“I wouldn’t be so high on myself if I was you, Ryker.”
“Oh, yes, you would—if you were me.”
I was very excited when I found out about the Annual Favorite TV Show Episode Blogathon on A Shroud of Thoughts, as it’s dedicated to classic TV shows. There are a ton of classic TV programs that are very dear to my heart, and most of them don’t get enough love these days. So I’m looking forward to introducing you to the coolest Western hero you’ve probably never heard of.
First of all, if you’ve never seen the 1960’s Western series The Virginian, you are missing out on a whole lot of awesomeness. It’s more than just a simple TV show. The cast and crew’s goal was to make each one of the 90-minute episodes feel like a movie in scope. And for the most part, they succeeded, especially in the earlier seasons (things started going downhill somewhat in season five thanks to ill-advised cast changes). The main character, played by James Drury, was always referred to only as “the Virginian”—following the tradition of the book the program was based on, his name was never revealed in the course of the show. Not unlike another 1960’s TV program, come to think of it…
The show’s stories were set primarily on Shiloh Ranch and the nearby town of Medicine Bow, Wyoming. The main cast—in the early years, at least—consisted of the Virginian (the ranch foreman); cowhands Trampas and Steve (played by Doug McClure and Gary Clarke); Shiloh’s owner, Judge Garth (12 Angry Men’s Lee Cobb, Jr.); and his daughter, Betsy (Roberta Shore).
While all these characters were fantastic, none of them are the unsung hero I mentioned. In fact, very few of them play a significant role in the episode I’m reviewing, except for Trampas.
In the first episode of Season 3, a new character was introduced to the show: Deputy Sheriff Emmett Ryker (played by Clu Gulager). When we meet him, however, he’s not a deputy. He’s a part-time itinerant marshal, part-time gun-for-hire. Even in the midst of his more mercenary jobs, however, he clings to a strong moral code. So he’s not pleased when an unscrupulous businessman named John Hagen (played by Leslie Nielsen) tries to hire him to bump off an innocent old rancher on whose ranch Hagen holds a mortgage. Unfortunately, after Ryker storms off, Hagen and his minions decide to make him useful anyway—by murdering the rancher and pinning the blame on him. Thanks to his reputation as a hired gun, the whole town of Medicine Bow is quick to assume he’s guilty. Ryker now has to clear his name while being dogged at every step by townspeople who hate him and a criminal who won’t hesitate to kill him if he gets too close to the truth.
While intriguing, this isn’t a particularly groundbreaking set-up for a Western tale. What makes this episode remarkable is the way the storyline plays out. I quickly lost count of the clever, unexpected plot twists the first time I watched it. Ryker enters into a brilliant, Sherlockian cat-and-mouse game with Hagen, defying common Western tropes at every turn. By the end of the story, the bad guys are so checkmated they don’t know what to do next. The conclusion is highly satisfying, providing the desired payoff without wrapping things up too neatly.
“Six to one… You’ll never have odds this good. All I can do is kill the first man who moves.”
The best thing about this episode, however, is its humor. Ryker fires off one laugh-out-loud quip after another. They’re so good I won’t spoil any besides the ones I’ve already quoted. You have to hear them in context (and with Clu Gulager’s terrific acting behind them) to fully appreciate them. Suffice it to say that Ryker is fully aware of his own coolness, and wastes no opportunity to put his enemies off their guard with his keen, dry wit. Like all shows from this period (and every other period, come to think of it), The Virginian had its moments of cheesiness and failed attempts at being funny, but you won’t find any of those in this story.
I rank “Ryker”, the story, as one of the best Westerns I’ve seen in any medium, and Ryker the character as my favorite Western protagonist. If you never watch any other episode of The Virginian, at least watch this one. That’s not to say you should shy away from the rest of the show, however. There are plenty more brilliant stories where this one came from.*
*Sadly, The Virginian is not currently available on any streaming service, but you won’t be wasting your money if you buy the complete DVD set of Season 3. Most of the episodes from that year were excellent.