Wanted: Dead or Alive is an outstanding (though little-known) western TV show that ran during what many refer to as the ‘golden age of television’. Westerns were hugely popular with TV audiences in the 50’s and 60’s and Wanted: Dead or Alive slipped through the cracks for whatever reason, running for only three seasons. It might have been entirely forgotten, had not the show’s star, Steve McQueen, gone on to bigger and better things.
Still, even apart from McQueen’s excellent turn as Josh Randall, Wanted: Dead or Alive is still a great western show, unique in that the lines aren’t as clearly drawn between good guys and bad guys as in some westerns. Josh himself is often ostracized from ‘polite society’ because he’s a bounty hunter and at times the wanted criminals he pursues turn out to be decent people, falsely accused. It’s an interesting take on the classic western. (And besides the uniqueness of the show, there’s cool guest stars, too, like James Coburn, Mary Tyler Moore, Lee Van Cleef, DeForest Kelley, and Martin Landau. And that’s just naming a few.)
Anyway, today I want to discuss one of Wanted: Dead or Alive’s most powerful episodes, in my mind – ‘Secret Ballot’.
The episode begins with Josh riding down the street of a small town. There’s a large banner strung across the street that says NED EASTER FOR MAYOR. That doesn’t make The Bad Guys happy, the ones who just a moment before were gloating about the much smaller poster that advertises their favorite candidate, Barney Pax, the current (and corrupt) mayor. One of the bad guys is Steve Pax, by the way, Barney’s brother, and you can imagine what the town’s like if the mayor and the sheriff are not only corrupt, but brothers as well.
Anyway, one of Steve’s lackeys goes over, swings a rope over the banner, and yanks it down. Josh takes exception to this and suggests that the guy put it back up. That doesn’t go over well with Steve or his two deputies, of course (I dunno if the two guys hanging around with Steve are actually his deputies, but I’m just going to guess that they are) and they ‘suggest’ that Josh should move on. (Surprisingly, he does.) And then there’s this great little exchange that always cracks me up.
Henchman #1: “You figure Ned Easter’s hired a gun to run his campaign?”
Steve: “[If] he did, it’s the greatest mistake since buttermilk.”
Cut to the opening credits. (Which are awesome, I might add.)
So, after the credits, Josh goes into the town schoolhouse which has become Ned Easter’s campaign headquarters. Ned and his wife, Carol, are excited/happy/pleased to see Josh, but when Josh tries to explain what he’s doing in Crater City, Carol hurries Ned out the door. We soon find out why – Carol doesn’t want Ned to know that she sent for Josh because apparently Ned thinks he can beat Pax alone and “he’d be furious” to find out that Carol doesn’t think so…? I guess? (Fun fact: Ned is played by John Lupton, who I first saw in Disney’s The Great Locomotive Chase. It was neat to see him in a Wanted: Dead or Alive episode.)
After Ned leaves, Josh and Carol discuss some things, like how Ned’s the first person to stand up to Barney Pax, how Ned deserves to win the election more than anyone else, and how Barney made Steve sheriff to keep all his dirty dealings and murderous tricks legal. There seems to be no way of stopping Barney, especially because he tends to scare people out of voting for anyone other than him. But then Josh pulls out a wanted (dead or alive, naturally) poster for Steve Pax, alias Steve Patrick. According to Carol, the poster could win the election for Ned, I guess because it would discredit Steve and so people would be less afraid of Barney’s threats.
A moment later, they hear gunshots from outside. Steve’s deputies are riding back and forth, shooting their guns, and one of them goes so far as to throw a lasso around Ned and drag him along the street until Josh shoots him (the deputy, not Ned). Then the deputy tries to shoot Josh. Then Steve tries to shoot Josh. Then Barney shoots the gun out of Steve’s hand and does the whole ‘concerned civil servant’ act and it’s nauseating, but what can you do? Ned does try to do something, ’cause in the next scene, he’s talking to a bunch of people (it’s nighttime, just so you know), but his efforts appear to have been successfully thwarted when Dolly, who owns the town’s saloon, shows up with a carriage full of dancing girls from Denver City. But Josh sees through her. (Duh.)
“Excuse me. Now you didn’t bring these girls all the way from Denver just to heckle up Mr. Easter’s campaign, did y’ now?”
Dolly gets pretty angry, but even more so when Josh shows her the reward poster for Steve Pax. Then he gets Ned to read it out loud and everyone drifts away from Dolly and her dancing girls, so I suppose it made a pretty big impression. Later on, at the schoolhouse, Ned tries to get Josh to change his mind and leave Crater City instead of sticking around and maybe getting himself killed. That’s when you learn Important Backstory Information ’cause Josh mentions that Ned (‘Corporal Ned Easter’) went out of his way to help him a couple times (during the Civil War, I’m assuming). And that just makes what happens at the end of this episode even more heartbreaking and just…ugggggh. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Dolly shows up at the schoolhouse with a message for Josh: Barney Pax wants to see him. Josh follows her into a room at the back of the saloon, where she leaves him to wait, saying she’ll go get Barney. While Josh waits, he either hears a noise coming from a closet in the room or just assumes that someone might be hiding in there, and when he opens the closet door, out tumbles Steve Pax. Dead. There’s a bullet hole in his back and, of course, Barney and and a couple of his/Steve’s friends come in right then and find Josh standing over Steve’s body. Barney takes his (Josh’s) gun.
