Sunday, March 22, 2020

"Showdown in Limbo" (The Big Valley) 1967

I have such vivid memories of watching this ep when I was in my teens.  We were lucky enough to tape it off cable when we were visiting my grandparents one summer -- lucky because it guest-stars Tom Lowell, who played Billy Nelson on my absolute favorite show, Combat! (1962-67).

My teen years were spent obsessing over both Combat! and classic Star Trek (1966-69), so I was always overjoyed when we could find actors who played regulars in those shows guest-starring in another show I liked, such as The Big Valley, like William Shatner's turn in the episode "A Time to Kill" I reviewed here a couple months ago.

Anyway, "Showdown in Limbo" starts off with Heath Barkley (Lee Majors) arriving in the town of Jubilee, stopping by to visit his old friend Frank Sawyer (Arch Johnson).

Heath was Frank's deputy once, and Frank thinks of him like a son.  Welcomes him like one too, all happy and cheerful and full of high praise for Heath.

Heath clearly has fond memories of their time together hunting outlaws, pursuing bandits, and otherwise upholding law and order.  I mean, he even smiles several times within the first couple minutes of the episode!

Know who's not so happy to see Heath?  Frank's actual son, Chad (Tom Lowell).  Chad grew up back east, where his mother retreated after one too many blow-ups with Frank.  Now she's dead and Chad has come to live with his father.  And Frank clearly misses no opportunity to praise Heath, compare Chad to Heath, or talk about how Heath would have done things.

(Let's all ignore the fact that Frank refers to Heath as Heath Barkley, yet clearly he knew Heath when he was a lot younger, which obviously was before Heath found out he was a Barkley or claimed the family name.  It's best not to scrutinize timelines too closely when you're looking at Heath's life and just remember this was before people kept very strict track of such things with regard to TV shows.)

Well, Chad's being polite and Heath's noticing that Frank's paying Chad very little mind, and things are progressing reasonably well when in comes the episodes villain, since obviously, we have to have a villain since Frank is a lawman and all.

The villain's name is Earl Vaughn, he's played by L.Q. Jones, and he provides this ep with a lot of liveliness.  And I don't mean just because he's carrying a live chicken.

Just as Earl and his girl enter the Big Mule Saloon, Chad exits.  He bumps Earl.  Earl loses his chicken.  It flies up to this handy ledge above the bar.

Chad knows he's in trouble now.

Earl can't wait to cause trouble.  L.Q. Jones is never, ever a boring actor, and he really shines here as a swaggering, mouthy, trouble-making bad guy.  Weirdly enough, you never feel like he's hamming it up or chewing the scenery.  He really is as interesting as he thinks he is.

Anyway, Chad is not looking forward to what comes next.  And rightly so.

Right there in front of his dad and the oft-praised Heath Barkley, Chad gets knocked flat and kicked.

Heath steps in.  Because Heath just can't stop himself from helping.  It's an occupational hazard if you're a Barkley: You Must Help.

Of course, Heath takes care of Earl in about three seconds.  Chad resents this.  Of course.  The Great and Mighty Heath Barkley showed him up within ten minutes of hitting town.

Heath understands exactly what's bothering Chad.  He tries to make friends with him over a cup of coffee.

I'd just like to point out how well Heath's hat matches the paint scheme in this back room of the jail.  Or this family kitchen.  Or whatever this place is.  Anyway, it matches really well.  That's totally the reason this picture is here.  Has nothing whatsoever to do with Heath leeeeeeaning on one knee.

Ahem.  So, they lock up Earl.  And they discover he's Wanted for Something Important, so Frank decides that he and Chad are going to take Earl to the federal marshal in Stockton.  Heath had planned to continue on to Sonora on Important Business, but he decides to tag along on this adventure instead.

Meanwhile back at the Barkley Ranch, Nick (Peter Breck) and Jarrod (Richard Long) are having a very loud argument about selling cattle.  Their mother Victoria (Miss Barbara Stanwyck) is so done with their nonsense, she actually rolls her eyes at them.

They take no notice of her silent sass and keep bickering.

Finally, Sheriff Madden (James Gavin) turns up to let them know he got a telegram that Heath's coming along with a prisoner transfer with Jubilee, and he was going to run out to meet him, and do Jarrod and Nick want to come along, by any chance?

Of COURSE they do!  They've clearly only been arguing over selling a cattle herd for a whole hour because they are bored.  They run upstairs for their gunbelts and hats, and off they go.

Isn't this shot pretty?

I haven't mentioned yet that this ep was directed by Bernard McEveety, who also directed "A Time to Kill," plus nine other Big Valley eps.  And he directed 31 episodes of Combat!.  I really like his style.  He loves to put lots and lots of people in his frames, which you'll see more of later on.

So, we have to make camp while on this trip because I guess Jubilee is a long ways from Stockton.  Chad is on guard duty and keeps himself awake by drawing.

Turns out Chad is quite the talented artist.  But his father hates the idea of him being an artist.  He'll only be contented if Chad turns into a second Heath Barkley, all fists and guns and so on.

Here's one of those shots with lots of people in it, some close up and some far away.  Nick and Jarrod are wearing big, heavy coats to remind us this is supposed to take place in winter or something.

Well, Frank, Chad, Heath, and their prisoner Earl all end up in this little ghost town called Limbo.  Obviously, or else the ep title wouldn't make any sense.  I forgot to mention that Earl has a brother named Floyd who is trailing them and wants to free Earl.  Floyd is Very Evil and does Mean Things, but he's actually fairly boring, so I haven't bothered mentioning him yet.

Earl is much more interesting.  He tries to pull a Glenn-Ford-in-3:10-to-Yuma routine, get inside Chad's head and talk him into letting him go.

