Episode Title: Will the Circle Be Unbroken?
Season 01, Episode 05
Episode 005 of 344
Written by David Jacobs
Directed by David Moessinger
Original Airdate: Friday, January 25th, 1980
The Plot (Courtesy of TV.Com): Lillimae Clements, Val's mother, turns up in Knots Landing to visit her daughter. Valene confronts her over being abandoned as a child as Lillimae cared more about pursuing her music career than Val. As ghosts from the past come back to haunt the mother and daughter, they begin to put the past to rest
And now we’ve come to a KL episode that I was honestly not all that excited to revisit. For whatever reason, I had a pretty clear memory of not particularly enjoying this episode, yet recognizing that it was an important one for the series and for the further character development of Val through the introduction of her mother, Lilimae Clements, played perfectly by Julie Harris. Upon revisiting the episode with my notepad and a few years between viewings, I actually enjoyed it a lot more than before, although in all honesty, it is probably going to rank last of the five episodes discussed thus far (with, obviously, the sheer work of television genius that is Let Me Count the Ways being the best episode so far). Let’s dive right in.
Julie Harris will wind up being with KL for (according to IMDb) 165 episodes, but this is actually the only appearance she makes in the first season, or even in the first two seasons. She shows up for this episode, then she goes away, and then she rejoins the show as a guest star in season three before being a main cast member from seasons four through nine, leaving right near the start of season nine in 1987. With her first appearance here, I may have to slightly retract some earlier comments I made about the acting on this series. I believe I said that Michele Lee is the best actress ever on the show, but actually, that honor probably goes to Julie Harris, who already had years of experience in television, film, and, most significantly, theater before she came to KL. Now this is a classy lady and a fantastic actress who really elevates all the material given to her throughout the series, not to mention elevating the performances of all the actors around her.
But I’m getting way ahead of myself. Yes, Lilimae will be with the show for quite awhile, but for right now, this is the only time we will be seeing her until the season three episode Moving In, which aired December 3rd, 1981. So, at this point, she is really just a one episode guest star who shows up and then leaves town, and I don’t know that anyone watching originally would have predicted she would become such an important character.
We start out Will the Circle Be Unbroken? with Lilimae creeping around outside of Gary and Val’s house, peering in windows and such, a cabbie standing by on the street corner and waiting for her. I do wanna take a moment to mention this cabbie, because I thought this guest actor kinda elevated his small role up and made it really special. I did a quick little bit of research and I found that this guest actor’s name is Herb Vigran and, well, it appears that he is one of those character actors who just appear in absolutely everything, and every time you see him, you go, “Oh look, it’s that guy who’s name I don’t know.” Looks like he was in Airplane!, playing Reporter #2 (I honestly cannot recall who he is in that film, however). Oooh, and lookie here, he appeared in not one but two episodes of The Brady Bunch, playing two different characters in the episodes, how exciting! And hey, look at this, it does appear that Mr. Herb Vigran is also a TRANSMORPHER, as he appeared in a Dallas episode! He appeared in Season 5, Episode 19 of Dallas in the episode called Adoption, playing “Judge.” Well, it’s been awhile since I watched that particular episode (most of Dallas does sorta become a big blur in my mind, honestly), but I’m sure he was most excellent in it. Here, he doesn’t have a lot of lines, he doesn’t have a lot to do, but somehow he really struck me as memorable and, in his small role, he really made the most of it. So ladies and gentlemen, let’s take a moment to appreciate Mr. Herb Vigran.
Anyway, as we first meet Lilimae, we obviously have no idea who she is. At this juncture in the series, I don’t even know that Val has mentioned her mother, so we the audience are wondering who is this woman and why is she hanging around? Fortunately Karen approaches her to see what’s going on and is very excited to learn that she is Val’s mother come to pay her a visit. I do think there is a certain sense immediately that maybe Lilimae is up to something, not to say that she is conniving, exactly, but that she is not visiting Gary and Val purely out of the kindness of her heart or the desire to see them after a long time apart. This is absolutely reinforced when she is reunited with Val, who is, shall we say, much less than thrilled to have her mother back in her life.
