Welcome to the TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that all deal with a central theme. Now through March: some of our favorite episodes of all time.
The Rifleman, “The Marshal” (season one, episode four; originally aired 10/21/1958)
In which a black-and-white shootout pits outlaws against lawmen…
Brandon Nowalk: Sam Peckinpah, the legendary revisionist of the Western genre, conceived The Rifleman from his rejected Gunsmoke script—about a sharpshooter who is intimidated into throwing a shooting contest and rides out of town in shame. Arnold Laven, who would direct the pilot, collaborated with Peckinpah on a sellable version of that story that ends with the marksman proving himself after all, and The Rifleman was born, first as an episode of Zane Grey Theatre and then as a re-edited pilot. The tension between Peckinpah’s cynicism and the more commercial vision of his producers, Arthur Gardner and Jules V. Levy, drove Peckinpah to leave after a year to create his own series, The Westerner. But his influence is undeniable. Like Peckinpah’s more famous works, The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs, The Rifleman grooves to the masculine codes of honor that govern certain out-of-the-way societies.
First, there’s the outlaw Sheltin boys, seeking retribution for perceived wrong. One of them, Robert J. Wilke’s Flory, is just there to see the others get theirs—but that’s apparently acceptable to everyone. (Peckinpah regular Warren Oates plays another.) Later, it turns out Flory isn’t what he seems, but then neither are the Sheltin boys. They sure take their time getting down to business, don’t they? These aren’t wronged men animated by righteous vengeance. They’re cowards, and they know it. All it takes is Lucas McCain (Chuck Connors) warning them not to shoot a man in the back, which really shouldn’t need explaining, and they get all pissy and start busting up the saloon.
Their target is an alcoholic former peace officer—Paul Fix’s Micah Torrance—who’s lost his nerve and needs, according to the codes here, to recover it. Every close-up of Fix reveals another wrenching battle playing out on his face. Normally The Rifleman finds pathos in the relationship between a father and a son, but the most moving moment in “The Marshal” is when Micah turns his back to the Sheltin boys—a calculated dare, but also a resignation. He’s ready to die for what he sees as his sins in that moment, knowing that the boys will be arrested shortly afterward. And Peckinpah dignifies him in that final moment by shooting close, but from behind, giving Micah his space.
But in steps Lucas, the strapping superhero father, who wants to set a good example for his son, even if it means knowingly charging into an ambush. He even stands up for his community despite not being the town sheriff. That’d be Fred Tomlinson (R.G. Armstrong), but because he’s governed by the law more than unofficial codes of society, he isn’t as interesting to Peckinpah, so he gets summarily dispatched. How did you all react to that? I knew Marshal Micah Torrance long before I had seen Sheriff Fred Tomlinson in the pilot. But I was still stunned to see Fred go down.
Part of that is thanks to the geometry of the shootouts. The blocking is meaningful throughout, like the way Micah sits in jail as Micah and Fred lecture him and then rises above the camera when he decides on a course of action. But the shootouts are particularly unusual next to, say, Gunsmoke or even Have Gun–Will Travel, especially the first one. First Flory busts up the Sheltin brothers’ fight, and they form an equilateral triangle with their heads in a horizontal line across the frame. We don’t quite know yet that they’re fully in cahoots, but that says it all. Then Fred bursts in and tries to oust the two rowdy ones. Unfortunately Flory’s facing us with his back to Fred, even when he’s talking to him. Something’s up, and soon enough poor Fred gets it.
I’m such a fan of Westerns that simply tuning into a new one gets me excited. When “The Marshal” opens with High Noon’s three outlaws headed to town on a revenge mission against a one-time sheriff, I can’t help but be hooked. And that trope was everywhere at the time. In fact, a lot of “The Marshal” is made up of parts from other Westerns—the redemptive drunk, the charming surprise villain, the hero riding into certain danger and paying for it. I can see how these repetitive fables are comforting, but that doesn’t make a great one any less great.
Like a lot of people who grew up well after the Western was dead and buried, give or take a Dr. Quinn or a Deadwood, I had this impression that I wasn’t interested in Westerns before ever sampling one for myself. My only experience with them would have been Looney Tunes parodies and the like, but I had it in my head that they were old and boring. I associated them with my grandpa, and what does he know about great movies anyway? Then in college I sat down in front of The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly and discovered one of my favorite movies.
