Ballad of the Ponderosa

Teleplay: Michael Landon and Rik Vollaerts
Story: Rik Vollaerts
Director: William F. Claxton
Air Date: 13 November 1966
Guest Stars: Randy Boone (Colter Preston), Ann Doran (Lisa Stanley), Roger Davis (Harold Stanley), John Archer (Dave Sinclair), Charles Irving (Judge Borman), Robert Foulk (Sheriff), Robert B. Williams (Simpson), Will J. White (Hank), Lane Bradford (Charlie)

A song of pain and blood…

Fifteen years after the death of Doug Preston, his son Colter returns to Virginia City intent on making the three men he believes were responsible for his father’s death, pay for it.  The three men – Judge Borman, prosecuting attorney Dave Sinclair, and Ben Cartwright are disturbed by Colter’s accusations and by the song he sings throughout the episode.  Ben is so disturbed that he begins to doubt the testimony he gave and asks the Judge and Sinclair to take a look at the case again just to make sure that they did the right thing.

Meanwhile, some of the citizens of Virginia City are having their own problems with Colter.  Some of them were part of the lynch mob that hanged Preston before his trial and others including the wife and son of the man murdered by Preston have their own reasons to resent Colter.  Things become even more complicated when Colter is the first beat up in an alley and then gets into a fight at one of the saloons.  Ben bails Colter out of jail and offers him a job at the Ponderosa while they wait for the findings of the new investigation.

For most of this episode, Ben tries to get through to Colter in order to understand why Colter feels the way he does.  This course of action frequently occurs in Bonanza – Ben (or some other Cartwright) trying to help the person who holds the grudge and in the end forgiving them when the person has seen the error of their ways.  This episode, however, takes a new spin on this tried and true theme.

After inviting Colter to stay at the Ponderosa (even letting Colter stay in Adam’s old room), it seems that Ben is getting through to the young man.  Colter even agrees with Ben’s statement that one of them has to be wrong and whoever that is has to accept the truth.  Just when the viewer (and Ben) thinks that all is well and it will end amicably, a surprising twist occurs that sees Ben ending up on trial with Colter as his accuser.

Colter is a bitter young man who believes he has a right to feel the way he does.  Even after the job offer comes from Ben, Colter remains skeptical as to what Ben’s true intentions are.  When Ben asks him why he sings the song he sings, he tells Ben it is because he doesn’t know what it is like to be happy.  When things are resolved at the end of the episode, Colter looks lost and the viewer wonders if he will ever be able to sing a happy song.

At the end of the episode, Ben after seeing that his overtures of friendship have been rejected leaves the court with his sons and doesn’t even bother to speak to Colter.  This is one of the few times that the Cartwrights don’t forgive the person who holds the grudge against them (another example of this in the season 3 episode The Countess).

This season 8 episode is also an example of how Michael Landon’s writing is beginning to mature.  Hoss and Joe have very little to do as the focus is on Ben and Colter.  Landon and co-writer Rik Vollaerts’ episode explores the underlying themes of bitterness, hatred, lies, and secrets.  It also includes a couple of scenes that would not have occurred (or been permitted) in the early years of the show.  There is also a mention of Adam (who had departed the Ponderosa towards the end of season 6) with Ben saying that he misses his son – a nice bit of sentimentality for those who remembered Adam.

Throughout this episode, the viewer gets the feeling that there is a lot more to the story and this becomes evident in the final scenes.  The open ending to the story allows the viewer to speculate whether or not Colter will stop singing his “song of pain and blood”.

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