Before Val sees her mother, however, Lilimae entertains everyone at the Fairgate house with a rousing rendition of Shady Grove. As we will come to see over the next eight years or so, this is pretty much the only song Lilimae sings (although she does enjoy a duet of Will the Circle Be Unbroken? with Ciji in season four), and she sings it a lot. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think there’s a future episode where she plants a recording of the song in Kenny and Ginger’s record player….or something. I guess we’ll find out when we get to that in, oh, a couple of years. Now, just to show my complete and total ignorance about, well, everything, I had to do some online work to see if this was actually a real song or one made up for the show, either by Julie Harris or by the musical genius Jerrold Immel. Well, I read that it’s a song from the 18th century and has been recorded by, oh, everybody, so I guess it was already an old, established song by the time this episode rolled around.
What’s interesting is that I could not, for the life of me, figure out whether the Fairgate family actually enjoys listening to Lilimae sing Shady Grove or if they were just being polite. Thinking back on it, I have decided that they do enjoy listening to her. Everyone gathers at the stairs, Michael, Eric, Diana, everybody, to listen to Lilimae, and Michael gets this really cute and really cheesy SUPER HAPPY expression listening to her sing, and basically the whole family acts like the Bradys acted when Greg composed his own musical masterpiece (“Clowns never laughed before…” and so on). Also interesting about this scene is that Lilimae is so clearly out of touch with her daughter’s life. For instance, she asks where Lucy is, obviously assuming that Lucy lives with Gary and Val, and Karen has to tell her that Lucy lives in Dallas as a part of the cast of a different, not-as-good series. Oh yeah, and we also learn that Sid’s full name is William Sidney Fairgate, something I completely forgot!
Okay, things really start to heat up in this episode when Val is reunited with Lilimae. Let’s just say that Joan Van Ark, well, let’s just say that she sure does pour her heart into this performance. The little thirty-second preview before the episode shows Val’s face contorting like Jim Carrey on coke, turning all grotesque and red as she screams, “MAAAAAAAAAAAAMMMMMAAAAAAA!”, really drawing that word out longer than I thought anyone ever could. God bless Joan Van Ark, and please, dear readers, please do understand that everything I say about her I say with love. But anyway, Joan is hardly the best actress on the series, and she’s really going over-the-top here, but it’s all part of the fun.
In fact, this might be the perfect episode to discuss the camp merits of KL. Perhaps you’ve been reading my previous write-ups and thinking, “Boy, this guy really loves KL,” and of course I do, but camp is a tremendous part of my enjoyment of the series. While I love all aspects of the series and think it very often elevated itself to high art, I also love the camp, and this is one of the first examples of that. Okay, I think we can all understand that Val has a troubled relationship with her mother, right? So that part of the episode is very much grounded in reality, in regular human drama that we see every day, but Joan Van Ark’s wildly contorting face and crazed performance are campier than a night out at Camp Crystal Lake, and, again, I say that with love. In a few seasons, I will discuss my beloved Kevin Dobson and his ability to alternately be an AWESOME actor and a master of campy overacting, sometimes all within the same sequence.
At first, Val is just quiet towards her mother. Lilimae is sitting around, telling stories, being friendly and charming, and Val is just sorta glaring in the corner. But then she goes upstairs to make up a bed in the guest room for her mom, and Gary comes in to talk to her. He’s all like, “I guess you really don’t care for your mom, huh?” and Val says, get this, “Let’s not mince words, Gary, I HATE her.” I was kinda like “Damn,” when I heard that line. “Hate” is a very strong word, but Val just throws it right out there, almost casually. Considering how close her and Lilimae become through the course of the series, it’s interesting to see that we start out with Val declaring her HATRED for her mother.
Okay, it’s time to talk about my absolute FAVORITE part of this episode, and that is the recurring motif of the creepy dreams and flashbacks. Oh boy, everybody in Seaview Circle is suffering from these scary-ass visions and flashbacks this week! While Val gets the brunt of it, having about, oh, seventeen creepy flashbacks throughout the course of the episode, we also have some for Karen and my two FAVORITE characters, Kenny and Ginger. Val’s creepy flashbacks come accompanied with this truly terrifying piece of music that’s almost electronic in nature. Let me see if I can sorta set the tone for these truly bizarre and rather terrifying bits of footage. Generally, you will start with Val, like, peering out of a window, looking very introspective, and then suddenly the camera will start to do a slow pan in on her face, followed by a sorta half-dissolve and then whatever frightening vision she is having.
