort of awful finale in the federal government’s long campaign to “remove” Native people from their lands and eradicate their culture. The Dakota War would be fairly recent history at this point in the show, which is probably set in 1871.
A more recent (and funnier) story about Mankato involves a fake homepage for the city a professor created in the 1990s to teach his students not to believe everything on the Internet. It’s still there, as a matter of fact. It claims Mankato has a year-round tropical climate (with skiing in the mountains), attractions including hot springs, a pyramid, an underwater city, whale-watching on the Minnesota River (!), “the original fictional ‘Castle Dracula’ from Bram Stoker’s novel,” and many other things. Unfortunately, more than ten years after the site was created, someone from Texas brought her elderly mother up to see these amazing sights. They were quite disappointed.
For the real-life Mankato has none of these things, nor is it a “port city,” which my stepson Alexander asked when he saw the boat landing.
Today, though the executions remain a sensitive subject (and one which should not be forgotten), Mankato (population 39,000) is a nice enough town. Pretty scenery, plus they have a cute coffee shop called The Coffee Hag there.
But on with the story. Charles wants to buy Caroline a present, so he goes strolling around town. The production team lays it on thick with old-timey schtick: There are like a million extras, ladies with parasols, a barber pole, etc., etc. The whole thing looks like the Streets of Yesteryear or whatever they call it at Disneyland. All it needs is a barbershop quartet.
But Charles has only walked a block when the window of a saloon he’s passing explodes.
He hears shouting and rushes inside to investigate. Guess who he finds? His old pal Mr. Edwards from their Kansas adventures! But Edwards is so drunk his eyes are crossed, and he’s facing off against a roomful of shocked-looking men.
“Grab a chair leg, he’s crazy!” one guy says to Charles. Edwards is way at the back of the saloon, so I’m not sure how he made a window explode from there, but whatever.
Charles of course ignores the man, goes up to Edwards and addresses him by name. Edwards attacks him half-heartedly, but Charles holds him against the wall and says, “Edwards, it’s me, Ingalls!” Mr. Edwards looks blearily at him and says in a sad voice, “My only friend.” Charles carefully leads him out while the other men gawk.
Cut to Charles dunking Edwards’s head into what we’ll charitably call the Minnesota River, but what really looks more like the green Hollywood lagoons of Gilligan’s Island or Bedknobs and Broomsticks.
Edwards of course sobers up instantly. As a Wisconsin native who in the past experienced drunkenness at impressive levels, I can tell you immersion in water does not achieve this effect. Mr. Edwards’s hat sits atop a post on the dock, where it looks enormous.
Charles then invites Edwards to come back and live with them in Walnut Grove.
I’m sorry, WHAT??? A quasi-stranger he’s discovered blind-drunk at midday, violent to boot, and he wants to take him home? But as we shall see again and again, this show has a serious interest in rehabilitating bad-behaved middle-aged men.
So, Edwards agrees, and naturally “Old Dan Tucker” on the soundtrack means the deal is sealed. (“Oh, is this the one where they play ‘Old Dan Tucker’ through the whole thing?” said my wife Dagny. “That’s every Mr. Edwards episode,” said my stepson Roman.)
We then see Charles driving into Walnut Grove with Edwards passed out in the back of his wagon, to an over-the-top arrangement of “Tucker” that wouldn’t be out of place in the inferno of excess that is the original Pete’s Dragon. (And it’ll only get worse from here.)
Mr. Edwards awakens and asks where the saloon is. Charles tells him there is none. “Charles better not tell Caroline about the drinking,” said my daughter Olive. “He gets pretty loose-lipped when they’re having popcorn in bed.”
In fact, until recently Minnesota’s liquor laws were among the most restrictive in the nation, due to the influence of temperate Scandinavian settlers. Visitors used to be shocked by its early bar times, lack of Sunday and grocery-store liquor sales, pathetic 3.2-percent-alcohol beverage offerings, and other prohibitive policies. Things have changed in recent years, and Minnesota in 2019 reported one of the highest rates of binge drinking. (You can’t buy liquor in grocery stores yet, though.)
