Half This Episode is Fat-Shaming Twelve-Year-Olds
(a recap by Will Kaiser)
Title: The Race
Airdate: October 11, 1976
Written by John V. Hanrahan
Directed by William F. Claxton
SUMMARY IN A NUTSHELL: Nellie and Laura are the only two contestants in an annual Hero Township-wide horse race, if you can believe that.
RECAP: Bummer of a week for us here, and I know for many of you besides, but on we must straggle.
Although the terrifying final scene of “Bunny” teased us with a cliffhanger, this episode isn’t an immediate follow-up to the events of that story.
In fact, we shall see some time has passed since Nellie vowed revenge.
The tone of this one is quite different too . . . but here I am getting ahead once again. Just pretend I gave you no hints what’s to come.
We open on Laura riding Bunny through a field at some distance from the camera. David Rose gives us a new tune to accompany her – a “galloping” number with a wild violin part towards the end.
WILL: This music has almost a Christmasy feel, doesn’t it?
OLIVE: Kind of. Not really.
WILL: Yes it does. Imagine if they added sleighbells to it.
ROMAN: Anything would sound Christmasy with sleighbells added to it.
Claxton is back as director. Made the cut for Season Three after all, I guess.
We get off to a heckuva start when Bunny loses a shoe. Laura checks things out . . . but she might need to go to Mary’s eye doctor, because she says “Good girl” just as Bunny turns and reveals her “area” to the audience.
Ott, the horse actor, was of course male.
WILL: I’m surprised they allowed that on TV. On NBC, during the family hour?
OLIVE: I don’t know, they had Laura naked in the tub that one time.
Laura takes Bunny to have her attended to by Hans “Rubberface” Dorfler, who you’ll recall is the town blacksmith, owner of the livery stable, and noted asleep-in-church-faller.
We know Dorfler was once rivals with Walnut Grove’s other blacksmith, Mr. Kennedy.
Can’t you just picture Kennedy screaming “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us, Dorfler!”
However, last season we deduced Kennedy now resides in the local asylum after murdering his whole family. These things did happen in the Nineteenth Century.
Interestingly, we see Dorfler is wearing a wedding band on his left hand.
Now, there’s a lot of junk out there online about the history of wedding rings, mostly on the websites of jewelry merchants who probably put exactly the same amount of research into the topic as I do for these Walnut Groovy posts – viz., not much.
However, there seems to be a consensus that American men rarely wore wedding rings until World War II, when soldiers took them along as reminders of their wives back at home.
Again, this is if you believe what you read at weddingshoppeinc.com and that sort of site.
Neither Charles nor Nels nor Mr. Edwards wears a ring on the show, incidentally.
American women, on the other hand, uh haw haw heh heh haw, did wear wedding rings, starting in about the Eighteenth Century.
Some people criticize the custom as a symbol of the patriarchy for indicating the woman was “taken,” or to put it another way, the property of her husband – an interpretation with roots in ancient history, it seems.
This proprietary view of women was of course the prevailing attitude at the founding of our country, and continued for a long time after that. It may seem absurd to apply the standards of those times literally to situations today; and yet many people with power over us all do so without embarrassment.
But I’m digressing. Dorfler’s ring, historically accurate or no, does jibe with a scene in “The Richest Man in Walnut Grove,” in which Charles sends his regards to Dorfler’s wife.
Mrs. D’s identity is a mystery. We didn’t see her in “Richest”; nor did we see her when Dorfler fell asleep in church in “The Voice of Tinker Jones”; nor do we see her in this story. (The Dorflers seem to eschew most community-wide functions like Founder’s Day, though Dorfler did attend the dedication of the church bell.)
Anyways, Dorfler is a character I’d describe as a pleasant man, if not the brightest. He’s played by James Jeter, an actor who was well-liked by his peers. Jeter also appeared in Cool Hand Luke as well as two classic thrillers I enjoy, John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 and Brian De Palma’s Blow Out.
