Friday, April 1, 2016

Maverick Rewatch: Episodes 1-3

Prompted by the Warner Archive release of Young Maverick, which means all the Maverick TV series are currently available for purchase (and all owned by us), my wife and I decided to start watching the whole series from the beginning. Here are my thoughts on the episodes we’ve seen to date. As I said in the first post of this blog, but maybe bears repeating, these are not reviews; these are reactions and responses. There’s a whole internet of critical discussion about television in general and Maverick in particular, but that isn’t what you will find here.

Also, a word about spoilers: there will be some. I don't want to tap dance around plot details from a show that aired 60 years ago. I'm not going to be writing plot summaries, but I'm not going to avoid spoilers, either.

War of the Silver Kings: I’d seen this one before, and was a little anxious, because this would determine whether my wife and I would be watching the series together, or whether I’d have to find time to watch on my own. Fortunately, she was won over by the clever plotting and dialogue, and James Garner’s undeniable charm.

For myself, part of my concern about this maybe not being the best first episode for her to watch may have come from my knowledge that this wasn’t originally intended to be the first episode of the series. Warner Brothers nascent television division made creator Roy Huggins adapt this first episode from a novel they owned the rights to, so that he couldn’t claim the residuals he would have been owed if he was credited as the creator. I still think that’s a crappy thing to do, but if I don’t let that knowledge color my view of the show, this is a really good debut.

The story clearly introduces Maverick as a character who just wants to mind his own business as a wandering gambler, but when push comes to shove, he won’t hesitate to fight back. However, he prefers to fight using his brain, not his fists or a gun (although he does throw a fair few punches in this episode). That’s why I love this show, while other, more traditional Westerns of the period hold little interest for me. That’s probably also why this show has withstood the test of time, and been revived on multiple occasions.

The plot is pretty complicated, and they probably pack a feature-length movie’s worth of story into a TV episode. I feel like that especially shows with the character of Edie, the daughter of the miner who rescues Maverick after he is knocked unconscious by the thugs working for Phineas King. She’s a weird, quirky character who adds a lot of humor to the proceedings, but really only gets one scene to shine.

Having said that, I would rather have a packed 50 minute story than a padded 90 or 120 minute movie, so I’m fine with the pace and content of this episode.

I appreciated how Maverick arrives in town looking like a grubby cowboy, It wouldn’t make sense, seeing him riding from town to town in his ruffled shirt and fancy gambling duds. It really gives the sense that he is wearing clothes, not a costume. 

I also appreciated how, while Maverick clearly fights with his wits, he isn’t a cool, emotionless genius. He gets angry, and sometimes his anger gets the better of him. He’s a fully-drawn character, even in this first episode.

Of course, by the end of the show, Maverick’s wits have won the day, and he and Big Mike McComb are riding out of town and on to the next big thing. I can’t remember whether or not Big Mike shows up in future episodes, so that will be interesting to see.

Point Blank: Sure enough, Big Mike McComb is not in the second episode of Maverick. The episode opens with Maverick on the run from a group of riders, and we never really hear too much more about that. He shows up in the town of Bent Fork, once again filthy from the road, and almost immediately hoodwinks the (apparent) town bully with an old trick using a belt. However, Maverick being Maverick, he pays back twice what he won, claiming that the guy had given him a loan; he just hadn't realized it. 

However, Maverick still manages to run afoul of the local sheriff, partly because he doesn't trust an outsider gambler like Maverick, and partly because the sheriff appears to have a crush on Molly, the big city girl now working in the local saloon. For her part, Molly appears to be developing an interest in Maverick, and that interest is definitely reciprocated. But we soon learn that her interest is less romantic, and more nefarious.

We learn--well before Maverick--that Molly and her boyfriend, bank teller Ralph, are scheming to rob the bank. Maverick bears a superficial resemblance to Ralph; more than superficial if they were to blow his face off with a shotgun. The plan is to lure Maverick to his death--by way of the aforementioned shotgun blast to the face--so that, for all intents and purposes, the authorities will assume Ralph is dead, and he will be free to leave with Molly to spend their riches.

This episode is a lot more focused and deliberately paced than War of the Silver Kings. That one, possibly because of its origins as a novel, felt like it had a ton of story crammed into its 50 minutes of running time. Point Blank is able to take its time and build the characters and relationships. We get a genuine sense of Maverick's developing feelings for Molly, and similarly get a strong sense that she is developing feelings for him... OR IS SHE????? 

