(Mean) Thoughts and Prayers; or
The Parable of the Little Girl, The Mountain, and The A-Borgnine-able Snowman
(a recap by Will Kaiser)
Title: The Lord is My Shepherd [Part 2]
Airdate: December 18, 1974
Written and directed by Michael Landon
SUMMARY IN A NUTSHELL: Feeling guilty about murdering her baby brother, Laura runs away to a mountain, where an insane man or angel or ghost or something makes her take baths in the river.
RECAP: You may recall we finished up last week’s recap with a bit of a mystery. Or you may not. As Bertie Wooster says somewhere, it’s difficult to know with these sorts of things if the reader’s been hanging on your every word from the start or is only just boarding the train. (I can’t do the dialect, of course.)
Well, to catch you up, we noted last time that although this story is a two-parter, IMDb TV (the service we watch the show on) presents both parts edited into a single “movie version.”
However, as I started working on this week’s recap, I noticed the original airdate for Part Two was December 18, 1974 – the exact same date as for Part One. So I guess we can assume the two episodes aired back to back the same evening, as a sort of Little House spectacular night? It’s not at all clear whether they were edited together for that first broadcast, or whether they actually played the beginning and end credits twice. You can find videos of both styles online, but of course the latter version might have been lifted from syndicated TV years later.
If they did air as a two-hour movie, that might explain why the cliffhanger from Part One sucked as hard as it did when they split it down the middle for reruns.
Anyways, if anybody remembers or can otherwise confirm in what form these two episodes originally aired, you will become the inaugural member of the Walnut Groovy Hall of Fame.
I suppose it really doesn’t matter, since we’ll just pick up where we ended last time. Laura has surprised Pa by shaking off her long depression – caused by her having prayed for her brother Freddie’s death (more or less). Little does he know this is because she’s formed a secret plan based on the counsel of that Prince of Liars (or at least Prince of Clueless Advice), Reverend Alden.
We open on a nighttime shot of the Little House. Mary, tortured no more by the harpsichord music in her head, can finally sleep.
But Laura, fully dressed, sits at her desk composing a letter. Addressing it to Pa, she writes:
I did a bad thing by having mean thoughts, but I know how I can make it right again. I can’t tell you the rest because it’s just between me and God. I will always remember today.
It is the sort of note that would seriously alarm a relative, at least today. (It’s sort of like the beginning of Midsommar, in fact.)
Laura looks over to see if Mary, Ace of Spies, is watching her. But Mary sleeps on.
Laura climbs down and sticks her note behind the Bo Peep figurine or whatever it is on the mantel.
WILL: That stupid thing. Where did it come from? Why do they like it so much? It’s the only piece of art in the house.
OLIVE: I don’t mind it.
WILL [looking at a photo of a French bulldog]: A hideous creature.
OLIVE: I don’t mind it.
Although Jack appears in three of the Little House books, including On the Banks of Plum Creek (the one set in Walnut Grove), in real life the family apparently abandoned him to whoever took Pat/Pet and Patty when they left Wisconsin.
In an interview, producer Kent McCray claimed Barney had “a bigger contract than some of the actors did.” Given the complaints about pay I’ve read from Karen Grassle, Bonnie Bartlett, and others, I believe it.
The next morning, Pa and Carrie wake Ma up. She’s smiling and moaning in bed . . . and so our concerns about her laudanum use in the last episode are confirmed.
Charles doesn’t care that she’s high; he “jokes” that “it’s Monday and I’m starving,” so she needs to get up. “Breakfast is practically ready,” she says dreamily.
DAGNY: How is breakfast ready?
WILL: She must have made johnnycakes or hoecakes or whatever the night before.
Charles goes off in search of food whilst Carrie stays behind and picks Ma’s nose.
In a fine mood, Pa calls for Laura to come down and do her chores. Mary pops into the frame and chirps, “Laura’s already dressed and gone!” like she’s auditioning for an Orbit gum commercial or something.
Bed-Head Caroline rises, and, stoned or not, she immediately finds Laura’s note.
Pa runs out the house calling for Laura. You know, I never noticed it before, but Roman is right: They DO have a lot of marijuana growing behind the Little House. (“Field of Greens,” Roman said.)
Pa runs back in and asks Mary what she knows. Considering how smart Mary’s supposed to be, I don’t know why it’s always like pulling teeth to get useful information out of her.
Charles rereads the letter.
