The Big Valley: Season One


Big Valley‘s got chops. A sprawling Western soap full of feistiness, it has soaring plotlines, savvy actors, and considerable charm. It doesn’t have the grittiness (or the cursing) of a nouveau Western like HBO’s Deadwood. Instead, it’s an old-school, somewhat sanitized Hollywood version of the frontier, which makes it a festive time capsule itself. As featured in the extra-less DVD, The Big Valley: Season One, the drama’s real strength is how it captures the epic struggles of 19th century California but delivers it in tasty, bite-sized chunks by focusing on a family viewers can care about.

The soapy travails of the pretty, blue-eyed Barkleys can sometimes appear rather too Aaron Spelling-esque. Their San Joaquin Valley ranch is always in peril, the outlaws are always coming, and shoot-outs leave extras dying on the ground in each episode. And we know it’s always going to work out all right for our protagonists in the end.

But the show is grounded by solid characterizations and dramatic tension. Barbara Stanwyck is the widow matriarch, Victoria Barkley, running her brood. Through hard work, patriarch settler Tom Barkley built up an empire of land and wealth and holdings in mines, farming, and ranching. He was killed (six years before the present time of the series) trying to stand up to railroad heavies who wanted to run the farmers off of their land. Victoria has her three sons and a daughter to help her carry on. The “carrying on” involves maintaining their wealth and status in the community and trying to live up to their various interpretations of the patriarch’s legacy.

While each main character clearly represents a standard type, they each have multiple layers. Victoria is the strong-willed and yet lady-like mother whom all the siblings would do anything to protect. Most episodes include a set piece where she pulls one of her crew onto the veranda to give them a moral lesson about honor and courage. The preaching would sound irritatingly after-school-special if not for Stanwyck’s steely delivery. She’s an interesting study in the complexity of gender roles. Like many women of the 19th century, Victoria enjoys a higher degree of freedom and decision-making power as a widow than she did as a married woman. On the one hand, she fits the era’s “cult of true womanhood”, in which the women were supposed to be the “angels of the house”, upholding domesticity. Of course, only wealth would allow her to maintain an elegant home on the rough frontier. On the other hand, she sometimes saddles up and rides into conflict, doing her part to fight for her family.

Lawyer Jarrod (Richard Long) represents the on-rush of “civilization” and polite society; he navigates dealings among wealthy California businessmen and politicians, trying to keep his family’s vast holdings intact. Hothead Nick (Peter Breck), who runs the ranch, would rather be riding, roping, and busting jaws than sitting in leather chairs cutting deals. He’s a man’s man and a throwback to the frontier spirit in an era when the frontier was closing. Boyish Eugene (Charles Briles) is mostly off at college; when present, he seems torn between the two models his older brothers provide. The opposition between the two isn’t always clear-cut (talk versus action, thinking versus fighting), because when the chips are down, Jarrod always earns his spurs by joining the gunfight when he sees no other option. Young Audra (Linda Evans), meanwhile, wants to be wild like Nick but is constrained by her gender role. She spends most of the season trustingly falling for inappropriate men (various outlaws pretending to be legit) and having to be rescued by her brothers (as in “The Midas Man” or “Young Marauders”).

Most of the first season’s dramatic tension is sparked by the entrance, in the first episode, “Palms of Glory”, of a bastard son. No epic drama seems complete without one. Studly Heath (Lee Majors) arrives in Stockton after his mother dies, looking for the Barkleys because he’s learned Tom was his father. A young Majors, surprisingly compelling, comes off strangely like a blond Elvis doing one of them thar’ cowboy pictures. He’s got more charisma than the material requires. Heath makes his grand entrance by jousting with Nick, outrunning a train on his horse, and proving his worthiness by protecting his sister against violent men in town. The series follows the developing family relationships as he and Nick try to out-testosterone each other and as Victoria accepts and nurtures him. An especially poignant plotline has Victoria going to Heath’s hometown to try and learn if she was, as she says, “living a lie” all those years married to Tom, since he had an affair. While the episode, “Boots with My Father’s Name,” nimbly ties her ambivalence about her unfaithful husband with Heath’s anger at a father who abandoned him, it wraps up all too nicely. She finds a letter in which Tom makes clear he loved her and Heath’s mother, that he ended the affair quickly, and that he never knew of Heath’s existence. As the episode ends with a statue being erected in the town square honoring Tom, the program does somewhat undermine hagiography, as both Victoria and Heath are able to honor the patriarch as a flawed human being rather than an impossible legend.

