Three weeks in, I’ll admit that Vegas is growing on me, even though tonight it displayed one of the common weaknesses of period dramas – portraying the smart and/or sympathetic characters as seeing things just as we enlightened folk of the future do. (Much of Mad Men’s distinctiveness, I’ve always thought, lies in its refusal to do this; on the contrary, the show seems to relish showing even complex characters as the prisoners of their time and place.)
Specifically, it turns out that Sheriff Lamb holds progressive views on domestic violence and race relations, while Savino is already building turn-of-the-millenium Vegas inside his head. Not that Lamb needs to be a rock-headed reactionary just because he’s a cowboy, but it might be good to see him struggle with his reactions a bit, or acknowledge that he’s going against the grain. Savino’s vision of the future is more convincing; as I noted last week, taking the long view seems an essential part of his character, and spotting new business opportunities is presumably part of his brief.
So what actually happens? The US Olympic boxing team comes to Vegas to fight, only for one of its stars to turn up dead. Meanwhile, Savino is entertaining the top mobsters, in town from Chicago, one of whom, Johnny Rizzo – father of Mia, new boss of the count room – proves a very troublesome guest.
We open with the Olympic boxers holding a press conference. There’s the obligatory reference to “Cassius” having already turned pro. A reporter asks one of them what it felt like to punch a Russian; the boxer — named Tommy — gets upset at the idea of defining people by ethnicity, and brings up the fact that Ray, one of the black members of the team, was denied service at breakfast that very morning. Ray intervenes and quiets him down, and Tommy ends by muttering a patriotic platitude. What we’re meant to take away from this is that Tommy has a compulsion to stand up for the downtrodden, and that Ray looks out for Tommy.
All our main characters attend a lavish reception, presumably related to the boxers’ arrival. A journalist engages Lamb in some unnecessary exposition before Katherine comes up and starts talking about Savino’s connections to recent murders. Lamb’s brother – whose name, I’ve learned, is Jack – is there too, wearing a very bold dotted shirt. Lamb’s got on a very white shirt, open at the neck. Wouldn’t they have been wearing ties in 1960? I would’ve pegged Lamb as the suit-and-silver-Stetson type on formal occasions.
Savino is focused on the buffet; he explains to his visiting boss that many high rollers leave the casino to eat in places like this, because the best they can get at the casino is a cheeseburger. If he had a high-end restaurant on the premises, he could keep them at the tables longer.
The Lambs and Katherine go back to her office (an office, anyway), where they do the standard cop show thing of putting up photos of all the known mobsters to show their relative places in the hierarchy, except the photos are black and white and stuck to a chalkboard, because no one’s invented whiteboards yet. This is how we get to know about Johnny Rizzo, just after we see him start a fight over a poorly mixed martini. It seems that Johnny’s history of violence against service personnel got him into the gaming commission’s “black book,” meaning he’s banned from playing in any casino in Vegas.
Later, Tommy staggers out of an alley and collapses in the street, covered in blood. When Lamb shows up to look at the body, Ray, who’s very upset, takes off running, then charges into a diner. There he grabs a man he says killed Tommy, a fight promoter who’d had an argument with Tommy. The man insists that Lamb arrest “this animal” who’s just assaulted him, and the racist overtones of his outburst are the last acknowledgment we get in this episode of Ray’s color and how it might have affected people’s reactions in 1960. Even characters who aren’t especially racist would have shown an awareness of it. (For instance, see Dorothy B. Hughes’s crime novel The Expendable Man, an example of sun-belt noir first published in 1963 and re-issued by NYRB Classics; I review it here). But Lamb ignores the promoter’s complaints, especially after he finds Tommy’s gold medal in his pocket. Tommy sold it to him because he was a drug addict who needed cash for a fix, the promoter says.
Lamb also finds time to warn Savino to get Rizzo out of town; Savino compromises by setting up a private casino for Rizzo in the penthouse. The highlights of this sequence for me were the cinematic close-up of Rizzo’s rare steak, and a wonderful mid century table lamp in the penthouse; this is a very good-looking show. The lamp is in the background as Savino explains that he’d like to add an arena as well as a restaurant; if the fight were held next to the casino, the audience could head straight out to the floor. Rizzo is not receptive, though Mia is.
