Ben and Adam are speaking strangely, almost entirely in exposition and poetic quotations. Adam stops doing this in a few episodes, but for the next three hundred years of this show’s legendary five hundred season run, this is how Ben talks. It’s cool, though, because he’s Lorne Greene so he can say any ridiculous thing and he sounds as wise as an ancient wizard. (See the original Battlestar Galactica for proof.)
We learn that Adam has high expectations for everyone’s professionalism, especially his brother Little Joe’s. Ben tells Adam that Joe’s biggest problem is being young. Adam seems to think that Joe’s biggest problem is that he’s unreliable and a dumbass. Just to get it out of the way, Ben mentions that there’s a middle brother named Hoss. In case Adam forgot. So now we’re all caught up for how everybody is going to be this episode: Adam is the stern older brother, Hoss is the middle brother who functions as an afterthought, and Joe is the inkblot youngest son who will change depending on the writer. This eventually irons out into the standard Brains, Heart, Courage trio, but we only know that with fifty years of hindsight.
There’s an awkward time skip and we head over to the Ponderosa ranch house, the interior of which looks grey and weird in this episode. Later on, they’ll switch sets for the more famous and airy interior with rich wooden décor, but for now everything looks like zombie plaster with Persian rugs thrown over it. Little Joe is slacking off and jumping around with an epee like he thinks he’s Zorro, and Adam yells at him that if he has time to play pretend he has time to crunch numbers and herd cattle and be productive.
“You’re a Cartwright, and that means you’re a man! Fit to do a man’s work!” Because all Cartwright babies are born as adult males and are expected to begin ranching immediately.
Adam then talks smack about Joe’s French Quarter mother, who will become a topic of great confusion as the show goes on, and Little Joe threatens to kill him. Adam encourages him to go ahead and try, but Little Joe just declares that Adam’s mother was a Yankee, and Adam handily beats the crap out of him. The whole first season of Bonanza is bizarro land if you’re used to watching the later years of the show, but the pilot is easily the weirdest. The characters will evolve a lot. Don’t get used to Adam being the insensitive one who courts violence, because he will be the opposite of that in two seconds.
Ben and Hoss break up the fight, and Adam and Joe continue to establish that Adam’s mother was a different woman from Little Joe’s mother, and that Joe is a New Orleans hot-blood while Adam is a rock-headed New Englander. It’s pretty stupid, especially since both characters grew up in Nevada* and Little Joe has never been to New Orleans in his whole damn life. Ben makes them shake hands, and Adam says that he doesn’t really want to beat the crap out of Joe, but Joe’s laziness and poor attitude towards work is no longer precocious or cute, it is now a great big nuisance. Joe counters that he brought a thousand head of cattle down through the pass and that makes him awesome, so Adam can bite him. Adam apologizes, because Joe did ranching and ranching is the only thing Pilot Episode Adam has ever cared about. (Regular Series Adam has cared about lots of other things, like architecture and Charles Dickens and folk music and moral philosophy. You’ll like him. Or maybe you’ll hate him.)
Ben yells for their housekeeper, Hop Sing, who enters complaining that Ben keeps yelling at him like he’s not a human being with feelings, so he’s quitting. Hoss argues on behalf of Hop Sing, encouraging Ben to make amends because he loves food and Hop Sing is the greatest living chef in the world. Ben apologizes in super-racist Pidgin English and makes everybody uncomfortable. Thank god he stops doing this. Hop Sing agrees to stay.
Hop Sing is an interesting example of an Asian character in a Western series, especially compared on a spectrum with Have Gun – Will Travel’s Hey Boy and the many godawful disasters on The Wild Wild West. There’s also much to be said about the industry mistreatment of the Asian actors who took these roles, and the white performers who did them in yellowface and were paid up to three times as much. But that’s a long, depressing discussion for another day.
Suddenly, mining woes!
We adjourn to a fancy office decorated with ruffled curtains and leather furniture, where three businessmen are discussing the business of silver mining. The series is set near Virginia City, which was famous for the Comstock Lode, an enormous vein of silver that people found by accident while they were looking for gold. In early episodes, mining is a big topic and often the springboard for the week’s main plotline. That’s why the show’s called Bonanza, even though the much later seasons will feature very few references to mining and lead you to believe that Virginia City was a cattle town.
