This may not be one of the episodes that gets the attention of younger children, as is the case with several other "Little House" episodes, but "Second Spring" is incredibly powerful and thought-provoking for older audiences. Even after all these years, it holds up as an episode that mirrors the extramarital temptations of today's society, while desperately trying to maintain the show's own moral compass.
The opening scene finds Nels and Harriet in one of their routine snits when Nels is unable to discipline their son without Harriet's exhausting interference. The set-up of this most recent discord in the Oleson household may take you back to Season 1's "Family Quarrel," and as Nels loses his temper and storms out, you may wonder if the writers are simply re-enacting the events of that episode from five years ago. Then Nels proceeds to suggest some time apart, and he decides to start running a mobile mecantile in a nearby town. Even at this point, it's tough for most longtime viewers to even flinch, since this type of material is nothing new for Walnut Grove's most non-cohesive married couple. However, when Nels walks into Molly's Boarding House and meets the delightful female owner, it becomes apparent that maybe we didn't know Nels Oleson as much as we thought we did.
Molly Reardon is a lovely, charming, and conveniently single Irish woman who attracts Nels from the moment they meet--to the point where he makes his first truly shocking move by telling her that he's not married. A mutual fondness develops quickly, yet Molly's beauty and younger age are obviously not the characteristics that matter most to Nels. Given the kind of life he has at home with a dictating wife and two overindulged children, why shouldn't he gravitate to a gentle, loving woman who actually makes him feel appreciated for once? We may not agree with the whole execution of Nels and Molly's relationship, but the emotional reasons are generally understandable (at least to us, who fully understand these characters as they have been written over the years). Molly introduces Nels to her own world of simplicity and joy--through Irish dancing and pleasurable conversations--and while it's uncomfortable enough to watch him kiss her on the cheek early in the episode, rest assured that their budding romance does not stop there!
I would love to reveal all the little details and emotional build-up that complicates Nels' situation even further, but it would probably be more interesting if you waited to watch it yourself. All I can say is that it is all portrayed very honestly, and since most affairs stem from marriages similar to Nels and Harriet's, it's a dilemma that many of us can at least understand, even if we have never been in that predicament. It's actually a little surprising how the writers got away with this less-than-subtle plot material, especially considering the fact that divorce and infidelity were essentially unheard of back in the day, but I guess you can't claim that nobody from that era ever experienced those feelings. The writers obviously knew what they were doing, and above all, the final product had a relatability that some other episodes of "Little House" have lacked.
Naturally, as far as the ending goes, it's important to remember what show we're actually watching here, and with that in mind, you can probably guess exactly how it is all going to turn out. The final five minutes are more of a predictable closing than a sweet and fuzzy conclusion, since it was essentially the only direction Michael Landon could take without compromising the show's original premise. Still, it's important to take the ending with a grain of salt. I wouldn't say that their reunion isn't at all heartwarming or satisfying to see--it's just that we all know that Harriet is going to be back to her old domineering self by the next episode, and the events we have just witnessed are not going to have a profound, life-changing impact on the Olesons' marriage. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, for sure, but it doesn't always necessarily teach a lesson that sticks for very long.
It might not be the most comfortable or expected episode in terms of plot, but that being said, it easily stands out above many of the others, not because of the little things that make up a neat and tidy ending, but because of the lesson it has for people today. Contemporary marriages are barely recognizable compared to those from even ten years ago, which may give you an indication of how different things were in the pioneer era that "Little House" represents. There are thousands of factors that have contributed to "50% of all marriages" divorce statistics that are in place right now. Still, I think that married people who are dealing with similar issues would benefit from watching something like this. They may only identify with bits and pieces of the story, but it has a certain reminder of the choices that people make in their lives, and the problems that can be avoided by remembering that you don't always have to act upon a temptation. I don't know if the writers had all of that in mind when they created this storyline, but they definitely achieved something with this, and nearly 30 years later, it may actually mean even more than it did when it aired for the first time in 1980.
I highly recommend this episode for anyone who wants something a little deeper and more more revealing than some other "Little House" episodes, but with the same worthwhile message that you can count on from a man like Michael Landon. It succeeds in pushing it remarkably far (but not too far) with the inner demons and human struggles of the main characters, all without completely abandoning the qualities you have always respected and appreciated about them. Multiple topics are covered here, most notably marital affairs, loyalty among family members, and specific "breaking points" that can split them apart if it reaches a dangerous enough level. The writers even provide some more subtle whispers about significant age and cultural differences in a relationship--themes that have been addressed before in the series, yet were presented a little differently here. Also, actress Suzanne Rogers delivers one of my favorite performances in the whole series as Molly Reardon, with a natural likability that makes you adore her character from beginning to end. After watching this with my mom, we both agreed how nice it would have been if poor Nels had met a girl like her in the first place! Of course, that's a whole other story... 9/10