The Big Valley, “Lost Treasure”
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Welcome to the TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that all deal with a central theme. The theme for the first eight installments is adolescence.
“Lost Treasure” (The Big Valley, season 2, episode 1; originally aired 9/12/1966)
In which Buddy Hackett somehow sired Lee Majors. (Want to watch this episode? Check it out here.)
Donna Bowman: We’ve seen many sides of adolescent love in our wanderings this summer. I’d like to explore one we broached briefly last week when a few of us copped to Winnie Cooper obsessions: the love of an adolescent in real life for someone on a television show. When I was 13 or 14, I’d been in love with Lee Majors for several years already. He was the Six Million Dollar Man on a show I only got to see on the rare occasions I wasn’t stuck at church on Sunday night. I read and re-read a Scholastic paperback biography about him. And then I found out that a local network affiliate showed syndicated reruns of The Big Valley on weekday mornings, with a young Lee Majors in a supporting role. I never was one for faking illness to get out of going to school, but boy, did Heath Barkley (played by Majors) help me forget my troubles any time I was actually sick enough to stay home.
Majors didn’t appear in every episode, but occasionally, I’d luck into a story that placed him front and center. “Lost Treasure,” the second season première, harkens back to the first episode of the series, in which Heath shows up at the Barkley ranch claiming to be the bastard son of Victoria Barkley’s (Barbara Stanwyck) dead husband, Tom. The dynamic of several Big Valley episodes depends on Heath’s awkward place in the family, his own complicated sense of identity, his authority issues with the hired help, or the implications for the other Barkleys that arise from their patriarch’s secret life.
In “Lost Treasure,” a con man named Charles Sawyer (played by Buddy Hackett with a broad Irish accent) shows up at the Barkley ranch and tells Heath that Tom Barkley wasn’t his father after all; Sawyer was. He cites inside information about Heath’s mother, Leah Thomson, to prove it, including a description of the house where Heath grew up and the memory that her favorite hymn was “Old Hundredth.” When Heath accompanies him back to the boomtown of Strawberry, now nearly deserted, Sawyer adds the evidence of Hannah, the black woman who worked for Leah and still lives outside of town. Sawyer married Leah but then faked his own drowning and disappeared, opening the door for Tom Barkley to step in—but not, Sawyer says, before getting Leah pregnant.
Maybe I was drawn to Heath for more than his laconic intensity and that heart-melting trick Majors had of cocking one eyebrow. His character in The Big Valley made me swoon, sure enough, but I also felt drawn to his alienation, and protective of his injured sense of self. Because I, too, lived in a house where I didn’t always feel I belonged, given privileges I hadn’t earned, held to responsibilities I hadn’t chosen. “A peach tree twig belongs on a peach tree!” Nick argues when Heath is dowsing for water in the epilogue, but millions of teenagers surely would take issue with the “facts” that are supposed to define our identities, such as the parentage on our birth certificates. How can something so simple as a name, or even as complex as a history, tell us where we belong?
Phil Dyess-Nugent: I think that Lee Majors may very well have been the first actor I ever decided was kind of boring. “Stolid” is probably the word. My judgment may have been colored by the fact that he played a guy who was part machine, and sad though it is to admit, it may have been influenced by an attitude I remember taking shape on the playground that only a tool would let his wife take a job on a TV show that would result in her fame eclipsing his own, at which point she would dump his ass.
I have to say, though, that I find him rather winning here. He’s a big guy who moves well and has the suggestion of a lighter side (not that he gets to reveal much of it here), and he manages to seem tortured enough about his uncertain parentage to be “interesting” without being so neurotic about it as to just be a drag. I also like the Southern accent that sometimes comes through, only to disappear a few lines later. At first, I thought the accent was something that Majors was trying for that kept slipping. Wikipedia informs me, however, that he grew up in Kentucky, so maybe it’s a glimpse of the “real” Lee Majors that would disappear by the time the rough edges had been knocked off and he was enough of a pro to headline his own show. Sometimes, the most crush-worthy things about young actors are the revealing traces of themselves that they’re trying to suppress. (My own most devastating TV crush was Angie Dickinson circa Police Woman, a series that began when she was 43. And now, whenever I see her when she was at the peak of her career as a Hollywood ingénue, in Rio Bravo or The Killers, I confess that a part of me thinks, “Man, throw another 10 or 15 years on there, and be still, my heart.”)
