We’re into week 2 of our summer trip back through David Milch’s epic revisionist Western “Deadwood.” As always with this project, we’re going to have two parallel discussions going at once: identical reviews, but one where the comments section is just for people who are new to the series and don’t want to be spoiled on anything past the events of the episode being discussed, and one for people who know “Deadwood” backwards and forwards, and want to be able to discuss it all at once. This is the newbie-safe version; click here for the veteran-friendly one.
A review of episode 3, “New Money,” coming up just as soon as we make the trout pay for his slothful ways…
“Who is the man?” -Joanie
“A trick. A specialist – who asks to be called Mr. W.” -Maddie
We begin “New Money” in Al Swearengen’s office – specifically, on the floor of that office, where Al lies shivering, in agony, unable to move due to the pain of his kidney stone, and too proud to call for help whenever anyone stands outside the locked door. It’s a position Al will stay in for nearly half the episode – until a panicked Jewel convinces an anguished Dan to kick the door in – and what little we see and hear of him in the second half involves him screaming in agony as Doc Cochran tries to relieve the problem.
To sideline what’s become the show’s central character – and I would argue, even more than Seth Bullock at this point, the closest this morally ambiguous world has to a hero – for an entire hour this early in the season is a pretty bold move. Some of the kidney stone storyline was no doubt fueled by David Milch’s own misadventures in the world of medicine. Milch has battled through various health problems over the years (including a heart attack during his “NYPD Blue” days) and projected some of his nightmarish experiences onto Sipowicz and/or Swearengen. (Though I don’t believe Milch ever suffered from this specific ailment.)
But Al’s pain also serves important story and thematic functions. While Al is busy writhing and moaning in his office, there’s a power vacuum in the camp – a vacuum that is quickly filled by the mysterious Francis Wolcott, and, by extension, his famous employer, George Hearst.
In the late 1870s setting of “Deadwood,” Hearst’s name would be well-known and formidable enough to stop everyone in their tracks upon hearing it – especially everyone in a mining camp like this one. He was very real, and very powerful, and his interest in the camp suggests just how close it is to becoming legitimate. An outlaw community just starting out attracts the likes of an Ellsworth or Al Swearengen; a place on the verge of being absorbed into the United States and making the landholders very wealthy attracts the likes of a George Hearst.
Wolcott is a historical invention, and also an excuse for Milch to rehire actor Garret Dillahunt, who so memorably played Jack McCall in season 1. Some TV producers are of the belief that once you use an actor in one role on your show, he or she can never play another without violating the sense of reality. Other producers – including Milch, Dick Wolf and Louis C.K. – seem fine with recycling an actor if they’re good enough. “NYPD Blue” would consistently return old guest stars in different roles, and on “Hill Street Blues,” Milch brought Dennis Franz back to play Norman Buntz (essentially the new central character of the final two seasons) after Franz had played the villainous Sal Benedetto in one of the series’ most famous early arcs. Dillahunt’s far more of a chameleon than Franz – though there’s an obvious resemblance between McCall and Wolcott, or between either man and Burt Chance on “Raising Hope,” he carries himself differently above and beyond any changes in hair, makeup and wardrobe – and the performance as Wolcott is so good that I was quickly able to put the droopy-eyed Jack out of my mind.
Though Al’s too busy with his gleet to notice or care about the new man’s arrival, many other key players quickly get caught up in Wolcott’s orbit, each trying to get the best of him and each being proved to be his inferior. E.B. sees “a fish to rival the fabled Leviathan,” but instead it’s E.B. who winds up on the hook when he realizes he has just scammed the great and powerful George Hearst out of 10 grand, and that he has to put himself in Wolcott’s thrall to avoid the powerful man’s wrath. Maddie came to Deadwood specifically to resume her business relationship with Wolcott, but she’s terrified of the man. Joanie decides the best way to assess the threat Wolcott poses is to seduce him, but he’s not attracted to her – and can tell she has a gun hidden in her corset. Cy Tolliver is the only Deadwood citizen who doesn’t feel like a fool by the time he’s done interacting with Wolcott, but even he does a poor job of reading the man, and it’s not a partnership he can entirely enjoy because it involves much interaction with half-wit employees like Con and Leon.
