The Talking Machine

She Humiliated Me . . . With Science!

(a recap by Will Kaiser)

Title: The Talking Machine

Airdate: January 14, 1976

Written by Harold Swanton

Directed by Victor French

SUMMARY IN A NUTSHELL: Nellie is bested by Laura in matters of love, so she plans a humiliation far exceeding anything else she’s done so far.

RECAP: 

[The title sequence plays.]

WILL: Do you ever watch the credits and just think to yourself, “Oh, this family”?

OLIVE: You say that every time.

ROMAN: It’s true.

WILL: Do I? I suppose. I wonder how many times I repeat the same jokes in the blog.

Well, better to repeat jokes than conduct tedious research, which this episode had me doing right off the bat. (“Tedious research” is also sort of the subject of our story this week, as we’ll see.)

We start with a close-up of that amazing Nineteenth-Century invention, the phonograph. This one is playing sentimental music from a cylinder whilst somebody operates it with a hand crank.

The history of recorded sound is an interesting topic. (Probably not as interesting as what people did with their geese in the olden days, but then what is.)

Previously on Little House

You don’t have to dive in very deeply to realize that, as usual, the creators of the show did some homework . . . even if, as usual, they bent their findings a bit in the service of good drama. Nothing wrong with that, in my view.

Thomas Edison invented the hand-cranked phonograph in 1877. The original models played and recorded sound using cylinders made not of wax, which I think most people are familiar with, but of metal, and covered with a thin type of tinfoil. 

Thomas Edison (thinking he’s cool as shit)

And indeed, the cylinder we see in this contraption does appear to be metallic. Hats off for historical accuracy, Little House!

Gotta be the first time I, and maybe anyone, ever said that

As the camera backs off, we see this one was written by Harold Swanton, who last contributed the (underrated and hilarious) “If I Should Wake Before I Die.” 

In that story, he created Amy Hearn, a character who, despite having appeared just once, and despite being in her late eighties when the life expectancy for an American woman was about 48, is still said to be having zany adventures every three episodes or so.

Previously on Little House

Our own Victor French directs.

On with the story. This phonograph, we see, is being operated by an oily little pop-eyed fellow in a polka-dot string tie. 

He’s a traveling salesman, obviously, of the bang-beat, bell-ringin’, big-haul, great-go, neck-or-nothin’, rip-roarin’, every-time-a-bullseye variety that ranged throughout the Midwest in those days.

The actor is George Furth, who cowrote the musical Company with Stephen Sondheim, had a recurring role on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, and was also in Blazing Saddles.

George Furth (left), with Stephen Sondheim

Anyways, the guy is making his pitch to Mrs. Oleson and Nels in the Mercantile. 

Harriet is holding a gigantic gold-trimmed book. Reverend Alden’s $300 aborted birthday Bible? Gotta be.

Nels says the talking machine is cool, but he doesn’t understand what its purpose is. 

It’s hard to believe now, but this was indeed the reaction of Nineteenth-Century customers to the phonograph, which was a big flop at first because nobody knew what to do with it. 

People said the same thing when Twitter first appeared, actually.

“But what’s it for?”

Nels says they already have a piano, so they don’t need a music machine. I wonder who plays the piano in their house? There really aren’t any musicians in this town, except for Charles. And I guess all those marching-band guys, though they of course live in a magical cave and only emerge for big events like baseball games and Founder’s Day.

The salesman keeps pitching, but Harriet, addressing him as “Mr. Godfrey,” tells him to piss off, in withering fashion.

The salesman looks to Nels, saying his wagon is broken down and he has to sell the thing to somebody in order to pay for the repair. Nels says he has no veto power over Harriet’s decisions.

Meanwhile, thunder rolls menacingly on the soundtrack, and we cut to the school, which is letting out. 

Laura lags behind, annoying Mary, to stare at a sort of ventriloquist’s dummy-looking kid we’ve never seen before. Said kid comes out with Miss Beadle in the midst of discussing a science project.

OLIVE: Oh, God, is this a boy one? Feels like we’ve just had six of those in a row.

Addressing the kid as “Jason,” Miss Beadle orders him to do a special class presentation.

She’s wearing her glasses again, which I learned in Charlotte Stewart’s memoir were the actual glasses she wore in real life at that time.