Still, they don’t hold a candle to neighboring Wisconsin, always first or second in the binge-drinking rankings, and the state whose unofficial motto is “Drink Wisconsinbly.”
Getting back to the story, it strikes me this is how people get indoctrinated into cults, isn’t it? Kidnapped at a vulnerable moment by a “friend” who then tries to brainwash you into a life and philosophy completely alien to you. Watch and see if that isn’t exactly what happens here.
Charles lugs the goods from his wagon into the Mercantile; apparently his trip was on behalf of the Olesons. An attractive middle-aged woman, whom Charles addresses as Mrs. Snider, exits the store . . . and is immediately spat upon by Mr. Edwards, who just wasn’t looking. (For some reason, though, they don’t show the spit on her dress.)
Oh well. Needless to say, she hates this experience, and him.
I’ve always felt I recognized Grace Snider from somewhere, and as we watched this episode I looked her up. As it turns out, Bonnie Bartlett had a regular role on St. Elsewhere, which I also watched as a kid. (“If I remember, she played the kind of bitchy wife of one of the doctors,” I said. “What do you think she is on this show?” said Olive.)
Meanwhile, back at the Little House, Laura is sick in bed. Diagnosing tonsil trouble, Caroline administers a tablespoon of medicine to her. I’m sorry to say, but it’s probably laudanum, which in the Nineteenth Century was often given to children for colds, or even just to keep them quiet (!).
Pa arrives home, and, indeed, Caroline and Mary are thrilled to see Mr. Edwards. Caroline tells them about Laura and they go up to surprise her. To be fair, she doesn’t seem strung out on opium, and of course she is delighted when Pa’s “surprise I brought you from Mankato” turns out to be a big hairy mountain man.
But when he hugs her, Edwards is alarmed by Laura’s fever and sharply asks Charles why the doctor isn’t with her. Charles says Doc Baker has attended her and reassured them that “little ones run fast fevers.” (We shall see Doc Baker’s track record of accurate diagnosis is spotty, but for now I won’t mention that.)
Laura says Mr. Edwards must stay until she’s well, and he promises he will; she also brags about her spitting, which is cute.
Charles then takes Edwards out to show him where he’ll be bunking, in the hayloft. Why doesn’t he sleep in the soddy? Oh well. Mr. Edwards surprises Charles by apologizing for speaking harshly about Laura’s condition. You see, Edwards (with flies buzzing around his face) says:
I was married once. Had me a daughter, Alice . . . a couple o’ years younger than Laura. They don’t look alike, you know, but there’s something about Laura. . . . I guess that’s why I take to her so. Well, they’re gone now. Both of ’em. My fault . . . I brought smallpox to ’em on a Homestake claim so far out in the woods that nobody could hear my distress signals when we all come down with it. . . .
(Homestake was a goldmine in South Dakota, but in real life it wasn’t discovered until 1876.)
Charles says he can’t blame himself for his loved ones’ deaths. Edwards says he can and does, and that seeing Laura with a fever made him remember losing his child. It’s a really touching speech, well delivered by Victor French.
“Doesn’t Mr. Edwards have other kids?” asked Olive. “What about Carl?” I told her his other kids are adopted, just like Albert and Jason Bateman and Nancy Oleson. So worry not, viewer: Soon he’ll have seven or eight kids as well as an orangutan of his very own to love and care for. (Where is the adoption agency in this town, anyway?)
Anyways, Mr. Edwards asks Charles if he can borrow some soap. Charles, his voice breaking, says “It’s comin’ right up,” and tousles Edwards’s hair. It’s a rather intimate gesture, but Michael Landon’s Charles has a sort of 1970s hippie-ish sense of masculinity . . . thank goodness!