Ryan McGee: We’ve solidly transitioned in this series from “shows I’ve never watched” to “shows I didn’t even know existed in the first place.” That’s what I love about this TV roundtable: It’s all too easy to stay within certain parameters, even when seeking out new shows. As such, I don’t actively seek out Westerns. I don’t have anything against them. I just don’t have a natural proclivity toward them. But that’s a silly prejudice, as I loved the number of outdoor scenes in this episode. Something I’ve noticed while watching Breaking Bad is that television has a hard time conveying vast landscapes in modern times, either through the choice of narrative or the budgetary limitations inherent in producing a season of television. These shots depicting a seemingly limitless landscape only serve to emphasize Heath’s problem in this episode. Here’s a man trying to find his place in the world, but the world itself feels absolutely enormous. Once unmoored from his place within the Barkley family, a sense of vertigo seems to overtake him. The landscape’s sense of possibility transforms into information overload: If he could go anywhere, what makes any one place better than the other? His wistful treatment of the sign depicting the Barkley Ranch demonstrates just how much that particular swath of land serves as an emotional anchor for him. For Buddy Hackett’s con man to dislodge that sense of place is an act of cruelty, one the show wisely decides to rectify by episode’s end.
What I enjoyed about this episode is that while we’ve never truly lost our desire to figure out how we fit into the world, the way in which we have to position ourselves has radically changed. We’ve moved from “one person alone in a vast field” to “one person alone on an overcrowded train”. While I often dismiss the Western genre as no longer relevant to the world in which I live, episodes such as this demonstrate just how wrong I’ve been all along.
Noel Murray: As somebody married to somebody who grew up with a crush on Lee Majors, I spent this entire episode watching the big guy brood and smolder, thinking to myself, “Wait, so how did Donna end up with me?”
I found this episode interesting for reasons wholly unrelated to the “adolescence” theme. It’s not that I can’t relate to the feeling of not belonging; as a child of divorce, I spent a lot of my youth shuttling between two families, wondering which one was more “me.” But I found myself too captivated by the form of The Big Valley to think much about the content. I came late to Westerns; it was really only in my 30s that I started working my way through the classic Western films, and really only in the past few years that I’ve come to realize that the classic Western TV shows were as sophisticated as the best Western movies. Plus, I became a Barbara Stanwyck devotee over the past decade—especially all the tight, tawdry little pre-code movies she made with William Wellman in the early ’30s—but had never watched her in this role. And though she really only has one big scene in this episode, you’re right, Donna, that it’s a powerhouse, with her defining “family” as people “tied by sacrifice, work, and love.”
I’m not always sure what ties us to the people we gather around us, but I do think a lot about what ties us to the art we prefer. Sometimes it’s nostalgia, either for an earlier time period in history or for what we enjoyed when we were young. Sometimes, it’s the actual quality of the piece. For me, it’s always been about putting those together: connecting what I failed to understand as a youth to what I’ve learned as an adult, via the music, TV, books, and movies that I’ve never really paid as much attention to as I should’ve. The Big Valley, then, is yet another link: to Stanwyck, whose work I’ve come to love; to Majors, who was a big presence in the culture in my pre-adolescence; to the Western genre, which dominates American storytelling to a large degree; and to my wife, who was shaped some by The Big Valley.
And so the big picture acquires a little more shading.
Meredith Blake: Donna, I love how you interpreted the “adolescence” theme so much that I actually sort of wish I’d thought of it myself, especially since I spent so much of my late childhood and adolescence fantasizing about unattainable crushes—Davy Jones of The Monkees, Axl Rose, Dwayne Wayne, Miles from Murphy Brown. (What can I say? I was confused.) I also have to admit I’m impressed by your precocious taste in the opposite sex: Lee Majors is a serious slab of a man, with none of the baby-faced androgyny that seems to drive most adolescent girls wild.
Like nearly everyone else on the roundtable, I’m unfamiliar with The Big Valley, and like Ryan, I also have a bit of an allergy to Westerns. It’s unfair, I know, but it’s the truth: I see a cowboy hat, and my remote-control finger instantly gets itchy. Thankfully “Lost Treasure” deals with universal themes that just about make up for my lack of familiarity with the series, not to mention my genre bias. What struck me most—other than what a serious babe Linda Evans was back in the day, before the giant ash-blond helmet hair of her Dynasty days—is the allure of the long-lost family.
No matter how happy one’s own childhood might have been, the fantasy of maybe, just maybe, belonging to a different set of parents is a potent one. Certainly this may have something to do with my own TV preferences, but what “Lost Treasure” reminds me of, in theme if not in style, are the sitcoms of the ’80s. Back then, network television was littered with orphans (Webster, Punky Brewster, Diff’rent Strokes), quasi-orphans (The Facts Of Life), and various other unconventional family arrangements (My Two Dads, Full House). A casual glance at a TV Guide of that era suggests Americans were deeply vulnerable to a particular type of domestic fantasy.