Well, Dorfler tells Laura replacing Bunny’s shoe will cost fifty cents ($13 or $14 today – we’re back to 1880s calculations). Laura mentions she plans to ride Bunny in “the Hero Township horse race,” set to take place in three weeks.
Dorfler says to compete in the race, Bunny will need all four shoes replaced. He says considering the customer is good ol’ Laura Ingalls, he’ll put a new set of shoes on for just $1.75 – about $45 today. (A good bargain – in 2017 the cost to reshoe a horse ran between $80 and $200, according to this.)
Laura says she’ll try to scrounge up the money, and Dorfler, as Walnut Grove’s resident horse expert, tells her Bunny has an excellent chance at winning the race – with the proper footwear.
Speaking of footwear, a corny transition brings us to Charles resoling a boot out in the barn.
The boot is Mary’s, and the whole family is gathered round, shoe fittings being apparently a gather-the-whole-family-round occasion.
Pa is complaining about the girls outgrowing their boots when Laura runs in and starts blathering about how Bunny needs new shoes. Ma essentially gives her the throat-cutting gesture to drop this line of conversation, but it’s too late.
Frowny-Face Pa says they can’t afford to shoe the horse. You’d think he’d be able to do this task himself, given his experiences dragging his poor family around the Midwest for years. I’m sure Bunny’s parents Pat/Pet and Patty lost shoes plenty of times.
Charles, not up to speed on Bunny’s identity, says the horse “can’t pull his weight around the farm.” (Italics mine.) Pulling one’s weight is an appropriate expression for the time, though it comes from the world of rowing rather than that of beasts of burden.
Ma surges forward at this point, saying in a British accent that’s even weirder than usual, “I could stuff Laura’s shoes with cloth, and Carrie could wear them – that way we’d only need two pair.” (I sometimes think accidental iambs in the scripts would make Karen Grassle flash back to her Shakespeare days.)
Pa says they can’t even afford that, and Ma replies, “I guess we’ll just have to charge them.”
And oh boy, here we go again.
Charles starts to launch into a rant, but Caroline shuts him down quite quickly. In fact, within seconds he’s chuckling and agreeing with her.
Then we see the Chonkywagon, full of Ingallses, driving directly across a field. (A shortcut to town? Over whose land? Their own?)
The Mercantile finds Mrs. Oleson in a pleasant mood, for the moment.
Things start off fine when Mrs. O tells Caroline the cost of the shoes – $3 for two pairs, or about $80 today. This image (from 1886) shows children’s shoes ranging from $1.15 to $2 per pair, so it’s probably a fair price.
Nels pipes up and says the family has already arranged to purchase the shoes on credit.
Well, the scene that follows really isn’t too interesting, being a retread of the big blow-up in “The Richest Man in Walnut Grove” last season.
The only nuance is this time Mrs. Oleson offers them a pair of Nellie’s old shoes for free, which insults Caroline.
WILL: Oh my God, this is right out of The Gilded Age.
OLIVE: I’d take ’em.
Mrs. O also says, “I don’t see where beggars can afford to be choosers,” an expression that goes back to the Sixteenth Century.
The scene ends with Ma and Pa refusing to buy anything. Charles actually shoves Mrs. Oleson as they’re walking out.
OLIVE: That crosses a line.
On the way home, Ma and Pa talk about how Nellie would have made fun of the Ing-Gals for wearing her old shoes. Surely they’re right about that.
The next day, possibly, Laura goes back to the livery and tells Dorfler she’ll trade her own labor for the horseshoes.
She seizes a pitchfork from him to demonstrate her abilities. (She certainly mucks the byre enough back home, so no doubt she’s good at it.)
Dorfler agrees, and they ask for Pa’s blessing . . . to BOOT!!!
Pa says fine, provided Laura keeps up with her homework.
OLIVE: Who are they kidding. They didn’t have homework back then.
Once Laura’s gone, Dorfler tells Charles he has faith in the kid because she’s an Ingalls.
OLIVE: Aw, that’s cute.