Chad gets mad.  Chad makes mistakes.  Heath rescues him for like the fourth time this episode.  Chad gets mad at Heath too.

Then Heath does something really sweet.  That picture Chad was drawing back in camp, well, Frank got all mad about it and ripped it out of Chad's sketch book.  Heath rescued it, kept it, and now returns it to Chad.  Says he thinks it's really good and Chad ought to pursue art, use this talent he has.

Isn't that refreshing?  In so many westerns, any man who does something creative like play music or draw or write fiction is portrayed as weak and unmanly.  Heath stands right here and says, first to Chad and then to Frank, that you don't have to throw a punch or shoot a gun to be a man, that everyone has different talents and it's wrong not to use them, whatever those talents are.

I mean, is it any wonder I love the man?

Well, anyway, Earl's brother Floyd catches up with them there in Limbo.  Here's another nice shot with lots of people crammed in it.

Earl is just as happy as a little clam that his brother's shown up to free him.

So we have our showdown.  Cuz otherwise the ep title wouldn't make sense.

Here are all four bad guys, crammed in one shot.

One of them sneaks up on top of a building so he can shoot Frank.  I love this shot too!

But then Jarrod and Nick arrive!  To help!  Because they are Barkleys, so They Must Help.

And all's well that ends well.  I like how Heath and Jarrod's hats match their coats, and Nick's like, "Match?  Who needs to match?  I make my own rules."  That's Nick for you.

By the end of the episode, Chad no longer hates Heath because he no longer feels like he has to live up to Heath's reputation.  Hooray!

Tom Lowell puts in such a lovely performance in this ep.  He's so excellent at playing someone unsure of themselves in a way that makes you relate to him and want to hug him, not want to tell him to just grow up.  That's a tricky line to walk, but he does so with ease.

He did get shot in the leg too, which makes his dad respect him, so that helps.  I mean, nothing like getting shot in the leg and then patted on the back by Heath Barkley to sort out all your problems.

This has been my entry into the sixth annual Favourite TV Show Episode Blogathon hosted by A Shroud of Thoughts this weekend.  This is one of my favorite blogathons, and I look forward to it every year!


  1. I have seen The Big Valley's entire run multiple times, and "Showdown in Limbo" stands out in my mind. I think it is primarily because of the guest stars. L.Q. Jones is one of my favourite character actors, and he is always effective as a villain, a sidekick, or even a hero. In this case he makes for a great villain!And it is so cool to see Tom Lowell outside of Combat! I also loved the fight at the end. I think they did it very well. Anyway, thank you for taking part in the blogathon!

    1. Terence, how cool that this one stands out for you too! Jones and Lowell really make the whole story work so well. My kids were watching me screencap this, and my 8-yr-old said, "That guy looks just like Canoe from That Darn Cat!" :-) I promised they could watch this whole ep with me sometime instead of just seeing slices here and there while I got my pictures.

      Yes, the fight at the end is a good one! Not too drawn-out, but not too perfunctory either.

      Thanks for hosting!

  2. Aw. I like that, about how being an artist is just as important as being a gunman or a cowboy or what have you. That's a good message.

  3. The Big Valley always felt epic to me in my youth, and still does today. The characters came to mean so much to me. I loved your description of the Barkleys and their mandate to help.

    You inspired me to share this short piece on Nick, and his fights:

    1. Caftan Woman, yes! It has a very epic feel to it. Big valley, big characters, big problems, big fights -- good stuff.

      Thanks for the share! I will go check that out :-)

  4. Lovely review. I like the way Heath sets that kid straight. Sometimes he is just too amazingly wise. I would like you to know that I have remedied my ways and have seen quite a few Big Valley episodes at this point. And on that note, I am now qualified enough to comment on the Nick not matching point. I would like to remind you that in the season 3 episode 'The Good Thieves' Nick's clothes match his horse amazingly well. I remember being quite impressed at the fact. Anyway, I'm so glad you wrote this review 'cause I kinda like (love) The Big Valley right now, so anything about it is good ^-^
    By the way, I read 'Cloaked' and wrote a little review of it on mine and Anna's blog, if you wanna read it :)

    1. Thank you, Anna and Irene! (Mainly Irene?) I'm so excited that you've watched quite a few BV eps now! I actually have seen only about half the series myself, and I haven't seen "The Good Thieves" yet, so I will take your word for that and I look forward to seeing it for myself :-) I think I love season 1 Nick's look best, though. Allllllll that black.

      I'm excited to read your thoughts on Cloaked! :-)

    2. Yeah, Anna doesn't get on a lot, so it's usually me :)
      The Good Thieves is quite a good episode! And yes, the more black the better ;D

  5. Very nice review for a pretty good episode. The only thing I did not like in this episode was the casting of the Sheriff as I thought it was a little overdone and the way he treated his son a young who was raised in the East and expected him to become a lawman over night

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Linda :-) I guess I've known some pretty overbearing fathers in real life, and I didn't find him that unrealistic. But I can see how he might strike others differently.

  6. owww ... thank you so much for writing this and full of photos too. I used to love watching The Big Valley because of Lee Majors. Recently, I have been making myself busy watching the serials again, for my teenage emotional feeling's sake.

    thank you again.

    1. Nana, I'm so glad you enjoyed this post! It's lovely to find another Big Valley & Lee Majors fan :-) This show is always worth a visit!

  7. Absolutely love this episode. Snappy dialog, beautiful scenery, and a terrific cast. Tom Lowell and Arch Johnson had the same clefted chins and could pass for father and son. And that was young GD Spradlin (Godfather II) as the doomed deputy.

    1. Anonymous, yes! The dialog was great, every guest star was on point, and I agree that Lowell and Johnson very much looked like father and son! Good stuff.

      I have actually only ever seen the first Godfather movie, but I know I should see the rest sometime.


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