They are a touch severe, sort of like Toht’s in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

“Golly, Miss Beadle, I don’t know,” the kid says, and his weirdly over-deliberate diction gave me a shudder of recognition. 

OLIVE: Have we seen this kid before?

WILL: On this show, no, but in something else yes. 

OLIVE: He’s really familiar. Does he have the same hair?

WILL: No, just the same voice. He was a little younger.

ROMAN: I’ve got it. Obviously, it’s Jason Bateman.

Laura’s gopher fangs make their first appearance of the day as she smiles worshipfully up at Jason.

OLIVE: Oh, those teeth! Actually, don’t write that down. I’m afraid to say it now in case Melissa Gilbert is reading.

WILL: I’m quite sure she’s heard it all. She makes teeth jokes herself in her book. And she used to be Screen Actors Guild president. I bet she can take it.

(Some of you might know Melissa Gilbert recently said kind things about this blog on Twitter, giving our household quite a thrill. I promise we’ll remain objective analysts of Little House, though. That’s a Walnut Groovy Guarantee.)

Feel free to pre-order her new book, though

Anyways, once free of the Bead’s coils, Jason is immediately snared by Nellie. He’s like the letter in One Monster After Another.

Nellie essentially asks Jason on a date, but he declines and rushes off, like the distracted young scientist stereotype he is.

Laura gives Nellie a fierce snarling look and takes off too.

Laura runs randomly around town for a while, then falls face-first into a clump of weeds.

ROMAN: Runs in the family, I guess.

WILL: Yeah, David Rose missed a chance to use the “It’s Carrie” melody from the theme.

Speaking of David, when Laura finally locates Jason, our house composer once again brings in “The Love of Willie Oleson” – the love theme first heard in “The Spring Dance.” If it seems funny he should repurpose love music for other characters, recall he’s done it before.

More thunder is heard, and we see Jason is mucking about with a kite he’s apparently made from Willie’s shirt. 

Laura, wisely resisting the instinct to cry “Why if it isn’t Jason Jasonsen!” (or whatever his last name is), offers to help. 

Previously on Little House

Soon the kite sailing far overhead, Ted Voigtlander actually giving us a kite’s-eye view of Laura at one point.

How they got the kite to hold Ted and his equipment, I’ve no idea

Laura begins screaming maniacally about how great it is the kite’s flying.

Jason produces a key from his pocket, but before he has a chance to explain what it’s for, we cut to Mary getting home from school.

Pa, interestingly, is re-roofing the soddy. I wonder what they use it for? Voiceover Laura once told us it’s where they stayed whilst Pa was building the Little House, but they actually haven’t done anything with it since. The overnight visitors they’ve had either stayed in the hayloft or camped in the driveway.

Well, Ol’ Brainiac starts bragging about her math grades, so I guess her two-pronged approach to learning (eyeglasses PLUS memory drills on the march to school) is paying off.

Mary tells Pa Laura will be home late. He asks if it’s because her math grades weren’t so good, but Mary says, “No, she’s in love with a scientist.”

Ha!

Back amongst the storm chasers, Jason and Laura are hoping for the right type of clouds to form.

ROMAN: It’s not cloudy. Like, at all!

Jason and Laura join in chorus to say “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” (origin unclear but definitely around by this time). Jason then says Ben Franklin didn’t give up, and that’s how he got to be President.

Ben Franklin flirting it up in Paris

In an unusual edit, we suddenly find ourselves at the Little House dinner table, where Pa, Ma and Mary are all saying Ben Franklin never was President. (This script uses that technique where having different characters talking about the same things is used to transition back and forth between scenes. You either find it clever or annoying, I suppose.)

Mary rolls her huge eyes and says Laura will believe anything Jason says. “You be still, Mary!” Laura screams with sudden rancor.

Then Laura reveals it’s just a joke – Franklin was actually just president of a stove company. (I wasn’t able to verify this.)

Pa laughs and confirms Franklin did invent a stove. (We actually had a wood-burning Franklin stove in my house when I was growing up. I burned my toe on it once, something awful.)

Curse you forever, Ben Franklin!

Pa says if Jason aspires to be like Ben Franklin, he’s good boyfriend material as far as he’s concerned. 

Ma laughs – somewhat feebly, it seems.

ROMAN: Does Caroline cut her leg off in frustration that she hasn’t had any good stories this season?

