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The Real Deal
"The Shattered Idol"
When a stagecoach breaks down on the McCain ranch, Mark becomes thrilled to learn that Mark Twain is on the coach.
From "The Rifleman Episode Guide List"
Lots of TV shows have not only involved their characters with historical figures, but intruded on their personal lives. Just look at the Doctor of 'Doctor Who' as the best example of this - he popped into the lives of Agatha Christie and Vincent Van Gogh during some of the darkest moments of their lives; he may have caused Queen Victoria to be inflicted with lycanthropy; he romanced Madame du Pompadour; and he even married Marilyn Monroe!
But those examples always adhered to established timelines. By getting the McCains involved with Mark Twain during his grief over the loss of his child, the "Shattered Idol" script played hob with the established 'Rifleman' timeline....
Up until this point in the series, "The Shattered Idol" presents the biggest Zonk ever to the inner reality of the series.
Mark Twain said that the death of his son Langdon caused him to stop work on Huckleberry Finn. Langdon died in the early 1870's, about 4-5 years before Twain started to write Huckleberry Finn, about 10 years before the era portrayed in the show.
From Twain Times:
Langdon Clemens was born on 7 November 1870 in Buffalo, New York. The first child and the only son born to Samuel and Olivia Clemens.
Sam Clemens was--like most new fathers--immensely proud of his son.
Young Langdon who would remain a sickly child prone to colds and crying. An indication of the child's health may be gleamed from the fact that he had not, at age 1½ , learned to walk before his death. Sam was ever optimistic that the boy would pull through for he too had been a sickly child.
On the 1st of April, 1872, Sam took young Langdon for a carriage ride as had become the practice of his mother. That morning Olivia was feeling a bit poorly and remained home while Sam accompanied the baby. At some point during the ride the blanket had slipped from the baby and was not discovered until the child's lips had turned blue from the cold.
Langdon Clemens died on 2 June, 1872 from, according to the official report, diphtheria. Yet Sam could not, would not, keep from blaming himself for the child's illness. The loss to say nothing of the self inflected blame, was a crushing weight in Sam's memory for the rest of his life.
Langdon Clemens is burried Elmira's Woodlawn Cemetery.
Right from the first episode of 'The Rifleman', we learned that Lucas and Mark McCain arrived in North Fork, New Mexico, in August of 1881. By the time of "Shattered Idol", it's probably 1885, based mostly on the aging of young Mark. (He's probably fifteen by that point.)
To have the McCains get involved in Twain's grief just a few months after teh death of his son Langdon would need a TARDIS-full of splainin!
Toobworld Central has adjusted the personal timelines for certain historical figures before - 'The Secret Life Of Jules Verne' began with his birth 20 years earlier than that of the real science fiction author, for example, which means he lived twenty years longer in Toobworld. But to play with the actual date of death for a little baby for the sake of a story just seems wrong.
Other splainins - temporal and/or spatial vortices, time bubbles, Tooniverse-like stasis fields (a la 'The Simpsons'), Famous Impostor Syndrome - are either too complicated or not desirable. (I really liked Kevin McCarthy as Twain and I want to consider his portrayal - along with Jerry Hardin's in 'Star Trek: The Next Generation' - to be part of Earth Prime-Time.)
And whenever possible, I invoke Occam's Razor - the simplest splainin is always the best.
So here's what I came up with:
Mark Twain was suffering a mental relapse, a nervous breakdown, and had become delusional.
There is some real world foundation for this. Samuel Clemens was believed to suffer bi-polar disorder and fell into a depression in later years, after the death of several of his children and his wife Olivia.
At some point in that stagecoach trip West, left alone with his dark brooding, Twain thought so much on the aftermath for little Langdon's death that he found himself back in that time, but only within his own mind.
As for that letter from his wife containing the news of Langdon's death, Twain probably had been carrying it around for the past decade and that served as a touchstone for his delusion.
Because so much time had passed since the actual tragedy, Lucas McCain knew that Twain blamed himself for the Langdon's death by possibly reading it in one of North Fork's two newspapers at some point in the last few years. (In some other publication if he knew of it before arriving in North Fork.) Mark had no clue, so Lucas must have decided to let his son think it happened in the last few months, rather than have him worry even more that Twain was losing his mind.
There's one last stumbling block - Mark and his friends had chipped in for a subscription to a magazine that was serializing "Huckleberry Finn" and he hoped that Mr. Twain could give them a head's-up on what was going to happen next in the book since it took so long for the latest copy of the magazine to reach them in North Fork.
Since "Huckleberry Finn" was published in America in February of 1885, the timeline for the series at least jibes with that. "Shattered Idol" is probably set no earlier than June of that year since Mark had already read several installments in the magazine by the time he met Twain.
The serialization of the book into magazine form is one historical date which we could futz with on the Toobworld timeline.