So I’m curious. What are your experiences with Westerns, especially TV Westerns? And what struck you about “The Marshal?” I’ve barely discussed Lucas or the father-son relationship. Anyone have thoughts about the romantic subplot between Fred’s niece and Flory? It ain’t a man forced to shame himself, but it sure is Peckinpah.
Sonia Saraiya: Brandon, I have to give you credit where credit is due: I would have never watched this on my own, but “The Marshal” surprised me. I’m terrible at watching anything in black and white, so it took me a bit of time to piece the plot together. It’s really remarkable how this slim half-hour has a full redemption arc in it—and in an unlikely quarter, too. When I first started watching, I assumed that the hero of the story would be the occasionally shirtless Lucas McCain, who’s the titular rifleman of the show. I did not expect that it would turn out to be the drunkard that falls to his feet in the first few minutes of the episode, because Torrance starts out an apparent plot device there to teach Lucas’ son Mark about the dangers of alcoholism. (There are parts of this episode that have the feel of an after-school special—especially the blatant replacement of whiskey with milk at supper.)
Instead it becomes something a lot more complicated. The first scene is a little perplexing—the cold open introduces the three strangers to North Fork, the two Shetlin brothers and a handsome chap named Frank Lloyd. It’s made clear, just from the makeup, costuming, and coarse dialogue, that the Shetlin brothers are lowlife creeps. Frank, though, is a different breed. He’s disinterested in the brothers’ plot, but also well spoken and charming. He’s a manifestation of a sneaky kind of pure evil—someone intent on destruction for destruction’s sake. In a show that otherwise delineates good guys and bad guys just by what they look like, it’s upsetting to see how many people Frank manages to sidle up to and then lie to: that poor little woman, Nancy, even Mark, and of course, the now dead Marshal Fred.
I liked that Torrance is the only one who could see through Frank right from the start—and that maybe he could do that because he’d gone through five years of being a kind of lowlife himself, and he’d learned the tricks of the trade. You can see him building strength and willpower in every scene leading up to that final shootout. When he does show up to the gunfight, he’s got a limp arm, a shotgun, and a look on his face that suggests he’s got nothing left to lose.
And what a shootout. The quaint chivalry of it is fascinating—Frank waits for Torrance to reload his gun, then lets him walk up several paces so he has a “fair” shot. “That’s far enough, old man.” Torrance responds, “I reckon it is, sonny.” And then shoots him! Did he win just because he was a faster shot? Is that really how the West works??
But that reminds me of nothing less than Seth Bullock and Wild Bill Hickok both shooting their would-be attacker in the streets of Deadwood, in the HBO show’s first season. To answer your question, Brandon—the first season of that show is one of my all-time favorites. I haven’t delved into much else of the Western genre, but I can see the connecting threads between The Rifleman and Deadwood, despite their very different eras. There’s a shared theme about attempting dignity in a world that does not encourage moral acts; the fact that the three strangers in North Fork manage to practically take over the town feels alien and strange, like a drama from a different planet. Both shows evoke a world where a “lawman” or “peace officer” was the only thing standing between chaos or tyranny and some semblance of a decent life.
Pilot Viruet: I also never would have watched The Rifleman if not for this (I don’t think I’ve ever even heard of it), but that’s why I’m really enjoying this group of roundtables: It’s giving me so many shows to add to my “to watch” list. I did grow up watching movie Westerns, but I was always sort of against them—not for any genre-specific reason, but because as the lone girl in my family I was outnumbered when it came to choosing movies. Westerns tended to win over whatever silly thing I wanted to watch. Like you, Brandon, Westerns started to click for me in college. We were assigned a few to watch in a film class—The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly was, of course, the first—and free of the childhood bitterness, I eventually learned to appreciate them. Westerns aren’t my go-to genre, but I do enjoy them from time to time.
As for television Westerns, I haven’t watched one in its entirety yet (unless you count Firefly as a space Western, which I totally do). I have been on a near-decade long journey to finish Deadwood that basically consists of watching the first couple of episodes every few months and then forgetting about it (I don’t know why this is! I love Timothy Olyphant!), but outside of that, I didn’t really know how or where to start. The Rifleman felt like a good introduction, though. It is so clearly a Western with a capital “W” from the very beginning, and has all the expected tropes—but it also hits upon some sweet spots for me when it comes to television, like the father-son relationship and the redemption theme (and, okay, a very handsome guy sans shirt).