Later, Pa is working on a wagon wheel in the barn while Laura hangs out chit-chatting.

ROMAN: He’s always making wheels.

Laura confides she doesn’t think she’s pretty enough to attract a boy. Pa says that’s nonsense, and Laura says if only she knew more about science, Jason would probably like her better.

Pa says if you can read, you can learn science. (Tell that to Dr. Raimondi at my alma mater, Chuck.)

“I bet you there’ll be a lady scientist someday,” says Charles. (Of course there were a number of them already, but it’s unlikely Charles Ingalls would have heard of them, unless they were mentioned in Emerson or The Home Mechanic.)

Then he says, “I hear tell there’s lady doctors in Mankato right now.” Mankato, Mankato, Mankato! Boy, the writers of this show had a pathological obsession with the place.

Not that there’s anything wrong with Mankato, which as I’ve mentioned in the past I’ve visited many times and found perfectly charming. But it was hardly the nucleus of Minnesota industry, science, art and culture it’s made out to be in this show. 

From what I can tell, assuming this episode is in fact set in 1881 as we’ve been tracking, there would have been just one woman doctor in the state of Minnesota at this time: Dr. Emma Ogden, who had just opened a practice in a community then known as Detroit and today called Detroit Lakes. (It’s 200 miles north of Walnut Grove, and even farther away from Mankato.)

Dr. Emma Ogden in a fantastic suit
Detroit Lakes, Minnesota

The most famous Nineteenth-Century woman in Minnesota medicine was a Dr. Martha Ripley, who became a doctor in 1883, founded a hospital in 1886 (in Minneapolis), and was a powerful voice for the suffragette movement in this state.

Dr. Martha Ripley

As for the first woman scientist in Minnesota, there are a number of contenders for that title, but they didn’t begin appearing until about 1900.

Research chemist Edith von Kuster
Environmental scientist Josephine Tilden
Inorganic chemist Dr. Lillian Cohen

Be that as it may, it’s clear this revelation has a big impact on Laura. You can see the young Laura Ingalls Wilder realizing she may NOT need to limit herself to traditional roles like so many women she’s known in her life. It’s a great moment, actually.

But then she says, “It still would help a lot if I was prettier.”

For fuck’s sake, Harold Swanton! You had built things up so nicely! You could have depicted this as a formative scene in the life of a young woman who, after all, would only become one of the most famous authors of all time. And you had to spoil it with dumb sexism just to give the audience a laugh (and a tiny, pitiful one at that)?

Ugh. Oh well, anyways.

We then cut back to Nellie, who’s talking about how much prettier she is than Laura. (Sexist ideas are easier to take coming from the villain of the story, though certainly Nellie is pigeonholed by her culture as much as Laura is. Maybe more so.) 

At first I thought Nellie was soliloquizing, but in fact she’s talking to her mother, who’s folding linens or the like in Nellie’s room.

Mrs. Oleson says Nellie’s a clever girl and will find out Jason’s weakness eventually. As we’ve discussed before, Mrs. O is a proto-feminist of sorts, though it’s more on the Lady Bracknell manipulation-and-power-plays model than the barnstorming suffragette one.

David Suchet as Lady Bracknell

Nellie asks what “Pa’s” weakness was.

OLIVE: I think it’s weird when Nellie calls Nels “Pa.” It’s better when she calls him “Father.” There’s really only one Pa.

In answer to Nellie’s question, Mrs. O says, “Why, me, of course!”, which isn’t really terribly helpful. 

Then she adds, “And the best pair of high-stepping grays in Sullivan County!”

This remark confused me. At first I thought she was talking about her legs . . . like, was she doing the can-can in gray stockings or something?

When Harriet Met Nels

But thinking about it a bit more, I expect “high-stepping grays” refers to high-stepping gray horses. I still don’t quite know what she means by that – were these horses her dowry? I previously theorized her family’s money was what attracted Nels to her, but this is the first evidence that might be true.

Whatever she’s talking about, the comment does provide us a significant new clue in a puzzle we’ve been working on for a while: What is Mrs. Oleson’s origin story?

The show has given us a couple hints to this point. Here’s what we know: Harriet grew up in a city, in a family of wealth and “quality” (real or perceived). She and her parents lived near a river, owned a surrey and a fancy portable tea service, and enjoyed having picnics while watching boating on the water. Moving out to the country was Nels’s idea, and she resents him for it. 