CHARLES: What “mean thoughts”? The child doesn’t have a mean bone in her body.
ROMAN: Huh? Next to Nellie, Laura’s the meanest kid in the school.
Melissa Sue Anderson’s acting communicates a brief struggle between Stupid Mary and Crying Tattletale Mary.
Crying Tattletale Mary wins out. She breaks down and tells how Laura refused to pray for Freddie’s recovery because she was jealous of how Pa treated him.
Pa says he’s heading straight to “Willow Lake” to search for her. Pa tells Mary to stay home from school with Ma – more evidence the latter’s on drugs and might fall into the fireplace or something.
Pa arrives at Willow Lake, which is clearly the same lake where Laura took Johnny Johnson fishing, though then it was called “Cattail Lake.”
(“Laura should be floating in it,” Roman said. “You know: Ellen-style.”)
In real life, there is a Willow Lake Township not far from Walnut Grove – not far as in 23 miles. There’s also a body of water called Willow Lake, but it’s on the other side of the Twin Cities.
[UPDATE: Actually, I’ve found it! There is a real Willow Lake in Willow Lake Township. The Wikipedia entry says it doesn’t exist anymore, but whoever added that misread their source material. The real Willow Lake, so small it doesn’t appear on most maps, is still there, part of Minnesota’s Willow Lake Wildlife Management Area.]
Charles then heads to the Post Office, where Grace Snider is chuckling to herself while sorting the mail.
Next Charles stops by Hans “Rubberface” Dorfler’s to rent a horse. Rubberface must run a livery as well as a blacksmith shop?
Meanwhile, we see Laura exiting a forest to behold a mountain.
ALEXANDER: Is that supposed to be Eagle Mountain?
Eagle Mountain is the highest point in Minnesota, but since it’s over 400 miles away from Walnut Grove, I think we can rule that out.
On the other hand, the mountain Laura arrives at actually looks a bit like He Mni Caŋ, or Barn Bluff, in Red Wing, Minnesota, which is a mere 170 miles away. But that’s still rather far for her to walk.
I don’t think any of these are actual mountains in a technical sense, by the way, though they are lovely places to visit of course.
Anyways, wherever she is, she hears Rev. Alden’s voice in her head once again, urging her to go “closer” to God. Something of a literalist, apparently, she stomps forward, as David Rose bangs heavenly-ish chimes in the orchestra.
“I always loved when Laura wasn’t braided,” Dags said. “Laura unleashed.”
After the commercial, we see Charles riding his rent-a-horse, fast, down a hill. I don’t doubt Michael Landon could do it, but I think this time it might be a double.
Apparently Mr. Edwards lives down this hill. Now we get a scene, not uncommon on Little House, where two characters recap the plot for each other (and for audience members who got home late from school, just woke up, or whatever). Charles, somewhat surprisingly, blames himself for everything, and off they ride.
All they did was get ready to leave, so it was a pretty boring scene, but you can’t deny Landon and French have great chemistry. (“The seeds of Highway to Heaven are being planted before our very eyes,” said Dagny.)
Up on the mountain, Laura is climbing. That’s all. Her hair, as Dags noted, is undone, and it looks like it’s been pretty recently brushed, and probably conditioned.
Meanwhile, Edwards tells Charles it’s getting dark and they should return to Walnut Grove.
Then we get a closer look at Laura climbing. Her dress is torn and now suddenly her hair looks messy.
Laura reaches the summit of her mountain, or at least one of those “panoramic vistas” where they let you pull over in National Parks. We see it’s not a standalone hill like most of the “mountains” in Minnesota, but the beginning of a mountain range.
Apparently thinking she’s climbed high enough, Laura starts explaining her “mean thoughts” sitch to God, using her acquaintanceship with Rev. Alden as a foot in the door.
God interrupts her and says, “I ALREADY KNOW YOUR WHOLE STORY.”
Just kidding. Long story short, Laura suggests God bring Freddie back to life and take her instead.
As I’ve noted in the past, we’re not churchgoers, and perhaps this is why our kids were shocked by Laura’s modest proposal. I informed them it’s tame stuff compared to some happenings in the Old Testament, and shared the story of Abraham and Isaac.
You may remember this one. As a loyalty test, God tells Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac, but at the last minute is like, “Whoa, I didn’t think you’d actually do it!” Then the three of them have a good laugh about the whole thing. Our kids didn’t find it awfully funny, though.
