Undertaking a Rewatch: The Best Northern Exposure Episodes About Death

Written By E. Catherine Tobler

E. Catherine Tobler’s short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, F&SF, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Apex Magazine, and others. Her novella, The Necessity of Stars was a finalist for the Nebula, Utopia, and Sturgeon Awards. She currently edits The Deadlands.

Finally—finally—the 1990s hit Northern Exposure (1990-1995) is available to stream. After years of multiple DVD releases, the entire six season run is on Prime (yes, with original music!).

Of course that means I’m undertaking (!) a rewatch. It has been a joy to watch New York City doctor Joel Fleischman try to fit in with the Cicely, Alaska locals, but what’s jumping out at me is how ahead of the times Northern Exposure often was, and how often the show puts death front and center. Maggie dreams that Joel will die in a plane crash; Ed fixates on death as the Coho winds sweep through the town; Chris accidentally runs over a dog; a dead Frenchman is found in the ice; Joel thinks his cabin is haunted by its former resident who committed suicide. I could go on!

Let’s take a look at some of the best deathly episodes from Northern Exposure.

S2E3 All is Vanity

Joel is settling in to Cicely pretty well, but isn’t expecting to be appointed “coroner” by Maurice after a man dies in Joel’s waiting room. Complicating matters is the fact that no one in Cicely recognizes the dead man—Marilyn only knows he was “number nine” in line. Who is he, where did he come from, how did he end up dying in Joel’s waiting room? The episode gently shows us that we are more than our names, and the contents of our pockets—and the right people will know this, and claim us as theirs. The town refuses to let Number Nine go when the ME in Juneau offers to autopsy the body; “it’s like a still pond, we see our reflection,” Chris says. “His experience is our experience; his fate is our fate. We all face death alone. It’s that solitude in death that’s our common bond in life.”

S2E7 Slow Dance

Maggie O’Connell has a bad history with death when it comes to her boyfriends. They usually wind up dead, see. Rick is the fifth and most recent fatality, struck by the Comsat 4 satellite falling back to Earth. Ed thinks Rick is lucky—who goes out like that?—but Maurice and Joel are aghast; man and space debris have melded into one awful mess. Rick’s funeral is a blend of comedy and tragedy; satellite bits stick out of the casket. Maggie begs people to stop laughing, and storms out when they can’t; she thinks she’s to blame for Rick’s death. Joel later tracks her down to assure her it’s not her fault, but Maggie’s haunting will continue in season four’s “Northwest Passages” (and gets a minor resolution in S6E14).

S3E4 Animals R Us

Maggie crosses paths with a seemingly-stray dog who she begins to believe is the reincarnation of her late boyfriend Rick. The dog hangs with Maggie long enough that she asks Joel to look him over; Joel objects, saying he’s not a vet—and the dog bites him. The dog loves everyone except Joel and takes to sitting on Rick’s stool at The Brick, and just when Maggie is convinced the dog harbors Rick’s spirit, the dog’s owner turns up. Time with Butchy sure gives Maggie some time to heal though, which she still desperately needs.

S3E16 Three Amigos

Maurice and Holling get word that their old hunting friend Bob has died, and set out to bury him as he wished—at a treacherous place called No-Name Point. This has to be one of the best Northern Exposure episodes of all time. Sweeping outdoor scenes parallelled with Chris’s on-air readings of Jack London’s Call of the Wild and White Fang, make for a fitting send off for this hunter-adventurer. Maurice and Holling are in constant physical danger and emotional peril, as Bob’s widow complicates the matter of laying her late husband to rest. Maurice and Holling remember what it is to live, all while hauling a dead body across the Alaskan wilderness.

S3E20 The Final Frontier

Likewise in this stellar season three episode, Holling confronts his own mortality, being told that Jesse, the Kodiak bear who attacked him in his youth, has died; Ed found the bones on a mountaintop. Holling can’t quite believe it; Jesse has haunted Holling physically and emotionally for years. How could such a big creature be dead? Even when faced with bones that are clearly Jesse’s, Holling doesn’t believe it. He sets out to kill Jesse once and for all—so Holling himself can go on living.

S4E1 Northwest Passages

Maggie is turning 30 and decides to head to the woods, but she’s growing sick with a fever from appendicitis, and her dreams turn dark. Her former boyfriends—now all dead—return to have a barbeque, roasting hot dogs alongside Maggie. Dave died when he fell asleep on a glacier; Glen took a wrong turn in his Volvo onto a missile range; Bruce had a fishing accident; Harry died at a picnic—potato salad; and of course we remember Rick and Comsat 4. Maggie’s sick mind works things out—but her recovery from these deaths shapes her character for six years.

S4E4 Heroes

Chris gets a crate in the mail and it’s the dead body of his friend Tooley. Chris doesn’t quite know how to lay Tooley to rest, and spends most of the episode searching for an answer. What kind of send off is right for this heroic presence in Chris’s life? Cremation? Chris has no idea where to spread the ashes. Burial at sea? But which sea!? Mummification? How do you do that without the Cult of Osiris? His pondering takes him to a freshly dug grave, but once he’s spent time inside, it also doesn’t feel right. In the end, Chris uses his trebuchet and flings Tooley into the great beyond (the local lake).

S4E22 Kaddish for Uncle Manny

Joel is crushed after the death of his uncle, but more crushed that he cannot properly mourn for him, given his remote location. I’m unclear on why Joel can’t get away from his job for even a family death, but I could digress for days. The town of Cicely unites around Joel in his time of grief, assembling ten Jews from every corner of the state to say kaddish for Uncle Manny. Joel feels awkward the entire time, but it is a beautiful episode about trying to honor those we love even under largely impossible circumstances. How timely, even now.

S5E10 First Snow

Resident Nedra announces that she is going to die, which upsets Joel quite a lot; he’s her doctor and he knows she’s perfectly well, but Nedra insists. The entire town agrees with Nedra—people know things in their bones. Cicely gets ready for the big winter that is coming and this includes Holling tallying up how many graves they’ll need to dig before the ground freezes. He’s guessing ten. Joel finds it all grisly, and is heartbroken when Nedra does pass. Ruth-Anne tells him to not be—does he cry when the grass dies? To everything there is a season, so too in Cicely.