“The spirit of the wild west certainly has infected our town.”
Episode Summary: A traveling Wild West themed show has come to Avonlea, starring Marshall Zak Morgan (Treat Williams). Feeling alienated from her friends and family, Sara turns her interest to Zak. In order to impress him, she decides to participate in a barrel race. It turns out, Sara’s a pretty skilled horse rider; and she’s considered for a spot in the touring show. Although Sara tells Zak she wants to leave with him, he realizes that she’s too young to run away from home, and leaves town without her. When Sara discovers that Zak has left, heartbroken, she goes back home to Hetty, soon realizing that home, really, is where the heart is.
Directed by Stephen Surjik, Written by Charles Lazer, Music by Don Gillis
My Grade: This is one of those episodes that I always look forward to every time I decide to watch the series again. This is one of my favorite episodes of the entire series. On a technical level, this episode is tops. The cinematography, the editing, the sound, the music, the costumes and hair – all perfect and well done. This show is known for its technical and creative merits, and this episode certainly highlights that. However, what I love most about this episode is that it truly represents my favorite aspect of this show: that is Hetty and Sara’s relationship. I’ve talked about their relationship in length before when I reviewed the season 2 episode “A Mother’s Love.” While that episode really focused on their relationship, with “Moving On,” you don’t realize what the main point of this episode is until the very last scene when Sara and Hetty hug. In the beginning, this episode seems like fun filler – an episode about a girl who foolishly falls in love with a man three times her age. But then, further down (particularly the last 10 minutes), this episode becomes more about Sara’s dissatisfaction with her town and her situation. Hetty, who with her own writing, has her own interests and doesn’t really have the time to coddle Sara like she used to in the early seasons. Fourteen year old Sara somehow interprets this as a sign that she’s ready to leave home and become independent. It takes a little heartbreak for her to learn that Avonlea is where she needs to stay for a little while longer. This episode ends with a surprising emotional punch.
This episode isn’t popular among fans. It’s not necessarily hated. I think many fans are weirded out/confused by Sara and Marshall’s relationship. They appreciate that very last scene with Hetty and Sara. The only way I can defend this episode is by saying that it’s not about Sara and the Marshall. I mean, it is…but the show never tolerates a romantic relationship between the two. Sara has a silly girlhood crush. It’s not unlike little girls having a crushes on Justin Timberlake and Brad Pitt (maybe I’m showing my age with those two examples). It’s not a relationship anyone else takes seriously, except maybe Felicity, whom I don’t think is the most reliable person to get relationship advice from. Zak and his business partner Simon (August Schellenberg) see Sara as more of an opportunity. Zak never sees Sara as a sexual being, and when he realizes that she has a crush on him, he pretty much tries to lightly push her away. This episode isn’t a romance. It’s a coming of age story. It’s the first time Sara has really developed as a character in a long while. Hetty also changes in this episode. Think of how Hetty would have reacted to Sara leaving home in season one and two. This time around, Hetty realizes that Sara’s not a little child. She can’t punish her every time she makes a mistake. I don’t see how anyone can appreciate the last scene in this episode without appreciating everything that comes before it. In any case, it’s OK if no one else likes this episode. It just makes it more precious to me. (A+)
Spotlight Performance: So, I recently discovered that Sarah Polley received a Gemini nomination for her performance in this episode specifically. That makes me really happy because not only is this her best episode of the season, but it’s probably her best performance of the series. Polley was always an extraordinary child actress, ever since the very first episode. But, like all the young performers on this series, she really became better as the show went on. And season four is pretty much peak-Sarah Polley. She has a few more really great performances this season. But this episode in particular is special. There’s just a nice soft, dreamy quality to her performance that seems “fantasy-like,” yet grounded at the same time – Particularly the scene where Sara desperately tries to convince the Marshall into letting her travel with his troupe. In my opinion, she doesn’t overact. Polley practices constraint throughout the episode. Yes, she’s not crying about her dead mother, but I’m still glad this episode was specifically chosen for Polley. She didn’t win the Gemini that year. She was beaten by the always great Jackie Burroughs. Polley has won a lot of awards over the years, including two Geminis…but she’s never won for her performance on Avonlea specifically. She’s usually overshadowed by the older veteran actress. With all due respect to Burroughs, season four would have been the perfect opportunity to award Polley.
Something I really love about this episode is that it’s strangely meta. I really don’t know what Sarah Polley’s mindset was while she was shooting this episode. What I do know is that in the next season, she only appears in four episodes (most likely having to do with her scoliosis). And then in the two seasons after, she only appeared in two episodes. I think it’s safe to say that by season four, Polley was, at least, itching to leave the show. I think Sara’s disconnection with this safe little town sort of mirrors Polley’s disconnection with this show. And I feel like I can see traces of her real life ambivalence in her performance, which only makes it better. Sara used to be the center of most of the episodes. But I feel like “Moving On” (the fifth episode) is the first episode of the season where Sara actually has significant screen time and a central story. And it’s partly about how the people most important in Sara’s life are concerned with matters that don’t directly involve her. This episode proves that Sara, like Polley in real life, is destined to move on to bigger and “better” things. Maybe not right now. Sara isn’t ready to leave yet…but both she and Hetty know that that moment will come soon. *Cue the heartwarming hug.
Favorite Scene: This is also the first episode of the season to be scored by Don Gillis. He scored a few episodes from season three. But “Moving On” is the first time Gillis really makes a significant mark away from John Welsman. When I first watched this series, I wasn’t particularly concerned with who scored what episode. However, once I reached this episode, I thought “this Wild West theme is really different from everything else before.” And it is. Don Gillis was nominated for a Gemini for his score in this episode. And the one scene that highlights his score best is the barrel race towards the end of the episode. I’m a sucker for a good horse race, no matter how pithy. But I just love that scene. Seeing Sara, in her now signature side ponytail, beat the other guys. The town cheering the participants on. Gus chewing on popcorn while making a sexist comment. It’s perfect. I think it goes without saying that there’s a great sense of “town” in this episode. And it’s ironic that despite the cheers Sara receives for winning that race, she’s still convinced that her roots in Avonlea aren’t long enough. I love the score, and, because it’s Gillis, you can find it on the “official” Road to Avonlea soundtrack. Also, shout out to Amanda Hughes, who played Sara’s riding double. Because “Amanda Hughes” is such a common name, it’s hard to find any information on her…but you can pretty much see her face on the DVD version.
Final Thoughts: Treat Williams, despite being undoubtedly “Disney-approved,” does a great job in this episode. I personally know him from the WB drama Everwood, where he was nominated for a couple SAG awards. August Schellenberg guest stars as the Marshall’s companion. Canadian born, he has won both Genie and Gemini awards. He was known for his role in Free Willy. He also appeared in The New World and was Emmy nominated for Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. He passed away in 2013.