This is probably predictable, but I definitely perked up more during the quieter conversations between Lucas, Mark, and Micah than during the loud shootouts. I mean, I love me a good shootout (and also a good saloon trashing, especially when it involves guys pointlessly throwing bottles at a mirror), but really, I’m here for the redemption story about a disgraced alcoholic. I love characters that fall from grace, and I especially love it when someone unexpected gives them a second chance. I haven’t spent much time with Lucas, but him hiring a drunk with a basically useless arm is something that makes him immediately endearing to me—and then Micah himself realizing that it’s time for him to redeem himself made me like this whole story even more. And I liked that one exchange: “Who are you to go telling my Pa what to do?” “That’s a good question, son.” (I could listen to that cute kid say “Pa” all day.)
I was also sold on the father-son relationship from the early dinner scene where Lucas explains to his son exactly what’s up with Micah, though Mark is smart enough to fill in all the blanks himself (and to help nudge Micah in the right direction (“Whiskey make you work better? Supper will.”). To be honest, I was lukewarm on the much of the action (and what a weirdly calm final shootout!), and I’m not entirely sure how The Rifleman’s episodes are formatted—is it a crime-of-the-week type thing?—but if the show is anchored by these interpersonal relationships, I could definitely see myself loving this series in the long run.
SS: There’s a strong undercurrent of “good ol’ fashioned values” in Westerns, which I think is why I’ve steered clear of them. It’s here too—that whiskey/supper conversation you mentioned, Pilot, is one of a few conversations between Mark and the adults around him that is about negotiating the particulars of the code of the West. There’s that first scene with him where he’s wringing out a mop in a bucket, and sulking a little about it: “It’s women’s work, and I don’t cotton to it.” (I don’t know what “cotton to” means, but I’m going to hazard that he doesn’t love mopping.) And then there’s the insistence, at the end, that he take his father home to recover from his gunshot wound on the ranch. There are rules.
Speaking of women’s work—there’s literally just one speaking female role in this episode, and she’s immediately placed in mortal peril by a handsome man who pays attention to her because he wants to get into her pants (which, in this case, are flowery skirts). It brings me to the second reason that Westerns have rarely spoken to me: I’ve never felt like they are for me. These are stories that are primarily about men struggling to define masculinity in a world where it could run amok to potential devastation—so often, it’s rare that the women in these stories are anything more than convenient props. Nancy Moore, in this episode, is definitely a prop: She’s the pure virgin offering herself up to be tainted by the devil in disguise, Frank Lloyd. It’s an easy device, and a little cheap.
I don’t mean to outright dismiss it, because the actress there does fine work, and Frank Lloyd is a lying son-of-a-bitch. But it underscores that this episode, and maybe even this genre, is dealing with a world that feels out of my reach. It boils down to the establishment and transmission of a moral code that feels arcane. And I think this concern of protecting the innocent is very Western, too. Deadwood and Firefly both have innocent characters that are positioned in opposition to hardened, dangerous, but theoretically lawful men. In Deadwood, Seth Bullock is placed in opposition to Sophia, the near-mute Scandinavian orphan. In Firefly, Mal is both River Tam’s and Kaylee’s counterpart. In the wild, protecting the innocent is a calling. And “decency” is a concept laden with meaning.
Well, fine. In pop culture, we’re constantly guilty of nostalgic longing for eras of decency that never really existed. It’s so convenient to ascribe morals to a period of time or a location that, on the surface, appears simple. The Wild West is ripe for that kind of mythmaking—bring on your Little House On The Prairies. But bring me your Deadwoods, too—those shows that aren’t afraid to break that illusion.
What I like about this episode of The Rifleman is that though it is nostalgic, it’s not just nostalgic. In “The Marshal” a lot of the father-son relationship between Lucas and Mark comes down to negotiating how exactly to treat an addict. It’s fascinating, and also sort of heartbreaking—it’s a conversation that could happen today. Mark is trying to talk to Micah like he’s a regular person, and Lucas insists on a certain kind of distance. Lucas isn’t really wrong—Micah has squandered all of his goodwill with the regular folks in the town.
But Mark’s attempt to find the decency in Micah seems to be the beginning of Micah finding his way back to the land of the living. Lucas might be Mark’s father, but to my mind, Micah seems like the hardened lawman of this Western. And both he and Lucas are ferrying Mark into the future now, with their guidance. It’s a happy ending that offers the promised payoff of the genre, but it’s not just wholesome milk and smiling faces. Brandon, you’ll have to speak to how that relates to other episodes of The Rifleman, and maybe to Westerns in general.
