Friday, April 18, 2008

"Nine Lives"

The title of this episode cleverly refers to a cat that drives the plot and to a chain of debt that is created and extended between characters.

"Nine Lives" is primarily the story of Shawn Mulhare (Albert Salmi), an Irishman trying to make his fortune in America. Caine befriends Mulhare at a mining camp. When the camp's feline mascot, Boozer, is killed in a dynamite accident caused by Mulhare and Caine, they are kicked out of the camp (there is a hilarious "court room" scene leading up to this), and banished from returning until Mulhare can find a replacement. Mulhare desperately wants this, as he thinks he's found a secret vein of gold. He carries a sample with him.

Caine follows Mulhare and tries to help him, in part because that's perhaps what he would do anyway but also because Caine owes a debt of honor to Master Po. Master Po helped Caine as a child in China, and explained to Caine that he, Po, was similarly helped in an accident when he was a boy by a stranger who said to him that he was now bound by debt to assist 10 others. Caine was one of Po's 10, and Po passed the debt on to Caine. Mulhare, it seems, will be one of Caine's 10.

Set adrift, Caine and Mulhare wander in search of a new Boozer, at one point being set upon by the demented Skowrin family, a gang of bandits and con artists headed by a father, Henry, (Royal Dano) and a gaggle of unwashed sons that includes the hulking Perlee (Merlin Olsen!). Caine and Mulhare are robbed by the Skowrins.

Eventually, the pair make their way to the riverside home of the Widow Tackaberry (Geraldine Brooks). They aid the widow in delivering a calf (great scene, and one in which Caine uses his animal calming power again) and agree to dig a well on the widow's land in exchange for her cat. Unfortunately, the Skowrins discover Caine's identity and come seeking him to claim the reward. They bind Caine, but Caine goads Perlee into fighting him (one of the Skowrins' cons is to have Perlee wrassle all comers for money). In the ensuing melee, Caine, Mulhare and the window are able to turn the tide against the Skowrins – and they also discover that Mulhare's sample of gold is worthless fool's gold.

But there's one last turn to this plot. Now that Mulhare knows Caine is worth money, he contemplates turning Caine in, and has an opportunity to do so. I won't tell you how this ends but I will tell you that Po's Debt is encountered once again, and Mulhare must come to grips with himself as a man of honor as well as a fortune hunter.

Great episode. As I've said, in this show Caine is often a supporting character in the plot, in this case a supporting character to Mulhare, the real protagonist. That's one of the things I feel was truly revolutionary about this show, that it didn't always have to have Caine at center stage. It is the first episode in which we learn of Po's Debt, something that will return again in the series. I think for someone like Caine, he realizes in assuming the debt and fulfilling it that helping others is so virtuous and feels so right that he needn't stop at 10. The debt is only the incentive that gets him started on the path of a virtuous, heroic life, one in which he realizes he is bound by love, kindness and transcendence to everyone in the human family.

Four out of four yin yangs. IMDB for this episode is here. Look at the actors and writers and directors in this show; it's amazing how many great careers were created at this time in TV history.

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