Monday, April 15, 2013

Waltons 7.1: “The Empty Nest, Parts 1 and 2”

Airdate: 9/21/78

It’s been six months since the death of Zeb “Grandpa” Walton, and the family, particularly John, finds it difficult to continue on. When a lumber contractor for the military, Matthew Sarver, offers John a lucrative but huge order for wood to be used for barracks, John reluctantly declines – his mill is just too small. Dogged by regret and feelings of insignificance, he brainstorms an idea to subcontract out the order to rival mills. Feeling reenergized and confident, he treks to Richmond to seal the deal with Sarver, but a disbelieving Sarver is giving him the runaround. Not to be thwarted, John insists on a meeting, and as the two men and their wives have dinner together, a deal is struck: John has the contract – and a vice-presidency position at Sarver’s company if he wants it, meaning he will have to pack up and move the family to Richmond.

Speaking of moving, Erin and Mary Ellen decide to share an apartment in Charlottesville when Erin takes a good job as a secretary there. When Erin’s boss turns out to be a “wolf,” they move back home. Ben, with so much on his mind, struggles to complete an order his father left him in charge of, and feels unworthy of using Zeb’s tools. Jim-Bob fixes up an old jukebox for the living room (but is told to return it by Olivia), and Grandma has mixed feelings about celebrating Zeb’s forthcoming birthday on the mountain. She ultimately changes her mind and honors, with the entire clan, the love and legacy of her deceased husband, and John realizes he could never move away from the home that he has made for himself, and his family.

Emotional but low-key season opener is a fitting testament to the loss of Grandpa Walton, and to his portrayer, Will Geer. Closing scene on the mountain starts with an elegiac flashback of Zeb and Esther reminiscing about the early days of their marriage, then employs a magnificent use of apostrophe when each member of the family speaks to Zeb’s grave, delivering their own, individual messages of love and loss, and finally of the comfort that his wisdom will live on in each and every one of them. There’s hardly any suspense in whether or not John will take that job in Richmond, but that in no way mitigates our joy at the end that nothing, not even an end to poverty, will break this family up!

Structurally and thematically, John’s frustration with indebtedness and pipe dreams of prosperity are familiar territory  - lent fresh currency here as John seems a bit more open to change, and upward mobility, with Zeb’s passing. Ironically, it’s the spirit of Zeb himself that beckons him to stay put. Those roots will give you life but keep you grounded. (You could almost hear Geer whispering those intonations himself!)

As of this episode, John’s mill business is now a co-op, expanded to include others in the area. The scene in which Ike drowns his sorrows over a pitcher of beer at the new Dew Drop Inn piano is a classic example of primo Waltons kitsch.

Worth waiting for: The Walton kids FINALLY get their names in the opening credits!

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