That night at dinner, Mr. Edwards relishes Caroline’s cooking. The Ingallses all beg him to stay, to an extent that strains credulity a bit, but whatever. Charles says he can get him a job at the mill. Even Carrie, face covered in glop as usual, slurps, “Please stay,” her open mouth full of crap.
Edwards finally acquiesces, at which a waltz version of “Tucker” begins playing in the strings.
Then it happens: We get the first popcorn scene! Yes, as we will many a time, we find Charles and Caroline sitting up in bed, eating popcorn and gossiping. Charles is reading a book; we debated whether it would be Mark Twain or the Farmer’s Almanac, but Twain’s first book didn’t come out till 1873, so it’s probably the latter.
Caroline, not having witnessed Edwards expectorating on Grace Snider, wants to set the two up. Charles says he can’t think of two people more different, and then they both make some dumb jokes about how they’re different from each other too. Just get on with it.
Sure enough, nice old Mr. Hanson gives Mr. Edwards a job. How does the latter distract himself from the noise of the mill machines? By singing “Old Dan Tucker,” of course! Victor French really sings terribly, but it may be on purpose. Apparently Dean Butler wanted to sing in an episode once, but Michael Landon wouldn’t let him because he sounded too good.
Grace Snider walks by and Edwards creeps on her. Then he sings a high note, and a cutesy edit brings us to Laura sticking out her tongue and saying ah to Doc Baker. (“I think Doc looks young here,” said Dagny. “Look at his hair.”)
Doc says Laura’s cured, and gives her a licorice pipe. Then he bangs his head like Gandalf climbing downstairs (and it really looks like Kevin Hagen does it for real).
One day, or the same day, or sometime, Mr. Edwards sees a big ceramic jug floating in the mill stream, and he grabs it and fills it with water. Across the street at the Post Office, where she works, Grace Snider peers out the window to see him take a long swallow. I hate to simply explain jokes here, but basically, Grace thinks he’s drinking booze and it’s just water, hahahahahahahahaha.
In the next scene, Edwards goes out to visit Laura, who’s feeling good as new. “I was in the Mercantile store today,” he tells her, “and guess what I found?” “A cheap bitch trying to screw you on the price of eggs?” says Caroline. Just kidding.
No, what he’s brought Laura is her favorite scent, lemon verbena! How did he know she liked it? “A little Beadle told me,” he says.
Now wait a minute. He spoke to Miss Beadle? Can you picture him, a big hulking bad-smelling mountain man, showing up at the school to ask the Bead what fragrance she wears? She’d be screaming and ringing the emergency bell in a second. As if she isn’t harassed enough by the fucking kids.
But no matter. He tells Laura he’s decided to stay, and they dance away to the strains of You Know What.
That night (maybe?), Pa fake-fiddles a sad tune while the others all relax in the common room. Yup, that’s about it.
The next day (? – the passage of time isn’t clear in this story), Caroline manipulates Mr. Edwards by asking him to get their mail from the Post Office. While there, he has a long conversation with Grace, who speaks, I notice, with an interesting Southern accent that kind of comes and goes. Funny that she has an accent and he doesn’t considering he told us he’s from Tennessee. (I looked Bonnie Bartlett up, and in a fun twist she’s actually from Wisconsin!) Anyways, Grace is quite cold to him, saying she can’t give out mail without written permission from the Man of the House.
After he leaves, Grace spies out her window and sees him drinking from the jug again. Later she sneaks over to the empty mill-yard. (Oddly, she seems to carry a gold lamé purse – was that a thing back then? From this article, looks like it wasn’t until the early 20th Century.)
Grace grabs Edwards’s jug from its hiding place, opens it and tastes it. It’d be funny if he wasn’t drinking out of it, but actually using it for his tobacco spit.
Mr. Edwards appears behind her. She laughs and apologizes for thinking it was whiskey or whatever. Given she’ll eventually leave him over his alcoholism, this “humorous” plot has a whiff of tragedy about it, with the jug as portentous a symbol as the handkerchief in Othello.