Anyways, then Laura goes to sleep on a rock, and the camera pulls back to show an enormous river running through the mountains.
DAGNY: Where on earth is she?
WILL: She must have made it all the way to the Black Hills. It’s Spearfish Canyon!
It’s a joke, but really, the Black Hills of South Dakota (450 miles to the west of Walnut Grove) are the closest one gets to anything resembling what we’re seeing here. And even that is a stretch.
Back at the Little House, night has fallen, but Charles and Mr. Edwards are getting lanterns ready to go out again. Caroline is with them, slurring her speech somewhat and looking a wreck.
Then we cut back to Laura, who’s waking up on her rock. Although it was night back home, the sun’s up here, so either it’s the next day, or she actually walked past the Black Hills and continued all the way to Venus, which has much longer days than Earth’s.
Anyways, as Laura wakes up she realizes she’s lying under a tartan coat of some kind. A man’s voice says, “Sleep well?” Laura stares blearily into the sun for a bit.
Quickly her vision clears and she sees it’s Ernest Borgnine.
OLIVE: Stranger danger, am I right?
ALEXANDER: Is he from the north? Canadian?
DAGNY: He does look Canadian. The fur vest.
ROMAN: A trapper?
In 1955, Ernest Borgnine beat out Spencer Tracy, Jimmy Cagney, Frank Sinatra and James Dean for Best Actor at the Oscars. The movie was Marty . . . but my favorite role of his is the prostitute-marrying cop who screams at Gene Hackman through the entirety of The Poseidon Adventure.
Laura asks the stranger where she is, and Borgnine replies, “Don’t you know? You’re on my mountain: Jonathan’s mountain.”
“Oh,” says Laura. “Who are you?”
“Well, I just told you,” says Borgnine. “You’re on my mountain. I’m Jonathan.”
(Most of the rest of the dialogue in this one is exceptionally tedious, so I’m not going to bother transcribing much of it.)
They make small talk for a while, then Borgnine invites her to have some porridge.
“Oh, I love warm porridge in my body!” he exclaims – the first of a few revolting such remarks he makes.
ROMAN: “It puts the porridge in its body or else it gets the hose again.” [laughs]
OLIVE: . . . You’re proud of that one, huh?
WILL: Well, when you actually watch the show instead of playing video games through it, you come up with better jokes.
Borgnine says he’s close friends with God, which stuns Laura into silence.
DAGNY: How long is that coat?
WILL: Waist-length? You know, smoking-jacket length?
DAGNY: I don’t know. . . . Look how long the arms are!
Borgnine gets Laura to eat some porridge, saying God doesn’t like seeing food go to waste.
DAGNY: This show can’t decide. Fat-shaming, or finish your plate.
He stares and smiles weirdly at her while she’s eating.
Meanwhile, back in the low country, Charles and Mr. Edwards are still searching. Charles starts going full tilt boogie over Laura’s disappearance, suggesting she froze to death in the night. Mr. Edwards has to call his name twice before he notices.
WILL: Is it weird Mr. Edwards is telling Charles to snap out of it?
WILL: But I suppose he’s not drinking. He’s pretty put-together when he’s not.
DAGNY: Yeah. It’s Grace’s influence.
Meanwhile, on top of Old Smoky, or wherever, Laura is waiting for God to speak while Ernest Borgnine whittles and asks about her life. He shows her he’s carved her name into a wooden cross necklace he made.
DAGNY: It looks like a God’s eye. Did you ever make them when you were a kid?
WILL: I don’t think so.
DAGNY: Oh, they were so much fun.
Then Borgnine suggests going down to the river. He says God sleeps late, so she doesn’t need to worry about missing Him. He leans against a tree with closed eyes while she washes her face.
WILL: He’s just pretending to sleep so he can watch her bathe.
OLIVE: He’s a total creeper. There are a lot of them on this show.
Borgnine tells Laura rainwater is really tears from Heaven. Laura says that’s sad, but he replies, “When Heaven cries and the tears come down, it makes things grow and come alive again. What God wants us to know is that it’s all right to care and cry for your fellow man.” (“Liberal hogwash!” said Dagny.)
Then comes the weirdest exchange of the whole story.
JONATHAN: Well now! Let’s take a look at those ears!
LAURA: I scrubbed ’em hard!
JONATHAN: Oh, my! Clean as a whistle on the inside . . . but you never know when He might check behind ’em.
