Friday, July 25, 2014

Do The Right Thing and Get Screwed

When I was a kid back in the 90’s and we still had a gigantic antennae TV, we could only get about 7 channels. So what’s a kid to do? Watch old taped shows on the VHS player, that’s what (do people even know what those are anymore? Geez, I feel so old…). By the time I was five I had seen my fair share of shows most people under 45 have never heard of: Combat, The Andy Griffith Show, The Three Stooges, Keeping Up Appearances, Mission Impossible, Bonanza…the list goes on.

I hate to sound like a baby boomer, but TV really was good in those days. The acting was exceptional. Men looked like men: handsome and strong and noble (at least, the good guys did), and the villains were about as evil and treacherous as the devil himself. The women always looked gorgeous and more often than not played a large role in saving the day. The plots were solid, if not a little predictable. And if there was any sex, fondling, or otherwise naughty behavior, it was always tastefully done off-screen. Way to go, Hollywood—where the hell did you go wrong?

Thank God for reruns.

Most people born before 1970 remember Bonanza; it was a drama/western that ran for 14 straight years (perhaps a little too long) and starred some very handsome hombres. The stories focused on the Cartwright family: a man named Ben who lived with his three adult sons on the Ponderosa Ranch in Nevada during the Gold Rush days. Lorne Greene played Ben, the morally upright and gentle patriarch; Pernell Roberts was Adam, the oldest son and definitely the most arrogant; Dan Blocker played the cheerfully oafish and overweight middle son Hoss; and Michael Landon was the adorable and sometimes naïve skirt-chaser Little Joe, the youngest. 

Pernell Roberts as Adam, the smirking, arrogant older brother
Dan Blocker as Hoss, the oaf with a heart of gold
 The three brothers and their Pa got into wagonloads of trouble through the years, from outlaws to Indian raids to rattlesnake bites and even meeting Mark Twain. The writers also piled on the mush for the ladies and made sure Little Joe and Adam (the hottest of the three bros) got their fair share of blindings, beatings, and stints of walking around shirtless and looking lost and hungry.

Oh, so you didn't believe me? Michael Landon as Little comment

 The nice thing about Bonanza was that every story ended with some kind of moral or lesson that would stick with the viewers long after the credits and clunky theme music faded. The bad guys wouldn’t always get put behind bars. The cool stranger who mysteriously rides into town may not make it out alive again. The girl who tried to keep her boyfriend from the hands of the sheriff might end up getting killed right along with him. Bonanza didn’t show a perfect world, nor did it claim to have all the solutions to life’s problems. 

The Cartwright Family
 “The Outcast,” an ep from the first season of Bonanza, is a rather morose story about a young woman named Leta who is ostracized by the entire town due to her blood relationship with some criminals, who are shown being hanged on the gallows during the very first scene. Those criminals just happen to be her father and her brother, so needless to say, she doesn’t take it well and drops in a dead faint. The always-genial Cartwrights take her into their home so she can recover for a few days before allowing her to return to her own farm, where her boyfriend Clay (a very young and very handsome Jack Lord—remember him from that Hawaii show?) is waiting for her. 

Jack Lord as Clay Renton
 Clay, of course, is also a criminal; he’s spent 3 years in jail and is now hanging around with a bunch of outlaws waiting for a chance to rob a wagon hauling fifty thousand dollars in cash (which, to make things even more interesting, belongs to none other than the Cartwrights—those guys are certainly well-off). But he’s not all bad—he wants to marry Leta and take her where they can “enjoy all the good things everybody else has.” But since there can only be so many nice and wholesome gentlemen per episode, his fate is sealed. 

Susan Oliver as Leta
 Leta is a well-rounded character; she stands up for herself when the townsfolk shoot her dirty glares of contempt and doesn’t let Clay sweet-talk her with empty words. She is charming and cute while showing her wedding dress to Hoss (of all people!), prudent when dealing with Clay’s advances, and unflappable while holding Clay at gunpoint in the final scene; no weak damsels in distress here. Clay tries to sway her with some passionate smooches and promises of buying her a real wedding dress, but she’ll have none of it. As Uncle Andrew would say, she’s a dem fine woman.
Leta and Hoss
 Clay himself is hardly a hardened criminal: he’s just been jaded by years of exclusion from polite society. He wants a wife and a home of his own where people don’t look down on him as “that no good Clay Renton.” Unfortunately, the only way he knows how to get what he wants is through violence, and as the Hollywood gospel preaches, those who live by the gun die by the gun, and usually pretty violently too. 

