We’ve come to the end of our summer rewatch of the second season of David Milch’s epic revisionist Western “Deadwood.” I’m no longer posting duplicate versions of these reviews for newcomers and veterans, since all the newbies have to do to avoid being spoiled on the third season is to skip the comments.
A review of the season finale, “Boy-the-Earth-Talks-To,” coming up just as soon as the bison can spare me…
“What if the earth talks to us to get us to arrange its amusements?” -Wolcott
There is a wedding at the center of “Boy-the-Earth-Talks-To,” and as the wedding and its reception take place, so too does a shady backroom negotiation to make Deadwood a part of the Dakota territory, as does Wu’s murder of Mr. Lee, as does the hanging of Francis Wolcott, as does Cy getting stabbed in the gut by the trying-to-be-good Reverend Andy Cramed. In that way, the finale feels akin to the famous climaxes to “The Godfather” films, where Francis Ford Coppola would juxtapose a holy family event with bloody scenes of Michael Corleone’s men taking care of all Family business.
And certainly, the way that so much violence and dirty business exists right alongside this lovely, joyous event evokes thoughts of the Corleones. But as Andy runs through the wedding vows – in much plainer, more familiar language than “Deadwood” ordinarily opts for, but that takes on new meaning when we see the images they’re paired with – it’s intercut not only with scenes of violence, but of other bits of business (personal and professional) being conducted. And given the true nature of this particular wedding, it feels like the entire season hearkens back to the title of that two-hour premiere: “A Lie Agreed Upon.”
There are many lies agreed upon throughout “Boy-the-Earth-Talks-To,” but most of them have at least some nugget of truth lurking underneath. Alma does love Ellsworth, just not in the way implied by their wedding vows. Al, Seth and Commissioner Jarry are all sincere in their desire to arrange this marriage between Deadwood and the Dakotas, even if some of their motives trend more towards the financial than the communal. (And yet note that Al is willing to give up his $50,000 bribe because it will reflect poorly on the history written about this moment; he views annexation as a license to print money, but he also does believe in things bigger than himself and his profits.) George Hearst and Wolcott agree on a severance, and yet Wolcott knows he can’t live without his benefactor’s protection and direction, and hangs himself in the thoroughfare.
The Bullock marriage has always been a lie to a degree, and even though Seth and Martha are making a go of it in the wake of William’s death, he’s also unerringly drawn to the bride of the day. This isn’t Alma’s first marriage for reasons other than love, and we see hear marching towards Brom’s grave as we hear the speech we assume she gives to him there; instead, she turns around short of the cemetery, and we realize she has no interest in revealing so much of herself even to her first husband’s corpse.
At the center of many of the marriages being arranged in the finale is Mr. George Hearst, who finally appears in the person of actor Gerald McRaney. McRaney’s a guy who had been around TV forever(*), as one of the brothers in “Simon & Simon,” as a frequent guest star on his wife Delta Burke’s show “Designing Women,” and then as the eponymous hero of the sitcom “Major Dad.” When I saw McRaney get out of that stagecoach and join this collection of heavy hitters, I laughed at the thought of Major Dad going toe-to-toe with Al Swearengen, but like everyone else in the cast, the chance to perform David Milch’s material brought McRaney to an entirely new level of acting. Whether he’s dining at the Grand Central with Wolcott, terrifying E.B. Farnum or negotiating a deal with Al, there’s never any question that Hearst holds all the cards, and you believe that every second that McRaney is on screen. He and Garret Dillahunt only have a few scenes together – the first to establish the contrast between the erudite, repressed geologist and his earthy, lustful master, the second for an angry Hearst to end their partnership – but their chemistry together fills in so many blanks about the mysterious Mr. W.
(*) Even before his more famous roles, he was in the Western milieu as the last man to face Matt Dillon in a gunfight on “Gunsmoke.” He lost, of course.
So Hearst makes deals with Al (caring less about which Chinese crime boss he employs than Wolcott did), with Farnum (bullying him into a sale in a way that Alma couldn’t) and with Cy (though that one’s up in the air with Wolcott’s death and Cy’s potentially fatal injury), and when he decides he’d like an entrance onto his terrace like Al has, he simply takes a sledgehammer and makes it himself. George Hearst is a man used to getting what he wants, when he wants it, and finesse is neither necessary nor preferred to get it.