Even our stoic hero Heath seems to have a change of heart about his supposed long-lost father, Charles Sawyer. Of course, the idea that Buddy Hackett could have sired Lee Majors is about as plausible as Danny DeVito being Arnold Schwarzenegger’s long-lost twin (another ’80s tale), so it’s not hard to predict how this episode will end. Heath is skeptical at first, but upon his return to Strawberry, he’s still convinced rather quickly. He’s even sympathetic when old Sawyer confesses to the ruse he was so obviously perpetuating all along. It just goes to show you: Even cowboys feel like angsty teens sometimes.
Todd VanDerWerff: “Lost Treasure” reminds me of all that the TV drama has gained by becoming just a bit shorter—this episode is probably four or five minutes too long, with some bits that could very easily be cut—but also just how wrong many TV fans are to write off all shows made before 1990. There’s a lot to love here, most notably in the scenes where Majors and Hackett are just hanging out and talking about the past. There’s always a dramatic tension to these scenes, mostly stemming from the fact that you know Charlie can’t be telling the truth, but you’re also not entirely sure how anybody doesn’t realize it. The “conflict” here is so obviously going to be resolved that the tension really stems from the fact that everybody doesn’t immediately realize they should return to the status quo. It’s 50 minutes of getting us exactly where we know we’re going, but it’s beautifully executed, because you really do believe for a moment that Heath would want badly enough to have known his father as to believe this weird drifter was the man.
That’s something I can obviously relate to, given my background. Being adopted really is about spending at least a little bit of time trying to figure out who your parents might have really been, and adolescence comes with two shattering realizations. The first is that your adopted parents are just people, with fears and hopes like you. That’s a revelation pretty much everybody has between the ages of 10 and 18. But the second usually comes a little later, perhaps when a girl in your school mysteriously disappears for a few months or when you read about somebody giving up their baby in the newspaper. That second realization is that your biological parents weren’t superheroes or magicians or even urban professionals without the time to raise a baby. (When my mother told me I was adopted at the age of 4, she said my parents “didn’t have time to raise a baby,” though there was no way she could have known that. I always imagined them to be incredibly busy doctors, married and successful, but too busy for children and very generous to others who couldn’t have children naturally.) No, your biological parents were probably scared teenagers or college kids, who didn’t know what to do and came up with the best option out of several bad ones. It’s just as shattering, and when Heath looks over at Charlie and has to reconcile the hope that his dad had been the rich, successful, powerful older Barkley with the reality of, well, Buddy Hackett, it’s some powerful stuff. And, of course, he gets to retreat back into the fantasy. But not all of us do.
(Oh, and in terms of adolescent teenage crushes, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Alyson Hannigan in the first two seasons of Buffy. C’mon.)
DB: The tune Hannah is humming while hanging up her wash, by the way, is the aforementioned “Old Hundredth,” which I learned in church as the Doxology.
DB: Heath is a bit of a prankster, as we see when he tells the tall tale to Nick about conditions in Yuma being so dry that he’d seen a man shocked out of his saddle by a drop of rain. (“I threw a bucket of sand in his face, and he came around.”) We’re supposed to wonder, I think, whether that tendency is a part of the con-man heritage he got from Sawyer, but by the end of the episode (when Heath enjoys watching Nick dig away for illusory water), it’s been redefined as the way brothers treat brothers—not a Barkley or a Sawyer thing, but a family thing. It’s a nice way of incorporating bits of humorous business into the theme of the episode.
PDN: You know it bodes ill in a ’60s Western whenever Bruce Dern shows up, wearing Jed Clampett’s hat. And, judging from the way he holds that paper Hackett hands him to examine, he’s in serious need of a visit to the optometrist.
PDN: There’s nobody I’d rather listen to laugh at his own jokes than Dub Taylor, who plays the bartender here.
PDN: I am so adding “I’ve salted a lot of mines in my day” to my repertoire of colorful vintage expressions,
PDN: Lee Majors to Buddy Hackett: “I’ll bet you’ve lived half your life off women.” Hey, let a playa play!
PDN: Got to love a town where the keys to the jail have gone missing, and the city hall has burned down, but there’s always a gallows that’s in working order.
PDN: In honor of the presence here of Peter Breck and his weird face, let me just be the first to say, on behalf of all the MSTies out there: “I killed that fat barkeep!”
RM: Holy hell, Linda Evans is young in this. Had the opening credits not alerted me to her presence on this show, I never would have guessed it was her in a million years.
Next week: You have selected "I Think We Should Have Sex" from Friday Night Lights for the first TV Roundtable Readers' Choice pick (by a rather overwhelming margin, too). Come back next week when we discuss the episode... and maybe a few special guests drop by.
And after that: A brand-new theme and brand-new episodes, which we’ll announce next week.