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 4, “Here Was a Man,” coming up just as soon as I listen to the thunder…
“Can you let me go to hell the way I want to?” -Wild Bill
If you know your Old West history, then you know that James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickcok was shot in the back of the head by Jack McCall only four days after he arrived at the Deadwood mining camp.(*) In the legend of Wild Bill, there have been many accountings of what happened that day, and why, and particularly about why an experienced gunslinger with a long history of fending off threats to his life would have sat in a chair with its back to the door. “Here Was a Man” offers David Milch’s interpretation, and in his version, Bill sits in the chair knowing what will likely happen if he does – and welcoming it. You can see in his eyes that he knows McCall (or someone equally hostile) has just entered the bar, even with his back turned, in the same way that he knew Tom Mason had designs to harm him, and he takes no action whatsoever.
(*) And if you really really know your Old West history, then you might know that Seth Bullock only arrived in the camp the day before Wild Bill died, and that the likelihood they even met, let alone became friendly, was slim. But this is drama, not documentary, and I’ll give a writer as smart and talented as David Milch a whole lot of creative license. Again, nearly every major character but Alma Garret was real, but Milch tinkered plenty with most of their stories.
What a showcase for Keith Carradine. As I recall, HBO sent out the first four episodes of “Deadwood” for review, and though it was clear Olyphant and McShane were both doing some exceptional work, the guy I wound up wanting to interview was Carradine. He makes such a meal out of Wild Bill’s final day on earth, at showing how he could be so full of self-loathing and yet still possessed of so much dignity and nobility. He complains to Charlie that he tries so hard every day to be something he’s not capable of, and yet throughout this episode we see just how much he really can do, how smart and powerful he is, and exactly how he came to build up this reputation that’s now such an unbearable burden on him. Even though Bill is preparing for the end, however it may come, he still has it in him to stand up for the widow Garret, and to know exactly how to play Al Swearengen (who only trusts Hickok once he presents himself as yet another con artist), before passing things off to Bullock. He says his goodbyes, sometimes with the other person knowing and hating it (Charlie), sometimes not (Jane, Seth, Alma), and he writes his letter, and then he goes to play some damn poker and see what happens.
And if the “listen to the thunder” (**) scene isn’t my favorite thing Milch has ever written, it’s easily in the top 5, both for the phrasing – I like to joke that whenever I really need to make a point, I have to remember to say it in thunder – but for Carradine’s conviction in delivering that last line. Wild Bill is a man who has listened to the thunder many times in his life, has sometimes faced it down, and sometimes run, but always survived – and who here is ready to let the thunder take him.
(**) Milch definitely had the elements on his mind as he wrote these early episodes, as the previous installment features Al’s marvelous speech about how he’s the type of guy who sees lightning and prepares for thunder.
But Wild Bill represents the past. As I said in my review of the premiere, the days of good men solving problems by staring down the bad guys and slapping leather is coming to an end. Though he’s able to temporarily outwit Al to provide cover for Seth to help out Alma, this is neither a place nor a show that’s really well-suited to continue providing home to a famous gunfighter. Bill passes along the responsibility for Alma to Seth, and while Seth is good with a gun himself, he’s already a more complicated, ambivalent figure in his decision to turn away from the law to make money in the hardware business.
And I love how the episode parallels Bill preparing himself for the final sleep of death just as Mrs. Garret is waking herself up from her laudanum-induced stupor. Molly Parker didn’t have much to do in the early episodes, but here we begin to get a sense of just what kind of a woman Alma Garret is. Perhaps she wasn’t born into money like her husband, but still capable of affecting a regal, aloof bearing, as we see in the way she deals with Dan, and E.B., and especially Doc Cochran, upon whom she vents all her bitterness about life in the camp and the way she felt he judged her drug addiction. When she smashes the bottle and sobs, it’s not for the loss of her idiot husband so much as for the realization that her life has brought her to this awful place and circumstance, and that she has no one she believes she can trust. But she’s smart enough to enlist Wild Bill’s help (and a more sympathetic figure than Brom), and also smart enough to have a sense of what Al is after – and, for that matter, to instantly realize Al is pulling all the strings, when Brom struggled for so long to figure anything like that out.
So Alma comes back to life just as Jack McCall ends Wild Bill’s, and that final sequence is among the most memorable the show ever did, with the jangling guitar, and most of our major characters reacting to the commotion, and everyone but Seth and Jane more concerned with catching Wild Bill’s killer than to actually seeing to Wild Bill himself. And just as Tom Nuttall and the others grab Jack, and Seth and Jane charge towards the Number 10, a rider comes in with a decapitated Indian head to win the bounty Al promised back in the first episode. He expects to be welcomed like a hero, and instead he’s a confusing afterthought. It’s only been three days since Al promised that reward and the camp was so worked up about the idea of marauding Indians, and yet everyone has long since moved on from it.
The world in “Deadwood” changes very, very quickly. Wild Bill won’t be around to see more of those changes, but maybe Alma Garret might, now that she’s starting to gather her wits again after a long time in the fog.
Some other thoughts:
• I know Seth says he stayed up all night working on the store, and he and Sol continue to work thoughout the long day, but boy does it seem like he and they get an awful lot of work done in the 24 hours since we saw them get started. Then again, Timothy Olyphant takes off his shirt at one point, and I imagine that was enough to distract a decent portion of the audience from questioning either the timeline or Seth’s building skills.
• Dan once again has to struggle with his conscience when Ellsworth admits that he saw Brom’s murder, in a great little subplot for W. Earl Brown and our friend Jim Beaver. Dan tells Al that he revealed the gold strike to him because he knows when he’s out of his depth, and he also seems to recognize his limitations here by turning to Trixie for counsel. (He had told Al, Al would likely have just ordered Ellsworth’s death, nevermind the idea of exile.) Dan likes Ellsworth, and so does Trixie, and ultimately both realize that Ellsworth’s not going to rat Dan out (nor does he have anyone to rat to at the moment), so he gets to stay and mine in peace.
• I love watching E.B.’s inability to resist a hustle, even when ordered not to. But what’s particularly fun here is how quickly Al not only accepts that E.B. did it, but ultimately respects him for it. And we see once again that, no matter how much of a clown he seems at times, E.B. can be more savvy than you’d expect, as he’s the first person to even slightly curb Al’s paranoia about Wild Bill.
• The Bella Union crew gets an addition in Andy, the gambler and con artist who’s trying feebly to conceal some kind of bad, contagious sickness. Andy’s played by Zach Grenier, who appeared a few times on “NYPD Blue” in the Milch years, playing a few different roles, and who now recurs on “The Good Wife” as catty divorce lawyer David Lee.
• Meanwhile, interesting to watch Cy grease the palms of local businessmen like Doc Cochran and Merrick by vastly overpaying for their services. Though at least in the case of Merrick, it appears Cy’s plan is to get a good chunk of the money back by having Eddie “teach” him how to play craps.
• I always get a chuckle at the “American food” sign at the Chinese place Jack is eating at right before he goes to kill Wild Bill. And I always get an even heartier laugh from Tom Nuttall’s absolute disgust at finding his regulars playing double solitaire. (“Where’s your fuckin’ ballgowns?”)
• Dayton Callie is very, very good in Charlie and Bill’s final scene together. And Bill’s death brings with it a quick end to Jane’s brief period of sobriety.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com