Our three silver barons are grumbling about how Ben Cartwright is king of the jerks because he loves nature and doesn’t believe in hurriedly killing thousands of acres of ponderosa pines to make timbering for the mines. Apparently, Old Man Cartwright thinks that natural resources shouldn’t be exploited to the point of total destruction. That lunatic just won’t sell irreplaceable trees to evil mining executives! It’s ridiculous! One of the guys is sure that they can buy his cooperation with sweet, ill-gotten silver, but his colleague has a different plan. A stupider, sexier plan.
Miss Lotta Crabtree, one of the greatest beauties and actresses of their time will become their secret weapon. She will seduce one of the Cartwright boys into town, and he will be trapped in Virginia City and ransomed for lumber. Because in order to part Ben Cartwright from his beloved trees, they must control the only thing he cares more deeply about than nature – his son!
How did this show run for five hundred seasons, you ask? Colour television. Even though everybody (everybody) thought the first season of Bonanza was as stupid as drinking paint, it was the only weekly scripted series in colour. So if you wanted to show off your awesome new colour television, you had to make your friends and loved ones watch this or The Wonderful World of Disney.
Back to the Ponderosa, where a carriage is careening wildly out of control for reasons that do not matter and are probably a lie. The Cartwrights see it and pursue, presumably to yell at the driver for sucking so hard. They’re pretty mean in this episode. The carriage loses a wheel and comes to a stop, and the boys pull guns on the driver and tell him he’s trespassing and they hate his face.
A lovely woman steps out of the coach, and it’s Lily Munster! Yvonne De Carlo! She’s dressed like an elegant lady of means instead of an awesome vampire housewife, and she yells at the Cartwrights for being a bunch of trigger-happy jackasses.
Adam says that she might be an elegant lady of means, but she’s still a trespasser and the Cartwright family hates strangers, mistrusts women, and never helps anybody in need. Which is the exact opposite of what this character will do and say for the next six years.
Lily Munster acts surprised at the trespassing charge, and is all: “This is America, and I’m an American so I can go wherever the hell I want!”
And Hoss is like: “America is pretty great, but… you know. Property laws.”
Everybody puts their guns away except Adam, who announces that he will totally shoot a woman if it’s necessary. Bizzaro Adam’s reign of terror rolls on! Ben tells Adam to holster his gun, and give Mrs. Munster the benefit of the doubt.
Hoss offers to put the wheel back on the carriage, and Little Joe is instructed to take the lady up to the house. She introduces herself as the foreshadowed Miss Lotta Crabtree, which almost sounds like a porn name but not enough for it to be funny. Little Joe’s heard of her, and gets all excited because she’s an actress.
Joe’s enthusiasm for the arts comes and goes depending on how good-looking the girls are, and whether or not they’re trying to bang his dad. (I really wish that was a quippy exaggeration, but no.)
He takes Lotta back to the main house to get a glass of water, leaving Adam and Hoss to fix the carriage while Ben supervises like only somebody’s dad can: standing nearby and silently complaining about the rate of progress. Several hours pass and nothing gets fixed, which is weird because it shouldn’t take that long to fix a carriage wheel, especially since Hoss can comfortably lift the whole thing, and does so for a small demonstration of his superhuman Viking strength. Anyway, Hop Sing rides up and tells them that lunch is ruined because they were so late – the thoughtless jerks – and also Little Joe got kidnapped by that femme fatale. Hoss is devastated about lunch and indifferent to the news of the kidnapping.
Enraged, Adam draws his gun on the coachman and demands to know who hired him to drive Lotta Crabtree around the Ponderosa. Was it the evil silver barons? It was the evil silver barons, wasn’t it?! The driver begs for mercy and tells them that the silver barons are terrifyingly compelling, and to disobey them is suicide. Which I can’t say I feel is true, given that in the earlier scene where they were all pouting about lumber, nobody thought of hiring a bunch of mercenaries to kill Ben the next time he went into town for supplies and negotiate with one of his surviving hotheaded sons as the Ponderosa was crudely divided between them. That would seem like the obvious solution, if one were an evil silver baron.
Ben gets all stoically pensive about Little Joe, and Adam literally rolls up his sleeves and gets on his horse to fetch the boy home. He’s really chill about it, too. But Ben decides that nobody’s going to go into Virginia City until they have a small mob of lumberjacks established as their backup, so he sends Hoss and Adam to go rally the forces and then everybody can go get Joe. And production on the Ponderosa can be shut down for god knows how many hours, and they’ll have to pay the men some kind of militia fee. I’m pretty sure that this gritty, Dark Knight version of Adam could handle this alone.