But for now it’s all good fun, though I will note the two of them don’t have much chemistry in my opinion. Next, Mr. Hanson comes round the corner, sees Grace drinking deeply out of the jug and assumes she’s an alcoholic. Ha!
And then . . . oh my God, Charles! He’s out in the yard at home sharpening a saw or something, wearing no shirt, just trousers and, in a stripperish touch, suspenders! “Did men really shave their chests in those days?” said Olive.
Charles hears “Old Dan Tucker” floating on the breeze and recognizes it as the call of the wild Edwards in its natural habitat. Caroline comes onto the porch and gives Charles an intense smile, though whether she anticipates news of Grace or is just signaling that she wants sex later is unknown.
Caroline and Charles deduce Edwards is happy because he’s singing “Old Dan Tucker,” though since he sings the song all day long in every situation and circumstance I don’t know why they’d assume that.
Cut to church on Sunday, where Reverend Alden is following his Season-1 custom of giving a judgy sermon about this week’s plot. Today, his theme is the dangers of drink, and hilariously Mr. Hanson keeps sneaking peeks at Grace Snider. Karl Swenson is a scream in this story.
Incidentally, this week we happened to catch the old sci-fi movie It! The Terror From Beyond Space on Pluto TV, and guess who was in it? Dabbs Greer! He shocked us by saying damn and smoking cigarettes.
After church, Caroline invites Grace to dinner, but she declines. Reasons unknown.
That night, Laura leads the dinner prayer while in a piece of foreshadowing Mr. Edwards looks around awkwardly. Charles asks the kids how Sunday school went, and Mary makes a wide-eyed gossipy speech about students’ love lives that feels like it belongs on another show, like maybe The Brady Bunch or something.
The girls relate how, in an intrigue worthy of Mozart and Da Ponte, one kid successfully got the attention of a love interest with a note. Charles tut-tuts them for caring about that more than learning about Jesus . . . but you can see from Edwards’s face he thinks the idea has possibilities.
And sure enough, before you know it Laura is forging a letter for him. Well, she doesn’t actually go full-on Cyrano and write the letter, just addresses the envelope. The plan is this: Edwards will send a letter to himself, ostensibly from a woman, to attract Grace Snider’s interest and attention when she processes the mail. (Inspired by idiotic television stories like this, I tried pulling off a similar scheme myself in my youth. It worked about as well as you’d think.)
In a nice touch foreshadowing future stories, Laura asks if she’s spelled Mr. Edwards’s name correctly and he dodges the question. He doesn’t tell her his whole plan, but swears her to secrecy about what she does know.
Later, a wagon is headed out of town when Mr. Edwards emerges from behind a tree and rushes up to it. (“Is he a highwayman now?” said Alexander.)
The wagon is piloted by none other than Mustache Man.
WILL: He must have been disgusted by what happened at the Feed & Seed and joined the Postal Service.
DAGNY: Or maybe he works for both and is a rich man.
ROMAN: Or maybe he’s Mustache Twins, or Triplets! That would explain a lot.
He’s accompanied by a man with a handsome full beard who talks in a boy-howdy accent like William Sanderson.
Captain Howdy is baffled at Edwards’s request that he take the letter to Mankato and then mail it back to Walnut Grove. Edwards advises him to mind his own business, thank you very much indeed.
Captain Howdy shows the letter to Mustache Man, who sniffs it. “Smells funny,” says Howdy. “It’s lemon verbena,” Edwards says hilariously. This show is not known for running gags, or really for intentional comedy at all, but this episode is quite funny. Well done, Joel Murcott.
Eventually they depart, and Edwards sings his theme tune. Again.
Then we cut to Edwards getting paid by Hanson as well as complimented on a job well done. If they held a competition for the nicest man in this town, it would be a tough one, wouldn’t it?
