We’re almost to the end of our summer rewatch of David Milch’s epic HBO Western “Deadwood.” As mentioned last week, I’ve dropped the duplicate reviews for veterans and newbies, since the newbies didn’t seem to be commenting, and can avoid being spoiled by simply not reading the comments.
A review of episode 11, “The Whores Can Come,” coming up just as soon as I buy myself a bum’s rush…
“I would be so grateful if you would trust me with your sadness.” -Alma
Given its subject matter, it’s not surprising that “The Whores Can Come” is among the most emotionally powerful hours “Deadwood” ever produced – which automatically puts it among the most emotional hours of TV ever produced. When a community comes together to mourn a small child – even if it’s a community of cutthroats, degenerates and lunatics – it’s impossible to not get choked up, especially when the characters are reciting words from David Milch and company, and when they’re played by such an august company of actors.
And the hour is at once incredibly simple, because all action is either about or affected by the funeral for William Bullock, and incredibly complicated, because very few people are able to or willing to reveal their true faces on a horrible day such as this.
The eponymous whores do, sure. There’s no hiding their grief and hysteria, though drill sergeant Trixie is at least able to calm them down enough that they can attend the service without creating too large a spectacle. But almost everyone else is playing a part of one kind or another.
Seth, even in his grief, is ready to play his part in Al’s war with Yankton, corroborating Al’s story to Commissioner Jarry. That he does it while backing this toad off his property and away from the body of his dead son with the righteous gaze we’ve come to know so well is just a reminder that Seth Bullock can really only conceal his emotions to a point.
Al goes back and forth on how he publicly responds to William’s death, depending on what’s needed for each individual negotiation. With Jarry, he’s offended at the very idea of talking business while grieving the death of his “godson,” even as he’s planting the seeds for the elections he wants Yankton to approve. In front of Trixie and his men, Al acts like the boy’s death is an everyday occurrence, barely worth discussing, let alone making time out of the day to attend the funeral. He uses the tragedy as part of an excuse to delay the inevitable war between Wu and Lee, and even within that conflict, he’s two-faced – acting to Wu like he won’t back his play so Wu will slow things down, while making it more clear to Lee that he wants no part of the newcomer. And when the funeral takes place – in a lovely bit of stagecraft that takes advantage of the practical camp set they built out at Melody Ranch – Al slips out onto the balcony to see what he can, just so long as no one else sees that he really does care.
Alma teaches Sophia the value of putting on a brave face for tragedy, and finding support in the love of those still with us. And though we know she doesn’t love Ellsworth – at least, not in the way usually suggested by marriage – she agrees to his sham marriage proposal because she knows the importance of concealing her adultery (for both herself and for the grieving Martha), and also seems to recognize the value of a trustworthy man after witnessing Seth and Martha say goodbye to their son.
And as for the Bullocks themselves, they’ve been playing a role for a very long time now, for the sake of William and Seth’s sense of honor. But even though they’ve made love as a husband and wife would, they’ve never entirely been a real couple, nor was Seth ever treated as William’s father, until possibly the end.
Several of you argued last week that the point of the farewell scene to William wasn’t Martha finally referring to Seth as William’s father, but Seth playing the role of his brother Robert for a dying boy too far gone to know the difference. That’s one of the two interpretations I had as I watched the scene, and likely should have included both in the review, especially since Seth’s reference to William’s duck calls – which he hadn’t yet had a chance to hear, but which he knew Robert had loved – strongly leans towards that version. I like to think it’s a bit of a hybrid: Seth taking on his brother’s identity for a moment, and yet in so doing – in stepping in and acting like part of the family, rather than an awkward caretaker – becoming the boy’s father, and Martha’s husband in a more permanent way than ever before.