In the case of this episode, Val’s visions mostly exist to show us why she has a tumultuous relationship with her mother, and they also adhere rather loyally to what had already been established on Dallas. If you’ll flash back to the parent series for a minute, you’ll remember that we were told by Lucy (in the very first episode, no less) that her parents were together when she was born, then her daddy ran off on them, and then J.R. threw her mama off Southfork and sent his Good Old Boys to steal baby Lucy back. Well, now we actually get to see it here, which I think is interesting. At any other time in television history, has a past history like this been established on one series and then actually physically seen on a spinoff? I’m not sure, but I like it and it reminds me of how closely linked the two series are in these early three or four seasons, where you really could just hop back and forth from the two series every week and there is a sense of an overarching continuity.
But not only do we see something that had been previously established; we also expand upon it. Here, we see Val clutching baby Lucy tightly, running through the woods from the Good Old Boys, eventually stopping at Lilimae’s house and asking her to protect the baby for her. Well, Lilimae will have none of it; she doesn’t even stop to listen to her daughter’s pleas, because there’s a “big record producer” (remember this is according to Lilimae, so take it all with a generous helping of salt) in the house and she can’t have him know that she’s a grandmother, now can she? Therefore, Val is left alone, desperately running through the woods until the Good Old Boys, well, push her down and grab the baby (gee, that was simple).
In addition, we have a quick little mother-related flashback for Karen, although I don’t think we see any footage; it’s all dialogue. Mostly it’s dialogue between her and her mother (who I think we never actually see on the series, but I shall keep my eyes open over the next 339 episodes) regarding Karen’s marriage to Sid. We can tell that her mother does not approve of this man and does not want her daughter to marry him. Now this I like very much, because I would say at this point in the series that Karen and Sid are the rocks; they are the most stable couple on the show (despite Karen’s near affair a few episodes ago, but we’ll let that slide), so it’s intriguing to note that mommie dearest was against this union from the start.
But do you wanna know who I really don’t care about? If you guessed Kenny and Ginger, you guessed correctly. For whatever reason, we have Kenny asleep and Ginger, like, flailing around and having some sort of nightmare, maybe something relating to the abortion we find out she had a few episodes later, but whatever. She awakens from her dream and shakes Kenny and says, “I wanna have a baby.” And then the scene ends. Huh? If I recall correctly, Kenny and Ginger do in fact have a baby in the third season (and they give it some ridiculous double name that’s completely stupid...um...is it Erin Molly?), but were the writers really looking that far ahead? If I recall correctly, it’s gonna be awhile before Ginger gets pregnant, so what’s this about? How does one creepy flashback then lead to her telling Kenny (who is ASLEEP and probably can’t even register what she is saying to him) that she wants a baby? In any case, it’s not important because they’re not important, so let’s move on.
I do have a quick little gripe that relates to this episode and the one immediately preceding it, The Lie. Laura and Val are sitting around, and Val asks Laura if she gets along with her mother, to which Laura says, “No, she died when I was twelve.” Oh, well that’s all well and good, except that she JUST TOLD Val that one episode prior. Val says, “I’m sorry,” and I had to wonder if she was saying it like, “Oh yeah, you just told me that and I forgot; sorry about that,” or if she is saying, “Sorry she died.” I’m going with the latter option based on the tone of the exchange, but that doesn’t make a whole hell of a lot of sense, does it? Were these eps filmed in a different order? Should this have been aired before The Lie? Because all of this was well established in Laura’s fantastic speech on the stairs last week, so it doesn’t make sense that Val has already forgotten about the death of Laura’s mother. Oh well.
