Alex Vega (Jimmy Smits) is one of those TV forces to be reckoned with. This much is clear from the moment he first appears in Cane: with camera over his shoulder as he looks down on a vast factory floor, Alex is powerful and intent. The scene below him features his father-in-law Pancho Duque (Hector Elizondo), celebrating with workers over the delivery of a new ad campaign for Duque Rum, “the finest American rum.”
The soap operatic set-up is both efficient and florid, laying out both familial continuity and class distinctions. Where Pancho still imagines himself a man of his people, proud of having come up from the laborers’ ranks and “our Cuban music”, Alex represents a slightly newer, self-defining breed, proud of his heritage but also determined to make his way in an “American” enterprise. While Pancho enjoys the results of a long life’s worth of work and pain, Alex is maneuvering, looking forward to the next play, looking after the old man’s interests as these reflect his own.
Like his most obvious predecessors, the smooth-talking, utterly operating moguls of Dallas and Falcon Crest, Alex has his hand in multiple deals, respectful of Pancho’s wishes while also steering them, sometimes subtly. When he, Pancho, and Pancho’s son Frank (Nestor Carbonell) meet with the representatives of another family at the Duques’ sugar cane fields in Playa Azul, Arizona, Alex remains close to his father-in-law, his unsmiling face looming in the frame behind Papi’s. It’s clear that neither trusts the Samuels siblings, Lamont (Lee Tergesen) and Ellis (Polly Walker), bidding to buy the fields. “Sugar’s become an afterthought to you,” says Lamont, “You’re in spirits now,” and sale of the fields would allow the Duques to invest in production, saving them some “$135 million over the next three years.” Ellis’ Southerny-twanged reasoning is both more political and more visceral: “Sugar’s become a nuisance. Tree huggers, offshore labor advocates, everyone treating us like we’ve just laid a turd on the table.”
Though Lamont tries to smooth over his sister’s folksy self-presentation, insisting that his family — headed by Joe (Ken Howard) — intends only respect toward the Duques, acknowledging the manual effort their predecessors put into the “land,” Pancho has heard enough. He assures the Samuels he’ll “consider” the deal and makes his exit, even as Frank, his anxious, jealous, underachieving son, insists on the deal’s viability, the die is pretty much cast here. The families will remain in tension, Frank will resent Alex, and Alex — calculating, well-connected, and ruthless — will get his way.
Alex’s many manipulations form the focus of Cane‘s premiere episode. Not only has he forged a mutually profitable relationship with the senator, but he also has an old friend on the local police force, able to dig up information apparently at a moment’s notice. At the same time he’s watching over the business, Alex keeps close watch on his family, from trusting wife Isabel (Paola Turbay) to his very American kids. He’s not thrilled that adolescent Katie (Lina Esco) wears a revealing dress to her uncle Henry’s (Eddie Matos) nightclub (Isabel hands her a shawl as she walks out the door, as if she’ll wear it on the dance floor). Alex is even less patient with Jaime (Michael Trevino), whose mere suggestion that he’s not going to college sets off his dad: the gringa girlfriend (Rebecca [Alona Tal]) is one thing, but rejecting the next step in the family dynasty is quite another.
Alex helpfully provides a series of flashbacks — tinted in golden light, slow-motioned, set in the fields where hardworking men wear straw hats against the sun’s heat — to indicate just how he’s become so fierce about protecting interests. He’s also got a history of violence, aligning Cane not only with the big fat soaps of the ’80s (Dynasty, et. al.), but also with immigrant family sagas like The Godfather. Looking much Don Corleone, Pancho meets with the family in a dark-wood-paneled sanctuary while an elaborate party goes on outside. His faith in Alejandro’s judgment enrages Francisco, of course. Alex’s explanation for not selling the land (“Sugar is the new oil!”) inspires Frank’s old-schooly ridicule: “You gonna be the Saudi prince of ethanol?”
But Alex’s globalized view (he anticipates Cuba’s entry into the world/U.S. market within a few short years) embraces a reality that seems beyond Frank’s ken. “For reasons you don’t know,” Papi tells Frank when he announces Alex’s appointment as CEO and majority shareholder, “You’re just not the right man for the job.” And so the scene is set for the “brothers”‘ ongoing rivalry.
But even as the first episode establishes this standard fraternal variance, it’s Alex’s intrigues that compel attention. In part this has to do with Smits’ subtle authority. It also has to do with Alex’s straddling of generations and cultures. While his past is shady, his current menace is premised on a too-easy hook-up with a Cuban hooligan type, set in a “dark alley” and granting a crude articulation of the show’s overriding theme: “You do what you have to do for your family.” More telling, though, is Alex’s purchase of the guy’s loyalty with a job offer and a party invitation — to “celebrate America.” But there’s a point here too. The return to “America” as occasion and inspiration for violence underscores Alex’s role as prototypical citizen and businessman.