I contend that strong character development and great dialogue, rather than plot, are the chief appeals of TRF. So the fact that "Tall Woman in a Red Wagon" is a shaggy-dog story shouldn't bother me. We never see the red wagon. We only meet the tall woman once, while she is in a hospital bed, thus making it impossible to judge her height. The convoluted story does give Rockford a chance to change identities, crack wise, express disbelief, and show the episodic boldness that only underscores his usual (sensible) risk aversion. Still, it is not one of my favorites.
The root of the problem with this episode lies in the character of Sandra Turkel (Sian Barbara Allen). Sandra is a feminist moppet, a know-it-all, a practitioner of New Journalism (she believes that "pyramiding" i.e., starting a story with the most important facts, is passe), and a fashion precursor to Annie Hall. When she tries to hire Rockford, she is also incredibly annoying. After the obligatory "$200 a day, plus expenses," she asks him for a rate card.
ST: "People who sell a legitimate service should have a rate card. You see, that makes the client feel that the fees are fixed, and don't fluctuate with the market. It makes them feel like they're not being hustled."
JR: "But I like to size up prospective clients, and then try to gouge them."
ST: "Aw, you're getting mad."
JR: "Mad? Me? Gee, whatever for?"
After sharing more about her need for a "gorilla" (Rockford's term) and her intention to run the investigation herself, Rockford sums her up nicely: "You don't pyramid, you know all about police work, you drive your editor nuts, and you're looking for a gunslinger to help you shoot people while you look for your best friend. We ought to sell this to the comics."
Despite their inauspicious start, the plot slips into gear as the crusading journalist and her hired gun pick up the trail of Charlotte Duskey, the "tall woman" who packed up her "red (station) wagon" and slipped out of town. The trail skids to a halt quickly -- Charlotte allegedly died of a heart attack while eating dinner at a hotel in the first town she stopped in. Sandra does not believe it, and Rockford has his doubts, especially when he realizes that they are being followed.
At this point the various plot elements begin to whiz by with a kind of dramatic Doppler effect. Rockford and Sandra interact with a creepy doctor, a fake IRS agent, the scion of a mob family, a helpful railroad ticket agent, and an easily corruptible cemetery supervisor. Rockford poses as an insurance adjuster, a casket salesman, a federal agent, and a shrink in quick succession. There is a train ride, and then a flight to Minneapolis. Rockford engineers a grave robbery, backs into a car going 30 miles an hour, hits a mob heavy with a shovel and has his head grazed by a bullet, which lands him in intensive care. It seems that Charlotte Duskey had tried to fake her own death to allow her to escape with a million dollars that had belonged to her ex-boyfriend, a deceased mob boss. If that seems like a poor re-telling of the story, trust me -- it is not that much more coherent on the screen.
But back to the trouble with Sandra. When we meet her, she admits that she is "pushy" and a "turn off" at first, but assures Rockford (and the audience) that he will grow to like her. Whether Rockford gets to that point or not remains unclear. (I never do.) There is simply too much going on with Sandra for us to ever get a clear sense of her character. While she is a flake, she also can be sharp and perceptive, catching things that Rockford misses. She is judgmental, calling Rockford's habit of printing fake business cards in his car "disgusting," though she is quick to offer the cemetery caretaker $50 to get around the need for an exhumation order.We learn that her father owns the paper where she works, and the editor she constantly vexes is her uncle, making her seem like a spoiled brat. She is high-handed in her business dealings with Rockford, though at another point she goes all ingenue, twisting on the tips of her toes and asking Rockford point blank if he is "available." (His reply, "For anything but marriage," is delivered with the classic Rockford charm, but in this case a classic Rockford eye roll might have been more apt.) The chemistry is not enhanced by the fact that Sandra would have been carded in nine liquor stores out of ten, despite the fact that the actress who played her was 28 at the time.
All of Sandra's identities -- flake, flirt, idealist, operator -- would be used to good effect in future TRF female characters -- usually just not all at once.
Along the way Rockford gets off a few satisfying lines. Once he figures out that the fed is not a fed, he tells him "You're about as official as a Cub Scout at a rodeo." When the same guy sticks a gun in Rockford's ribs as he's getting out of the hospital, Rockford deadpans that the doctor told him to go straight home, get lots of rest and avoid excitement. "I'm not going to let you qualify as excitement." On the literary front, we learn that Rockford does not buy Playboy (he borrows Rocky's copies), and that he knows the difference between Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn (he corrects Sandra when she makes a reference to faked deaths).
The most gratifying line of the episode is the last one (delivered sotto voce) and the one that makes audience members feel that they are not alone in their confusion: "I wonder where the hell that money really is?"