Well here we are again, folks, going back to “Deadwood” to revisit season 2 of David Milch’s epic revisionist Western. Just as we did last summer (and as I did for the three seasons of “The Wire” I reviewed after the fact), we’re going to have two parallel discussions going at once: identical reviews, but one where the comments section is just for people who are new to the series and don’t want to be spoiled on anything past the events of the episode being discussed, and one for people who know “Deadwood” backwards and forwards, and want to be able to discuss it all at once. This is the newbie-safe version; click here for the veteran-friendly one.
Though future reviews will be done one episode at a time, we’re opening up with a combined review of the season’s first two hours, “A Lie Agreed Upon” parts 1 & 2, coming up just as soon as I would settle for a vigorous hand-holding…
“Welcome to fuckin’ Deadwood! It can be combative.” -Al
Though the two halves of “A Lie Agreed Upon” aired on separate nights, they were very clearly constructed as one super-sized episode of “Deadwood.” Like most of the series’ installments, the two hours take place over the course of the same day, and all of the stories and character threads continue through both parts. There’s no cliffhanger at the end of the first hour as you often get with two-part episodes, and Bullock leaving his wife’s arms for his mistress’ doesn’t resolve much of anything, but simply increases the level of internal conflict both Seth and Alma will be wrestling with throughout the second hour. In every way but how it was scheduled, this was a single episode of the show (both halves even shared director Ed Bianchi, which isn’t always easy to do on a weekly production schedule), and we’re going to discuss it as such.
The title comes from a famous saying (most frequently attributed to Napoleon) that history is a lie agreed upon – that future generations don’t want to know how bloody and debased and selfish most of the big decisions were, so the people making those decisions concoct a more pleasing fiction. It’s been the show’s governing philosophy from the beginning, in the way that it shows how a community might require a public face like Seth Bullock even as all the important decisions about its growth are being made by a man like Al Swearengen.
There are many lies being told throughout these two hours, but not all of them have been agreed to by anyone but the person telling them. There’s the lie Al keeps telling about his problems urinating, which nobody quite believes, and which only seems to become more of a problem after the fight with Seth. There’s Calamity Jane’s insistence on her own ill health, despite Doc Cochran finding nothing to the contrary, because Martha Jane Canary is depressed and self-loathing and doesn’t find herself fit company for others. And there’s the web of lies involved in Joanie setting up the high-end Chez Ami brothel across town, and arranging for fellow madam Maddie to come into town to help run it, despite Cy’s many objections to the whole endeavor.
The most important lie for our story involves the ongoing Seth/Alma affair, which has distracted Seth from whatever Al was hoping he might accomplish when he produced the tin in the first season finale. It’s a lie that the entire camp has seemingly agreed to – the two of them raise such a ruckus with their lovemaking that poor Sophia can’t even eat in peace with her new governess Miss Isringhausen – and when a frustrated Al loudly alludes to the truth while calling down to Seth on the thoroughfare, it’s all Sheriff Bullock can do to keep from charging into the Gem to demand satisfaction in that very second. Seth carries himself as a man with a strict moral code, yet he’s been cheating on his wife – even if he only married her out of pity and love for his fallen brother – for months and can’t stand to hear either himself or his special lady friend impugned by the likes of Al.
We began the series with the implication that Seth would be the white hat and Al the black hat, but their relationship, and their respective roles within the camp, grew far more complicated than that, and the war that seemed inevitable never really happened. Instead, the two men get unspeakably violent with each other – in an incredible, ugly, prolonged, completely unglamorous fight scene(*) – not over money, or the life of Alma or Sophia, but because Al is mad at Governor Pennington and Seth is mad at himself for living a lie, and because the other man makes a convenient, willing punching bag.
(*) And it’s one that, like many great “Deadwood” moments, is preceded by a lot of what Jane would call triangulation, as various characters move in and out of the Gem, each being aware of each other’s position and movements so they know where to start shooting in the event trouble jumps off. And when that happens, you see that Dan is the only one who has any idea what he’s doing, as both Sol and Charlie get themselves shot by a clumsy, panicked Johnny.