After a commercial break, we see Nellie and Willie mocking Laura as she cleans out the livery. Probably not the same day? Laura is wearing the same outfit, though.
NELLIE/WILLIE [chanting]: Laura smells like a dirty horse! Laura smells like a dirty horse!
AMELIA: That’s dangerously close to “dirty whore.”
Nellie is wearing her dress with the plaid trim again. Willie is dressed the same as always.
WILL: Willie never gets to wear anything new. Did they just keeping letting his costume out as he grew?
Nellie’s face has no vestige of her bruise, nor does she exhibit the seething rage she displayed in the last story.
Seeing as “Bunny” was also set in October or November, which isn’t really horse-racing season in Minnesota, I think we can date this one to the following spring (that is, the spring of 1881-B).
Laura mentions she’s planning to enter Bunny in the race. Nellie tries to get her goat by insulting Bunny, but Laura shuts her up with a faceful of hay.
If only they could show horseshit on network TV, right?
WILL: I wonder how many times in each episode they had to reshoot things because a horse took a dump.
OLIVE: I’m sure quite a bit. Horses poop four to twelve times a day.
WILL: You have to hand it to them, you never see even a blop of horseshit on the screen.
That night, Nellie complains to her family at dinner. (Chicken or turkey rather than ham this time.)
Nellie says it’ll be humiliating to see Laura compete in a race riding “my horse.” She blames Nels for not shooting Bunny like Harriet wanted.
OLIVE: Is this one where he beats her with a belt?
WILL: Not this time.
Nels reminds Nellie that she is evil incarnate and therefore should have no say on this or any other matter. (Paraphrase.)
AMELIA: Am I wrong in thinking he’s the only sane member of this family?
Nellie leaves the table unexcused, and Harriet follows her.
Willie asks if he can eat Nellie’s supper, and Nels says sure.
Upstairs, Nellie is fake-crying like a toddler.
Mrs. Oleson tries to calm her by promising her a new dress and a “Dresden doll.”
“I don’t want an old doll!” Nellie screams, sounding quite Canadian again. (“Dawl.”)
Nellie says she wants a new horse, and Harriet says she’ll take care of it. The scene is a little too long and screamy. No offense to those who can’t get enough Nellie.
At the end, Nellie grins cunningly behind her mother’s back.
WILL: They reframed that picture Nellie broke? Was it really that important?
That night, Nels and Harriet lie in bed. Harriet’s hair is tied up in what I’ve only just now learned are called “rag curlers.” Doesn’t she always put her hair back, though?
Anyways, I always associate the rag-curler look with Hee Haw.
[UPDATE: Dags says I’m stupid and that even people who “always put their hair back” may use curlers, so what do I know. My apologies!]
Harriet says she wants to come along on Nels’s next business trip. She rubs his belly and implies there might be something special in it for him.
OLIVE: What is she suggesting!
Nels, whose character does not seem much driven by sex, agrees, but unhappily. In an on-the-nose touch, David actually gives us wah-wah wilting-boner music.
Cut to Ma and Pa Oleson arriving in the city. I assumed it was Mankato, but later it’s revealed to have been Sleepy Eye.
Sleepy Eye has changed little over the past hundred-plus years, as these images attest.
Harriet loses Nels and heads straight to the horse-trader. The actor, Walter Brooke, was in a million things, including The Waltons, Bonanza, The Twilight Zone and The Graduate, in which he’s the guy who utters the immortal line, “Plastics.”
Sandler shows her a racehorse called “Sparks.” Harriet insists on trying the animal out, and, in a hilarious segment, Sparks takes off wildly.
They have a really remarkable series of adventures:
They even plow Nels under on the boardwalk.
Sparks run around a while longer before dumping Harriet, quite hard, into a hay-bale.
This sequence is just BRILLIANTLY done. Little House was SO good at shit like this.
[UPDATE: Apparently the stunt rider was a woman named Betty Endicott, who also appeared in many, many Bonanza episodes.]
