July 22, 2009

Day of Reckoning in Bonanza

Day of Reckoning (Season 2, Episode 7) was the 39th episode of Bonanza. Premiering in 1960, it offered a complex take on Indians. Let's take a look:

Episode RecapSynopsis

After being injured in a fight, Ben is nursed back to health by Matsou and his wife Hatoya. In return, Ben give the two Indians land to settle and farm. However Matsou's brother and a neighbor are set on making sure that Matsou and his wife don't succeed in their new life.

Full Recap

Ben is ambushed on his own property by the son of an Indian chief, rabid with hatred for the white man. Matsou, the Indian's brother, and Matsou's wife Hatoya, find Ben and take him back to their tent to nurse him. Matsou's brother (Largosa) comes to look for him, but Matsou hides Ben and forbids Largosa to enter his home. Matsou's brother chides and tries to humiliate Matsou for being soft "like a woman" ever since he married Hatoya; but he finally leaves without seeing Ben. It is the spiritual influence of Hatoya's living three years with a white couple that has led her to Christ, and Matsou's love and devotion to her compel him to respect what she says.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Ben's neighbor Ike, who is living on land acquired from Ben, complains to Joe and Hoss and Adam that he refuses to live with "Injuns," after finding a skull of one of them on his property and glimpsing some of the tribe nearby.

Matsou and Hatoya bring Ben back to the Ponderosa. Out of goodwill, Ben gives them a piece of land to farm, which at first Matsou does not want. He has no knowledge of being a farmer, but his wife urges him to accept it, and he does. Members of the white community help them learn to plant, and Matsou and Hatoya also adopt the fashions and hairstyles common to the white man.

One day, Matsou's brother Largosa pays a visit and warns him that their people want payback for their property and for being driven out by the whites. He also tells Matsou that their father has just died, making him (Largosa) the new chief. Matsou refuses to heed the warning out of love for his wife, and also the child that she is now carrying.

That night, Largosa and some of the tribe attack the home of Ike, Matsou's neighbor, killing Ike's wife and burning their house. The next day at the funeral, Matsou and Hatoya appear at a distance, Hatoya offering prayers for the slain woman. In a fit of hysteric rage, Ike grabs a gun and shoots Hatoya and her unborn child dead. Matsou tries to go after him, but is deterred by the Cartwrights.

Matsou takes his revenge by defacing Ike and sending him back to the Cartwrights, and Ben comes looking for Matsou. Stringing Ben up with rawhide, Matsou lets the sun beat down on Ben and stretch the rawhide, hoping that Ben's suffering will ease his own pain. As the heat grows more intense, Ben begins praying "The Lord's Prayer" and Matsou tells him to stop. Ben continues, and finally, Matsou can no longer take it. It was the prayer so often that he'd heard his wife say. He finally cuts him loose, telling Ben that he was hoping his hatred for Ben would cause Ben to retaliate, and set him free from the knowledge of this grace.

The episode concludes with Matsou stating that, since his brother was killed, he--Matsou--is now chief of his people, and he leaves Ben to return to them. There is a sense that there will be new hope for them as this courageous man--now no longer harboring hatred--will be leading them.
Comment:  Here's my review of the episode's high, medium, and low points.

The good

  • The basic premise is probably realistic for the late 19th century. Some Indians want to keep fighting the white man, while others want to convert to the white man's ways. The overall context is that whites are winning the Indian wars and "taming" the West, so the Indians don't have many options left.

  • The three Indian characters show a range of emotions. Largosa: hatred of the white man. Matsou: Unwilling and afraid to change, but ultimately flexible. Hatoya: Christian love making her amenable to the white man's world.

  • Largosa's main reason for scorning his brother is that Matsou the Shoshone married Hatoya the Bannock Indian. These are the right tribes for Nevada and the prejudice seems plausible. (I don't know if this particular prejudice has any basis in fact, but enmity between tribes was commonplace.)

  • The Cartwrights stand up for the Indians against their neighbor Ike, reminding him the land was once theirs.

  • The bad

  • The Indians' appearance conforms to the revisionist standard: Western clothes, braids, headbands. I believe Hatoya wears a stereotypical buckskin dress until she moves to the farm.

  • Matsou and Hatoya initially live in a tipi, which would be terribly out of place in Nevada.

  • The Indians have no real Native beliefs, values, or culture. They're a white screenwriter's version of Indians: all surfaces, no depths.

  • The Cartwrights don't acknowledge how they came to possess the Indians' land. The Indians lost this land just a few years earlier, but everyone acts as if it's the longstanding status quo. The Cartwrights are the unquestioned lords of the Ponderosa as if the deed came directly from God.

  • The ugly

  • Matsou and Hatoya are played by Ricardo Montalban and Madlyn Rhue (!). Yes, Khan Noonien Singh and his mate Marla McGivers from the Star Trek episode The Space Seed.

    Montalban has a swarthy ethnic look, at least. But Rhue? She's a less believable Indian than Audrey Hepburn (The Unforgiven), and that's pretty unbelievable.

    But they have decent chemistry together. Is this where Gene Roddenberry and company got the idea to cast them together seven years later? It seems like too much of a coincidence to believe otherwise.

    For more on Bonanza, see Death on Sun Mountain in Bonanza and El Toro Grande in Bonanza. For more on the subject in general, see TV Shows Featuring Indians.

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