Back in Tommy’s storyline, we learn that he wasn’t an addict, he’d just needed a lot of painkiller injected into his neck since his fight with the Russian. The Lamb men also discovered he checked a bag at a local strip club; it holds cash, a gun, and a cryptic note. Though I haven’t mentioned it yet, the defining trait of Lamb’s son, Dixon, is being a horn dog; he’s on a first-name basis with all the women in town. Here, the strippers cheerfully greet him in unison. It seems he also participates in amateur strip-tease competitions.
Ray, who’s watching old film of Tommy’s fights, explains to Lamb how Tommy’s boxing skills and passion for justice alike came from growing up with an abusive father. And the whole Tommy/Ray bond is played up to the point I was wondering if we would get to see Lamb dealing with an interracial gay romance circa 1960, but if that was the case, it stays on the down low. Oh, and Tommy had a cracked vertebrae that could have left him paralyzed if he fought again, and Ray takes pills for asthma.
Back at the Savoy, Rizzo repays Savino’s hospitality by beating up the dealer in his personal “casino” because the guy was letting him win. He heads down to the real casino, only to be hauled off to jail by Lamb. This provides the week’s big fight scene.
Meanwhile, Tommy’s bag of cash has disappeared. One of Lamb’s staff realizes the note from the bag refers to a daily bus to Tucson, and at the bus station they find a very frightened “Mrs. Dunbar” en route to Tucson with the bag and a fake ID. She’s actually the wife of another boxer, Ronnie Davidson who likes to use her as a punching bag. Tommy, remembering his own mother, had engineered her escape. (Small quibble – why is the abbreviation for Tucson “TUS”?).
The police, Mrs. Davidson notes, never did anything but photograph her bruises, then drive her home so they could ask her husband for his autograph.
It’s her husband, Ronnie, who beat Tommy over the head with a pipe, because he interpreted the contact between the two as an affair. However, turns out the beating didn’t kill Tommy – he had a heart attack, possibly induced by a prescription drug interacting with his painkillers.
Rizzo, who was leaving jail with Mia and Savino as Lamb and his men returned from the bus station, is convinced that “John Wayne” needs to be whacked now. This involves making his case at a formal meeting of all the mobsters, including the scary-looking boss from out of town. In making his pitch he does everything but foam at the mouth. He also says that Lamb isn’t even a real sheriff, and if Savino can’t handle him, they need to put someone else in Savino’s job.
Then it’s Savino’s turn. He opens by “respectfully” (his word) noting that Rizzo got himself in trouble by not staying in the penthouse. He says that, while he’s naturally willing to whack whomever he’s asked to whack, two dead sheriffs in a month would have a depressing effect on the tourist industry, which would disrupt the flow back to Chicago of suitcases full of money. Vegas, he says, would become “Havana in the desert.” Last week we learned that Savino made his name in the casinos of pre-Castro Havana; I like the idea that he’s haunted by their loss, and wants to make his new empire fail-safe.
When they’ve both finished, the scary-looking old boss gets to his feet. “Penthouse wasn’t good enough for you?” he says over his shoulder to Rizzo as he walks out. Point to Savino.
Lamb’s figured out that Ray slipped Tommy some of his asthma pills, hoping to make him too sick to fight (and risk further injury). Lamb’s very sympathetic, explaining that he’s willing to keep quiet about this, and giving Ray Tommy’s gold medal. This annoys Katherine, who wanted to prosecute Ray for involuntary manslaughter, but they’re both happy to pursue assault charges against Ronnie for his attack on Tommy, so as to keep him locked up far away from his wife.
I don’t want to say that Lamb’s (or Katherine’s) sympathy for the plight of the battered wife is necessarily anachronistic, but would he have been so confident that he was doing the right thing in separating them? Wouldn’t he have had some doubts, or felt others would have doubts, about getting in the middle of another man’s marriage? Would he have been so completely dismissive of Ronnie’s fear that the two were having an affair?
Not on this show, at least. He puts Mrs. Davidson on the bus to a new life, reminding her that she’s got his number if Ronnie ever comes after her.
And to the strains of “Volare,” the visiting mobsters head home to Chicago. Rizzo hints to Mia that Savino may not be her boss for much longer, while the scary guy at the top assures Savino he’s doing a good job. (But will Savino get his restaurant, let alone his arena?) This may be the cue for the internecine mob warfare we’re promised in the next new episode, two weeks from tonight…