Leta and Clay, doomed lovers...
When poor Leta goes into town to sell her eggs, she is assaulted by Harvey, the creepy owner of the general store, until Clay comes in at just the right moment and rescues her by beating the heck out of him. Later, when Clay returns to his not-so-merry band of outlaws, he finds himself thirsting for revenge against Harvey and decides to rob the safe in the general store instead of sticking up the Cartwright’s cash-filled wagon. Spence, the leader, taunts him for “thinking small” and Clay pulls his six-shooter on him. “Aw, what’s the boy tryin’ to do, become a man?” sneers Spence. Clay doesn’t hesitate to blast him fatally in the gut, retorting “He just did.” Maniacal chuckle from Jack Lord.

Clay takes the rest of his cronies to rob Harvey’s safe, but when they pry it open they find a mere fifty dollars inside, hardly worth risking their necks for. Of course, as it always happens on TV, they get caught by Harvey himself, but not before Clay whacks him a few times with his pistol butt and—surprise—ends up killing him (but I think he deserved it). Clay flees back to Leta’s house and responds to her inquiries with big fat lies; meanwhile, the town gets wind of Harvey’s demise and becomes set on lynching both Leta and her murderer-lover. 

Still has that McGarrett hair...
Clay is just getting ready to scram with Leta in tow when she pulls a Winchester off the wall and aims it at him. “You did kill that man, didn’t you, Clay?” she whispers. “He deserved it!” Clay snaps, looking very much like McGarrett on a bad-cop day. Meanwhile, the Cartwrights and a hell-bent mob are staked out around the house. “Leta, if you come out with Clay, I promise they won’t hurt you!” Ben calls. Leta yells back that she really does want to “do what’s right” and that she will bring Clay out, unarmed, so no one will hurt anyone. 

“Oooh, that was smart of you, Leta!” Clay exclaims. “Old man Cartwright went for it! They wouldn’t dare shoot at us as long as you’re with me.” He snogs her again and hides his pistol in his boot (when he pulls up his pant leg he appears to be wearing authentic cowboy long johns…nice touch, wardrobe department). Leta prods him out the door with his hands up, but right as the Cartwright boys re-holster their pistols she cries “Look in his boot!” Clay turns on her angrily, ready to fight his way out, and our very own Ben Cartwright has to blast Clay in the belly before more blood is shed. 

"Ooh, that was smart of you, Leta!" Desperate bad guy.
Clay perishes with an angry scowl on his face, claiming that he was still going to rob the Cartwright’s wagon. “That’s all I was after,” he gasps. “Just one big one.” You can’t help but feel a little sorry for the guy (and Jack Lord looks fabulous even when he’s dying). Leta sobs over his body for barely a minute before composing herself; Ben helps her stand up and she hurries away into the house, more of an outcast than ever.
Not a very happy ending...

This ep lays out an interesting concept, as poor Leta tried to do what was right but ended up fiancé-less because of it. The wedding dress she worked so hard to make will now probably never be worn, and her dear poor Clay died like he lived—badly. It almost makes you wish that the Cartwrights would stop being so dang noble all the time and let people mind their own business. Why is it that sometimes when we try to do the right thing we end up getting screwed?

I posed this same question over a family dinner and got no satisfactory response. You’d think, after all, that if we sacrifice our own personal gain in order to obey God’s law, we should get something in return. Not always so. So next time, why bother? Just do things your way, like Frank Sinatra. 

I guess we can boil it down to this: nothing worth doing is easy. It’s easy to be a “bad guy” and cheat on your taxes, to sleep in on Sundays instead of going to church, to watch as much Netflix as you like and eat as much as you want. But is that really a life worth living? Well, for some people it is. All they want out of life is a good time, and that’s all they’re willing to work for. 

But we’re all called to live for something more, something better, something more fulfilling. Our time on this earth is short—a blink of an eye, in fact—when compared to eternity. And what we do here and now determines either our eternity of misery in hell or the complete satisfaction of our every desire in heaven.

Let me be blunt: Christianity is not for wimps. It’s a badass call and a badass way of living. Most of the world can’t cut it. Even Jesus Himself said that most of us wouldn’t be able to do it, and heck, He invented this religion. Christianity really separates the men from the boys. 

If it were easy and rewarding to do the right thing, everyone would do it. It wouldn’t be hard—in fact, it wouldn’t even be noble anymore. It involves an act of will, sacrifice, true grit.

If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen, and stay out. You can’t ride the fence; you’re either a follower of Christ, or you’re against Him. And anything we endure on this earth is nothing compared to the suffering He endured to redeem us, or to the glory and happiness to be revealed to us in heaven.

There is an old movie with Steve McQueen titled “Hell is for Heroes.” I think “hell” should be replaced with “heaven.” Heaven is for Heroes, because heroes are the only ones tough enough to make it.

Ciao, baby.

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