"Rope of Cards" – Maverick S01E17 Retro Review

Ah, Maverick. I already spoke at some length of why I like the show. If you missed it, read my review here. "Rope of Cards" is a strong contender for why I like the show. It's not the greatest episode in the world, of Maverick, of Westerns, or of TV. But it caught me off guard because I wasn't expecting it to be as good as it was when I read the description. Then I watched it, because Maverick is on one of my local retro channels and I watch all the episodes. And hey, it's pretty good.

James Garner, Jack Kelly, Maverick

You can also read my previous review about some of the backstory on Maverick. Also, my retro channel MeTV is weird because it's currently only showing the episodes with James Garner in them. You only see Jack Kelly as Bart when the two brothers are in an episode together.

Finally, "Rope of Cards" is like a lot of first season Maverick episodes because the show is still at the point where it doesn't know if it wants to be a standard American early 60s Western, or a Roy Huggins/James Garner show. "Rope" and many of the other first-season episodes end up as a mix of both. This episode delineates the two parts because the first half is almost entirely Maverick free, while the second half is Bret coming in to shake up the standard Western format.

What do I mean? Glad you asked. We get a brief opener with a young Bill Gregg (William Reynolds) running out of the ranch home belonging to a businessman named Sloan. Sloan's guards capture Bill and confirm Sloan is dead. We then cut to Bret playing poker in the local saloon. The sheriff calls Bret in as a witness since Bill figures he can confirm someone rode out to Sloan's ranch. Bret can't, but he does confirm Bill asked Sloan for a loan at the saloon. Sloan insulted Bill's father, calling him a thief and giving Bill a motive. The sheriff rounds up a jury, and grabs Bret along with the rest of the poker players.

Will Wright, Hugh Sanders, Maverick S01E17

We then go into a long sequence with Bill's trial, and the episode goes in several different directions. There's the crotchety old defense attorney Jabe (Will Wright), and the ambitious prosecutor Blaine (Hugh Sanders), and their rivalry. We get witness retellings which amount to flashbacks as we see first how Bill and Sloan argued at the saloon, and later when Bill says Sloan paid him a visit and offered him the $3,000 loan money but didn't want Bill to tell anyone about it for fear his reputation would be ruined.

There's also a hint of romance between Bill and his fiancé, Lucy. According to Bill in yet another flashback scene, Sloan was in love with Lucy and figured Bill was beneath her. So Sloan set the whole thing up to frame Bill as a robber and shoot him dead. Bill manages to shoot Sloan, but when he left he had $6,000 instead of $3,000.

So far, it's a pretty standard Western. But then the jury goes for deliberations and James Garner, and the episode, shine. Bret is the only one who figures Bill is innocent. He slowly turns the jury around, pointing out the reasonable doubt and how things don't end up. The jury is made up of 60s HITGs like Don Beddoe and Frank Cady. The latter is Sam Drucker from Green Acres.

The main holdout is Pike (Emile Meyer), one of Bret's poker buddies. Pike is sure Bill is guilty, and insists he won't change his vote. He points out Bill has $3,000 more than he claimed he got from Sloan. Bret demonstrates the first of two bar/gambling stunts, things you watch for when you're being short-changed, but not when people are trying to give you more money than you expect. He demonstrates this by having Pike reveal Bret slipped him an extra $500 when he earlier bet Pike that he'd change his vote.

Emile Meyer, Maverick S01E17

Everyone on the jury now votes not guilty except for Pike. Bret then proposes another bet, rather than punching Pike or arguing with him. He notes the odds of dealing five pat poker hands are thousands to one and Pike doesn’t believe he can do it. Bret points out the odds are roughly the same as of Bill being innocent, and if he can deal out five pat hands than "proves" there's enough reasonable doubt for Pike to change his vote.

FYI: A "pat hand" is a poker hand where you stand pat in draw poker when asked if you want to take any cards. Because the odds of improving the hand with different cards are minimal. It's a flush or higher.