Her relations include the Farnsworths (a family even wealthier than her own) and, by marriage, the Thorvalds

Harriet’s niece Kate Thorvald suggests her aunt is exaggerating her high birth somewhat in “Doctor’s Lady.” But in “The Camp-Out” Nels privately tells Charles his wife “had everything when she was a child.” 

And as we’ve seen in this story and others, Harriet unilaterally handles all the Olesons’ business decisions, including making large charitable donations on the spot without her husband’s input – perhaps an indicator her family money was the foundation for their success. 

Now, there are six Sullivan counties in the United States: one each in Indiana, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. 

I think we can rule out Tennessee, despite Mrs. O’s tendency toward antebellum-ish grandeur, for she has no accent and acknowledges no kinship with the many Southerners who reside in or pass through Walnut Grove. (Remember, Mr. Edwards has Tennessee origins.)

Sullivan County, Missouri, and Sullivan County, Pennsylvania, are both very rural, so I think we can cross them off too.

Sullivan County, New York, was as far back as the Nineteenth Century a popular resort destination for Jewish people from New York City. Given Harriet’s gross ignorance of Judaism and the explicit anti-Semitism she displays in “Come Let Us Reason Together,” I think this one’s out too. 

That leaves us with New Hampshire or Indiana. Harriet never speaks of New England or the East Coast, and given she’s got family elsewhere in the Midwest, I think Indiana’s our likely winner.

Sullivan County, Indiana, is part of the Wabash Valley region on the Illinois border. The Valley’s largest city is Terra Haute, which in 1880 had a population of 26,000. (By comparison, Mankato only had 5,500 people.)

Terra Haute, Indiana, in 1880

While huge by Hero Township standards, Terra Haute isn’t a household name, which explains why Harriet describes herself as coming from “a city” rather than naming it.

What Nels was doing in Indiana is a harder question to answer. Names don’t get more Scandinavian than “Nels Oleson,” and I’d always assumed he was a born Minnesota boy. (And remember, his sister does turn up in Minnesota later, though as a traveling performer, and with an accent that’s decidedly un-Midwestern.) But I suppose it’s possible he traveled in search of a wife and/or high-stepping grays as a young man and then returned to his home state.

In real life, the settlers on whom the Olesons are based, William and Martha Owens, were not Midwesterners. William was from Scranton, Pennsylvania, and he met and married the Canadian-born Martha in Iowa before coming up to Minnesota to open the Mercantile. But why confuse our narrative with facts?

The real-life Owenses

And speaking of narratives, back to the story. Nellie says Jason’s a science geek, interested in “steamboats, trains, transatlantic cables, things like that.”

This not being Mrs. O’s area of expertise, she seems stumped at first; then she gets an idea.

Cut to Charles repairing Godfrey the salesman’s wagon. 

The side of the wagon advertises “Godfrey’s Traveling Chautauqua, Hannibal Godfrey, Prop., Lecturer, Inventor, Homeopathic Physician.” (A “Chautauqua” – an Indigenous-sounding word, but of uncertain origin – was a sort of Nineteenth Century tent-show infotainment incorporating elements of education, religion and music. A few of them still operate as nostalgic novelties, including one in my home state of Wisconsin.) 

A Chautauqua in Maine (date unknown)

Swanton then takes the conversation in a repulsive sexist direction again. Apparently the salesman’s accident occurred when his horse was startled by lightning.

GODFREY: You reckon it has anything to do with the fact that she’s female? You know, their juices run different than ours.

OLIVE: What? Did he just say “juices”?

To Charles’s credit, he seems to find this comment as bizarre as we do.

Charles says Godfrey owes him $6.85 for the repair (about $200). The salesman says he’s already paid Doc Baker all the cash he had to treat his horse’s injuries, but he can pay Charles with something even more valuable. He asks him to come round the back of the wagon.

ROMAN: Watch out, Charles, he’ll Jame Gumb you!

Godfrey hauls out the phonograph, which he says is identical to the one Edison created “at Menlo Park.” 

Menlo Park, New Jersey, “the Birthplace of Recorded Sound,” was the site of Edison’s laboratory in 1877, and is now home to the Edison Memorial Tower and Museum.