LAURA: I almost forgot about that!
JONATHAN: Uh-huh. . . . Back in you go!
LAURA: I’ll get it good this time! I promise!
JONATHAN: That’s it! That’s it! Rub ’em good! Oh, rub ’em! Rub ’em till they come off!
Not Michael Landon the Screenwriter’s finest hour. Maybe his queasiest.
Laura’s new necklace slips off and floats away downstream. Ernest Borgnine says he’ll make her another, but she’s still upset. He should go find her a baby raccoon.
Actually, out of nowhere, he finds something almost as good: a dove sitting on the ground. Laura says she’ll bring it back to their camp and keep it. Ernest Borgnine says if she hadn’t lost the cross, they never would have found the bird, but I don’t see how that makes sense.
WILL: Borgnine kind of looks like Dabbs Greer.
DAGNY: Yeah, when they get back Reverend Alden should say, “You know, I had a brother Jonathan who disappeared many years ago. . . .”
WILL: He is sort of like Reverend Alden’s good twin.
DAGNY: Yeah, making up for all the bad things Aldi gets people to do.
ROMAN: He’s the Prince of Truth!
Back at the Little House, Charles and Edwards are mustering for another search. Charles says this time they’ll go as far as “the Arden River,” or even farther west. There is no Arden River in Minnesota or any neighboring state . . . so I guess it’s Venus ho!
Now Carrie gets her most significant scene to date, and actually it’s the best scene of the whole episode. “Where’s Laura?” she slurps.
Annoyed and disturbed Carrie is putting sentences together, Pa brusquely replies, “She went away for a while.”
PA: She just went somewhere.
CARRIE: Did she go with my brother?
In the background, Mr. Edwards whips his head around as if stung, and Ma chokes and bolts for the bedroom. (No doubt that’s where she’s keeping the laudanum.)
No one answers Carrie. The men depart whilst Caroline, gasping and shuddering, folds her hands to pray.
(“I remember this one from when I was little,” said Dagny. “I remember vowing I would never run away because of the pain it caused the family.”)
Back on Venus, night has finally fallen. Laura and Ernest Borgnine are sitting by a fire in front of some kind of little hut. Laura frets that her dove will get cold, but Borgnine says it’s actually warm as “cornbread in the oven!” I’m not sure I’m comfortable comparing pets to food, but he’s lived alone for a long time, and who knows, doves are probably a staple of his diet.
Bored with this smalltalk, Laura finally tells Borgnine about her trade proposal for God. She says she’s sure He’ll agree, since she “explained about having mean thoughts and all.” (If she says “mean thoughts” one more time in this episode, I’m going to jump out the window and someone else will have to finish the recap.)
Ernest Borgnine says rather than having her die, God would prefer she do good works to make up for those bad thoughts. (Not in the evangelical tradition I grew up in.) In a weird echo of what Caroline said last week in Mankato, he says most people are “always in a hurry” and don’t take time to help others.
DAGNY: Man, he’s got some hardcore eyebrow and forehead wrinkles.
WILL: Yeah. Furrows!
DAGNY: You’d never see an aging celebrity let himself look like that today.
WILL: You mean like a normal person?
Laura thanks him for the advice, then says in addition to Jack the dog and Mr. Edwards, he’s her best friend. (Eat shit, Olga Nordstrom.)
DAGNY: She has a lot of old-man friends. Doesn’t she have another best friend who’s a banker?
WILL: Yeah, but that hasn’t happened yet.
Laura fears she’ll never see Ernest Borgnine again after God answers her, I guess because she’ll be dead. Borgnine says mysteriously, “Whatever happens, we’ll see each other again,” and the church chimes ring again in the orchestra as Laura climbs back up the rock.
When she’s gone, Ernest Borgnine looks up and says, “A child like that makes it all worthwhile, doesn’t it?” (“Now he’s Clarence from It’s a Wonderful Life all of a sudden,” said Dags.)
Planting the seeds of Highway to Heaven indeed. Not to over-explain, but it’s clear we’re to accept the possibility that Borgnine is an angel, or perhaps even GOD HIMSELF. That type of story isn’t quite our jam in this family (well, except for It’s a Wonderful Life itself).
But I appreciate that it isn’t made explicit. And I guess you could interpret his comment to mean Laura’s just going up the mountain, and what goes up must come down.
The next day, Charles and Mr. Edwards ride to Laura’s big river (presumably the Arden).
