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 3 “True Colors,” coming up just as soon as the bacon has a human aftertaste…
“I put you on notice.” -Hearst
Hearst puts a lot of people on notice in “True Colors,” an episode in which Gerald McRaney also serves notice about how much better he is than we might have thought when he got the role.
In the mid-’00s, McRaney wasn’t what anyone would have thought of as a bad actor, but he seemed an unremarkable one. He was one of the eponymous brothers in ’80s detective show “Simon & Simon” (whose opening credits sequence inspired the Greatest Event in Television History), played the title role in the family sitcom “Major Dad” and spent a few years fronting the “Touched by An Angel” spin-off “Promised Land.” He was solid, reliable, somewhat versatile (I always enjoyed his appearances on “Designing Women”), but not someone whom I would expect to walk into one of the best ensemble casts in TV history and start blowing everyone off the screen. This is an episode that introduces Brian Cox – Hannibal the Cannibal number one, for Pete’s sake – and all I wanted was for the episode to cut back to Major Dad already.
We’d already gotten a sense of McRaney’s abilities in the role in his previous three episodes, but “True Colors” is – even more than last week, when Hearst laid Al so low – the one where he truly announces his presence with authority. Over the course of the hour, he reduces figures as disparate as Alma, E.B. and Cy into quivering masses of jelly, completely defangs Seth and reduces Ellsworth to a profane, impotent rage the likes of which we’ve never seen from our favorite prospector before. When he tells Cy that he was on the verge of murdering Seth and raping Alma due to his displeasure, it comes across not as idle boasting, but honest sentiment from a man who has come to believe, with history as his guide, that he is lord and master of all he surveys, and anyone who seeks to challenge him deserves whatever fate he deems appropriate.
It’s fascinating to watch Hearst attempt to conceal the naked, irrepressible greed within himself in that first meeting with Mr. and Mrs. Ellsworth, or when he first attempts to communicate with E.B. It takes very little for the eponymous true colors to come out; just look at the change in expression to one of murderous disgust when Farnum refers to Alma as “a haughty cunt.” McRaney plays him almost like a feral dog that shaved its fur and learned how to walk, talk and dress like a person, but only just barely.
His “Aunt” Lou arrives in town to take over the cooking and cleaning at the Grand Central, and though she plays the role of wide-eyed mammy in his presence, she reveals her true personality – and true feelings about her boss – while gambling in the camp’s Chinatown. Hearst has already described himself as a man who cares about nothing but finding “the color,” but Aunt Lou takes the idea further by noting that he doesn’t even really care about the gold once he has it. It’s the getting it – and getting it ahead of his competitors – that matters to him.
It’s a ruthless, amoral quality that Ellsworth knows well – and that Cy and Seth each start to understand in their encounters with the man (Cy is the one compared to a dog, and does not like it very much) – and that Alma is not remotely prepared for. After last week’s declarations about Seth as guardian of Sophia and her property, her manners seem haughtier and her blinders more firmly in place as she ignores Ellsworth’s counsel on meeting with Hearst. But it’s remarkable how ugly their later conversation is on both sides, with Ellsworth suggesting Alma got what was coming to her, while Alma replying to Ellsworth’s suggestion that he wanted to protect her with a sneered, “You can’t.” (In her mind, the only man to protect her is, of course, Mr. Bullock.)
Cox, meanwhile, enters the series in the role of Jack Langrishe, another figure from the real history of Deadwood, looking to bring some art and culture to the rough-and-tumble camp. That his debut episode is upstaged by the overwhelming show of emotional force by McRaney is no sin. Cox fits seamlessly into this world, even though Jack is the sort of character we’re not used to seeing in the Gem or on the thoroughfare. On paper, he and Al couldn’t possibly be friends, and yet Cox and Ian McShane have an instant rapport, and in time you begin to understand just how much Al appreciates having a peer and confidante – someone he can reveal things like his wounded hand to, someone he doesn’t have to play games against (like Cy) or struggle to understand (like Seth, whom he hilariously describes to Jack as “insane fucking person!”) or try to raise up from the muck (like Dan and Johnny, who are marginalized this week by Jack’s arrival). Sometimes, Al Swearengen just needs an equal he can talk to, and Jack Langrishe provides that. The warmth in Al’s voice as they say their farewells in the last scene is something to behold, is it not?
In an interview for my book, he said Jack’s arrival at the same time as Hearst’s ascendance (which is changing history a bit) was not a coincidence.
“It’s seemed to me,” he said, “that when the bosses seem to be in charge, there’s always room for art as a compensatory dynamic. I think that what we do in our society – the best of us as storytellers – present an alternative to the story the bosses are telling.”
“Deadwood” would be canceled before either version of that story was fully told, but this is a very promising chapter of it.
Some other thoughts:
* Thanks, as always, to the presence of Jim Beaver and Keone Young (whom I imagine will have much to offer on Wu’s expanded wardrobe and vocabulary) in the comments.
* Of all the many bits of Wu/Swidgin pantomime over the years, I think my favorite may just be this episodes, “Hello, hello, hello… the many Chinks!” demonstration from Al. It’s so ridiculous and yet so straightforward at the same time.
* More welcome silliness: Blazanov and Merrick speaking in high and low tones to simulate the workings of the telegraph operator’s new equipment. I’d have been fine with that big going on several more minutes, at a minimum.
* And still more – this is an episode where the goofy quite happily butts heads with the deadly – comes with Richardson’s gleeful double thumbs-up at the end of Farnum and Hearst’s conversation. Note also how Aunt Lou has Richardson trailing after her in the kitchen like he’s a little boy and she’s his mama.
* Meanwhile, the episode draws its usual laughs from characters misunderstanding each other’s intentions, whether it’s Joanie assuming Jack wants to hire a whore, or Sol’s familiar confusion at Trixie’s anger.
* Though most episodes of each season take place on consecutive days, this is another one where some time has passed. Trixie puts it at 10 days since Alma’s surgery, which allows both Mrs. Ellsworth and Mr. Swearengen to heal a bit from their recent ordeals, rather than give us a few more hours of Ian McShane in bed.
Coming up next: “Full Faith and Credit,” in which the bank opens, Hearst meets with Al and Cy, and Hostetler and the General finally return to the camp.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org