We’re continuing our trip back through the first season of David Milch’s epic revisionist Western “Deadwood,” and we’re continuing to do it with two separate but largely identical posts: one for people who watched the whole series and want to be able to discuss it from beginning to end, and one for people who are just starting out and don’t want to be spoiled with discussion that goes past the current episode. This is the latter; click here for the veteran-friendly version.
A review of episode 10, “Mr. Wu,” coming up just as soon as my cravate’s in my bacon…
“You can’t cut the throat of every cocksucker whose character it would improve.” -Al
“Deadwood” just gets better and better as it barrels into the home stretch of this first season, doesn’t it?
Much of that strength comes from David Milch’s recognition of what Ian McShane was doing as Al Swearengen, and how he let the show’s set-up drift from Al vs. Seth into one where McShane is clearly first among equals in this stellar cast.
Last week, we got to see Al reluctantly but very successfully take on the role of civic leader. This week, Al’s back to his more familiar role: as he describes it, “I’m a purveyor of spirits, Cy, dope included, and when chance affords, a thief – but I ain’t no hypocrite.” There’s a certain level of civic mindedness in the way he’s determined to avoid blowback on Mr. Wu and his people for what Jimmy and Leon did, but mostly that’s pragmatism, since Wu’s the only dope connection in town.
And yet even though Al is making deals and killing fools, he’s no less complicated and plain charming than he’s been in the episodes where he’s looking out for the camp’s larger interests.
Some of the best scenes in “Mr. Wu” involve Al’s generous and pragmatic sides being at war with each other. Al isn’t offended that Wu walks in the Gem’s front door, and like our heroes Sol and Seth, he can’t help liking Reverend Smith and taking pity on him in his time of medical crisis. But at the same time, he knows that both Wu and Smith’s presence in the front of the bar are bad for business, and he simply can’t have that.
The relationship between Al and Wu is marvelous. Wu is in some ways the closest thing Al has in the camp to a kindred spirit (it’s clear by now that Al rightly finds Cy to be a pig with less of an eye on the long game), but they’re separated by both a linguistic and racial barrier. Wu can say “cocksucker” with many meanings(*), and the two have learned to understand each other, but they can’t really converse, and each has to make the other look good in front of his people. Al finds a way to appease Wu without bringing more violence down on himself or the people in the camp’s Chinatown, and if he has to kill Jimmy Irons rather than Leon to do it, well… Jimmy wasn’t good for very much in the end, was he?
(*) That’s what makes the whole “cocksucker” running gag so funny every time: it’s never at Wu’s expense. Wu is clearly as bright as Al (if a bit more hot-headed), and those scenes always make it clear, to both us and Al, what it is he’s trying to say. And yet it’s a man screaming “Cocksucker!” at the top of his lungs because it’s the only English word he knows, and that’s hilarious. Also, the whole “who”/”Wu” confusion in this episode was like the most foul-mouthed Abott and Costello routine of all time.
The Wu problem unfolds on the same day that Claggett’s bagman Silas Adams has arrived in the camp, and the crisis provides the perfect backdrop against which Al can seduce Adams away from Claggett. It’s clear quickly that Adams isn’t like the men currently in Al’s organization. Where Dan is content to let Al do all the thinking for him, and Johnny doesn’t think, period, Adams is independent and smart enough to realize Al might be a better boss, and provide more lucrative employment, than Claggett. And the Wu issue allows Al to both impress the new arrival with his ruthlessness(**), but also to test Adams and make sure the guy is worth the pick-up attempt. Adams answers every one of Al’s tests correctly, and the tests in turn impress Adams as much as the answers do Al, because they show Adams just how many moves ahead of the game his potential new employer is.
(**) Al, Jimmy and Leon in the bathhouse is one of the best scenes this show ever did: gorgeously shot and just so ominous in the staging, the way Al gives Jimmy no wiggle room, and the way that Jimmy is just alert enough to realize danger is coming but too high and weak to actually do anything about it. When I visited the show’s set a few months before the series debut, Milch took me into an editing room to show me this scene, devoid of context (save a quick explanation that Al is trying to impress the new guy), to give me some sense of what the show was becoming past the early episodes I had already seen. It blew me away then, and still blows me away to this day.
