We’re into week 5 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 6, “Something Very Expensive,” coming up just as soon as I think of Leon in a dress…
“Past hope, past kindness and consideration. Past justice, past satisfaction. Past warmth, or cold or comfort. Past love. But past surprise? What an endlessly unfolding tedium life would then become. No, Doris, we must not let you be past surprise.” -Wolcott
We are now halfway through this second season, and there have already been several shifts in alliances and power throughout the camp. At the moment, the Tolliver/Wolcott/Hearst coalition seems to have matters under control, for instance, but events are fluid, particularly with Commissioner Jarry’s displeasure at how he was treated while under Cy’s protection. But one thing that doesn’t seem to change, no matter who’s in charge or with whom they’ve alligned themselves, is that the people in power have the ability and often the desire to take out their frustrations on the powerless.
In particular, what we see throughout “Something Very Expensive” is the way that the men in power – and they’re almost always men on this show, with the sometime exception of the wealthy widow Garret – wind up kicking, punching or otherwise attacking the weaker people not because they’re directly angry with them, but because the real target of their anger is too powerful to be touched.
The most obvious example, and the one that provides the episode its title, is Wolcott’s murderous rampage at the Chez Ami. The mysterious, dangerous Mr. W has reason to be annoyed with Doris, but any murderous intent he feels is directed at Cy for trying to blackmail him about his violent sexual proclivities. The problem is, Cy is now too valuable to Mr. Hearst’s operation, so Wolcott instead vents his rage on Doris, and can’t bottle it up until after Carrie (who has the misfortune to see Doris’ body) and Maddie (who foolishly believes this incident puts her in a position of power) have also had their throats cut by his razor.
It’s a horrifying sequence, but one we’ve been prepared for by Maddie and Joanie’s previous discussions about Mr. W, and serves as another reminder that the most outwardly-civilized people on this show are capable of the least civilized behavior possible, while many of the camp’s most decent, generous citizens (say, Ellsworth) would be sneered at by the higher classes.
And just as Wolcott leaves his meeting with Cy furious but unable to directly attack the man, Cy takes his irritation over being unable to blackmail Wolcott by ordering Con and Leon to vandalize Merrick’s office. Merrick demonstrated last week that he’s more powerful (or, at least, stronger-willed) than Cy had assumed, but here he’s just a nerd being bullied by a stronger crew. (And, in the process, seemingly losing whatever inroads he had made with the camp’s new schoolteacher.)
Seth is simultaneously mad at Sol and himself – in general, Seth Bullock is the biggest target of his own rage – at news that Sol had met with Alma about starting a Deadwood bank, but he’s never going to actually beat up his friend and partner. So instead, he yells at, then knocks down, Steve the drunk – whom we’ve already seen act out this kind of proxy bullying last week with his attempt to lynch the General when Jarry was taken out of reach. And because Steve can’t risk fighting back against the sheriff, he’s instead goaded by one of the No. 10’s other patrons into molesting the sheriff’s poor horse.
Steve’s drunk, twisted decision to do this leads to the episode’s one example of the powerless being able to temporarily get over on, if not the strong, then the slightly less weak. Hostetler catches him with the horse, ties him up, and while he feels Steve deserves death for this and other acts, the General talks him down, humiliating Steve by making him confess his deed(*) on Hostetler’s chalk board and holding it as blackmail to make him treat them and any other blacks in camp with more respect. They at least temporarily succeed where Cy failed with Wolcott, but only because they had more leverage in that livery stable than Cy had over Wolcott.
(*) At the time the episode aired, there was a lot of debate among my “Deadwood”-watching friends about whether Steve was protesting too much about exactly what he did to the horse, or if he was telling the truth. I’m not going to go frame-by-frame through the DVD (this is already a paragraph they didn’t prepare me for in TV critic school), but his dialogue before Steve confronts him supports his story and suggests he was pleasuring himself next to the horse. But the very fact that this is where his mind went after hearing that lecture about the scales of blind justice doesn’t speak well of our local hooplehead.
These kinds of power plays aren’t about rational thought but animal instinct. It’s not a coincidence that they happen to come in an episode where Merrick understandably assumes it was a dog, and not one of Con and Leon, that defecated in his office, and where Steve is at least more intimate with a horse than any man should ever think of being. “Deadwood” is a show about the birth of a civilization, and earlier civilizations came about in part because humans stopped acting like animals. Deadwood is on its way to joining the rest of the world, but there are moments when everyone’s behavior horrifyingly slides back to our evolutionary roots.