Their brawl starts in Al’s office, spills out onto his balcony, and then over the railing onto the muddy thoroughfare below. Seth’s youth, size and lack of previous ailment seem prepared to give him the victory until Dan runs out to cold cock him, and ultimately Seth’s life is saved by the very thing that makes it a much, much bigger mess: the arrival on the stagecoach of his wife Martha and his adopted son William. (“Cow-eyed kid looking out from that coach,” Al will later complain. “That’s what unmanned me.”)
Martha’s unannounced trip to Deadwood, and her arrival just as Seth is in mortal jeopardy and badly injured, leads to a simultaneously mortifying and hilarious scene at the hardware store, where Mrs. Garrett not only insists on paying her lover and his wife and son a visit, but doing so in a scarlet red dress lacking only a letter A embroidered on her breast to make the point plainer. The lies continue throughout the scene: Alma lying to herself that this is in any way a good idea, everyone else biting their tongues about what a gross miscalculation this is, Seth lying to both Alma and Martha about what he’d previously written home about this woman (and Martha agreeing to play along, until they’re finally away from the other woman and she loses her patience with the game), and only poor Ellsworth coming even slightly close to doing anything to stop this trainwreck.
And faced with his wife and son as flesh-and-blood evidence of what he believes to be his deep moral failure, Seth sets two plans in place at once. In one, he talks Alma into leaving the camp with him immediately, rather than stay and deal with the lie of his marriage to his brother’s wife. But it’s hard to imagine him ever having the guts to go through with that one, since his second plan involves arranging a suicide-by-crook where Al, Dan, Johnny or someone else in that crew puts him out of his misery and keeps him from having to choose between his morals (and his feelings for his dead brother) and his passions.
It takes Al a while to realize this is what Seth is up to, in part because Al’s brain doesn’t work the way Seth’s does, in part because the injuries sustained in the fight take him from minor discomfort to sheer agony. (Along with a look that renders him as a grotesque, or possibly even a Picasso painting.) To borrow a metaphor from another HBO show of the period, where Seth is playing checkers, Al is always playing chess. The camp needs Bullock – preferably a Bullock with his head on straight – which means that Al needs him, which means that he can simply give him back his gun and badge, rather than giving Seth the fight, and possibly death, he’s itching for.
And while this is going on, we see Alma wrestling with the decision of whether to run away with her beloved protector. Where it’s hard to imagine Seth going through with it, Alma seems to be seriously considering the idea until Miss Isringhausen – who doesn’t know Seth very well, nor of his feelings for Sophia – convinces her that Seth meant to take Alma and only Alma out of the camp. Is that a lie? We don’t know at this point, but it’s the truth that Alma decides she has to accept before closing the curtain in full view of Seth, giving him all the message he needs of her intentions.
Though Seth can be hot-tempered and self-righteous, it’s hard not to feel sympathy for him as his world closes in on him, particularly in the scenes leading up to his aborted showdown with Al in the second hour. Charlie may or may not realize what Seth’s intentions are in going to reclaim his gun and badge, but he knows something is wrong with his friend and boss, so he comes up with a lie about feeling faint to force Seth to help him back to the freight store. And once there, Seth opens up about his brother, then opens up some waterworks as he thinks about this whole mess he’s gotten into. (Charlie tries to leave Seth to his tears with one more lie about having to pass gas – one of several fart jokes sprinkled through the two hours – but is interrupted by Jane showing up at the exact wrong moment to yell and moan and tell off-color stories.)
Again, “A Lie Agreed Upon” feels like one episode that takes up two hours, but there’s also something of a parallel structure between the way each hour ends. In the first, we hear Seth’s voice reading the much-discussed letter he wrote to Marth, which is 95% carpentry details, followed by a brief, dry promise to try to live up to his brother’s example as husband to her and father to William. None of it is a lie, but Seth’s need to spend so much time talking about the floor joists and his choice of wood speaks volumes about how difficult he finds it to demonstrate romantic feelings for Martha. In the second, the voiceover comes courtesy of Al, who is once again essentially dictating the lead story for the next edition of the Deadwood Pioneer to A.W. Merrick. Merrick wants to report the truth about what goes on in the camp, but he’s always on the outside looking in, and when in this case Al is willing to offer up the truth and tell him what caused the fracas, it’s too much for Merrick (or his readers) to handle, and Al shifts into a gentler (but still fairly accurate) account of how the day ended, closing with an unapologetic advertisement for the Gem itself.