Thomas Edison and his staff at Menlo Park

They Might Be Giants once recorded a song called “The Edison Museum” on a cylinder phonograph, though apparently the title refers not to Menlo Park, but to Edison’s home in West Orange (described in the song as “the tallest, widest and most famous/Haunted mansion in New Jersey”).

Thomas Edison’s home in West Orange

Godfrey says the phonograph is “worth fifty dollars if it’s worth a nickel!” In fact, it seems the original asking price for an Edison phonograph was about $150 – upwards of $4,000 in today’s money. But again, they wouldn’t sell, and the price was later lowered after the device was fine-tuned.

Godfrey demonstrates the machine. Behind the fence, one of the Chonkies seems quite interested.

Charles is delighted by the device, and Godfrey tells him it was “just invented last year.” (Before you send me a note saying this proves it can’t be 1881, I think it’s quite likely Godfrey is exaggerating to close the deal.)

Nels appears out of nowhere and says he’d like to buy the talking machine after all. Charles says that’s perfect – he’ll accept the machine as payment for Godfrey’s repair, and then Nels can take it to cancel out the Ingallses’ $7 bill at the Mercantile.

Next, we see Jason giving a demonstration of something he calls a “donkey engine” in school.

It’s a little steam-powered contraption that whistles like a kettle, apparently a half-pint cousin of the big steam engines that were used to assist with logging and mining. (Its appearance here is probably a little anachronistic, though.)

While he’s speaking, we get hilarious shots of both Nellie and Laura making ga-ga eyes at him from the gallery.

“Someday we’ll have wagons with steam engines to drive them instead of horses!” Jason says enthusiastically.

“We will not,” says Willie, rolling his eyes in irritation.

Jason says there might even be flying machines someday, and Miss Beadle adds, “A brilliant man named Leonardo da Vinci predicted that many years ago.”

Then she asks what conclusions the class can draw from the discussion. Willie raises his hand and says, “That there’s a man named Leonardo da something that’s as silly as Jason.”

The class laughs – but not as hard as we did! Willie Oleson for Class President!

Then we get a wonderful first, as Miss Beadle sends Willie to the corner!

[UPDATE: Somebody called Scott Herbert-Daly on Twitter suggested the perfect slogan for Willie’s presidential campaign:

WILLIE OLESON: HE’S IN YOUR CORNER.

[God I wish I’d thought of that.]

Then there’s another crash of thunder. What the hell season is it? This episode is unusual in containing multiple storms none of which send Charles to the poorhouse.

Anyways, Miss Beadle dismisses Jason and his beautiful assistant Laura to go out and conduct their mad science experiments. 

They quickly send up the kite in the lightning storm.

ROMAN: Maybe this is where Charles gets the idea for reanimating Jason Bateman.

Coming soon on Little House

WILL: The kid is also wet in the other thing you know him from.

ROMAN: Were you waiting for this scene to say that?

WILL: No, it only just occurred to me.

Laura reaches up and touches the key just as lightning strikes. She’s not killed, though.

OLIVE: She should have super powers now. 

WILL: What would her super power be?

ROMAN: She can bite through anything. Woodchuck Girl!

The two young fools revel in the success of their experiment.

Then we get a scene where Laura comes home soaking wet, but we gotta keep things moving. 

After a break, we see Laura sniffling and sneezing whilst reading a fake book called The Wonders of Science up in her loft apartment.

OLIVE: I’m not sure I’m a big fan of her sick acting.

Mary comes up, grabs a hairbrush, and spends the rest of this scene grooming herself like a Persian cat.

Harold Swanton subscribing to the TV trope that nerds talk exclusively in formal language, Laura tells Mary that rather than the sniffles, she has “inflammation of the nasal membranes.”

Inflamed in the Membrane!

She says she read that such inflammation is caused by germs. In the recap for “The Lord is My Shepherd, Part One,” we discussed whether these people would really have been familiar with germ theories of disease, so you can look that up if you want to know. We must press on!

Anyways, Mary tells her to go the fuck to sleep.

We cut to Nellie sewing her sampler on the Mercantile porch the next day. She always looks quite refined when she has her legs crossed, if you ask me.

She hears Jason and Laura approaching. Jason is blathering (accurately) about the history of hot-air ballooning.

