We’re now into week 2 of our trip back through the first season of “Deadwood,” and the plan remains the same: two essentially identical versions of the same review, but one where it’s safe for commenters to discuss events from the entire run of the series, and the other where, for the sake of “Deadwood” newcomers, the comments should only deal with things up through the current episode. This is the latter; click here for the veteran-friendly version.
My review of “Deep Water” coming up just as soon as I’ve got you triangulated…
“I see as much misery out of them movin’ to justify their selves as them that set out to do harm.” -Doc Cochran
Last week, I talked about how the series pilot seemed to be setting up three central characters in Bullock, Wild Bill and Swearengen, with the two white hats destined to come into conflict with the shady saloon keeper. But while there’s certainly still tension between those two sides in “Deep Water” – with Seth struggling to control his temper while he and Sol negotiate to buy their lot, while Al continues to suspect and fear Wild Bill – the hour’s central conflict is largely between Al and Doc Cochran.
It’s an interesting, uneasy partnership these two have. Al is, for all intents and purposes, the king of Deadwood right now. He got there early, controls most of the good land, the whores, the booze and all the scams. As he says in this episode, the camp is currently wide open, and it takes a man of both incredible ambition and incredible will to take control of it the way Al has. Al is not quick on the draw like Wild Bill. He’s physically strong but far from the strongest (and is getting up there in years). But he’s smart, and he considers all the angles, and he is unafraid to take action.
Consider three scenes: Al marching into Doc’s office to get a look at the girl, Al reacting to all the bad news from Persimmon Phil and Dan and Doc, and Al murdering Phil in his office. In the first, here we have Calamity Jane, iconic (if oft-disputed) heroine of the Old West, and Al destroys her with just a look and a few well-chosen words. (When he tells her “Why would I do it to you?” it shows her just how beneath his notice she is.) In the second, he recognizes almost immediately how far his plans have gone awry, but rather than rage against his underlings for being incompetent and/or disloyal, he quickly calculates the angles, recognizes that at this point the best course of action is to take out Phil, and does it. In the third, we essentially have Al bringing a knife to a gunfight and winning, because the younger, stronger, better-armed Phil can’t even conceive of Al stabbing him to death in that moment.
So Swearengen is formidable in how he guards his interests, but Doc – twitchy, sickly Doc Cochran, who even has Trixie worried about his health – turns out to be as formidable in his own way, and his interests extend to the entire camp.
We were introduced to Doc last week helping to deal with the aftermath of Trixie shooting the abusive john, and at the time the implication was that the town sawbones was in the pocket of the town crimelord. But it’s not that simple. Doc treats Al’s whores, and he turns up if someone’s been hurt at the Gem, but he has other patients, other priorities, and he won’t simply stand by and let Al murder innocent people. He shows some steel in the way he tries to call out Alma Garrett for wasting his valuable time when he could just give her the laudanum she wants without the bogus examination, but more impressive is the way that he attempts to stand up to the Swearengen machine with only the help of drunken, shaky Jane.(*)
(*) Because we have an omniscient point of view that the characters lack, we know that Doc should have just recruited Bullock to help out, just as we also know that Al at this point has nothing to fear in terms of a Bullock/Hickok alliance. (And that, if anything, Al’s paranoid reactions to that are likely only going to bring the two gunslingers to his doorstep that much sooner.) But it makes sense that camp veterans would be distrustful of all newcomers for quite a while – to know that a place this rough tends to attract the most unscrupulous types, and that assuming a stranger’s intentions are good is probably hazardous to one’s health.
But Doc turns out to be both lucky and smart, as Dan is understandably reluctant to murder a child, and as Jane and Charlie turn up at just the right moment and location for Doc to figure out how to spirit the girl off into the night. (He couldn’t do it earlier because Al likely had people watching his office, whereas at this point the eyes on him belong to Dan.)
Even though I knew how things would turn out, “Deep Water” remains a wonderfully tense episode, a superb showcase for both Ian McShane and Brad Dourif, and another example of just how things get done in this dark, muddy place.
Some other thoughts:
• When this episode originally aired, I had no idea who Nick Offerman was nor how important he would become to my comedic sensibilities. So it’s one thing to see some random hairy guest star waving his penis around and quite another to know that it’s Ron Effing Swanson’s penis. I’m still, frankly, trying to figure out how this will affect the way I view him on “Parks and Rec” next season. (On a less naked front, the performance is a reminder of Offerman’s range, ’cause there is nothing in common between Mason and Swanson other than the hirsute man who plays them both.)
• Beyond Tom Mason’s big swingin’ dick, this episode was filled with very blunt treatment of the sorts of things that were often glamorized in the old Westerns. The whores in Deadwood are constantly battling VD and other travails of the trade, men like Charlie Utter think nothing of peeing against the sides of buildings when they’re drunk (and possibly when they’re not), and there’s just mud everywhere. Milch once told me that the cursing on “NYPD Blue” (which is spectacularly mild compared to what’s on this show) was actually a Trojan horse – his excuse to deal with other subjects like alcoholism, sex abuse and the worst kinds of violent crime – and I feel much the same way about “Deadwood.” The cursing catches your attention, but everything about the show is so much rawer than your average drama and/or Western.
• Another element Milch brought over from “NYPD Blue” was his fondness for having episodes unfold over consecutive days. It obviously keeps the tension up, but Milch will at times get a bit elastic about it, in which certain events clearly happened the day before while more time seems to have passed between others. There’s nothing major that stands out in this episode – unless you count Al asking the hardware boys how business is, when they’ve barely even set up a tent – but it’s something to keep an eye out for as we move forward.
• Walter Hill only was around to direct the pilot, and Davis Guggenheim (who would later win an Oscar for “An Inconvenient Truth”) taking over as lead director for the first season. In some ways, I think “Deep Water” is even better-looking than the pilot, but either way this remains such a gorgeous show with the way it uses darkness and shadow and fire, with wood walls in the background of nearly every shot.
• Wild Bill and Charlie’s argument about the appearance fees looked ahead to our current age of celebrity, and in the way Hickok takes out Tom Mason (not just recognizing the danger, but the lightning-fast draw when Tom makes his move) shows you just how he came to be a celebrity in the Wild West.
• Another Milch-ian quirk: characters awkwardly volunteering more information than their listener has asked for or needs, like E.B. telling Charlie “The previous guest was Irish,” or Charlie in turn giving Seth and Sol far too much detail about Wild Bill’s prospecting idea.
• Speaking of Charlie’s conversation with the hardware boys, it’s interesting to look at Seth and Sol as a kind of more successful mirror of Bill and Charlie: two taciturn gunslingers, only Seth is (as Charlie notes) slightly better able to deal with the world; and two businessmen whose role it is to smooth things over when their partner goes off half-cocked.
• I remember being floored when I learned that W. Earl Brown, who plays Dan Dorrity here, had previously been Cameron Diaz’s mentally-handicapped brother in “There’s Something About Mary,” because they’re such radically different performances – and physical appearances. But that’s what good acting is all about, and Brown gets a bunch of strong little moments in this episode as Dan struggles with the idea that he’ll have to murder the girl because Al tells him to.
• Al’s encounter with Jane also starts giving us insight into how she became this rough, drunken, mannish caricature, as she starts perversely boasting to Doc about all the men who have fucked her, then later talks to Charlie about how she hasn’t felt that scared since she was a little girl. That sounds like a very dark, dark childhood for the young Martha Jane Canary.
Coming up next: “Reconnoitering the Rim,” in which Brom Garrett ponders his next course of action, while Al is startled by the opening of a new business in town.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org