For the third summer in a row, we’re revisiting David Milch’s classic revisionist HBO Western “Deadwood,” this time discussing the third season.
While I once upon a time posted two separate reviews so people who hadn’t watched the whole series would have a safe place to comment, almost no one bothered commenting on the newbie reviews last year, and they’ve been ditched. If you haven’t finished the series, just avoid the comments of this review and you’ll be fine.
Thoughts on the season premiere, “Tell Your God to Ready for Blood,” coming up just as soon as I tend bar and let people punch me in the face…
“Don’t I yearn for the days a draw across the throat made fuckin’ resolution.” -Al
Only a few weeks have passed since the events of “Boy-the-Earth-Talks-To,” yet many things have changed in the camp. The new Mr. & Mrs. Ellsworth (and Sophia) have moved out of the Grand Central and into a fancy home of their own. The former Chez Ami has been fully converted into a school, and Martha (still in mourner’s garb not too far removed from William’s death) has a decent-sized class of pupils. The elections – the necessary event for the camp’s absorption into the United States – are drawing close, with Tom Nuttall’s bartender Harry Manning opposing Seth (more as a publicity stunt than because he believes he can become sheriff) while Sol presents the camp with a sensible alternative to E.B. Farnum as mayor. And George Hearst is concentrating his power, and assessing what sorts of potential allies (or enemies) he might have in Seth and Al.
Yet despite Al’s lament to Dan about the good old days where violence solved his every problem, the camp’s push into civilization began long ago. What “Tell Your God to Ready for Blood” mainly accomplishes – beyond setting up the opening gambit for the lengthy Swearengen/Hearst chess match – is to remind us that the more certain things in Deadwood change, the more other things, and people, stay exactly the same.
Sheriff Bullock still has a hair trigger temper and a tendency to issue beatings to people who aren’t the one he’s angriest at(*), here taking out his frustrations on E.B., who actually was blameless for once. Al is still plotting, and working overtime to suss out the plots of others against him (and scrubbing blood off the Gem floor, because no one does it as well as he does). Ellsworth is still decent and dutiful and vulnerable (his scene with Doc Cochran on the porch was heartbreaking in how much he’s come to care for this woman who is technically his wife), Joanie and Jane still self-destructive in different ways (Joanie contemplating suicide by bullet daily, Jane content to drink herself to death however long it takes), Trixie still sprinting verbal laps around Sol while he’s content to amble along at his own pace, Merrick still left out of any and all key decisions.
(*) Of course, the person he’s angriest at is almost always Seth Bullock.
We open with Dan telling Al, “Fixing toward a bloody outcome, boss,” before two of Hearst’s goons orchestrate the killing of one of the Cornish workers in Hearst’s mining operation, the better to take the measure of the town power broker. And in our next-to-last scene, Jane tells Joanie that the eternal struggle for her – and for so many of the misfits we’ve come to care about in thi wild camp – is that “Every day takes figuring out all over again how to fucking live.” It’s a contrast between two of the extremes of the series: violent and brutal on one end, sad and philosophical on the other.
While the Hearst/Swearengen battle of wills is obviously the spine of this accidental final season, my favorite sequence of the hour has nothing to do with them: the complicated series of movements required to get the kids into the school in the morning. It’s not just a chance to get reacquainted with most of the main characters (plus assorted hangers-on like Mose Manuel, still guarding the building where his life was saved no matter what its designated function is), but to ee the amount of effort involved in introducing this element of civility, decency and innocence into what had once been such a wicked place. As much as the elections, the school is a mark that Deadwood is becoming a real community, and not just a place where a collection of scoundrels and outcasts have come to seek their fortunes, and it’s clear that this place matters greatly to so many of the residents.
One thing that hasn’t changed, and will never change for the too-short life of the series: the David Milch dialogue, as wonderfully twisty as ever. Milch generally doesn’t bother with meta, yet he comes awfully close by opening the season with an argument among the Cornish – whose language sounds not that much more impenetrable than Milch-speak – followed by Seth obsessing over his speech and telling Martha that he fears, “Words doing the wrong job. Piling it on too heavy, or at odds over meaning.” Milch has his own eternal struggle, and it involves making the words say exactly what he wants them to, conveying the message with as much power and grace as he can get from them.
This third season is the bumpiest of the three, with Milch trying out a number of story ideas that he didn’t know what to do with. But there’s also a whole lot of greatness in there, and I look forward to watching and discussing it with you over this summer.
Some other thoughts:
* As always, these reviews will eventually be enhanced in the comments by the recollections of Jim Beaver (who is still selling personalized copies of his memoir, “Life’s That Way,” through his website), and perhaps by Keone Young and others. Half the reason I’m doing these reviews (even though I covered most of this season on my old blog) is for Jim’s anecdotes.
* Another season brings with it another lead director in Mark Tinker, who was eager to team back up with Milch after “NYPD Blue” ended. (Tinker was lead director on that series for every season but the first, and spent six of those seasons working alongside Milch.) As Tinker put it in my book, “I was absolutely eager, because first of all, I felt the show was amazing, and secondly, despite all of David’s craziness, I wasn’t sick of how that process worked.”
* Though Garrett Dillahunt doesn’t return this season in a third role, Milch’s fondness for recycling actors on the same show in new roles comes up here with the return of Dan Hildebrand, who played Tim Driscoll back in the series pilot and now dons a mustache and new accent to play boarding house manager Shaughnessy (or is it Shaunessey? the latter spelling appears on the house, but the former is used elsewhere on the internet).
* Under all that facial hair as the Hearst gunmen who needles and then kills the Cornishman is Brit actor Paul Blackthorne.
* While Al is crankier than normal for much of the episode, frustrated at Hearst’s expanding tendrils, perhaps his biggest change actually involves the way he has made peace with the idea of Trixie and Sol together – or, at least, the way he’s made Sol’s political aspirations a part of the calculus involved in making the camp look respectable to Yankton. He needs Sol to be mayor more than he needs the companionship of the woman he describes, with exasperation, as a “loopy cunt!”
* Cy Tolliver lives, surviving the stab to the gut Andy gave him in the season 2 finale. Milch has told me that he promised Powers Boothe – who, remember, was cast to play Swearengen until he got very sick – a job on the show for the life of the show as a motivating tactic to get better. I wonder if Cy would have died if not for that promise.
* Nice callback to Alma’s laudanum troubles in the first season with her reluctance to take the medicine Doc Cochran offers her – and a measure of how far their relationship has come that he can get through to her momentarily here. But fainting plus blood is not an ideal development in any pregnancy.
* Al has finally graduated to saying “Gratis” without sticking “Free” in front of it to be sure people get his meaning. Then again, Merrick knew the Latin all along.
* The rough draft of Jane’s planned lecture to the schoolchildren: “Custer was a cunt. The end.” Needs some tweaking for the kids, but for me? Perfect.
Up next: “I Am Not the Fine Man You Take Me For,” in which the speeches are finally given, Hearst demonstrates his power to Al, and Jane addresses the students.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org