Vegas’ best episode yet, by miles, benefits from the slow accumulation of conflicts that have developed over the past half dozen episodes. You could substitute “tortoise-like” for “slow,” and I’m not sure I’d use the word “steady.” The show doesn’t give the impression that the writers have been working from a carefully thought-out, long-term narrative plan so much as throwing anything that can think of at the wall, to see what sticks. But it turns out that they’ve built up enough tension to sponsor a good-sized explosion. And both Dennis Quaid’s Ralph Lamb and Michael Chiklis’ Vincent Savino have gelled enough as characters that, when circumstances pen them up together, something can actually come of it. A good opening doesn’t hurt, either.
“Bad Seeds”—hold that title in your head for a bit and savor the dawning realization that it is, in fact, a sick joke—begins out in some cranky old farmer dude’s field, where he blames a bad patch of land on an ailing prairie dog. “They go down there and die,” he explains, and “it makes the soil sick.” A little digging, and there’s a human hand sticking straight out of the ground, an image from an EC horror comic. The farmer takes it in and mutters, “That ain’t no prairie dog.” Before you can say, “Who are you now, Marlin Perkins?” the cops are all on the scene, and word is buzzing on the gangland mojo wire. The grave is that of the two guys Vincent had put out of his misery, as part of his campaign for the Tumbleweed. Ralph has learned enough about priorities by now that he barely seems interested in solving the murder, or maybe he just doesn’t much care about arresting gangsters for killing other gangsters. He’s more concerned about the prospect of a shooting war in his town. Meanwhile, the farmer wants to know who’s going to pay for his ruined crop.
This discovery could scarcely come at a worse time for Vincent. He’s still trying to dislodge Mayor Bennett in the upcoming election and install his own puppet candidate. In this he is helped, in brainstorming sessions, by his wife, who appears to be packing more concentrated brain power than his entire crew—who, just to keep this in perspective, are gangsters living in a desert who get rid of dead bodies by planting them in shallow graves on some guy’s farm, with one arm sticking straight up. Now he has to deal with the fallout from his unauthorized mob hits. Some of that may be coming from Angelo, the big boss, who is having poison poured in his ear by Vincent’s arch-nemesis, Rizzo. “Savino screwed up,” Rizzo hisses, while Angelo is trying to digest. It’s scenes like this that help explain why Jonathan Banks hasn’t smiled onscreen since the 1997 sitcom Fired Up. I still have nightmares about that smile, and I’d rather not know what he was thinking about when he decided to go for it.
The news that Vincent has been planting Milwaukeeans in the Nevada soil leads to another welcome return: Damon Herriman as the chilling hitman Jones. When Ralph asks Vincent for all the information he has about Jones, Vincent can only shrug and say that nobody’s even sure if his name is really “Jones.” Clearly, with such a person, if anyone calls him something and he seems happy to answer to it, then you just run with that. Jones hits the ground running, searching out and executing one of Vincent’s torpedoes on a secluded street. Then he looks up and sees an old lady at the top of a flight of steps, holding a bag of groceries. Jones tips his hat, a gunshot is heard, a bunch of apples come bouncing down the steps in lyrical slow motion, and the director gives himself a gold star.
The climax is a shootout at Ralph’s farm, where he’s taken Vincent into the Vegas cowboy version of protective custody. It’s not a bad shootout, as shootouts go, but it’s not as unnerving as the dinner scene that precedes it, with Ralph letting down his guard just enough to tell Vincent a little something about his personal history, and Vincent, who’s genuinely impressed, not being able to resist using what he’s learned to needle Ralph. At the very end, a couple of power plays—one involving the outcome of the election, the other the structure of the mob—threaten to shake things up in the weeks ahead. The show has the potential to remake itself a little, and I hope that won’t just be a matter of who’s calling whom “boss.” I don’t mean just a backhanded compliment when I say that seeing Vegas work pretty well gives you a better handle on what about the show could still stand to work a lot better. Vincent has a scene where he thinks he’s about to be killed and offers his final request: “Bury me deep. I don’t want my kids to see me in the papers.” It’s a good line, but it made me realize that, even with his wife now a part of the show, I don’t know anything about Vincent’s kids, or his home life in general.
And so much of the dialogue in tonight’s episode amounts to people recoiling in disgust from stupid questions—when Ralph is asked, at the scene of Jones’ double murder, where he thinks he’s going, he spits out, “It’s a retaliation hit against Chicago, where the hell do you think I’m going?”—that it starts to seem like a cry for help. Flashy, snappy dialogue is one of the pleasures of gangster movies and crime fiction; you might expect that Vegas would welcome the chance to be verbally competitive with The Sopranos and The Wire and the crime movies that Vegas co-creator Nicholas Pileggi has had a hand in, but the people in those shows and movies use a lot of words that cops and gangsters and politicians can’t very well use on CBS, and maybe that’s got the writers stumped. Vegas just had its episode order cut by one. If that means a little more free time for the writers, they might want to bone up on some old James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson movies, so that can study the art of G-rated tough talk.