Pike accepts the challenge, and I know what's coming because I pick up bar bets like felt picks up lint. Bret has Pike shuffle a deck and deal out 25 random cards, and then makes five pat hands out of the cards. It's not quite the situation Bret initially discussed, but it's close enough for government work. Bret makes five flushes and a king-high straight and wins the bet. Pike figures he was suckered and Bret admits you can make five pat hands out of almost any 25 random cards.

Emile Meyer, James Garner, Maverick S01E17

In the end, no one is sure how Pike will vote because they didn't call for a final poll before going back to the courtroom, which seems unlikely, but oh well. When the jury foreman says "not guilty", the prosecutor asks for a poll and Pike is the last one. He finally says "not guilty". After the trial ends, Bret admits he was betting Pike was a decent man and would honor the bargain. They go to play poker.

The episode is good because for one thing, it tosses out most of the first half to deal with Bret in the second half. You get the Jabe vs. Blaine conflict which is pretty tropish but still mildly interesting: Wily older defense attorney vs. ambitious younger prosecutor. They get off some decent legal sparring with all the usual Objections! and Sustained! So I'm a little sad we never find out how that ended.

Sloan's scheme is a little farfetched: he plans to frame Bill and then shoot him dead and claim Bill robbed him. His plan only fails because he's a lousy shot, and fails to hit Bill at ten feet after he's served Bill two shots of whiskey. And Bill manages to draw, turn, and shoot him dead with (as the prosecutor will note later) one bullet straight into the heart. All so Sloan can have Bill's fiance Lucy, who no one knew he was in love with except her. And she has no witnesses to prove her claim: did Sloan plan things so carefully he kept all proof of his love away from everyone since day one? That's very forward-thinking!

James Garner, Maverick S01E17

The other good thing about "Rope" is once they drop all the legal shenanigans, you get Bret. Unlike the vast majority of the Westerns of the time, he's not particularly interested in do-gooding. First, the sheriff drags him in to act as a witness to backup Bill's story. Which he can't. Then, the sheriff wants Bret to serve on the jury and Bret makes it clear he's not interested. The sheriff (Ken Christy) essentially shanghais Bret into serving on the jury. And then James Garner fades into the background except for the occasional reaction shot.

Once the jury goes to deliberate, Garner shines as Bret is the sole holdout against finding Bill guilty. Which seems a bit unlikely: at least a couple of the jurors know Sloan cheated at cards and had a generally bad reputation. Bill is a dirt farmer but his father (who Sloan claims stole money from him) seems to be fairly well-respected around town and had enough money to loan Sloan $3,000 when Sloan was getting started. So having all eleven locals vote Bill guilty is odd.

And either to their credit, or because the episode has already spent half its running time on the trial, ten of the jurors come around to Bret's way of thinking once he notes there's reasonable doubt Bill murdered Sloan. The holdout is Pike, and Meyer does a good job of making Pike a stubborn SOB without making him a complete jerk.

The script by Robert Ormond Case, with a teleplay adaptation by R. Wright Campbell, helps out. It has Bret say at the end he gave Pike an excuse to change his vote to not guilty by pulling the "five pat hand" stunt on him. And he was counting on Pike to do the right thing. Pike pays off on his bet, laughs it off, and goes off to play poker with Bret.

And that's one reason I like Maverick. The main character doesn't gun down anyone, or get into a fight or an angry argument. In a genre where typically the good guy ends up doing any of those three, Bret wins the day with his wits and his knowledge of the odds. Yes, most Western protagonists are smarter than the average bear, but it's not often their main weapon. Paladin on Have Gun, Will Travel is the main one I can think of. I'm sure there are others, but not that many: even Jim West on The Wild Wild West is much more likely to shoot or punch out his opponent rather than outsmart them. Heck, Paladin could shoot it out with the best of them, although he often got wounded in the process.

But that's just my opinion, I could be wrong. What do you think?

Written by Gislef on Jul 28, 2019

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