Milch plots can be opaque at times, but both of Wolcott’s agendas seem quite clear this juncture: to create a panic so he can scoop up gold claims at a bargain price for his employer, and to enjoy the services of the mysterious Carrie – likely in a violent fashion, based on Maddie’s quip about how the girl’s “end” of the deal might include a wooden box.
In any other circumstance, Al would be right on top of one or both of these things. But he’s not physically up to anything but howling in pain – listen to Ian McShane’s anguished delivery of “MOTHER OF GOD!!!!” and remind yourself that he never won an Emmy for this role and was only nominated once in three seasons – and his staff all revere him too much to do anything but watch and grimace as he suffers.
It’s funny to think of how much our perception of Al has changed from the start of the series to this point. He hasn’t gone all cuddly on us – he was on the verge of cutting Bullock’s throat in the season premiere, after all – but he’s become a much more complicated, often sympathetic figure. And you can see in the reactions of Dan, Johnny, Jewel and Trixie that for all the verbal and physical abuse he doles out, for them this is like watching daddy laid horribly, perhaps fatally, low.
We saw in the premiere that Seth had been too distracted by his affair with Alma to properly do his duties as both sheriff and camp representative for Yankton. The threat posed by the new county commissioners is still out there, and now Francis Wolcott has slipped into town while the community’s other major leader is in too much pain to do anything about it.
Some other thoughts:
* Again, I imagine Dillahunt’s recasting is a distraction for some, but I enjoyed the symmetry of Farnum selling Wild Bill’s letter to a man resembling the one who killed him, and in an episode where Charlie and Jane also talk quite a bit about Bill as she sleeps under his old coat. Also, for those who pay more attention to the physical geography of the Grand Central, is Wolcott staying in Wild Bill’s old room, or just one with the same layout?
* Seth and Alma respond to the end of their affair in different ways. Seth recognizes how much he’s been shirking his duties at work and home, and makes an effort to catch up on sheriff paperwork with Charlie (I love that they’re admittedly terrible at the day-to-day of being cops), and to engage Sol in the idea of doing something about Yankton. Alma, on the other hand, is feeling bitter and spiteful about the whole thing. After musing about taking out her anger on E.B. by buying the Grand Central and putting him in the street, her wrath ultimately falls on Miss Isringhausen – who makes a handy scapegoat, considering that it was their conversation last week that convinced Alma to close the curtain on Mr. Bullock – who loses her job as Sophia’s caretaker.
* Amusing Exchange #1: Trixie: “Where’s fucking Dolly?” Dan: “Fucking.”
* Amusing Exchange #2: Wolcott uses the phrase “shit out of luck,” prompting E.B. to ask, “Did they speak that way then?” Milch in general doesn’t bother with meta humor, but that line had to be in response to all the queries about the profanity he got at the start of the first season.
* The Con-for-Eddie switch and Joanie’s departure has the effect of making Cy’s operation seem more comical. Cy himself is still dangerous (witness his anger at the idea that Lyla prayed for him), but he’s staffed with buffoons, whom he has to work nearly as hard to engage as messengers as E.B. does with the half-witted Richardson.
* Loved the brief Jane/Trixie reunion, as two of Sophia’s former caretakers kept talking past each other because they’re too wrapped up in their own problems, which is the kind of scene Milch enjoys writing.
Finally, thanks again to Jim Beaver, who made his expected terrific contribution to the veteran comments for “A Lie Agreed Upon.” He’s still selling personalized autographed copies of his memoir, “Life’s That Way,” at his website. And as a bonus, last week’s review also featured an unexpected visit from Mr. Wu himself, Keone Young. At this rate, I’m assuming we’re going to have W. Earl Brown, Brad Dourif and Kim Dickens commenting here by the end of the season.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
What did everybody else think?