As much of the drama comes from family ties, the series is sometimes guilty of unconvincing melodrama. The creepy factor goes sky-high in the first episode when Audra tests Heath’s brotherliness by making a pass at him. When he rejects her on cue, she accepts him as a sibling and laughs off the incest bait moment. That abrupt kind of tone shift can be jarring and happens often on the series. In a later episode, “The Odyssey of Jubal Tanner”, an old family friend arrives to claim land Tom left for him, but the town wants him off the land so they build a dam there. We learn that Victoria wants to honor his land claim because back in the day, Jubal saved her life during a fire and his own wife died, instead. Too many unearned tears ensue in the telling of this family secret. When Jubal is shot by angry farmers agitating for “progress”, he leaves an orphaned grandson behind like a package with no destination. Right after the death scene, we see the grandson agreeing to have the dam named after Jubal; the boy then laughs happily with the Barkleys. Odd, to say the least. Hearty backslaps do not a satisfying dramatic resolution make.

The series is usually on more solid footing when it links the family drama to larger historical issues. The Jubal episode becomes a way to think about democracy and natural rights discourse. Victoria reminds Jarrod that rights of the few matter just as much as the rights of the many; Jarrod quotes Thoreau to that effect as they discuss how the government, in liberal pluralism, must protect the rights of the minority against the excesses of majority rule, plus everyone’s equal right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Standard rhetoric and idealism, yes, but it becomes more compelling when tied to the scrapes of their friends and relatives. There’s always a new gun in town ready to take what they have. The law and the sherriff often can’t help them. What moral compass will they use to guide them in frontier justice when their lives are frequently on the line? What principles are they willing to die for? They have to find those answers all the time, and it makes for a wild and wooly ride.

The series engagingly investigates 1870s and ’80s California, addressing huge social issues. In one episode alone, “Heritage”, about a mine strike by the Molly Maguires, we see class tensions, labor strife, and racial and ethnic tensions sparked by increased immigration during this time (the management wants to bring in Chinese workers as strike breakers, and the Barkleys decide to stop them). Many episodes feature tensions caused by the growth of urbanization and industrialization and the dying out of the frontier, the excesses of the robber barons and the risk they pose to democracy, and the angst of Civil War veterans trying to find their place in the world again.

Given the show’s historical context (this first season is 1965-1966), it is perhaps not surprising to find reductiveness and some clunky cultural politics in the program’s treatment of some of the postbellum historical issues. Liberalism was TV’s dominant ideological mode of address during this epoch of network television. A middle of the road, inclusive, consensus kind of message offered the best way to cull mass audiences without alienating too many potential viewers, since the viewers and their consumer pocketbooks are the product being sold to advertisers, of course. While Deadwood might offer postmodern questioning of the old frontier myth and Manifest Destiny, partly due to the critical legacy of the social movements begun in the ’60s (Civil Rights, women’s rights, anti-war movements), Big Valley is decidedly the relic of an earlier time, largely ignoring the philosophical influence of ’60s social change. The word of the day on this show is faith in the system, trust in democracy, and a happy paternalism. No real consideration of the Native Americans or Californios violently pushed off the land by white settlers or of the Barkley’s black servants in the background.

There are some criticisms of corruption and social hierarchies, but mostly the series celebrates the rich folks with the heart of gold. The wealthy Barkleys are like benevolent aristocrats, except they would balk at being called aristocractic. Heath’s hardscrabble roots often become an alibi for their cush life. Indeed, they seem to want to have it both ways. They stand up for the little guy, the farmers trying to make it in Big Valley. But they only manage to get their friends and themselves out of trouble because of their vast wealth and power. They spend some time feeling guilty about their privilege, but they get over it pretty fast.

The main emotional message proffered by the show is that we should all be so lucky to have a benevolent powerful family as patrons when the bad guys arrive. The most disconcerting aspect of the show is that lots of the Barkleys friends end up with bullets through their heads. Yes, the patriarch and self-made man set the heroic example with the original sacrifice. But that death happened offstage, and he gets constant commendations for it (not to mention statues) even years later. Once some of the smaller farmers resist thieves or thugs representing various big money special interests (mining companies, railroads), they often get the short end of the stick. The Barkleys urge them to be courageous and stand up for their principles. But in this Wild West, that can often mean being dead before supper — and not much remembered, either, even in the very next scene. Happy paternalism where someone else is paying the cost.

But despite the drawbacks of oversimplification and easy breezy worship of the good rich guys, the series does offer a window into a couple of fascinating worlds: the hard knock 19th century frontier life of epic moral battles, and ’60s TV western fantasies, chock full of hardbodied cowpokes, tension-filled action, and the reassuring domesticity of a palatial home on the ranch.

The Big Valley: Season 1Drunken Cowboy Mob

RATING 6 / 10
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.