Edwards moseys over to the Post Office and catches Grace getting a snootful of lemon verbena. She hands him the letter, and rather than take it home he pulls up a chair and pretends to read it, chuckling to himself. His guile seems to pay off, since Grace can’t tear her eyes away from him. (“None of this will matter when she finds out you’re a Satanist,” said Olive.)
That day at quittin’ time, he offers Grace a pull from “their” jug as she passes. He mentions Charles has caught some pike, which they’ll be having for dinner that night. Grace begins oohing and ahhing about how she “envies” them because she loves pike so much. Now, true northern pike is not really an eating fish, but they’re probably referring to walleye, which is very popular in this part of the country and is sometimes known as “yellow pike.”
Of course Edwards invites her at once to join them for dinner. After a fair amount of dissembling bullshit, she agrees. “Why didn’t she go the first time they asked her?” said Olive. “She wasn’t jealous yet,” said Roman. “It’s the power of jealousy.”
Back at the farm, Charles and Caroline have just about given up their matchmaking efforts . . . but then they see Edwards and Grace together in a wagon (apparently hers) pulling up to the waltz version of “ODT.”
WILL: All the “Old Dan Tucker” is a little much.
DAGNY: It’s a lot much. “Old Dan Tucker” arranged in every style.
ALEXANDER: Yeah, there should be a metal version over the credits.
Well, supper apparently went well, because after the commercial break we find Grace, Edwards and even Caroline dancing outside to Pa’s fake fiddlin’ while the girls watch from their window. Afterwards, he takes Grace home and she agrees to go fishing with him the next day (presumably Saturday). Again, not much chemistry between them if you ask me.
We immediately cut to them on their fishing date, which Laura has joined them for. Grace compliments Laura on her scent, and the latter spills the beans about Edwards dripping lemon verbena on a letter. “Snitches get stitches, Laura,” said Roman.
Instead of being appalled at their conspiracy, Grace is amused and charmed. “This reinforces the stereotype that women actually like creepy behavior as long as it’s from the right man,” I said. “Yes,” said Dags. “That’s very much not true.”
But creepiness aside, as a postal employee shouldn’t she report him for mail fraud? I’m sure Captain Howdy would testify in court.
Then they take another run at the Mr. Hanson “jug” gag (it’s possibly one run too many). We then cut to Edwards and Grace, apparently at Grace’s house, at night. This all seems to be happening on the same day (Saturday), though Hanson appears to be working when they stop for their afternoon drink.
The beginning of their conversation is a mystery.
[GRACE POURS HERSELF A CUP OF TEA.]
GRACE: You’re sure you won’t have some?
EDWARDS: Oh no, ma’am, no, I’ll just finish up what I have here and then I’ll be on my way. Wouldn’t do to have a custodian of the United States mail falling asleep on the job.
[EDWARDS DRINKS FROM HIS TEACUP.]
This conversation bothered me intensely. Two questions:
1. If Edwards “won’t have some,” what is he drinking out of his teacup?
2. How will his having tea make Grace fall asleep?
3. How is Grace “on the job”? They appear to be at her house rather than the Post Office. I assume that as a widow Grace lives in the house she shared with her husband, but I suppose maybe she lives in the back of the Post Office – I guess the Olesons live behind the Mercantile. It’s Saturday, but while there was Saturday mail service in rural communities by the 1870s, IT’S NIGHT.
Then the story veers into its final act, one which divided my household a bit. Edwards invites Grace to go fishing again the very next day. She asks if he means after church, and he says no, before, since the fish bite better in the morning. “But Sunday’s the Lord’s Day,” she says, then adds she hoped they could go together to church.
Mr. Edwards quite plainly and articulately tells her that he doesn’t believe in God or religion, “not anymore.” Grace is shocked and then says stiffly she “can’t” go fishing with him after all. That can’t rather than won’t is a bit cowardly, Grace.