And yet even as this symbol of capitalism run amok begins imposing his will on the camp, there’s a joy to the proceedings. Alma and Ellsworth may be having a shotgun wedding, but it’s a very fancy one, and much-needed for the mood of the camp in the wake of William Bullock’s passing. And that happiness extends to allowing most of the characters we like get victories here. Wu defeats Lee – and cuts off his long hair in a gesture of loyalty to both Al and America (only the fourth English word we’ve heard him utter, if you count “Swedgin” as English) – and in the process Adams gets some new respect from Al and from Dan. Al and Seth negotiate a deal with Jarry they can live with. Trixie gets to get dressed up for a night out with Sol, and if Jane doesn’t enjoy her own fancy attire, Joanie seems to take pleasure (or at least amusement) from seeing her dressed that way. (And not that she knows it at the time, but Joanie will get to see some measure of justice for Maddie, Carrie and Doris.) Hell, Al even gets Tom Nuttall to put away the bottle and forestall selling his bar – and in the process we discover that Tom plays the spoons!
Cy gets gutted by Andy, but he’s had that coming for a long time, and though we came to understand Wolcott a bit by the end, the world is better off without him preying on more women.
We began the season with Al and Seth trying to kill each other because Al has mocked Seth about Alma. We end it with them coming together to secure the camp’s future, and with Al trying very hard to get Seth to go home to his wife, rather than hang about to stare at the woman he cannot have. And as the new Mr. and Mrs. Ellsworth ride off together, Al Swearengen stands on his balcony and studies the camp. With Hearst’s arrival, Al may no longer be master of all he surveys, but the smile on his face (such a lovely moment from Ian McShane) is appropriate for the day he’s just had – and for the incredible season of television we’ve just watched.
Some other thoughts:
* “Deadwood” season 2 ended not long after the final (post-Milch) season of “NYPD Blue” finished up. Though the “Deadwood” cast is filled with people who guest starred on “NYPD” (or, in the cases of Anna Gunn and Titus Welliver, who made many appearances on that show), the only “NYPD Blue” regular castmember to appear on “Deadwood” is Gordon Clapp, who has a cameo in the wedding scene as the man arranging the whole affair (including Ellsworth’s hated gloves).
* Hi, I’m 12. Therefore, E.B.’s ill-timed onset of diarrhea always, always makes me laugh. Did I mention I’m 12?
* This is a rare episode that doesn’t take place the day after the previous one. A week has passed since William’s funeral, but the Bullocks are understandably still mourning. It’s easy to imagine them just sitting in front of those closed curtains, day after day, barely even speaking or acknowledging each other, until Seth is so desperate for a connection with his wife that he all but leaps at the suggestion she still wants to teach the local children.
* A week is also enough time for Mose to plausibly heal from his gunshot wounds to the point where Doc can get him out into the fresh air – even if it’s just on the porch of the Chez Ami, since the big guy is afraid to leave the establishment.
* Al notes to Hearst that he’s a terrible shot, and to this point in the series, I don’t believe we’ve ever seen him with a gun in his hand, have we?
* I don’t know if “the color” was a phrase the real George Hearst (or any other prospectors of the era) used to describe gold, but damn if it’s not an evocative phrase.
* Last week, we saw the Gem staff each relying on old superstitions to make themselves feel better about William’s death. Here, Joanie pretends (I’m assuming) to use superstitions to force Jane to wear a nice dress to the wedding, rather than her usual riding clothes.
* I love the hop Brad Dourif puts in Doc’s step as he walks from the Chez Ami to the wedding. What a great physical performance this was by him, throughout the series.
* I know Blazanov is doing a very traditional Russian/Eastern European dance at the wedding reception, but I always associate it with Henry Winkler busting it out as Fonzie in an episode of “Happy Days” (as captured in one of the best music videos ever made).
Coming up next: That’s it for “Deadwood” – for now, anyway. My initial plan had been to approach this project the same way I did “The Wire,” and to do reviews of the seasons that existed before I began blogging, but not to repeat my own work from the original blog. As many of you have pointed out, my coverage of “Deadwood” season 3 was spotty – it aired during a busy summer, so I didn’t cover every episode (and covered others very briefly in morning round-up posts) – and not necessarily the equal of my work on these earlier seasons (or “The Wire” seasons 4 & 5 on the old blog). This masterpiece arguably deserves better, especially since we now have Jim Beaver, Keone Young and company around to greatly enhance the experience.
So it’s entirely possible that I may do season 3 next summer. I don’t know. That’s a long way away, and we’ll have to see how I feel by then, or if I’m instead bitten by the urge to move onto a show I haven’t covered in the past. I can tell you that I’ll have a “Deadwood”-related project coming up hopefully sometime before next summer, and when I can share more details on that, I will, but if you’ve been enjoying these reviews, you should enjoy that.
Regardless of what comes next, thanks for reading, and commenting.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com