Meanwhile, in the den of corruption that is Virginia City, Little Joe is completely oblivious to the fact that he’s been kidnapped. He thinks he’s on a date with Lily Munster. She asks him why people call him Little Joe since he’s clearly medium-sized, and he explains that it’s really in comparison to his brothers, of which he is the shortest. She also asks why Hoss is named Hoss, and Joe tells her it was because he was a fat baby, which is not the actual answer, and then says that Hoss weighed fifty pounds when he was only three months old. Lily Munster counters that unless some kind of gland problem was involved, there’s no way that could be true. Joe says that it’s totally true because Hoss’s mother was six feet tall and could punch as hard as a mule could kick. It’s weird because he’s talking like he knew Hoss’s mother, who died a long time before he was born, and it’s kind of funny because later on we’ll see her in a few flashback episodes, and she’s nothing at all like that description.
By the way, newbies, Ben was married three times: Elizabeth, Inger, and Marie. They each gave him exactly one son and then died, as part of Ben’s pact with Satan.
Up in their cushy offices, the silver barons watch from the window with greedy delight as Miss Crabtree invites Joe to see her in her play and go to dinner, if he isn’t too busy being ransomed. Joe still has no idea he’s been kidnapped and goes to get a snack and maybe a haircut while he’s in town. While he’s away, Lotta has a progress meeting with the silver barons, who approve of her work so far without commenting on the fact that distracting Little Joe with boobs is as easy as getting a cat to follow a laser pointer. They then outline the second part of the plan, which seems to be locking Joe in a hotel room while lumber changes hands? It’s annoyingly unspecific and very, very dumb. Lotta also calls them “silver kings” which I guess means I’ve unofficially demoted them in the precious metals aristocracy, but I like “silver barons” and I’m sticking with it.
Lotta says she’ll only lock Joe in a hotel room if she can be promised nothing will happen to him, and we go to dramatic commercial.
If you can’t believe that a woman would reconfigure all of her morals after a forty-five minute drive with a Cartwright, then this show will never please you.
Little Joe goes to see Hop Ling, who is in no way related to Hop Sing but knows him and asks Joe how he is. I’m not going to elaborate on how stupid it is that the two Chinese characters have almost identical names for no reason and are friends, because it makes me sad and disappointed. Anyway, Little Joe picks the only rose growing in Hop Ling’s garden and then asks if it’s okay if he picks that rose, which is classic Joe, and takes off to go see Lotta’s horrible musical revue.
Obviously, Lily Munster is a charming performer, but the song sucks really hard. Nevertheless, Little Joe is captivated and tosses the red rose onto the stage. She makes a big show of picking it up, and winks conspiratorially at the silver barons. They congratulate themselves on a well-selected honey trap.
Later on, Little Joe goes to meet Lotta in her hotel room because he is an impetuous youth with hormone-clouded judgement and also, like Adam keeps saying, kind of a dumbass. Lotta, dressed in her sexy old timey negligée, begins to regret taking advantage of an inexperienced country boy and shoots down his advances. She decides to redirect the energy in the room and asks Joe what his mother was named. He says Felicia.
The very first episode is where we start getting inconsistent information about Little Joe’s mother, and it will never ever stop. After this, she will almost always be referred to as Marie, and never again as Felicia. Maybe Joe is lying because he’s afraid of telling accurate things to Lotta. The smart brain that lives deep inside his everyday brain is trying to tell him he’s in danger.
Little Joe and Lotta talk about New Orleans, and Joe admits to having never been there. Lotta pours him a champagne, which he hasn’t tried before. He doesn’t say that the bubbles tickle his nose, but he does complain that it’s a weaker drink than he’s used to. (Fun personal story: the first time I ever drank champagne I literally sneezed it out. It was probably the least elegant moment of a life that has included throwing up on Sonic the Hedgehog.) Lotta looks outside the window and sees the silver barons and their goons putting some kind of plan in action. Again, the second part of this two-phase plan is more than a little unclear. Regardless of what’s supposed to be going on, she locks Joe inside the room with her and stands in front of the door.
“Why won’t your father give those men his trees? They need the trees in order to mine the silver.” Lotta explains, torn between her love of money and wanting to be able to sleep at night for the next three years. Or however long it takes her guilt to fade. Maybe a month.
Little Joe finally figures out that he’s been kidnapped. He looks hurt and angry and tells Lotta that good trees keep the land healthy, and that it’s one thing to sell lumber responsibly and quite another to simply strip hundreds of acres with no plan for replanting and no surveys into old and new growth. Well, thanks for the lecture, John Muir! Maybe if you were half as concerned with not getting your ass kidnapped, you could expound on all this in a useful forum instead of shouting it in a luxury suite! Lotta looks remorseful as she accepts the fact that Little Joe now knows what she’s done, instead of looking baffled that it took him so long, which is how a normal person would look.