And Al’s interaction with Reverend Smith is almost as heartbreaking as Smith’s later encounter with the hardware boys. Al respects the reverend, and sympathizes with his condition on account of his brother, and yet the Gem is no place for either a man of the cloth or the dying, delirious clown that Smith has unfortunately become.
And if Ray McKinnon hadn’t already wrecked me when Smith confessed to not remembering his earlier conversation with Al, he sure did at the hardware store. Back in the fifth episode, in a dark time for both the camp and Seth in the wake of Wild Bill’s murder, Smith provided some unexpected hope and uplift with his reading from Corinthians and its message of community. And now that the community is actually on the verge of coming into existence, Smith is becoming too ill – too blind and deaf and plain confused – to appreciate any of it.
Yet for a brief moment, Seth and Sol are able to return the comfort that Smith has provided to them previously. They calm his terrors by reminding him of their earliest discussion of their hometowns, and then kindly offer to escort him back to his tent.
Earlier in the episode, they seem puzzled by just how much pleasure the needy, lonely Merrick has taken in their walk. Here, though, they understand just how important a walk with friends can be to a man who feels adrift.
As we’ve talked about often over the last few months, “Deadwood” is about the building of a community – about individualists learning to look out for each other. Sometimes, the development of a community is helped along by bribes, or elections (backroom or otherwise), or taxes or big speeches. Sometimes, though, all that needs to happen is for two men to show a kindness to a third man and go out walking with him.
And that’s a lesson Al would understand – even as he was asking where the percentages were for him in any walking situation.
Some other thoughts:
• On a certain level, this episode is also about the war between the different sides of Seth’s nature: the angry, independent loner and the generous community man who took his brother’s wife and son for his own, proposes community projects that no one asked him to do and helps calm Reverend Smith’s terror at his failing body and mind.
• I love that Jimmy is so scared of Al that he just jumps over the Gem balcony railing, even if the mud below makes the fall much easier than it would be today onto asphalt and concrete below. Al’s disgust of Jimmy’s various smells and bodily processes in that scene is very funny, even coming in the middle of another episode in which Smith is dealing with phantom smells as well as sights and sounds.
• Because E.B. is himself so disgusting – even in his new tailored mayor suit – it’s always amusing to see in turn who and what disgusts him. Mostly, it’s been Jane, but here it’s the tit-licker, who was introduced in a previous episode. Also, Williams Sanderson saying “tit-licker” is itself almost as funny as Wu saying “cocksucker.”
• Charlie and Joanie’s chance encounter last week seems to be blossoming into a genuine friendship, here with her helping him cut the line for the crowded Grand Central dining room.
• Unless I missed one earlier, this episode marks the first speaking line for Ralph Richardson as Richardson, another of Farnum’s lackeys at the Grand Central. Milch will tinker a fair amount with the character as seen in this brief appearance (taking Adams’ room bribe).
• In addition to giving Keone Young his biggest spotlight to date as Mr. Wu, the episode also let Milch and his casting people bring in a pair of actors from his cop show past. Adams is played by Titus Welliver, who had a recurring role on “NYPD Blue” as an emergency room doctor, and then was the most impressive performer on Milch and Steven Bochco’s problematic “Brooklyn South.” Hostetler, meanwhile, is played by Richard Gant, who was an alcoholic “NYPD Blue” cop who occasionally beefed with Sipowicz and Fancy.
• Poor Merrick. His circumstances are obviously not nearly as tragic as Smith’s, and yet he’s so lonely and awkward (socially and physically) that his glee at the thought of The Ambulators Club is equal parts sad and funny.
• Ricky Jay made his bones as a magician, and his David Mamet roles often play off of those skills, showing that a magician and a con man have basically the same occupation. Here, the scene where Eddie lifts Joanie’s watch plays off of that part of his career.
• Though Alma always assumed Doc Cochran was judging her for her drug use, the Doc is for the most part a live-and-let-live type, which makes his comments to the filthy Gem whores stand out – even if he’s just lashing out of them in disgust at their mockery of Smith.
Coming up next: “Jewel’s Boot Is Made For Walking,” in which a member of Alma’s family comes to visit, and Deadwood appoints its first sheriff.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org