We’re into week 6 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 7, “E.B. Was Left Out,” coming up just as soon as I apologize for my work with the decimals…
“Pain, or damage don’t end the world – or despair, or fuckin’ beatings. The world ends when you’re dead. Until then, you got more punishment in store. Stand it like a man, and give some back.” -Al
Early in “E.B. Was Left Out,” Joanie admits to Charlie that she and all the women she’s known in her life save Maddie live in terror of men, and that she can’t understand why Mr. W did what he did to those whores because “I’m not a man.”
In Joanie Stubbs’ part of the world, men have all the power and get to make all of the decisions, whether they’re right or not, and the best women can do is guess at their motives. But throughout “E.B. Was Left Out,” we get glimpses of how the men in power in “Deadwood” view the lot of being a man, and it tends to involve – as Al so eloquently puts it to Merrick in one of my favorite bits of oratory of the whole series – enduring a lot of pain, suffering and indignity, and waiting for an opportunity to return the favor to those who’ve hurt you.
When Charlie finds out what Wolcott did, he’s bound by his loyalty to Joanie to keep her secret and act as her friend, not the camp’s deputy sheriff, so all he can do is lay a beating on Wolcott in the thoroughfare. Cy responds to this unnerving event to gather the town leaders (save one) and says that they are hopelessly outclassed by George Hearst and his people, and “We can face up to that like men or get steamrolled by the fucking alternative.” Seth, with some help from Al, is able to quickly piece together what Wolcott did, but he understands that for the good of the camp, he has to let it go for now. And on the domestic front, Seth begins to recognize that the best thing he can do regarding Alma being pregnant with his child may be to get the heck out of the camp rather than expose Alma to constant gossip and Martha to further humiliation. When Al later goes to probe Charlie for intel on the murders (before overplaying his hand and telling a lie Charlie can recognize), Charlie suggests that, “Being a man, you believe you’ve seen the equal,” and Al says this is one of those things that even being a man doesn’t prepare you for.
And the man who has the most ceremonial authority in the camp – if very little actual power – gives the episode its title when he pouts and curses and rants over being excluded from Cy’s meeting.
Farnum is “Deadwood” comic relief, but the humor comes out of a keen understanding of who this sub-human is, how he’s ruled by instinct more than intelligence, how he wants respect even as he’s aware of how mentally inferior he is to almost everyone he meets. (There’s a reason he keeps Richardson so close: he’s the one man E.B. can always feel smarter than.) So he stews over being left out of the meeting, but it turns out that his exclusion wasn’t out of a lack of respect – or, at least, not entirely – but Al’s desire to protect E.B. from his own worst impulses. Al recognizes that E.B. has his uses, however frustrating it can be to have a conversation with him, and he’d rather E.B. not be put in a position to invite his own murder.
Though E.B. gets his name in the title, this is much more Charlie Utter’s episode, as he has to balance his loyalty to Joanie to his impulses as both man and lawman. Beating up Wolcott opened up both Joanie and himself to tremendous danger, but he couldn’t help himself. And because Francis Wolcott is a man whose behavior is unpredictable even to other men, the beating has an unexpected bonus: a message from the grave from Charlie’s dear, dead friend Bill Hickok.
For a future project I’m working on that’s going to involve “Deadwood” in part, I spoke to Jody Worth, original “Deadwood” staff writer and writer of this episode. In discussing the unpredictable, unconventional way Milch, Worth and everyone else plotted out the series, he explained that they always had certain historical signposts they were writing towards, even if they didn’t know how they would get there, or how long it would take. They knew that Wild Bill’s letter would wind up in the right hands eventually, since it’s a real document that became part of the public record of his life. They just didn’t know who would get it, and how, until Charlie was put in a position to attack Wolcott, and they realized this could provide the opportunity they’d been looking for. It’s not a planned moment, but it’s a beautiful one, particularly in the barely-contained joy on Dayton Callie’s face as Charlie gets to touch something that was touched by his dear, departed friend.
Being a man in the world of “Deadwood” often means a lot of suffering, and a lot of swallowing of pride and injustice. Every now and then, though, it means you get a gift from above.
Some other thoughts:
* Getting back to Seth and Alma, it’s funny: I ordinarily roll my eyes and lose interest at shows that keep dealing with a seemingly perfect couple who for some reason can’t be together, but I really like these scenes dealing with their forced separation. Some of this is that it makes more sense in the era, and in each character’s circumstance, some is that their relationship isn’t at the center of the show (even though each of them is a major character on their own), and some is just that David Milch being a whole lot more talented than most of the writers handling these kinds of scenarios – and that Olyphant and Parker are so good opposite each other, as seen in the look on each actor’s face when Seth tells Alma, “It becomes you.”
* The opening scene between Swearengen and Merrick not only provides Al’s great pragmatic pep talk, but establishes that the Gem and the Pioneer office are connected by a walkway. I wonder if this was a situation where someone – Milch, a director, Jeffrey Jones, or whomever – noticed the physical link in the way Al does, or if it was something Milch and the other writers decided would be a good idea, and the Pioneer set was refurbished accordingly.
* Con and Leon do a fine job serving their comic relief role (Con after hearing Cy’s pitch for the celestial whores: “We are dwarves in the company of a giant”) while simultaneously reminding you how how disgusting the attitudes were towards the camp’s Chinese occupants.
* Running gags: Jewel turns Al’s complaints about how she drags her leg against him as he continues to recover from his stone crisis, and we see Al enthusiastically eating peaches during the meeting with Cy and the others.
* At the end of the first season, Al noted that despite their lives being so frequently linked, he and the widow Garret had yet to meet. We finally get to see that meeting in this episode, and it’s everything one would have hoped for, including Alma calmly calling out Al for the harm he intended both her and Sophia, Al being impressed by her sand, and Sophia understandably being terrified of this man who once wanted her dead. Al has become a much more benevolent figure by this point in the series, but I appreciate that the episode doesn’t try to rewrite history and suggest he was always this swell. He’s a more generous, forgiving sort now as much because it suits his purposes as because he’s grown and changed emotionally.
* Loved the way that Trixie gently mocked Seth’s holier-than-thou attitude when her attempt to bury the hatchet with him included a reminder that Moses already did the heavy lifting with the tablets.
* Another Jody Worth tidbit: the reasons for all the monologues to inanimate objects or people who can’t respond (or a bit of both, in the case of Al speaking to the box containing the decapitated Indian head he acquired in season 1) were twofold: 1)Milch enjoyed this particular theatrical style of writing, and the way it allowed characters to reveal themselves in a way they wouldn’t to others; an 2)From a practical standpoint, the show sometimes needed to shoot multiple scenes at once to make the schedule, but The Gem was the only set that was sound-proofed, so the only way to pull off two at once would be to set something up at the other end of the thoroughfare while filming Al or E.B. delivering one of his monologues at this end of town.
* Jim Beaver and Keone Young’s comments have been illuminating and welcome all season, but I have to single out Keone’s thoughts from the previous episode – on how his feelings about the show have changed over the years, and also on his own experience with the concept of heng dai – as particularly eloquent and moving. I continue to be grateful to both gentleman for their unprompted participation, and remind you again that if you enjoy Jim Beaver’s writing on the show, you can get a personalized copy of his memoir, “Life’s That Way,” at his website.
As I said after the previous review, we’re heading into the teeth of an unpredictable period in terms of vacation, business travel, etc. I can’t promise exactly when my review of episode 8, “Childish Things,” will be posted. Just keep an eye out in the usual places.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org