Meanwhile, across town, Ben busts into the fancier of the town’s two saloons brandishing a shotgun. The silver barons are waiting for him. He demands the safe return of Little Joe, and they call forth their hired gunman – Langford Poole. It’s a notable name because everybody makes it their business to really draw out the Pooooole when they say it, but the actual character does nothing. Ben talks some serious shit about Poole, pointing a shotgun at his chest, and Poole gets ready to draw.
Adam steps forward from the shadows, encouraging more comparisons to Batman, and announces that if Poole would like to engage in a gunfight it will have to be with him instead of Ben. Poole says he doesn’t care which Cartwright he kills, as long as he gets to kill one. Nobody has any idea what this guy has against the Cartwrights. Maybe he hates masculine energy because he’s always been insecure about societal expectations regarding gunfighters, and he views them as a threat. Anyway, they draw and Adam is much faster and gets Poole right in the shoulder of his shooting arm. Poole fires, too, but it goes so wide that Adam doesn’t even try to move to avoid it. It comes closer to killing Hoss, and he’s standing about fifteen feet to Adam’s right.
With the gunfighter out of the way, Ben goes back to demanding the return of Little Joe. Silver Baron Alpha is all: “If you think your brat is somewhere in Virginia City, go ahead and find him!”
Ben makes a face, while Adam says: “I’ll find him.”
Everyone on team silver baron looks nervous, like they thought Ben wasn’t smart enough to check Lotta’s hotel room – the most obvious hiding place – but maybe Adam is. Adam tells Hoss to keep a gun on all the silver barons, in case there’s a need for further questioning. Hoss agrees to hold them hostage, but reserves his right to pistol whip them if they get too uppity. Adam accepts the arrangement and heads to the hotel.
Timing is against everybody, while Little Joe calmly waits for the goons to break down the door to Lotta’s room. Lotta begs him to sneak out the window, but he’s gone into his cold-rage-spiral, which can be terrifying from time to time. The door bursts open, and Little Joe calmly greets the gentlemen before him and mentions that he’s been expecting them. He then handily defeats the assailants and then sneaks out the window instead of going through the door for some reason? Because he was afraid that more goons were on the way? Regardless, he leaves just before Adam arrives.
And, of course, instead of telling Adam that Joe just left through the window like a minute and a half before, Lotta decides to have a philosophical discussion with him and justify her actions. No one cares.
“Next time, Miss Crabtree, pick on a man. Not a boy.” Adam says, like he’s finally going to cut Little Joe some slack for being young. But only behind Joe’s back, saying nice things to people’s faces is more of a Hoss thing.
Meanwhile, Poole swears ominous vengeance on the Cartwrights.
We will never see him again.
Little Joe decides to hide in Hop Ling’s laundry, causing the pursuing goons to destroy several local businesses in Chinatown in their search for him. (Little Joe is a terrible person to be friends with.) Hop Ling sees the goons coming, so he hides Joe in a basket of clothes. They wreck up Hop Ling’s shop, but don’t find Joe. After they leave, Joe climbs out of the basket and says some really racist stuff. Just, like, you got this people’s businesses ransacked, dude. Be cool.
Hop Ling throws a cast iron kettle at Little Joe’s head, and it’s a real shame he misses.
The goons start a fire that takes out at least one of the Chinese shops, and the community rushes to put out the fire and beat up the goons. With popular opinion on his side, Little Joe leaps out from inside Hop Ling’s and joins in the riot. The goons are taken care of via 50’s TV punching
A handful more hours pass and dawn is breaking when Ben, Hoss and Adam find Little Joe slow dancing with Lotta inside something that looks like a canteen tent, while a couple of old guys play the harmonica and the piano. Ben, relieved to find Little Joe safe and sound, yells at him for spending all night slow dancing while people were worrying. Adam kisses Lotta for no discernable reason other than to have two people kiss at the end of the pilot episode, in case female viewers wouldn’t be drawn in by a weekly character drama about attractive cowboys, and everybody goes home.
It’s a really abrupt ending for an uneven episode, but it’s kind of a relief that it’s all over.
High Point: Ben has awkward old-timey dialogue like “Fire and brimstone!” and “You rapscallions!”
Low Point: Evil silver barons aren’t good at making plans.
*At this point in the timeline, Nevada is still part of Utah Territory, and Adam and Ben moved to the state when Adam was five. Before that, Adam grew up in the back of a covered wagon. It comes up later.