Sunday, July 29, 2012

Waltons 6.2: “The Stray”

Airdate: 9/22/77

Mysterious footprints, missing food and spots of blood all lead to one thing: a runaway African-American boy with no record or family to speak of. John can’t figure out what to do with him, but the boy, Josh, immediately takes a liking to him and says he’s the most content he’s ever been with the Waltons. Alas, this is the 30s after all, and John rues to Olivia that adoption is out of the question – the only alternative seems to be Verdie Wilson, who, after attempting to find a special placement agency for black children, winds up adopting the boy herself. As all this goes down, Jim Bob seems to be forgetting everything; to say his head isn’t screwed on tight would be an understatement. Realizing what a space cadet he has become, he queries whether John has ever felt this way as a teenager. John says yes, Jim Bob gets it together, and all is right with the world.

Boy, is THIS a weird one. I’m not sure where to begin but I’ll start with the continuing odd visual style that began last episode. Low angle shots, more close ups, and seemingly looped dialogue put off a strange vibe that seems to suggest a different director, even though it’s the same technical crew as last year.

What on earth is the deal with the Jim Bob subplot? Maybe it’s me, and it very well may be me, but it looks like this is some kind of veiled commentary on teen drug abuse. No, I mean it – Jim Bob is stoned in this episode! Clearly a taboo topic for The Waltons, which is why my theory has merit. Watch this episode and tell me I’m wrong.

The phenomenal success of the miniseries Roots earlier in the year no doubt inspired this story of a black child and the racist climate that would not allow John to be his legal father. It actually contains some heartfelt moments that got me a bit depressed – the 70s had such optimism for the future of race relations, but how far have we really come, or even regressed? Most prescient line is spoken by John about the day a white man could adopt a black child: “Maybe in 100 years, maybe in 10 years, but not here, not now.” Actually it would only be one year – Todd Bridges, who played John, would get adopted by Mr. Drummond when he starred in Diff’rent Strokes in 1978.

I can’t neglect to mention another awkward ending. When Verdie takes Josh in, after John walks away, she tells him, “The Waltons are kind people, but they don’t know much about us folks.” Difficult to discern whether this is an attack on self-segregation, or an authentic, albeit politically incorrect, hat-tip to a divided America. Either way, it doesn’t leave you with the sunny feeling that I’m sure was intended.

Now I got it. The cold opening is just that – not a teaser but an actual scene leading into the story. The week’s has Elizabeth (in her only scene) inspecting footprints with a magnifying glass. That’s another thing: we no longer have pure ensemble shows with everyone making at least one appearance. Now with Mary Ellen married and John Boy and Grandma gone, we have entire episodes focused on one or a few characters only.

Technical point: with no John Boy, how is the present day narrator, who is John Boy, remembering things he wasn’t there for?

John still sports the same bad haircut. All for now.

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