Anyways, Harriet tells the guy she’ll take the horse. She gets annoyed when he says he’ll wait till the check clears to deliver the animal (a comment on her own cash-on-the-barrel policy?).
Nels comes running in and the two of them argue about whether to buy the horse. (This would be an enormous expenditure – today a racehorse averages about $75,000. Of course, there’s an enormous spread, with some horses selling for millions, but it seems unlikely you could get a thoroughbred for less than $20,000.)
We don’t find out how much Sparks costs, but Harriet reminds Nels the money being spent is hers, not theirs (confirming our previous theory about her background), and so the matter rests.
Oh, one other thing: Interestingly, we see a sign on a building that says Grand Forks – a North Dakota city on the Minnesota border. It’s nowhere near Sleepy Eye, though. It appears to say cattlemen as well – a recruitment poster?
After another break, we see Laura brushing Bunny in her pen whilst Carl the Flunky passes in a wagon that’s carrying the Ambiguously Ethnic Mom as a passenger. Does he operate some kind of taxi service on the side? (The wagon’s wheels are yellow.)
Dorfler comes ambling along and says he’s going to put Bunny’s shoes on now so Laura can start training for the race, even though the $1.75 isn’t paid off yet.
Stupid Laura quotes Stupid Pa, saying, “We like to pay cash on the barrel for the things that we buy.”
Dorfler shrugs and heads over to the smithy, where he finds Carl the Flunky engaged in conversation with Mustache Man. (How Carl got there when we just saw him driving away is beyond me.)
In quite the most extensive dialogue either character has had so far, Carl and Mustache Man taunt each other about who has a better chance to win the horse race.
Now, the only horse race we’ve seen on this show to date took place on Founder’s Day during Season One (1879-A).
The winner of that race was Grovester Not-Neil Diamond, who (perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not) has been missing since that very episode.
Did Carl and Mustache Man conspire to eliminate the competition? As we will see later in the series, they do have an ugly side.
Mustache Man says he’s sure to beat Carl, to which the latter replies, “In a pig’s eye!” As the Minnesotans amongst you will know, Pig’s Eye was the original name of the community that became St. Paul. (Or possibly it wasn’t.)
Dorfler tells Carl and MM Laura will beat the both of them.
Back at the horse pen, Nellie appears, holding a big metal punch bowl or something. She says it’s a “silver cup” that Mrs. O is donating as the prize for the race.
Others have noted you can see crew members reflected in the cup. This is true, but since you can’t really tell they’re crew members, I’m not sure if it should count as a blooper or not.
At this point, Sandler, the horse trader from Sleepy Eye, arrives with the new horse and tells Nellie it belongs to her now.
Dorfler, who’s wandered back, calls the animal “a pretty piece of horseflesh,” which I personally think is an expression most disgusting.
Nellie asks Dorfler to have his “nice stable girl” attend to Sparks’s needs.
OLIVE: She should sabotage Nellie’s horse. Malnourish it or something.
That night, in the barn, Pa and Laura bash Nellie together. Laura says there’s no way she can beat a racehorse, and Pa says, “You will if you try hard.” Idiocy, but what’s he supposed to say, I guess.
Then he nicely tells Laura to go to bed and he’ll finish up her chores.
Then we see a bunch of schoolkids, including Laura, Not-Linda Hunt, two Ambiguously Ethnic Kids, Sweet Colleen, and the Smallest Nondescript Helen of Them All, walking in the thoroughfare, away from school.
Interestingly, Helen is wearing Sweet Colleen’s dress from previous seasons.
Laura glances at the livery and sees Dorfler is shoeing Bunny. Dorfler says he made an executive decision she needed new shoes regardless of payment status.
Then he gives Laura a new saddle – a lightweight one, for racing. He’s a real sweetie-pie in this one.
Dorfler points to Nellie’s new horse and says while he’s a magnificent animal, he’s not going to win a race by hanging around the stable doing nothing. He says if Laura trains Bunny every day, they’re more than likely to win.
This is more helpful advice than “just try.” Sorry, Chuck.