As we begin “The Whores Can Come,” Martha is still considering returning home. This is all too much for her, and the burden only feels worse due to Andy Cramed’s psalm choice – what mother, even the most devout believer in the holy spirit, afterlife, etc., would ever want to hear about worms destroying her son’s body? – and she runs away from these strangers and for the comfort of William, even if it’s just his body in the wood box Seth built. But that pause from the service gives her strength, and Seth’s hand provides even more – and holy cow are Anna Gunn and Timothy Olyphant great throughout this episode, but particularly in the moment as they hold onto each other – and she declares that the strange people of this strange place should be allowed to say goodbye to her boy the way she already has.
I don’t remember another episode of the series edited quite like the final 10 or 15 minutes of this one are. We keep cutting away not only to connected action (from the funeral to Al watching it from his balcony), but back and forth and back and forth among the various people leaving the funeral – from, for instance, Alma saying yes to Ellsworth’s proposal, to Joanie and Jane leaving flowers at the funeral, then back to Alma and Ellsworth. Knowing what I know about the sometimes chaotic method by which these episodes were made, it wouldn’t surprise me if this is simply director Gregg Fienberg and the editor trying to cover up for some material that they couldn’t film, or couldn’t quite get right. But nor would it surprise me if it was a purely artistic choice and not a practical one – a visual way to illustrate how this one event has tied so many of these characters together more strongly than before.
Ultimately, though, this is not an hour about Alma, or Jane or Trixie or even Al Swearengen, though all get memorable moments throughout (including another patented Swearengen Oral Sex Monologue). This is an hour about Seth and Martha Bullock, trying to move on from this unspeakable tragedy, wondering what their future will be like now that the primary reason for them being together has left this world far too soon.
But with Seth’s closing words – “Whatever will let us live… as we are now” – we get hope that out of William’s death may come something good, that perhaps these two will stop pretending to be married and act like they truly are.
That’s not much in the aftermath of a child’s death. But it’s something.
Some other thoughts:
* The moment in the funeral that gets me every time: Tom Nuttall enters the proceedings carrying a specially-made No. 10 wreath. Dammit.
* Trixie and Alma’s relationship – “friendship” feels like too strong a word – was so well established in the first season that the show can now get an enormous payoff from a relatively small moment like Trixie sniffing Alma’s drink to check for laudanum. We went through all of that with them, and the emotions come flooding back whenever they interact, however briefly.
* Cy Tolliver can just never grasp the idea of people changing or bettering their natures, can he? We have no evidence to suggest Andy’s ministry is any kind of hustle – and all kinds from the plague episodes to suggest his conversion was real – yet all Cy can see standing before him is a potential con man.
* Great Moments in Trixie, Part 2: After Sol confronts her about running back to Swearengen, she admits that in times of strife, she reverts to comfortable old patterns. Her relationship with both men is so complicated that you could interpret that scene in a number of ways – entirely truthful, entirely a lie because her loyalty is still to Al, or a mix of the two – and it would make sense.
* E.B. was somehow able to get out from under Mrs. Garret’s offer to buy the Grand Central, but all we know of George Hearst so far suggests he is the sort of man whose offers you do not want to refuse. I’d feel sorry for E.B. if he wasn’t… E.B.
* I do love seeing the pride that Jane always takes in her nursing accomplishments. When she’s sober and has a purpose, she’s a delight.
* Great Moments in Trixie, Part 3: Dan, Johnny and Trixie all bickering with each other before the funeral because they have their own specific superstitions designed to make them feel better about William’s death, and the absurdity of the others’ superstitions comes dangerously close to pointing out the silliness of their own.
* Thanks, as always, to Jim Beaver and Keone Young for their contributions in the comments. Jim missed the last few reviews and then caught up over the last week, and his comments, as always, are well worth going back to look for. (Insert usual reminder here that you can buy a personalized copy of Jim’s memoir, “Life’s That Way,” at his website.) I spoke with Garret Dillahunt briefly at press tour, and he wants to contribute again before the end; hopefully we can make it work for the Wolcott-centric finale. And speaking of which…
Coming up next: The second season concludes with the arrival of George Hearst in “Boy-the-Earth-Talks-To.”
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org