BN: Now we’re talking. First I want to say how happy I am that we each have different levels of experience with Westerns. This is exactly what I hoped for, getting to see this through new eyes. Now, to answer some questions: Like a lot of Westerns, The Rifleman does have a case-of-the-week style. Sometimes there’s a bad guy, sometimes there’s a mob, sometimes there’s a social issue. Good luck finding a Western that doesn’t have three episodes a season about outlaws showing up to take revenge on the sheriff who put them or their loved ones away or in the ground. But unlike a lot of Westerns, The Rifleman has a light continuity early on—Micah becoming town sheriff for the remainder of the series being the clearest example. I didn’t even notice how deliberate the final shootout is. That’s pretty much how it goes on these shows. Even the quick-draws dance until just the right moment.
Sonia, I’m glad you brought up the role of women. One thing I love about the mopping scene is that Lucas, our milk-drinking, square-jawed ’50s patriarch, laughs off Mark’s whining. He’s going to do his chores, “women’s work” or not. There’s a macro issue here about the rigorous way the TV Western denies women, from nomadic bachelor adventures to even the shows like this set in a single town. One of the most powerful ways Deadwood responds to Gunsmoke and its ilk is with its abundance of women, each with her own source of power and her own experience with victimhood.
So to hear you say, “I’ve never felt like they are for me,” rings loud and clear. Personally I wouldn’t last two seconds in the Hollywood Old West—well, except maybe on Maverick—but I understand. I bristle at calling Nancy a prop, but my defense is that she’s really more of a red herring, which isn’t much better. Then again, I don’t know about you, but I was wrapped up in their budding romance, a credit to their performances. I loved how “The Marshal” turns this one story about outlaws seeking vengeance into a bunch of different stories including rehab and romance. And speaking of Frank sidling up to people, when he puts his arm around Mark, my skin was crawling.
But on the micro level, The Rifleman is a lot more thoroughly about its widower father raising a son than, say, Bonanza, with its strapping, macho clan. And it’s more focused on masculinity, and more critical to boot, than many other all-male Westerns. Which is to say The Rifleman earns its homosocial universe. That’s part of the point. Peckinpah’s episodes of Gunsmoke and The Westerner do contain complicated female roles, and so does The Rifleman, but the focus is elsewhere.
That said, Sonia, I have a feeling you’ll love Johnny Guitar. Joan Crawford owns a saloon, Mercedes McCambridge runs a posse, and they go head to head in this incendiary battle of wills. In general, film Westerns have a better track record with female protagonists, but there are some female-anchored TV Westerns too. Gail Davis’ Annie Oakley is an early Western hero, and she lasted a few seasons. Amanda Blake is a lot more complicated as Gunsmoke’s resident Joanie Stubbs/Alma Garret than she may seem. And The Big Valley answers Bonanza’s clan of guys with Barbara Stanwyck as a steely matriarch (which reminds me, Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns is essential, too). I’ll leave it at that for now, but the role of women in the Western is a lot more complicated that it might seem.
PV: You’re selling me more and more on The Rifleman, Brandon, by easing any general worries I have about TV Westerns. Case-of-the-week style doesn’t totally appeal to me (in any genre) and while I like the good-guy/bad-guy aspect of movie Westerns, I can see myself finding it a bit repetitive to watch every week. It takes well-written characters to get me to stick with shows like this. But “The Marshal” clearly defined these three main guys in a way that makes me want to follow their stories. And I’m glad to hear that Micah sticks around—I assumed his redemption began and ended in this one episode—because I’m most interested in him.
My other problem, which Sonia touched upon, is the lack of women in the episode. It’s why Westerns will never be my favorite genre, despite my basic enjoyment. That goes way back to the childhood thing I mentioned. I could always understand why the boys loved to watch these decidedly “boy” stories, but it made me feel alienated by the whole thing. It’s why I was also disappointed by Nancy’s character; I can understand the red herring defense, but… yeah. Like Sonia, I only saw Nancy as a prop, and nothing more. She worked for the episode, but felt so empty. Lack of complex females isn’t going to completely kill a show for me, (If it did, I wouldn’t watch half of the stuff I do), but it does often make me feel uneasy when I watch.
That said, I was surprised by how much I liked “The Marshal” and how quickly I got invested in a world that’s very foreign to me. The good stuff definitely outweighed any negative feelings I had and I know I’ll watch the series soon. As I mentioned, it seemed like a good introduction to TV Westerns, and did get me more interested in the genre as a whole.