Laura says she doesn’t know how to thank him.
OLIVE: He should ask for her hand in marriage.
Mary gapes in astonishment.
That night in the loft, Mary notices Laura has fallen asleep doing her homework.
OLIVE: Mary looks good in this episode.
The next day, Ma ambushes Laura in the common room and says Miss Beadle reports her homework isn’t up to snuff lately. I wonder if the Bead’ll give her more leeway than Mary got, or just leap straight to “let’s hold her back a grade” after two days or whatever.
Ma asks to see her homework, and she opens it to find Mary finished it for her.
Pa harshly says Laura should be punished for this, which is odd because clearly she’s as surprised about it as they are.
Mary explains this to them and they soften. I don’t get it, why don’t they punish her?
Meanwhile at the Mercantile, Doc is purchasing some kind of little 41-cent goodie bag.
Nels tells Doc Nellie’s been riding the new horse, and looks so good, everyone but Laura has quit the race. I’m sorry, that’s just ridiculous. Everybody in town knows things never turn out Nellie’s way. Also, how is it she can control the animal in the first place when her mother couldn’t?
Doc literally bets on Laura instead, wagering a silver dollar.
He says Laura is “ten pounds lighter than Nellie” – again, not the most professional factoid to reveal about a patient, but I guess it is Nellie’s dad he’s talking to.
Besides, he says, Laura practices more.
Then we see Mrs. Oleson has been spying on this conversation. Commercial.
And we’re back at the Olesons’ table again, with Harriet bringing out a (homemade?) pie.
Interestingly, Alison Arngrim writes in (the marvelous) Confessions of a Prairie Bitch that all of the food in the Olesons’ dinner scenes was real, and quite scrumptious, apparently.
Taking Doc Baker’s ten-pound comment to heart, Mrs. O shocks everyone by saying that, since Nellie loves stuffing her face with pie and hates riding, Willie will now be jockeying Sparks in the race. This is of course insane, but whatever.
She also suggests Willie is fifteen pounds lighter than Laura.
WILL: That means he’s twenty-five pounds lighter than Nellie. Can that be possible?
OLIVE: Maybe. He’s a little peanut.
AMELIA: Half this episode is fat-shaming twelve-year-olds.
Willie is distressed to learn he can’t eat pie or candy until after the race.
Disgusted by his wife’s scheming, Nels excuses himself.
Meanwhile at the Little House, Pa is complimenting Ma’s cooking. I expect the food at the Ingalls table was real too. Lucky them.
Laura tells Caroline she’s cutting weight for the race – an idea Ma pooh-poohs.
At the playground the next day, Laura learns Willie will be racing instead of Nellie.
Then we cut to Laura, Pa and Bunny down by the creek, Pa making some of his schmoopy comments.
He says it’s important to remember that Bunny loves her.
OLIVE [as PA]: “She’ll be dead in two episodes, but oh well.”
Anyways, nothing of importance happens in any of these scenes.
The day of the race, Laura is riding Bunny in the field when Doc Baker comes through in his phaeton. He says it’s the birthday of his mother, who lives in Sleepy Eye, so he’s going to miss the big event.
WILL: Doc doesn’t seem like a local to me. I always thought he came to Minnesota to find a medical practice.
OLIVE: Oh, I assumed he was local. He has that genuine “Walnut Grove loser” quality.
When Laura gets back to town, Nels is frantically looking for Doc. He tells Laura Willie is ill, so she and Bunny charge out into the wilderness to catch up with the phaeton.
In Willie’s bedroom, Doc deduces the cause of his stomachache is the six candied apples he surreptitiously ate.
The plot hinges on these developments, but it’s actually pretty improbable. First, I can’t see how even the Olesons would view Willie’s stomachache as a medical emergency. Also, it’s quite the coincidence that Laura happens to be the only available messenger present. But, TV.
Anyways, Mrs. Oleson screams that Willie will be whipped for this later. Doc says to give him castor oil and “let nature take its course” (a phrase attributed without much evidence to thinkers as diverse as Lao Tzu and Geoffrey Chaucer, but probably around by this period).