OLIVE: He talks like Goofy the dog.

WILL: Yeah, he does in the other thing too.

OLIVE [as JASON]: “Gee whiz!”

WILL: I think he actually says “Gee whiz!” in the other thing.

ROMAN: Oh, I’ve got it! He’s the “gee whiz, sis!” kid from The Poseidon Adventure!

Yes, he’s Eric Shea, best known to us as the screechingly obnoxious little brother in The Poseidon Adventure, who spends the whole movie over-enunciating things like “Gee whiz, sis!” and “I didn’t mean YOU weigh six hundred pounds, Mrs. Rosen!”

Eric Shea (at center), in The Poseidon Adventure
Eric Shea (at left), with Leslie Nielsen

He survives that film, much to the audience’s despair.

Additionally, Shea headlined some kind of minor Disney series called (believe it or not) Whiz Kid, and, strangely, was also on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. I guess 1976 was a banner year for Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman cast members.

Eric Shea in The Whiz Kid and the Carnival Caper

Anyways, as Jason and Laura pass by, Nellie activates the phonograph, which plays a recording of her voice smugly describing its capabilities.

For the moment, her ploy works. Jason is dazzled and abandons Laura to come inside to examine the machine. Nellie snidely tosses her hair in Laura’s direction as she follows him.

Later, in the barn, Laura complains to Pa about Nellie’s scheme. Pa’s making or repairing something, but we couldn’t tell what. (A chair? A toboggan?)

OLIVE: Is he just adding nails to the same spot over and over?

Pa basically says don’t worry, Nellie’s an awful person and only an insane idiot would like her, so if Jason does good riddance.

Laura says to be on the safe side, she’s going to invite Jason over for dinner.

LAURA: If I’m not going to be afraid of Nellie’s talking machine, I don’t know why she should be afraid of Ma’s dumplings.

WILL: Another Little House quote for the ages.

Then we see Laura and Jason trying out a little toy steamboat in the creek. The two discuss how its principles could be used to create flying machines. Jason uses the word airplane in this scene, which some internet people have pooh-poohed, but it seems the term (or aeroplane, anyways) did predate the vehicle’s actual invention by about forty years.

Laura picks up the steamboat while it’s still running.

OLIVE: Her pigtail should get caught. 

ROMAN: Yeah, and she gets disfigured for life.

Then Jason nicely tells Laura he wouldn’t want anyone else for his science partner but her.

We cut to Charles, spooning gloppy-looking dumplings out of a pan at the table. They don’t look the nicest on film.

OLIVE: Oh God. He should be afraid!

And yes, we see that Jason has in fact joined the Ingallses for supper.

OLIVE: Why did they invite him over again?

WILL: I don’t know, why did you invite that Australian kid over this week?

Jason is explaining to Pa how the talking machine works, whilst Laura drools.

Jason apparently hung out for a time at the Olesons’, trying out the phonograph. He says he recorded himself reciting “The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck” – an 1826 Felicia Dorothea Hemans poem, technically called “Casabianca,” that was once required learning for small children but isn’t very well remembered today. 

Jason also says Mrs. Oleson sang an opera aria into the machine, something I think many fans of this show would pay money to have seen.

“She break the pickle crock?” asks Charles – a simple but effective joke.

Hee

Jason and Laura tag-team an impromptu science presentation during the dinner conversation. Laura shows off a bit, quoting Archimedes and proving the lantern won’t burn without oxygen. (The relationship between oxygen and combustion was well understood by this time.) 

Archimedes in his bath

Cut to dinner at the Oleson house, where Mrs. O is talking with her mouth full of ham again. “A very strange young man if you ask me!” she says.

“I hate him!” hisses Nellie. So apparently the “date” with Jason didn’t go well in her estimation.

We learn the event concluded with Laura arriving to invite Jason to supper.

Nels loses his temper a bit, saying he’s sick of all the scheming and complaining. He says Jason can eat dinner wherever he likes, and why should anybody care where that is.

Meanwhile, Willie shovels food calmly into his face.

Jonathan Gilbert cracks me up

“Maybe he likes the Ingalls!” Nels shouts in exasperation. “They’re a very nice family!”

Nellie wails and rushes from the table. Harriet screams at Nels, and he snaps back at her. Willie keeps a-shoveling.