Commercial break. I’d like to point out right here that Steve Pax is played by DeForest Kelley and I promised my dear friend Maribeth a screenshot just of him since she’s a huge Trekkie (and I’m a second-hand one because of her), so here it is.
This post is getting super long, so I’m just going to go over the next few scenes as quickly as I can. Barney goes to the schoolhouse and tells Ned and Carol that Josh is being held on a murder charge and will be hung for it…unless Ned agrees to step out of the campaign, leaving Crater City in Pax’s slimy hands. Ned agrees to do so, on the condition that he can see Josh first, to make sure he’s still alive. (Oh, and Barney also says that the printer in town, who owes him a few favors, will swear that he printed the wanted poster for ‘Randall’ just to smear the Pax brothers.)
To make a longish scene short, Josh ends up escaping from the room he was being held in. But Ned still agrees to give Barney the whole ballot, because Barney says that he’ll make sure Josh is hunted for the rest of his life, until he ends up dead. Barney wants the agreement in writing, and Ned goes back to the schoolhouse to write it all down. Carol is angry that Pax has finally succeeded in stopping Ned and, in a frantic attempt in stop Ned from taking himself out of the running to save Josh’s life, she ‘admits’ that the reason Josh came to Crater City was to see her, that he’s been writing to her for months, that he’s been trying to convince Carol to go away with him. Ned doesn’t believe her and still plans to go ahead with what he feels is the only way to save his friend. (Note: I can kind of see where Carol’s coming from, but I really, really, REALLY don’t like her.)
Let me just say that whoever cast this episode did a great job because the actors and actresses all perfectly inhabit their roles, making Ned upright and honest, Barney seemingly upright and honest but with a certain untrustworthiness, Steve a creep (sorry, DeForest Kelley fans!), Carol conniving, and Dolly cheap. It’s very interesting, watching them all play off each other.
Anyway, Barney comes over and takes the written agreement from Ned. When he leaves, Ned asks Carol if what she said about Josh was true (as opposed to something she just said to make turn him against Josh so that he wouldn’t give up the election). And she says “Oh, what difference does it make now?”. PLENTY of difference. A years-old friendship is at stake! UGH. Ned goes off to find Josh after that little exchange (I don’t know if he still believes Carol’s lies or not right here) and once he’s gone, Carol grabs a gun and goes off to the saloon to see Barney. Meanwhile, Josh has slipped back into the saloon’s back room and listens in on Carol and Barney’s exchange. She threatens him with her gun so that she can get Ned’s agreement back. Barney says that it’s already at the printers, but that’s a lie, as Carol points out – he hasn’t had enough time.
Things happen really fast after that. Josh opens the door he’s hiding behind and Carol turns and tries to shoot him. Josh slams the door shut and then Barney fires three shots at said door. Then Barney cautiously enters the room, Josh emerges from the closet with his shotgun ready, Barney turns from the window to Josh, and Josh shoots him. Obviously, Barney dies and that’s the end of him. Dolly seems quite upset about it, though…but enough about those two. Josh gives Ned’s paper back to Carol. In all fairness to Carol, I think it was more of a reflex thing, her shooting at Josh, based on their little exchange right after she gets the paper back.
Josh: “Well, that’s the resignation.”
Carol: “Josh, I…I almost killed you.”
Josh: “Yeah. You almost killed me.” [He says it with his signature little grin/smirk/smile, so he’s not mad at her or anything. And then he leaves, with very dramatic music playing on the soundtrack.]
And thennnn there’s The Awful Tag Scene. Hate it, hate it, hate it.
Basically, Carol comes running down the boardwalk after Josh and tells him about some of the lies she told Ned and she’s all ashamed and upset and kind of puts her head on his shoulder and then Ned walks up and asks Josh if what Carol said was true and Josh says “Yeah, she told you the truth” and then Ned gives him a look and he walks away and it’s horrible, it really is, because of (among other things) the expression on Josh’s face as he leaves. Plus, he and Ned were such good friends.
The ending of this episode is powerful and unexpected and completely unfair, but that’s sometimes life, y’know?
Despite the ending, I do love and admire this episode. It’s one of the finest – if not the finest – of the entire show. And here’s a bunch of pictures for ya’ll – all the screenshots that I couldn’t really find a place for in main body of the post (except the one of Dead Barney Pax which doesn’t really belong anywhere). I’m not one to let good screenshots go to waste. 😉
Have you seen this episode of Wanted: Dead or Alive? What do you think of it?