Part of the fun of crime fiction is in learning outré little details of how criminals operate. For instance, when you’re looking to get into the casino chip-forging business, you’re going to want to get your hands on some dental cement. One of the most important characters on tonight’s episode, albeit one with very few lines, is a dentist named Dr. Saffron, who may have been good at his trade but was also a degenerate gambler. Early on, a showgirl visits Dr. Saffron’s office because she needs some emergency work done, and he smiles and sits her in the chair and puts her under anesthesia, and when she woozily regains consciousness some time later, I first thought this was a story about a pervert dentist who rendered his sexy patients null and void and then had his way with them. But then the showgirl staggers out of the room and finds the dentist sprawled dead on the floor. A license to obtain dental cement: Who knew it was the first rung on the ladder to hell?
If adding goodies like this to your personal storehouse of trivia isn’t reason enough to follow a TV show, there are other reasons to continue to hold out hope for Vegas. Dennis Quaid does seem to be getting a handle on how to play his character. In the first several episodes, Quaid seemed determined to resurrect the spirit of late-period John Wayne. Ralph Lamb was a crusty old sourpuss with a century oak up his butt, a charmless crank who was meant to be accepted as the hero, and a fount of cracker barrel wisdom as well, just because he was so darned right. Quaid has been scaling him back so that, if he’s still not the most scintillating protagonist on TV now, at least he seems halfway human. In the opening scene, Lamb lets some petty miscreants go, so long as they stay the hell out of his jurisdiction. “It’s easier to scare ’em than jail ’em,” he tells his son. “Sometimes, there’s a difference between the law and justice.” Vegas has shown Ralph making that kind of distinction again and again, but this may be the first time he’s done so in the name of simple, practical convenience, instead of as some Solomon-like act of deep wisdom.
Ralph is also learning to work with Vincent when necessary. That the two could work together seemed essential to the show from the start, but it didn’t seem likely to ever happen, because Ralph didn’t seem able to share a scene with Vincent, or be on his home turf, without appearing to be fighting a losing battle with his own gag reflex. Naturally, it’s Vincent’s casino that is the target of the phony chips that the late Dr. Saffron was minting, and the problem doesn’t end with the dentist’s untimely passing; whoever killed him clearly has something big planned, now that the middleman is out of the way. The underlying idea behind Vegas is that keeping the peace in a city where professional dealers in vice are gaining a foothold and on their way to respectability is like patrolling a war zone, but the stubborn, unbending moral rectitude Ralph demonstrated early in the series would get him eaten alive in Iraq or Afghanistan. When Vincent agrees to help Ralph with his investigation by letting him talk to a man who’s being tortured in the back room, and Ralph says nothing more provocative about the situation than to tell the man that he might be able to help him get out of this fix if he can make a convincing case for his own innocence, it’s a major leap forward in dramatic plausibility.
At the climax, Vincent and Ralph find themselves in the desert, each with a gun drawn, arguing over whether Vincent ought to be allowed to kill the forger himself. This time, it’s Vincent who—with a symmetry that’s a little too neat—informs Ralph that there’s a difference between the law and justice. Ralph rejects the proposition, and takes the chip forger into custody, while Vincent consoles himself by reclaiming the money that the thief stole from his casino. The exchange produces a few sparks, which is practically a first for Ralph and Vincent’s dustups. I’m not sure whether the tracking down of the culprit, which is the heart of the episode, doesn’t generate more excitement. Maybe it’s just that nothing seems at stake; the dentist barely rates as a character, his accomplice doesn’t make an impression until it’s too late, and despite Vincent’s dire pronouncements on how something like a cascade of bad chips can ruin him, there’s never a moment when he seems in danger or under pressure. His most stressful moment comes when he has to tell his wife that he’s standing her up for lunch. (Telling him that she expects things to be different now that she’s moved to Vegas at his request, she tells him, “I made an art form of dining alone in Chicago.”)
There’s also a subplot involving the mayoral election, and right now, it’s weird enough to make me dread wherever it’s going. Mayor Bennett seems to have the election in the bag, but there is a token opposition candidate: George Grady (Gil Bellows), a charisma-impaired loser with no shot at winning. Looking to build a political power base, Vincent takes Grady under his wing and quickly polishes him into a glib charmer who has all the ladies of Las Vegas eating out of his hand. The 1960 presidential election is going on in the background, and the mayor’s race seems intended to mirror it, with Grady standing in for Kennedy and Bennett for Nixon. Vincent’s wife even alludes to the urban myth that Kennedy won because gangsters in Chicago rigged the game. The episode ends with the big televised debate, where Bennett, like Nixon, refuses to be made up for the cameras. In 1960, Nixon was destroyed in the TV debate partly because he looked like the talking dead. Here, Bennett still looks pretty good without makeup, but after Grady delivers his opening salvo, one of Vincent’s minions takes an axe to the transmitter, and Bennett never gets to respond. This is how it should be, Vincent explains, because people only remember the last thing they saw. Vegas had better hope not.