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 episode 2, “I Am Not the Fine Man You Take Me For,” coming up just as soon as I give a preliminary signal that I’m gonna show my ass…
“Change ain’t lookin’ for friends. Change calls the tune we dance to.” -Al
David Milch has no illusions about how impenetrable his dialogue can be, and he often gets a lot of comic mileage out of characters on this show struggling to understand what the person in front of them is trying to say. But the struggle to understand meaning and motivation in “Deadwood” goes well beyond spoken words. Characters on this series are constantly trying to connect with one another by deciphering the meaning of a look, or a gesture or, in the case of the key prop of “I Am Not the Fine Man You Take Me For,” a primitive diagram of the layout of the Gem and the killers Hearst aimed to send there.
This is an episode that gets a lot of laughs out of Al’s goons trying to figure out what the note means and why Hearst would send it. (And from the general chaos caused by that event, like Charlie’s reaction to seeing the Gem carnage: “I’ll drink after I’ve et.”) But it’s also setting us up to be sucker punched in the same way Al is in the final scene. Because we’re so used to Al being so much smarter than both his underlings and his enemies, we’re reassured that he deciphers the implications of the note – that he knows, for instance, to only kill Paul Blackthorne and his partner, and not the two gunmen – and because he then seems so confident in going alone to watch the speeches from Hearst’s veranda, the idea that it’s a set-up seems completely improbable. Al Swearengen knows all the angles, we think; he would never walk alone into his enemy’s lair if something bad could happen to him, right? Instead, he gets threatened at gunpoint, pistol-whipped by Captain Turner and then suffers a nasty injury via one of Mr. Hearst’s mining tools. Al retreats to the bar insisting to Seth that he’s going to have his revenge served cold, but this is the first time in the series we’ve seen Al up against someone who is both more powerful and more ruthless than he is. Alternating between the carrot and the stick is such a classic power play it’s surprising Al wouldn’t see it coming, and yet he does. It’s an unsettling sequence, above and beyond the implied gore – captured amazingly in the look of pain in Ian McShane’s eyes – of that pickaxe strike.
And yet Al’s injury isn’t the most brutal moment of the episode. That comes earlier, when Alma announces that regardless of her marriage to Mr. Ellsworth, her previous arrangements for Seth to be in charge of the future of her mining holdings and Sophia remain in effect. Alma tries to explain it to Seth as a kindness to her husband-in-name-only: because Ellsworth and Hearst have an ugly history, she doesn’t want the former to have to deal with the latter. But because all the other involved parties know of the past between the sheriff and the widow – a past that has led to both this sham marriage and the operation Doc Cochran is about to perform – it comes across as her putting passion ahead of decency and emotional fidelity. It’s not the first time Alma has let her feelings for Seth keep her from seeing how she’s hurting others (recall also her declining to accompany Trixie and Sophia back to New York, which wound up sending Trixie back to Al’s employ), but the depths of Ellsworth’s unrequited feelings for his wife – and the performance by our pal Jim Beaver – are so strong that it feels far worse than previously. Alma appears to survive the surgery, but she loses the pregnancy that caused the shotgun wedding, and the fake marriage lands on even rockier terrain than before.
And Alma’s surgery also causes another bump in the Bullock marriage – itself borne of circumstances practical, rather than romantic, but one that’s at times shown more potential for the latter than Mr. and Mrs. Ellsworth have. Seth and Martha briefly draw closer in the morning as they banter about her tea, but soon after Seth is again fretting about Alma. Martha is a genuinely good and compassionate woman – just see what she accomplishes in encouraging Jane to sober (and clean) up for a day to deliver an entertaining and rewarding lecture to her students – and so she doesn’t wish ill of Alma or her makeshift family. But this is still the woman her husband was sleeping with in her absence, and who is pregnant with a child that’s almost certainly her husband’s. It becomes a situation where Martha can be generous as usual, yet also feel separated from Seth, and this is among Anna Gunn’s best episodes during her time on the show.
As mentioned, Martha inspires a rare moment of pure joy and self-confidence for Jane – who thanks her in kind by complimenting both Sophia and Martha as brave women she knows. And Charlie in turn is able to help Joanie find at least a temporary peace of mind when he compares her feelings of self-loathing to the ones that plagued Wild Bill. Those are two characters on the show whom you would never think to find parallels between, but if Charlie Utter sees them, then either they’re there, or it doesn’t matter because his words do the job of making Joanie feel ever so slightly better.
“Deadwood” is often a show of extremes. Some characters seek only to tear down those around them, while others desperately want to build a community. Some connect, and others harm. The episode opens with a drunk falling to his death from the platform where the campaign speeches will finally be delivered that night, and closes with Al nursing his wounds and plotting revenge. But in between, we have Jane’s lecture and Charlie’s pep talk to Joanie, and even smaller moments like Sol putting a smile on Trixie’s face by telling her that he owns Adams’ house.
Al is trying to turn the camp into a town so that he can benefit, but also so that everyone around him can. Hearst just wants to rule it all, as evidenced by his zeal to acquire Alma’s holdings. Al was once the series’ villain, but with Seth so distracted by personal matters and his own inner demons, Mr. Swearengen is the closest thing we have to a white hat, and the black hat just declared war on him.
Some other thoughts:
* Thanks once again to both Jim Beaver and Keone Young for their memories in the comments. Jim is traveling this week, so it may be a while before he can pop in with some stories.
* Adams complains at one point that he feels shunted aside. Al reassures him here, but he’s one of several returning characters the show struggles a lot to use in this final season.
* Also on the margins for now, albeit with more to do: Cy Tolliver, who drowns himself in self-pity after Joanie rightly compares him to the Devil, then reveals how much of his convalescence is an act when he gets a chance to put a scare (if not a bullet) into Andy Cramed.
* Farnum was always a tangential character, but now the show has even more overtly made him into a Shakespearean fool by moving him into the walls of the Grand Central, moaning and commenting on the action as Richardson spies for him through knots in the wood. I always get a kick out of how the crowd entirely ignores the anti-Semitic barbs in his speech – “Farnum twice-measured, Star once-cut” and Farnum: Christ knows he’s earned it!” – which he clearly expected to incite huge cheers.
* I will never not get a kick out of Trixie and the Doc bickering loudly, even (or especially) in a relatively dire circumstance like the build-up to Alma’s surgery.
Coming up next: “True Colors,” in which the stagecoach brings with it a mix of new and familiar faces.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com