When the history of Deadwood is written, no one is going to want to know that the town’s first (real) sheriff and its first major business owner nearly killed each other over a conflict that the businessman would lay “at cunt’s doorstep.” The camp has far bigger problems to worry about right now, but when you’re Al Swearengen – mayor in all but title, a man whose business interests are now inextricably linked with the interests of the camp at large, and the only man on the thoroughfare who can seemingly think straight all the time (even if he can’t always piss straight, or at all) – you have to solve the little ones before you can get to the big ones, and wrap it all up in a pretty bow for public consumption.
Some other thoughts:
* Ricky Jay left the cast abruptly in between seasons, so Eddie is replaced at Cy’s gaming tables by Con Stapleton, while Eddie’s role in getting the Chez Ami off the ground has to be dealt with in a few lines of exposition. But even with Jay’s exit, the cast is still well-populated, and gets several new faces, including a pre-“Breaking Bad” Anna Gunn as Martha Bullock, Alice Krige as Maddie and Sarah Paulson as Miss Isringhausen.
* Another lie agreed upon: everyone in the camp who cared about Reverend Smith knew that he was in no shape by the end to wander down the road and be murdered by heathens, but they’ve accepted Al’s cover story because they realize that Al put the poor, sweet man out of his suffering.
* Sol doped to the gills after his wounding is great, not only because it gives John Hawkes an opportunity to be funny in a different way from his wry observations in season 1, but because it finally gives Sol license to tell his beloved but difficult partner what he thinks of him. Hawkes is too good an actor to be reduced to playing Seth’s easy-going sidekick, and these were good episodes for him.
* One of Milch’s weaknesses is a tendency to construct stories involving people going on and on about people and events far off in the distance of time or space. With “Luck,” it was Walter Smith’s tortured history in Kentucky. With “Deadwood,” it’s whatever’s going on back in Yankton with the politicians who will decide the future of the camp. Ian McShane and Titus Welliver are such good actors that those scenes often work in spite of how abstract and remote the discussion becomes, but all the remote speculation about Yankton is one of the few flaws in what’s generally considered the best of the series’ three seasons.
* The sad, violent, confusing saga of Bummer Dan and Slippery Dan provides a distraction in each hour for Seth and Adams, respectively, and also gives Leon Rippy the chance to utter one of the sickest, funniest lines of the series when he watches Adams kill Slippery Dan by ramming him into a mounted animal head and groans, “Oh, he just 12-pointed Slippery Dan!”
* Slippery Dan winds up collateral damage in the rivalry between Adams and Dan Dority, which plays out very much like a strong older brother pouting because daddy has favored his smart younger sibling. As tough as Dan Dority is, he’s also human, you know? And Milch continues to have fun with Adams’ quick, sarcastic wit, which sets up the great exchange where Al says, “Over time, your quickness with a cocky rejoinder ust have gotten you many punches in the face,” and Adams replies, “Depends on what you call ‘many.'”
* It’s been a while since I’ve watched these episodes (so please forgive me the odd mistake relating to information we may get later), and I’d forgotten the brilliant E.B. Farnum impression that Ian McShane busts out late in the first hour. (Speaking of impressions, if you have the complete series box set, it contains one of my all-time favorite special features, in which Titus Welliver proves himself to be an expert mimic, not only of famous actors playing “Deadwood” characters, but of David Milch himself. It’s brilliant.)
* E.B.’s “Let me suss out the new trim, Johnny, before I earn some added rebuke” may not be the best line Milch ever wrote, but it might be the sentence that best captures the many quirks of his writing style.
Finally, for those of you reading the veteran version now (or newbies who want to eventually read the veteran comments), I want to once again welcome and thank “Deadwood” castmember Jim Beaver, who will again be offering his own memories of the series in the comments. Jim should be in Guadalcanal right now as part of some world travels, so it may be a bit before his “A Lie Agreed Upon” comments turn up, but if they’re anything like last year’s, they will be well worth the wait. And if you want to thank Jim for the service, he’s selling personalized autographed copies of his memoir, “Life’s That Way,” on his website.
Coming up next: “New Money,” in which a familiar actor returns in an unfamiliar role, while Al’s health remains in question.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org