Contrasted with War of the Silver Kings, this story is much more character-based. This makes me happy; two episodes in, and it's clear that the formula is not as simple as, "What's Maverick's scheme this week?" In fact, while we see his gambling expertise at play several times, for the most part, Maverick is the one who is getting conned here. And once he realizes it, he doesn't come up with some sort of elaborate counter-scheme. Nope, he just goes and confronts Ralph with a gun. He does get Molly to confess her part in the plot in earshot of the sheriff, but it's not a complicated set-up. She just doesn't know he's there.

Because the characters have time to breathe, it allows them to build in a little subtlety. Particularly in the case of Molly, it's difficult to tell whether she really is falling for Maverick, or if it's all a part of the plan. The relationship between Molly and Maverick feels real, because it has time to develop, and that helps build that ambiguity into the story.

I've often seen Maverick described as an "anti-hero," but I don't believe that's an appropriate description for his character. Certainly, he doesn't behave like a stereotypical Western hero, and the scene in this episode--where he bargains the reward for recovering the stolen bank money up before returning the money--is certainly something that the Lone Ranger would never do. However, he is still a man who does the right thing when push comes to shove. For example, as he tells Molly--and here I am paraphrasing--"I tried to come up with some way to keep you out of it, but I just couldn't square it." He returns the money he tricked the town bully into giving away. He's a man who is focused on his own survival and profit, but not at the expense of others, or justice.

This episode also features my favorite Maverick quote to date. When the sheriff tells him he has ten minutes to get out of town, Maverick replies, “Sheriff, I’ve gotten out of towns this size in five minutes.”

According to Hoyle: In this episode, we do see the return of Big Mike, plus the debut of recurring female foil Samantha Crawford. In some ways, this episode combines the broader scope of War of the Silver Kings with the character focus of Point Blank, in that it ranges all across the west, from New Orleans to Wagon Wheel, Montana, but still deals with a relatively small group of characters.

We first see Maverick soundly beaten at cards on a riverboat by the sweet, demure, but apparently crafty Samantha Crawford. He makes a deal with a pair of steamboat line owners to draw passengers to their ship by promising a rematch with Samantha, if they stake him $5000 to a game. This time around, Samantha beats him again by relying on a little-followed rule from Hoyle.

She tells Maverick that he is responsible for her father being in prison for embezzling money from his bank, a course of action he restored to after Maverick ostensibly cheated him out of $50,000. Maverick apparently convinces her that he's not a cheater, then forms a plan with her to raise the money she needs to buy her father out of prison. It involves taking down a crooked saloon owner, Riggs, who Maverick humiliated on the river boat.

From here, things get twisty. It seems Samantha's story about her father isn't quite the truth, although she has been deliberately targeting Maverick as part of a revenge scheme involving a man he did win $50,000 from. Despite his charm, Maverick ends up facing setbacks at every turn, right up until the end. Ultimately, he doesn't really come out ahead, but neither does anyone else, and maybe that''s the best anyone can hope for in this situation.

Diane Brewster, as Samantha Crawford, makes a great foil for James Garner's Maverick. She's every bit as charming as he is. Ted de Corsia, as Riggs, is fantastic as the corrupt gambling hall owner. Esther Dale, as the feisty Ma Braus, is the very image of the tough old bird, in the best way possible. And Leo Gordon, returning as Big Mike McComb, is a great partner for Maverick. His character gets a nice ending in this episode, but I'm pretty sure this isn't the last we see of him, and I know Samantha returns in future episodes as well.

Once again, we are reminded that Maverick, despite his profession as gambler, is still a thoroughly honest man. He doesn't cheat at cards. He insists on repaying the $5000 to the river boat owners, even though they insist he doesn't have to do so. He chooses Wagon Wheel as a place to establish a profitable casino because it also means taking down a corrupt, cheating rat like Riggs. He's a good man who, whenever he has the opportunity, does good things. Those are not the actions of an anti-hero, to my mind.

Our only real quibble about this episode is that my wife and I aren't sure how Samantha was able to beat Maverick at cards. We see her using the Hoyle trick, but otherwise, he describes her as a bad card player. So how does she manage to take all his money? Is it as simple as she is able to hold her own, until ultimately she gets to the point where she is able to trick him into betting all his money against what turns out to be a sure thing? If she's as bad as Maverick claims, it doesn't make sense that he would get himself into that position.

However, despite that one objection, this is another fine episode in a series that definitely deserves its reputation. I enjoyed the range of geography this episode covered--even if that did mean a little more stock footage of river boats and trains and saloon fights than usual--and I particularly enjoyed the final scene, with all the adversaries putting their differences aside for a game of cards. Best of all, the story didn’t rely on the obvious trope of, “Oh, Maverick knew what they were up to and was one step ahead of them all along!”

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