Dennis Quaid’s Ralph Lamb doesn’t get to say anything mythically insane this week—there are no pearls of wisdom about the best way to eat elephants—but the episode does open with a shot of him standing in his field, next to a horse, staring at a tree as if he were trying to gaze into its soul. He also looks as if he’s posing for a statue, to be placed at the Tomb of the Unknown Marlboro Man. Turns out that Ralph’s brother Jack and others who have better made their peace with such softening agents as electric lights and indoor plumbing are plotting to cut the tree down: It’s in the way of a well that needs to be built. “That’s a century oak,” growls Ralph. “It’s been here longer than we have.” At the end of the episode, Ralph lays down the law. The well will be built elsewhere on his property, even though it’ll require 10 times the manpower and cost much more. Jack rolls his eyes at this, but Ralph could scarcely give a shit. He knows what’s really important in life. It’s a man’s God-given right to spend his golden years rocking on the front porch, trading anecdotes with his favorite tree.
Have the creators of Vegas been here longer than we have? Do the show’s writers have century oaks growing between their ears? Vegas takes this hackneyed business about the inherent nobility of the cowboy who has outlived his time and place very seriously—at least as seriously as Ralph takes it, which is one reason Ralph is so relentlessly uninteresting to TV viewers who, thank God, at least don’t have to deal with him directly, and such a pain in the ass to those who are actually in the show, who do. Despite its reputation as the network most in need of a shot of Viagra, CBS doesn’t generally make the mistake of building its procedurals around heroes as boringly upright and old-fashioned as this. The leading men on the CSI shows tend to be geeky weirdos; Mark Harmon on NCIS is a funny old crank with a hillbilly name and a complicated personal history; The Mentalist is a charming rogue. The funny thing is, you’d expect that anyone who seriously believes in this crap about the moral superiority of the gnarly old fossil in the hat and boots would be repulsed by the gangsters who have invaded Ralph’s turf, but Vegas doesn’t communicate that strong a feeling about Michael Chiklis’ Savino, or anyone else in his orbit.
It doesn’t harbor a big ol’ fetishistic man-crush on them, the way Martin Scorsese often does, but it doesn’t seem to regard them as pollutants despoiling the clean American desert, either. Either of those attitudes might energize the show, but the people behind Vegas don’t betray any strong feeling one way or the other. It’s about cowboys and gangsters for the same reason Cowboys & Aliens was about cowboys and aliens: Somebody thought these things would be cool to throw together, because there have been so many movies and TV shows featuring one or the other that they must be pretty cool together. If the CBS executives who gave the show the green light had been in a different frame of mind that day, it could just as well be about duckies and bunnies.
It probably goes without saying that Vegas also doesn’t communicate any strong feeling of any kind about the period in which it’s set. But since it is set in an earlier historical era, it does feel duty-bound to include references to social issues of the time, which it thoughtfully connects to the murder cases that Ralph deals with every week. The show doesn’t have any strong feelings about these, either, so it can shuffle a whole bunch of them together, which at least makes for red herrings and misdirection when it comes to assembling a mystery. Tonight, the murder victim is a pretty young black woman who’s killed in a hit-and-run accident after attending a union meeting at the hotel where she works. The hotel doesn’t like unions, the chief shop steward (Wade Williams from Prison Break) saw the girl as a political rival, and the girl was known to have met with the rich white man (Christopher Cousins, Skyler’s unlucky former boss on Breaking Bad) for whom she worked as a housekeeper. Poking into it, Ralph learns that she was actually the man’s daughter, which expands the list of obvious suspects to include anyone in his family who may have wanted to make sure his parentage remained a secret.
With so many likely suspects, how to choose one? When you don’t much care, you can always just throw up your hands at the last minute and drag in an unlikely one: With minutes left on the clock, Ralph establishes that the girl was killed by one of her co-workers, a woman who had briefly appeared in the background of a couple of previous scenes, and who, when accused, suddenly turns into a snarling, embittered psychopath, ranting about how her victim talked a lot of guff in favor of a wildcat strike, saying that everyone needed to “be strong and make sacrifices,” when she had a rich secret daddy who could take care of her. Meanwhile, Vincent has survived an (improbable) attempted hit, and paid his enemies back in kind, due to his interest in becoming part owner of the Tumbleweed Club, a move that infuriates the rival gangsters who, of course, run the unions in town. So one of the issues that gets referenced in the murder storyline is also referenced in the mobster storyline, which for Vegas counts as a major feat of narrative synchronicity. Anyone who gives big points for such things may be impressed with this episode. Those more discerning may find it more entertaining to spend the hour staring at a tree.
- Jason O’Mara’s Jack has suddenly decided to start flirting, hot and heavy, with Mia Rizzo. He postpones asking her out, though, because he’s a shy, manly cowboy type, and also because if he just came out with it, he wouldn’t suffer the embarrassment of finally asking her out just as the crooked-ass D.A. is arriving to show her the town, having already jumped into the breach. (“Can you believe she’s never seen the Hoover Dam?”) This developing triangle has all the earmarks of something that was cooked up after someone said, “Look, we hired him and we’re paying him good money, so either give him something to do on the show, or tell him he has to spend part of every day parking cars on the lot.”