ROMAN: This is like the time Mom got so mad at Alexander she broke that plate. I was Willie.

Up in her room, Nellie screams wildly and bounces on her bed – the first such tantrum we’ve seen from her.

Then she gets up and makes to destroy the phonograph . . . only a better idea occurs to her, and her look of intense hatred morphs into a cunning smile.

ROMAN: Oh no . . . 

This is definitely Alison Arngrim’s finest performance so far

After a commercial break, we see Laura arriving at the Mercantile to sell eggs. Poor Karen Grassle, she can’t even count on getting that storyline these days.

Laura is attended by Nels, who notes it’s the time of year hens produce fewer eggs (that is, the fall, which goes along with several references to chilly weather in this story). 

Nels gives her a piece of candy on the house.

OLIVE: He is so sweet.

Nellie comes down the stairs and cries “Hi, Laura!” with a terrifying grin on her face.

“Hi,” says Laura, without interest.

Nellie invites Laura to grab a handful of gumdrops and come hang out in her room.

Laura is suspicious but goes along. She shoots Nels a questioning glance, but he’s like don’t look at me.

In the bedroom, Laura is a bit awed by Nellie’s material wealth, which includes fancy French dolls and the like.

Nellie begins asking Laura about her feelings for Jason, and within seconds she’s spilling her guts.

David briefly gives us some romantic music on the harp . . . but then switches to shock chords when the camera reveals Willie behind a screen, recording all with the phonograph! (Olive and Roman screamed with laughter at this.)

That night, Laura and Mary are getting ready for bed, Laura making the case that Nellie is becoming a nicer person, but Mary very much not buying it.

Pa yells for them to shut up, so the girls say their prayers – in silence this time. Their prayer routine is quite inconsistent, but I guess maybe they’re on an out-loud-every-other-day schedule, or something.

The next day, we once again hear Jason’s weird voice coming from inside the school. 

He’s explaining how the talking machine works. 

Willie raises his hand and asks if Jason will make it fly. Harold Swanton, realizing he’s come up with a winning concept, has the Bead send Willie to the corner again.

Miss Beadle then asks Nellie to demonstrate the machine. She turns it on, and we hear Laura’s voice saying:

Someday maybe we’ll have a big store together with a sign on the front – Laura and Jason’s! Inventions done to order while you wait! I’ll never be as smart as Jason, but I can work awful hard at it. I guess I do love him considerable, but I don’t expect we’d get married for a while yet.

The class begins giggling. Laura looks down in horror, and Mary gives Nellie her patented you-fucking-piece-of-shit look.

OLIVE: I’ve always liked Mary.

WILL: I like her too. She’s complicated – at least, she is in the stories focused on her.

OLIVE: Yeah, she’s better as a lead than a side character.

“Nellie, turn it off,” orders Miss Beadle.

“I can’t, the lever’s stuck,” shrugs Nellie, cranking away.

“I suppose I shouldn’t,” Laura’s voice goes on, “but when I think about Jason, I get all warm and cuddly inside.”

“I said that’s enough!” screams the Bead, leaping into action. She literally shoves Nellie away from the phonograph.

Laura runs out of the room in shame. Mary follows, as Cloud City Princess Leia grins and cackles. 

Boy, she is EVIL at times

Meanwhile, Pa and the Chonkies are harrowing the field yet again.

Mary comes down the hill, arms a-swingin’.

She tells Pa what happened, and says Laura is currently “up on Oak Hill” – a place we’ve never heard mentioned. Since every hill we’ve ever seen on this show has oaks on it (oaks being the only kind of tree that apparently grow in Walnut Grove’s vicinity), it must be a hard location to pinpoint.

Parenting superseding farming in his book, Pa asks Mary to take the team home.

OLIVE: I like that they call the Chonkies “the team.”

The fake bagpipe plays Pa down Oak Hill to Laura. 

Laura sums up what happened, saying she’s never going back to school and she can’t believe Nellie’s betrayal.

OLIVE: Preach, Laura.

Then Laura says she doesn’t want to be a scientist anymore.

ROMAN: Wait, she’s blaming science?

LAURA: I don’t want to invent things that hurt people.

WILL: Wait till the internet comes along, kid.

Insert lovely little Pa-and-Half-Pint scene here. Pa comforts her, his voice cracking as he tells her he loves her.

