Mayberry, the setting for The Andy Griffith Show, isn’t real, and no one ever wanted it to be. Andy Griffith wanted Mayberry to be better than the real world. A place where honesty is always rewarded, and where bad people are always punished. A place where a father can always trust that his son learns his lesson, even when it has dire consequences. Andy Griffith’s character, Sheriff Taylor, was always tough on his son, Opie (Ron Howard), but he was also perpetually loving and supportive. Andy Griffith didn’t just want to be the change he wanted to see in the world, he wanted to make sure everyone could see what that change should be.
To make sure that all of that didn’t make the show boring, however, they cast Don Knotts as Barney Fife, the ultimate example of “he’s not smart, but he means well.” Knotts could wring humor out of any scene or line. It’s not in this episode, but if you watch the clip of Barney reciting the Preamble to the US Constitution, it manages to make even that task hilarious.
In this episode, Opie gets a slingshot. Because A Christmas Story wasn’t out yet, no one could see any obvious problems coming. Barney even demonstrates how dangerous it can be by attempting to show off his “expertise” with the weapon and busting open a cabinet by accident. However, Opie doesn’t shoot his eye out, but instead kills a bird. At first, he tries to pretend that he didn’t do it, and Andy believes that the bird was killed by the neighbor’s cat. After a few minutes of Opie having the poker face of a Shakespearean drop-out and running into his room, Andy confronts his son about what he’s done. As it happens, the bird Opie killed had 3 babies who now are doomed to die. Andy convinces Opie to raise them so that they don’t die. Opie names them Winkin’, Blinkin’, and Nod, because it’s the ’50s and he’s adorable.
After a while of raising them, the birds start getting too big to keep in their cage, Andy tells Opie that he needs to release the three into the wild. Of course, just like any parent doesn’t enjoy the day that they have to let their children go off into the horizon for new, independent lives, Opie can’t bear the thought of letting go of his birds. In the end, though, Andy tells him that sometimes a parent has to let go, because that’s the natural order of the world, and it’s what keeps the world so bright and interesting. It’s clear that, while Andy is telling this to Opie, he’s really telling it to himself as well. When Opie finally releases the birds, he comments that the cage looks really empty now. Andy just smiles and says a line that only Griffith can pull off, “Yes, son, it sure does. But don’t the trees seem nice and full.”
It’s an episode that represents every parent’s experience. From the joy in watching children grow and learn to the sadness of watching them grow up and leave, as well as the harsh understanding that they’re going to have painful experiences as a natural part of life. It’s sad, but beautiful.
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