One of the few men in power not acting that way this week is Al, who had more than his fair share of these incidents last season. (Even his fight with Seth in “A Lie Agreed Upon” is less out of frustration with the sheriff than with Yankton.) But he’s been humbled, and weakened, by his weakness, and this is a different Swearengen we see holding court in his office. His temper doesn’t flare up, whether he’s dealing with the usual Farnum idiocy or the nakedly obvious machinations of Miss Isringhausen. He listens, he is (relatively) patient, and as he considers all the angles for himself, he’s often able to consider them from the perspective of the person who’s addressing him.
The episode concludes with Joanie sending the surviving Chez Ami whores out of town under cover of night, blanket and Charlie Utter. She’s lucky to have escaped Wolcott’s massacre (though it’s also possible she would have just shot the sonuvabitch the second she entered the bedroom, rather than posturing like Maddie did) and would probably be wise to leave with the others. But she feels bound to this place – and particularly to Cy (to whom she initially ran for help instead of Charlie or Seth) – and is stuck in a place where such a monstrous crime can be covered up by a man who’s not any better than the one who dropped the bodies. As she walks through the thoroughfare, she looks up and sees Al out on his balcony, and a moment of seeming understanding passes between them. He doesn’t know what she’s just been through, and at best she knows of his own recent tribulations third-hand, but there’s a brief connection.
Once upon a time, Al Swearengen might have accepted what Wolcott did as the cost of doing business. In fact, if the roles were reversed and Wolcott had sought him out rather than Cy, it’s entirely possible that Al would have been willing to cover this up to protect a link to George Hearst. But the Al of this moment and these circumstances is a more magnanimous, empathetic sort. He doesn’t know what’s happened to Joanie, but he can see even in his condition and from that distance that she’s been through something, and he gives her a little nod – not something that will bring the three dead women back, unshackle Joanie from Cy, or solve any of her other problems, but a signal that in this camp full of animals who react to threats by attacking those lower on the food chain, here stands a human being.
It’s not much, but on a terrible day like this, it’s something.
Some other thoughts:
* Whether men of the 1870s would actually be able to assume pregnancy based on a single incident of vomiting, Alma’s pregnancy is rapidly ceasing to be a secret, and Paula Malcomson and our friend Jim Beaver have another splendid duet where Trixie tries to convince Ellsworth to make an honest woman of his boss.
* Sol’s quips don’t have the memorably profane elegance of the best of Swearengen or some of the other characters, but they’re pretty damn clever on their own, like him punctuating a discussion of fighting Seth by warning him, “And you’ll have to work by yourself while I convalesce.”
* Speaking of both Trixie and Mr. Starr, it’s interesting to see that Trixie is still reporting on Sol’s activities to Al, even as it’s clear her chief affections have been transferred over to Hardware Boy #1. Given that Al, Sol and Seth’s business interests are now more aligned than they were in season 1, it seems like less of a betrayal than it would have at the time.
* God bless every scene pairing Ian McShane and Keone Young. So funny every single time – this time with the “juice” vs. “Jews” confusion driving much of the humor – but always underscored by the obvious affection Al has for Wu, and the way Wu in turn views Al as his lifeline to the English-speaking world. He refers to himself and Al as hang dai, or, simply, “brothers.” Al may not understand the exact words, but he gets the inflection.
* A more understated but equally amusing bit of comedy: Al’s suggestion that Dan go recruit Crop Ear to help add to their muscle in this time of crisis.
As always, let me thank in advance Jim Beaver, Keone Young and anyone else from the “Deadwood” cast who turns up in the comments to offer their own memories of working on this great show. (I’m assuming Mr. Young will have a lot to say on the Al/Wu scene and the idea of them as heng dai.) And if you’ve been enjoying Jim Beaver’s writing here, let me again remind you that you can order a personalized copy of his memoir, “Life’s That Way,” through his website.
Finally, we’re starting to run into the vacation/travel portion of the summer. I’m taking several days off late next week, so there’s a question of whether I’ll have time to get a review of episode 7, “E.B. Was Left Out,” done for next Friday, or if that will have to keep for the following week – which is also when I head to Comic-Con, which will be followed by a little more time off before press tour, so God knows when things will get done. My advice: for the next few weeks, check the blog on Friday mornings a little after 9 Eastern. (Or follow me on Twitter, subscribe to the appropriate instant alert emails, etc.) If the review got done, it’ll be up then. If not, try the following week. At some point, I may need to double up again a time or two just to get done by the end of the summer, but it’ll all happen. Not to worry. But as David Milch so often did throughout the making of this show, I’m going to have to improvise along the way.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org