For the next-to-last time this summer, 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 11, “Jewel’s Boot Is Made For Walking,” coming up just as soon as I discuss circumcision with an ox…
“I give you the law.” -Al
“It doesn’t have to be like that.” -Seth
“Jewel’s Boot Is Made For Walking” derives its title from the subplot in which Jewel asks Doc Cochran to help her better navigate a camp that’s far from handicap accessible. Within the context of the hour and the season, it’s fairly minor (this is by far the most Jewel has gotten to say and do), but the question Doc struggles with is one that informs all the other stories of the hour:
How do you know that trying to make a situation better won’t actually make it considerably worse?
Throughout the episode, situations that various characters would have considered improvements in theory turn out to be major problems in reality.
For much of the season, Alma has had to rely on the kindness of relative strangers (or the pragmatism of people like Swearengen), while observers keep saying she would be much better off if she had some of her own people with her. Finally, a blood relative turns up in the form of her father, Otis Russell, and it becomes clear from both his actions and Alma’s reaction to him(*) that his interests and his daughter’s are not the same.
(*) It’s funny that Alma’s father, of all people, would be the one to get Alma and E.B. Farnum to agree about something.
Deadwood finally gets a sheriff, and while Seth should be relieved that it’s not him, he knows instantly that the choice – No. 10 Saloon barfly Con Stapleton – will be up to no good with the badge. As with Alma and E.B., this is a situation where normal opponents Seth and Al find themselves on the same page, though it’s interesting to see Al wind up there. Ordinarily in this kind of story, the mob boss wants a corrupt cop in charge, not a straight-arrow, but Al has recognized that there are things that Bullock would and would not let him get away with, and that he could work within those limits while still finding Seth’s black-and-white morality easy to predict. With Con – who only gets the job because Al takes pity on Tom Nuttall, who came to the camp before him and now feels left behind by progress – anything could happen, including potential headaches for Al’s growing empire.
Sol has been flirting with Trixie for many episodes now, and the two finally consummate their relationship – after Trixie’s hilarious, “For chrissakes, Mr. Starr. My cherry is obstructing my work, sir. Would you take it from me, for free?” invitation. But rather than being something each can find comfort in while all around them is chaos, their tryst turns into a mess when Seth blabs about it to Al, who needs Trixie’s affection far more than he would care to admit.
Al can abide her turning tricks, because he knows she doesn’t care about the customers in the Gem, but to hear that she gave a free tumble to Hardware Boy #1 suggests he’s losing his place in her heart – and that unsettles him at a time when he doesn’t need more problems to worry about. He’s still in mid-seduction with Silas Adams, unsure if he can actually get the bagman to turn around and kill Magistrate Claggett. Reverend Smith’s rapid, very public physical decline is getting to Al, who both likes Smith and sees some of his brother in him, and now Cy has Leon stirring up dissent against both Al and Mr. Wu, looking to take down his rival and/or come up with an excuse to pick up some cheap real estate in the camp’s Chinatown section.
That’s a whole lot on our anti-hero’s plate – albeit about par for the course for the penultimate episode of a post-“Sopranos” cable drama – and it’s understandable that, by the end of it, he’s turning for very mechanical comfort from one of the Gem’s other whores. It’s an amazing scene(**), one that sheds a lot of light on Al’s attitude towards whores, women, authority figures, and life in general, while also illustrating the larger sense of unease that he has about all the things he and we have seen over the last 11 hours.
(**) Not only the first of many Swearengen sexposition scenes, but a scene that no doubt was a huge influence on the “Game of Thrones” season one writing staff. It’s also reminiscent of a lot of Sipowicz moments on “NYPD Blue” – scenes that were often composed at the last possible minute for one reason or another. There’s one episode that ends with Andy tells Sylvia a terrible story from earlier in his career, and the scene exists only because the episode came in very short, and to fill the time, Milch asked technical consultant Bill Clark to describe the worst thing he ever saw as a cop, then filmed Dennis Franz saying that. I would not be surprised at all if Al’s autobiographical pillow talk was conceived under similar circumstances.
Things may ultimately work out well for some of the people of the camp, but matters appear very precarious with one week to go in the season. Sometimes, the thing you think you want either isn’t what you want at all, or not the thing you wanted in the way you get it.
Some other thoughts:
• Geri Jewell’s physical impairment never seemed as severe on “Facts of Life” as it does on “Deadwood.” I’m not sure if her cerebral palsy simply advanced over the intervening two decades, or if (like RJ Mitte on “Breaking Bad,” who has CP in real life but doesn’t need braces to walk) she’s simply playing a more extreme version of her condition for dramatic effect.
• Note that Ellsworth seems on the verge of making some kind of proposal (marital, perhaps?) to the widow Garrett when Otis enters – but also that he doesn’t seem too upset about being interrupted. Also, Ellsworth sticking his tongue out at Sofia was always one of my favorite Jim Beaver moments, even before he mentioned here that he and Bree Seanna Wall often messed around like that even when the cameras weren’t rolling.
• Alma having grown up on Wild Bill stories does put their interaction in episode four in a different light, does it not? At the time, she was too busy dealing with the shock of Bram’s death, her own tenuous circumstances and, of course, the laudanum to go all fangirl on Mr. Hickok, but it does help explain why she was so willing to put her trust in him and then in his hand-picked surrogate Mr. Bullock.
• Now that he has Richardson as a foil, E.B. begins to evolve into something of a Greek chorus for the series, or the various expository characters in Shakespeare’s plays: He hangs back, unobserved, and helps clarify certain aspects of plot and character.
• Another character who gets what he wants but not quite: Andy Cramed, who returns to the camp seeking some kind of purpose to keep him from straying off the righteous path, only to discover that the plague is over and the pest tent is being dismantled. On the other hand, he does provide Reverend Smith with a brief moment of comfort by asking Smith to help him pray: even in the midst of his physical and mental breakdown, Smith knows that this is still something he can do.
• Amusing to see tough guy Dan act so jealous of Adams. Something tells me Al never made this kind of full-court press to woo Dan into the organization way back when.
• That’s William Russ as the shady Otis Russell. He’s probably best known these days as the dad from “Boy Meets World,” but to me he’ll always be hitman Roger LoCocco from the Proffitt siblings arc on “Wiseguy.”
Coming up next: “Sold Under Sin,” the season one finale, and the end of this summer project.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org