But things ain’t all Pa’s Famous Mush when we get back from the commercial break. With some very intense music, David ushers Charles up the Mercantile steps.

Mrs. Oleson receives him quite nicely, but he shouts for Nels instead. Again, there’s a thread of sexism in this one that can’t be ignored, with Charles the Father being contrasted with Nels the Wuss throughout.

Consider, Nels freely admitted earlier he lets his wife make all the decisions. At the Little House, on the other hand, we’ve barely even seen Caroline for three episodes.

Not to mention Laura is very much Jason’s shadow in her “lady scientist” aspirations – an assistant and student rather than a true partner.

Charles tells them what happened in school. Harriet starts to protest that it can’t be that bad, but Nels shouts her down. 

Charles says he thought this skirmish in the Nellie-Laura war was worth a parental conversation.

Nels fetches Nellie, who confesses, though she tries to blame Willie since he was the producer of the infamous track.

Nels sends her upstairs, apologizes to Charles, selects a belt from the inventory, and goes up to beat his daughter.

ROMAN: Oh my God!

OLIVE: I’m not sure I’ve ever seen this one, but I feel like I’ve seen this exact scene before.

WILL: He also beats her at the end of the music box one.

It’s a “comedy” scene that doesn’t play super-well today.

Ouch?

In bed that night, Mary tries to comfort Laura, but Laura says she’ll never understand because she has such an easy time with boys.

OLIVE: This is how I felt growing up. Mimi was the Mary.

The next morning, Mary and Laura walk to school holding hands, which is nice.

Miss Beadle is calling everybody in.

OLIVE: I think Miss Beadle’s pretty cute.

WILL: She is. 

ROMAN: Her baby wasn’t the cutest, though.

Jason is standing outside, looking embarrassed. He won’t make eye contact with Laura.

Inside, Nellie, Willie, that rotten puke Cloud City Princess Leia, Not-Linda Hunt and some others are giggling at a new humiliation they have planned for Laura. They scatter as their victim arrives.

We see someone has written Jason Loves Laura on the board.

Miss Beadle and Jason come in, the Bead looking around furiously. 

The kids continue to chuckle, and she screams “Quiet!” She demands whoever wrote the message on the board confess immediately, as Laura heaves with shame in the front row.

Poor kid

“Nellie?” Miss Beadle says. 

“I didn’t do it!” Nellie cries. 

“I hope not,” Beadle hisses menacingly. “You’ve done enough already.”

You can tell it’s been another one of those weeks for her.

Then, in a bizarre twist, Jason rises and confesses he wrote it himself.

I assume he’s just doing so to spare Laura the humiliation? I’m not sure it would actually work if so. I’m surprised nobody laughs, actually. Or did he really write it?

Nellie gets a hilarious look on her face that summed up the reaction in our house.

As for Laura, she turns her tear-streaked face to smile at Jason, who smiles back.

OLIVE: Those don’t look like real tears. I’m not sure we saw them come out of her eyes.

In the episode’s final moments, we cut to Jason and Laura holding hands in the woods, presumably about to make out.

OLIVE: Ick, no!

ROMAN: Not Gee-Whiz Kid!

We see they have carved their initials into a tree: J.R. + L.I. We never find out what the R stands for.

OLIVE: Wow, has Laura ever been in a relationship before?

WILL: No.

OLIVE: I’m sure it’ll end by the next episode.

ROMAN: Yeah, he’ll die in some tragic science experiment.

Bum-Bum-Ba-Dum!

STYLE WATCH: Olive liked Nellie’s pink dress in the “beating” scene.

Charles appears to go commando again.

THE VERDICT:

WILL: Well, how’d ya like that one?

ROMAN: I thought it was good.

OLIVE: I did too, but I didn’t like the ending.

WILL: Oh, you mean Nellie getting beaten?

OLIVE: No, that was fine. I didn’t like Laura having a boyfriend and going off into the woods like happily ever after. She’s like seven years old.

Well, for my money it’s the best Nellie story so far – fun, funny, and wickedly cruel in places. But points have to be deducted for its undeniable weird sexist streak. Well, that and the child abuse, I guess.

UP NEXT: The Pride of Walnut Grove

Published by willkaiser

I live in the Upper Midwest. My name's not really Will Kaiser, but he and I have essentially the same personality.

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