Val and Lilimae do begin to mend some fences in the kitchen. As we will come to see when Lilimae moves in from seasons three through nine (well, some of nine), she is a hell of a cook and generally her cooking is so good that Val never stops to ask why her mother never pays rent. So it is fitting that one of their first moments of bonding is here, in Val’s kitchen. See, Val has made corn fritters (which, by the way, I didn’t even know what these were and I had to ask My Beloved Grammy, who I’m watching the series with, what they are) and apparently they are totally delicious and everybody loves them. There’s even a fantastic dissolve where we zoom in on Val mixing a batter and then we dissolve to the fritters all completed and ready for consumption, with Val and Laura enjoying them together. However, when Val states her intent to serve them at the party that night, Lilimae won’t have it. She’s all like, “These are not your Southern country folk; these are sophisticated folk!” So together they pull out a cook book and make, well, something. It appears to be some sort of a chocolate, um, custard, um, whipped cream, um, thing. I really appreciate the fact that we are never told exactly what this dish is; all we see is people’s horrified reaction to it. Everyone tries to act nice about it, but is secretly throwing it in the garbage or flushing it down the toilet or whatever. It’s a nice little comedic moment where everyone takes a taste and you can just see in their face that they are about to throw up.
Aside from the bad dessert, pretty much everything is going okay until Lilimae starts to sing and talk about her past and all her experiences, making a big awkward speech about how Val never really understood or appreciated what she did for her, and of course this is the big moment where Val has finally had enough. We all saw that thirty-second preview before the show and we’ve all been waiting for it, and Joan Van Ark doesn’t disappoint. The face turns red, the mouth opens up super wide, and she starts to scream and scream about how Lilimae ruined her life by not helping her when she needed help with baby Lucy. “I lost her because of you and I hate you I HATE YOUUUUUUUU!” she screams, followed by that incredible and hilarious, “MAAAAAAAAAMMMMMAAAAAA!” Oh joy, what a scene this is. We the audience feel the uncomfortable-ness just dripping from the walls as everyone is forced to watch this domestic disaster, this unleashing of fury from a woman who has held in resentment at her mother for, well, at least twenty years, but probably more. J.V.A. is glorious in her over-the-top facial contortions and Julie Harris balances her out perfectly by being, you know, a legitimately great actress, and together the two create magic.
How does the episode wrap up? The funny thing is it’s kinda a blur for me. The creepy flashbacks are vivid; I feel I will never get them out of my brain, but the last five or ten minutes of the show….not so much. Basically Lilimae and Val make up in a rather, well, creepy scene. See, Lilimae is packing up her bags, singing a little song, and then Val comes into the room and, um, puts her head in her lap. I guess this is supposed to be moving, like even after all the anger and the fights, Val returns to the comfort of her mother’s lap, but the fact that it’s a 40-something actress (or does she claim she was still in her ‘30s during the early seasons?) cuddling up to her mom is just, I dunno. Let’s just say I wasn’t too moved by the scene, and as you know, I’m not a cynic when it comes to KL, there are a plethora of episodes in our future that make me cry; this is just not one of them.
Anyway, Lilimae does leave town, but she leaves town having made peace with Val, and then Val returns to the bedroom where Lilimae was staying and, just because the lap-scene wasn’t creepy enough, she picks up a scary doll and starts singing to it and then the episode freeze-frames on this image and, well, that’s it.
Okay, so that’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken? In my memory, this was one of the duller episodes of season one, but I actually sorta enjoyed it this time around, though not as much as the four previous. I think it should be noted that David Jacobs wrote this episode himself, and he is proving himself to be the master of planting seeds that will grow into fantastic and beautiful flowers in the years to come. Here, he plants seeds that are very important to the character of Val and her relationship with Lilimae. Now, if Lilimae never came back to the series again, or if she was only a guest actor who appeared in five or six episodes total, this episode would probably be far less interesting. But watching it with the knowledge that she will be an integral character for years on the series really helps to make it more interesting, as we see a lot of the qualities that will make her a delightful character in the future, such as her love of singing and of cooking and her generally warm demeanor (although I don't think we get an “Ooooooooh” in this episode and that’s a damn shame!). Really, this episode is at its best whenever Val and Lilimae are one-on-one, and the other characters are secondary, most notably the atrocious Kenny and Ginger. Also, I dunno, but there’s just something fundamentally less interesting about this episode than the previous four, particularly Let Me Count the Ways and The Lie; they just jumped out of the screen and grabbed my attention and I was enthralled. This one is a little more regular, a little less exciting, but it’s still good, you know? Overall, there’s definitely plenty to recommend in Will the Circle Be Unbroken?, even if it is maybe not an all-time classic like many other KL episodes will be.