Charles is unshaven.
WILL: You don’t like his look?
They stop to rest, and Charles breaks down weeping.
WILL: If there’s one person he could lose it in front of, this is it. Actually, no, I suppose he could probably do it in front of anybody in town.
OLIVE: By the end of the series, he has done it in front of everybody in town.
Mr. Edwards gets down from his horse and stands next to Charles, wordlessly comforting him.
WILL: He should say, “I know what will help. Let’s go to a saloon!”
OLIVE: Yeah! “Girls, games and booze!”
WILL: Did you say, “Girls, games and boobs”?
OLIVE: No, booze.
WILL: Oh, I thought that seemed wrong. ’Cause wouldn’t “girls” and “boobs” be the same thing in this context?
OLIVE: Jeez, Dad.
Charles goes down to fill his canteen from the River Arden . . . when what should literally float into his hands but Laura’s cross!
The orchestra starts glimmering, and Charles screams, “Edwards!” Mr. Edwards, naturally, is astonished and pleased at this piece of news.
Back on the mountaintop, still no word from God. Laura stomps around kicking rocks on her way back to the hut.
ROMAN: She’s turned total delinquent.
She and Ernest Borgnine chit-chat for a while about how God hasn’t appeared. Laura thinks perhaps the mountain isn’t tall enough. She recalls there were “lots of higher places” in the Big Woods of Wisconsin where she used to live. I’m not even going to bother telling you about the topography of western Wisconsin.
Ernest Borgnine suggests building a bonfire would get God’s attention. Turning momentarily into Hercule Poirot, he refers to himself in the third person in this scene.
They head off to gather firewood, Laura almost stepping on her dove in the process.
Meanwhile, Charles and Mr. Edwards are riding alongside the river. Edwards spots the smoke from the fire, and they hasten to the mountain. When it gets too steep, they dismount and proceed on foot.
There’s a shot where Charles disappears behind a bush for a second that I thought was a reference to Carrie falling in the opening credits, but the rest of my family thought no.
On her rock, Laura prays for God to answer her. Suddenly she hears the voice of Michael Landon, who after all is probably the closest most of us will ever get to God, calling her name. She looks down and sees Pa and Mr. Edwards climbing up.
Whispering, “No, Pa, no!”, Laura runs in the opposite direction, but Ernest Borgnine grabs her and tells her this is God’s answer. When she starts picking his interpretation of events apart, he tells her God also happened to personally tell him He wanted her to go home, and that shuts her up.
Laura gives Borgnine a grateful look, then turns to see Pa running out of the underbrush. She’s so emotional she can’t even speak, and he definitely has full-on Jasper face this time.
They embrace and have the heart-warmin’-est “I’m sorry, no I’M sorry” conversation ever.
Even Mr. Edwards has wet eyes.
Laura starts to tell them about Jonathan, but Ernest Borgnine has disappeared. The bird, too. She rushes to the hut.
WILL: They should find his skeleton inside.
ROMAN: Yeah, and he’s been dead for ten years like Large Marge.
They talk for a bit more, then get ready to leave. Mr. Edwards gives the sky a quizzical look.
WILL: Edwards should yell, “I still say there ain’t no God!”
DAGNY: That’s right, he’s not God-fearing, is he?
OLIVE: Well, he’s a faker.
As they climb down, we see the dove sitting in a tree. (The camera gets to it without a cut, which makes kind of a nifty shot.)
OLIVE: Is that a different bird?
WILL: No, it’s the same bird.
OLIVE: It’s a different color.
WILL: No it isn’t. How many birds do you think they could afford for this episode?
OLIVE: Think of the birds in the nest last week, and all the chickens. Their bird budget was huge.
The dove flies away, and the camera pans out from the mountain to the grandiose strains of the NBC Symphony Orchestra. Bum-Bum-Ba-Dum!
DAGNY: Is that it? Ugh.
WILL: Too sentimental?
Well, it is sentimental, plus the second episode (basically just a long boring conversation with a weird old man) is kind of disappointing after such a wrenching and vital setup.
But like I said, a story like this isn’t really our thing, and maybe it is yours. It’s quite well done if so, with the “crying” theme nicely woven in throughout.
STYLE WATCH: Dagny liked Mary’s nightgown.
And Jonathan’s boots.
Charles appears to go commando again.
UP NEXT: Christmas at Plum Creek