Edwards receives this quite graciously, but pauses at the door to say, “You sure are hard to figure out, ma’am. . . . We’ve been together most every day for two weeks.” [See, time has been passing.] “We had fun – at least, I did. Thought you did too. What difference does it make I ain’t a church-going man? I’m still the same person I was when you met me.” Stiff as a board, Grace replies, “So am I.”
Okay, so here’s my take on this. If I were an advice columnist, I’d say this one’s a legitimate dealbreaker on both sides. It’s exactly the kind of conversation a couple should have before getting serious, and I don’t think either of them should sacrifice their beliefs except after deep personal reflection. A person’s spiritual center, or lack thereof, should not be changed hastily or simply to please another person. It is fair for Grace to make the decision she does, just as it would be fair for Edwards to release her as spiritually incompatible.
(I’m not even sure what he sees in her to begin with. She’s not a pleasant person, at least not in this story: judgmental, cold and humorless.)
“Probably just as well,” Mr. Edwards says sadly. “Fish ain’t bitin’ too good anyhow.” With his dignity intact, he departs. I must of course note that through this entire scene, the saddest arrangement of “Old Dan Tucker” you ever heard in your life is playing.
But of course, that isn’t the end. The next day, presumably, Caroline catches Grace in town, addressing her as “Widow Snider.” Grace gives her the coldest of cold shoulders. This leaves Caroline mystified . . . although, really, given when she met Mr. Edwards herself it took months to get used to his disgusting habits, she shouldn’t be, right? Use your imagination, Ma, I’m sure you could come up with a dozen ways he might have put her off.
That night, Caroline tells Charles she’s worried about Mr. Edwards. Charles, who is a bit of a dunderhead in this one, doesn’t see the big deal. Caroline, who (rightly) feels responsible for their friend’s depression, goes out to the barn to talk to him.
What follows is a conversation whose merits viewers must judge based on their own persuasion and outlook. Edwards gives her the story in brief, and she tells him, compassionately, how sad it is that his outlook and heartbreak has turned God into a villain in his life. He defiantly says God destroyed his family, and she replies that holding on to that anger has made his universe small and limited his future options. (I’m paraphrasing, of course.) She sadly but kindly bids him goodbye, leaving him muttering the lyrics to “Old Dan Tucker” under his breath (I’m not kidding).
Incidentally, they have this whole conversation in the hayloft; how could anyone sleep in there? I slept in hay at a French and Indian War reenactment once in the 1990s and I’m still sneezing.
So, reaction to this scene in our house was mixed, ranging from “She’s right to refocus him on something bigger than himself; take God out of it and it’s still very good advice” to “This makes me sick; she’s asking him to change for a love relationship, and no one should do that.” Our family not being churchgoers ourselves, none of us took her speech to literally mean “God is the answer,” though no offense of course if you do.
Aesthetically, I think it’s a marvelous scene between two characters who initially disliked each other but have grown in the span of a few episodes. Grassle and French are great.
And of course, it works. She has the gift, just like Charles does, and it’s interesting to me that Mr. Edwards ultimately changes for her rather than for Grace.
But change he does. The next morning, the congregation sings “Bringing in the Sheaves” (woo hoo! But it appears even that is an anachronism). Suddenly, who should appear in the back of the church but Mr. Edwards, looking very dapper in a seersucker suit. Grace is so delighted to see him, she falls behind in the hymn. Big grins from Caroline and Charles, and the camera pans out. Bum-Bum-Ba-Dum!
STYLE WATCH: Charles appears to go commando again. Grace Snider looks pretty – if a bit “locked and loaded” – in her church dress. And is it just me, or is Caroline wearing a bigger bonnet than usual?
As I mentioned, Grace carries a very fancy handbag.
Charles’s stripper get-up, and of course, Mr. Edwards’s seersucker suit. Where the hell has been keeping that?
THE VERDICT: This episode is sweet and surprisingly funny. Again, your overall liking may depend on how you receive the pivotal scene at the end (and Grace herself is a real pill), but you can’t deny everything is beautifully done.
UP NEXT: The Love of Johnny Johnson