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 4, “Requiem for a Gleet,” coming up just as soon as I have a Nubian genie at my disposal…
“Eamon, we live life however we choose.” -Dan
There are some “Deadwood” episodes where the pull quote is obvious (Al’s line to William Bullock in the premiere, for instance). With “Requiem for a Gleet,” I went back and forth between two others for quite some time before settling on Dan’s line above. One was Ellsworth assuring Alma, “Myself, ma’am, I’d be betting that the levee’ll hold.” The other was Joanie predicting, “Something terrible’s going to happen here.”
Those are the two extremes of thought in an episode where everyone is either fearing the absolute worst or hoping for the best, sometimes with evidence to support each point of view, sometimes not, and where sometimes fears or hopes are proven to be very wrong. As Dan tells Crop Ear shortly before slitting his throat, you have to choose how you want to live your life: with hope or fear, deference or entitlement, anger or joy.
We know that Ellsworth is right in his assessment of what Wolcott and George Hearst are up to, and we have a pretty good idea that Joanie’s right about where things at the Chez Ami will go with Mr. W. But on the other hand, Seth surprises Martha by agreeing to have some morning intercourse. And in the episode’s centerpiece scene, everyone’s fear that Al will die from his stones – or from Doc’s shaky surgical skills – don’t come to pass, when Doc instead decides to force Al to give it the ol’ college try one last time, producing enough of a stream to force the gleet into a place where he can remove it (with some help from Trixie) without cutting Al open from above or through his taint.
And Dan, Trixie, Johnny and the Doc all collapse in relief and joy on top of Al, as Doc sobs and says, “Thank you for saving me,” in one of the most unexpectedly beautiful images of the whole series. This man has done all of them a bad turn at one point or another, but they need him alive and well and barking out orders so they can each feel whole again.
The medical crisis is largely an excuse to sideline Al while Wolcott and Cy begin making their moves around the camp, but it also led to great moments like the human pile on the bed, and some of the best acting moments yet from the likes of W. Earl Brown and Doc Cochran as they each panicked over Al’s health in their own way.
And while Al suffers and sweats over at the Gem, we see Wolcott consolidating his power with the arrival of new county commissioner Hugo Jarry, played by character actor supreme Stephen Tobolowsky.(*) Jarry suggests his old pal Adams has backed the wrong horse in Swearengen, and Adams begins to fear this is true when Dan tells him about Al’s condition. And where Al wouldn’t play ball with Yankton, Cy and Wolcott quickly set up an arrangement with Jarry (and Cy then sets up Jarry to have some icky tub time with one of the Bella Union whores) at the same time that the two men are setting up Mr. Lee – or, as Wu so memorably puts it(**), the “San Francisco cocksucker” – as a rival to Mr. Wu’s operation in the camp’s Chinatown.
(*) I’ve interviewed Tobolowsky a few times about his terrific autobiographical podcast, The Tobolowsky Files. The series’ 12th episode, “The Sound of Surprise,” is largely about his experience working with David Milch and friends on this show.
(**) In another hilarious bit of pantomime from Keone Young, this time even funnier because he’s doing it for a frustrated, tired Dan, as opposed to the more perceptive Swedgin.
But, again, everyone’s worst fears about Al don’t come true. He saves himself, and his friends, and if he’s exhausted and unable to move or speak in the episode’s final shot, he also looks as pain-free as he has at any point in the season. (Even before the fight with Bullock, he was in discomfort from the stones and his inability to urinate.)
A lot has happened in Deadwood without Al’s knowledge in these last two episodes. Now we get to see how he reacts to all of it.
Some other thoughts:
* Also outstanding in this episode? Our pal Jim Beaver, and I would say that even if he wasn’t coming to comment on each episode. (And here’s your weekly reminder that you can get a personalized copy of Jim’s memoir if you like his writing.) Ellsworth has definitely blossomed in his role as handler of Mrs. Garret’s business affairs. He’s able to wisely and warmly stem the tide of her panic over the rumors that E.B. and Cy have started. And in his earlier encounter with Wolcott, we see a steel and anger that was never really present when he was a humble (if profane) solo prospector.
* One of Jim’s better stories last week involved how William Sanderson admitted he was uncomfortable performing long monologues – which ensured that Milch kept giving them to him, over and over again. (Less out of sadism than to challenge the guy and push him out of his comfort zone for a better performance.) So we get another one here where he talks to Richardson, which is pretty much the same thing as talking to a wall.
* Speaking of Farnum, how delightful was it to see Alma put him way out of his depth by offering to buy the hotel?
* Interesting how Martha actually seems more awkward with Mr. Bullock after they have their intercourse than before. Was it bad? Did he try out some moves he had learned from the widow Garret? Or does it just reflect the very awkward nature of their pity marriage?
* Know your Milch-isms: “taint” is a word he’s long found amusing, going back at least to this “NYPD Blue” scene featuring a very familiar “Deadwood” face.
* I’ll talk more about Miss Isringhausen’s visit to Adams’ hotel room as we get deeper into the story, but my reaction to that scene back in the day was one of puzzlement. Who exactly is this woman who would invent outright lies about Alma like that? And what sort of interaction would Sophia’s governess have with a member of Al’s crew, even if they both lived under the same roof?
Coming up next: “Complications,” in which Al slowly recuperates, Alma has a health question of her own, and Cy begins to look into what’s happening over at the Chez Ami.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org