Nels quite gleefully agrees.
Nels goes out on the porch to tell Mr. Hanson (I was getting worried about him, weren’t you?) Willie won’t be competing in the race. Mustache Man is there too.
Laura says why don’t they just reschedule the race, since Bunny is tired out from running to catch Doc anyways.
Mrs. Oleson overhears this, and, realizing Bunny being “tuckered” is an opportunity, declares Nellie will ride in the race after all.
Laura says Bunny simply can’t race in her current condition, and Mrs. O interprets that as a forfeiture.
After another commercial, Pa finds Laura weeping to sorrowful music in the stable.
They look outside and see Nellie riding Sparks around town.
Or rather, they see somebody riding Sparks around town.
Bunny neighs angrily, and Dorfler, who’s also been watching, says this proves she’s a true competitor who can win races even when she’s exhausted.
Laura and Pa consider this expert advice and jump back into the game.
OLIVE: What’s with the flag?
WILL: The Tour de France is later the same day.
At the starting line, the Grovesters and some out of town people grumble when Mrs. Oleson tells them the race is off.
But Dorfler comes running up yelling it’s back on.
Nellie tries to look cool but is obviously nervous.
Mr. Hanson, who loves emceeing events, announces the race is about to begin. He notes that this is the “third annual” race – at first I wondered if he was counting the Founder’s Day races, but of course those would just be for Walnut Grovesters, whereas this race is Hero Township-wide.
WILL: I’m not sure it makes any sense the only two contestants are little girls.
OLIVE: No, it doesn’t.
From the crowd, Mustache Man heckles Mr. Hanson for his long-windedness. He’s really come to the fore in this one.
The race starts.
Hilariously, we see Willie cheering for Nellie from the Mercantile yard, but he has to stop to rush into the privy. (Because he has diarrhea, in case you need that spelled out.)
The horses run to music obviously imitating the “Dance of the Hours” by Amilcare Ponchielli, famously used in the ballet-dancing-hippos scene in Fantasia, but actually from the opera La Gioconda.
There’s a random family we’ve never seen along the course.
WILL: Who the hell are they?
OLIVE: And why are they cheering for Nellie?
It’s a close (and well-filmed) race.
OLIVE: These camera angles are great. They must have strapped the camera to the belly of the horse?
But in the end, of course Laura finishes slightly ahead.
OLIVE: Bunny should drop dead now.
WILL: Yeah, like John Henry.
Having missed the finish, Willie comes running out of the privy doing a hilarious hand-wiggling run.
Strangely, Mrs. Oleson sends Nellie to her room as soon as she gets off the horse, despite her having shown up quite well in the event.
Then Harriet tries to slink away, but Nels grabs her and makes her give out the cup.
She does so, fairly civilly.
Laura hugs Mr. Dorfler.
OLIVE: Aw. He deserves that hug.
Later, Laura brings the cup to the Mercantile and returns it to Mrs. Oleson, saying since it’s a family heirloom it should stay with them.
OLIVE: What would they have used that bowl for anyway?
WILL: Popcorn, of course.
Nels proposes Laura be allowed to take three new pairs of shoes as an exchange.
WILL: He could be a professional mediator. He and Charles should open a consulting business. One Stop Social Services.
That’s it, the end, Bum-Bum-Bah-Dum. It’s worth noting that both Carl and Mustache Man appear in the end credits this time, with Mustache Man’s name given as “Jack.” That would make him Jack Sullivan, I guess!
STYLE WATCH: Harriet wears a heavy-ish black cape and a hilarious hat in Sleepy Eye.
Willie wears a rather handsome dressing gown to watch the race.
Carrie wears a cute outfit to the event.
And Charles appears to go commando again.
THE VERDICT: This one is lighthearted fun, despite a surprisingly complicated plot and a fair amount of padding. James Jeter gets his moment to shine as Dorfler.
UP NEXT: Little Girl Lost