“CENTENNIAL” (1978-79) – Episode Eight “The Storm” Commentary
The eighth episode of “CENTENNIAL” is a bit of a conundrum for me. Of the eight episodes so far, it seemed to be the only one in which the time span struck me as rather confusing. Which is a pity, because I found it rather interesting.
“The Storm” had the potential to be one of the better episodes of the miniseries. Unfortunately, it seemed marred by a good deal of mistakes that left the time span rather confusing. The previous episode, “The Shepherds” ended with Levi Zendt leaving Centennial to visit his hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. And since the episode opened with Levi’s arrival in Lancaster, I can only assume that the episode began in the fall of 1881. Levi did not return to Centennial until the onset of winter. And this led me to assume that the episode spanned a few months around the late fall and early winter of 1881. However, certain aspect in the episode seemed to hint that several years, instead of a few months, had passed between Levi’s arrival in Lancaster and the winter storm that finally struck Centennial.
Charles Larson’s screenplay made it clear that Levi’s visit to Pennsylvania did not last that long. In fact, his wife Lucinda and his son, Martin, expressed surprise that he had returned home to Centennial before the winter. And considering that it took seven days to journey by rail from the West Coast to the East Coast; Levi’s journey from Colorado to Pennsylvania should have taken less than seven days. In total, his entire trip should have lasted less than a month. And yet . . . there were signs in the episode that several years had passed since the end of “The Shepherds”. One, the character of Amos Calendar seemed to have aged by a decade. Seriously. While Levi was in Pennsylvania, the Findlay Perkins character had arrived in Centennial. Around the time of his arrival, Oliver and Charlotte Seccombe were behaving like a couple that had been married for several years, instead of honeymooners. More importantly, a semi-manor made of brick (or stones) had replaced the clapboard ranch house that served as Venneford Ranch’s main house. I doubt very much that Seccombe was able erect a small manor house within a month or two. Also, the winter storm that struck the Western Plains occurred in 1886-1887. Levi’s journey to Pennsylvania should have occurred five years later. Larson’s handling of the episode’s time span seemed so sloppy that I could only shake my head in disbelief.
But the episode’s time span was not the only thing that troubled me. The first thirty minutes of “The Storm” featured a number of flashbacks I have not seen since “Only the Rocks Live Forever”. The flashbacks in that first episode made sense. It was the only episode that featured the character of Lame Beaver in the main narrative, yet at the same time, allowed viewers access to the character’s past. Because “The Storm” featured the deaths of Levi Zendt and Mule Canby, viewers were subjected to flashbacks featuring Levi’s journey to the West “The Wagon and the Elephant”and the Skimmerhorn cattle drive in “The Longhorns”. Instead of providing background to the characters of Levi and Mule, these flashbacks only dragged the episode’s first half hour.
Thankfully, “The Storm” was not a complete waste of time. It featured some first-rate drama and performances. The episode marked the first appearances of the Wendell family. So far, the family has managed to charm most of Centennial’s citizens with their good manners, verbal skills and acting talent. They have also attracted the suspicion of one Sheriff Axel Dumire. As I had stated earlier, the character of Mule Canby, last seen wounded and hauled to a military fort by R.J. Poteet in “The Longhorns”. He has become a trick shot artist for a circus, with Nacho Gomez as his assistant. Their reunion with former members of the Skimmerhorn drive – Jim Lloyd, John Skimmerhorn and Amos Calendar – provided the episode with a very warm and emotional moment before Canby’s tragic death in a tent fire.
There were two story arcs in “The Storm” that proved to be the highlights of the episodes. One story arc featured Levi and Lucinda’s frustrations with their younger offspring, the unhappy and unstable Clemma. Following his return to Centennial, Levi was surprised by the appearance of his daughter, who was supposed to be going to school in St. Louis. Instead, the couple learned of their wayward daughter’s lurid exploits that included prostitution, jail time and marriage to a bigamist. In a memorable speech, Levi reminded Lucinda that despite the disappointments and unhappy times, they had also experienced many positive things in their lives – including their marriage and the growth of Centennial. Unfortunately, this poignant moment was spoiled by Clemma’s decision to leave town on the first available eastbound train – a decision that led to Levi’s death near the rail tracks during the winter storm.
The storm also featured in a tense plot arc that spelled the possible doom of Oliver Seccombe’s career as a rancher. His handling of the Venneford Ranch’s accounts had led his London bosses to send a Scottish accountant named Findlay Perkins to check the books. Both John Skimmerhorn and Jim Lloyd tried to explain to the accountant that the region’s method of free-range cattle ranching made it impossible to precisely account for every cow or bull on the ranch. Being a very perceptive man, Findlay was still able to discover that Seccombe had been mishandling the ranch’s profits in order to build the new house for his wife, Charlotte. Before Findlay could return to Britain, the storm struck the region, forcing him to remain at Venneford. One of the episode’s highlights proved to be the tense scenes between Findlay and the Seccombes, as they waited out the storm.
The episode’s biggest virtue proved to be the outstanding performances by the cast. Just about everyone in this episode gave top-notch performances. But there were a few I would consider to be the best. One of them came from Gregory Harrison, who made his last appearance as former emigrant-turned-merchant, Levi Zendt. Timothy Dalton and Lynn Redgrave were superb as the besieged Oliver and Charlotte Seccombe, anxious over their future with Venneford Ranch and forced to deal with the likes of Findlay Perkins. Clive Revill gave an excellent performance as the Scottish accountant. And his scenes with Dalton and Redgrave were filled with delicious tension and humor. It was nice to see Greg Mullavey as the always gregarious Mule Canby. And I truly enjoyed the tensions between Brian Keith’s suspcious Sheriff Axel Dumire and the wonderfully scheming Wendells, portrayed by Anthony Zerbe, Lois Nettleton and Doug McKeon. But the stand-out performance came from Adrienne LaRussa’s excellent portrayal of the sad and conflicted Clemma Zendt. LaRussa was superb in conveying all aspects of Clemma’s personality, which included her spiteful teasing of Jim Lloyd, and her insecurities. But she gave an Emmy worthy performance in the scene in which she conveyed Clemma’s pathetic life back East to the Zendts.
It is a pity that “The Storm” was marred by a questionable time span and unnecessary flashbacks. The episode had the potential to be one of the best in the 12-part miniseries. It marked the death of a major character and also a change in Centennial’s history with the end of free-range ranching and the Wendells’ arrival. But some outstanding performances and the winter storm featured still made it one of the more interesting episodes, in the end.
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