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 5, “A Two-Headed Beast,” coming up just as soon as I put that down to drunkenness or a high estimate of athleticism…
“Going wrong is not the end of fuckin’ things, Johnny! Fuck, no! I have come back from plenty of shit that looked like it was going wrong!” -Dan
“A Two-Headed Beast” is on the short list of the very best episodes “Deadwood” ever produced, which in turn puts it absurdly high on the list of the best hours of TV drama ever produced. It is a raw, gut-wrenching installment, obviously highlighted by the deadly wrestling match between Dan and Captain Turner – one of the very best fight scenes ever put on film – but one that’s powerful and intense throughout for the same reason the fight is so great: simplicity.
I asked Mark Tinker, the producing director for season 3 (though Daniel Minahan directed this specific episode), what he recalled about the filming of the fight scene. He said that the stunt team mapped out a really elaborate sequence for W. Earl Brown and Allan Graf to go through. They showed it to Milch and, as Tinker explains, “He hated it. Wanted it much simpler and with the guys exhausted partway through the fight. Much more like reality.” So we got this:
Minahan still shoots the hell out of the sequence. (I’ve always been particularly fond of the editing of the build-up to it, with Dan and Turner sizing each other up on their respective porches, always shown in parallel until the wagon rolls between them, acting as an unintentional prompt for the fighting to commence.) But the fact that these two middle-aged men are short of breath within moments of starting makes the combat seem far more intense and horrifying than if Brown and Graff were uncorking haymakers and flips and whatever other elaborate moves were originally planned. This is not a fancy cowboy movie fight. This is two old, hard killers digging down deep for every last scrap of energy, every last dirty trick, to stay alive long enough to get the advantage of the other one. And because it’s so simple, and so exhausting, the little moments in the fight become hugely magnified. Obviously, the one that sticks with you is when Dan just happens to pluck Captain Turner’s eye right out of the socket, but consider the sequence leading up to it. Despite our history with Dan, Turner sure seems to have the advantage on him in terms of strength and skill, and the fight could have been over much sooner if Hearst had been quicker to nod his approval for Turner to deliver the killing blow. That the nod is even necessary calls back to the earlier scene where Hearst tells his man to drag out the fight as an object lesson to the camp. That Hearst doesn’t give the nod, though, seems less about warning the hoopleheads about what will happen if they cross him than it does about his confusion that the fight is so close in the first place. Neither Hearst nor Turner were expecting Dan to put up as much fight as he did, and so an uncertain Hearst waits too long, which gives Dan just enough time to escape the latest hold and crawl away. And what’s so amazing about the final version of the fight choreography is that this isn’t the moment when Turner’s eye comes out. Instead, Dan gains only a moment’s respite before he’s getting his skull banged against a brick, but he’s also in a position where he can reach out in the desperate hope of finding some weak spot to yank on. And when the roles reverse, Al doesn’t hesitate a second before giving Dan the smallest of nods to make sure this ends now. Dan doesn’t win because he’s better; he wins because of luck, and tenacity, and because his boss didn’t screw around when the time came to nod. It’s that simple.
Intentionally or not, that sense of simplicity carries over to the entire episode. Where your average “Deadwood” installment moves hither and yon through the camp and its inhabitants, “A Two-Headed Beast” is relatively streamlined. There are minor bits of business involving the theater company and Con’s rekindled sex addiction, but for all intents and purposes there are three stories here: Dan kills Captain Turner in the thoroughfare, Hostetler kills himself out of frustration with Steve, and a doped-up Alma throws herself at a terrified, then horrified, Ellsworth. And the first two of those eventually dovetail, as Hearst and Bullock each take their respective frustrations out on each other until the sheriff is literally dragging the most powerful man in the camp to jail by his ear. And because the focus is tighter, the impact is greater.
The concluding scene is a great one for both Timothy Olyphant and Gerald McRaney – but then, it’s a great episode for them. Hearst is in a position he’s clearly not been in often, and he doesn’t know how to respond to being the loser. And as we saw last week, Seth wants so badly to resolve this Hostetler/Steve issue without more bloodshed – wants something hopeful to come out of William’s death – but he’s stuck between a drunken racist rock and an incredibly prideful hard place. Seth already had a mad-on for Hearst following the murder of Pasco(*), and the only thing delaying justice is his hope of peacefully closing the livery sale. After Hostelter blows his brains out(**), Seth goes to that self-destructive place where his temper is calling all the shots – and if that means putting a gun in the face of one of the most powerful men in America, then that’s what has to happen.
(*) In the midst of a dark episode, I love the humor that’s mined from both Seth and Dan’s attempts to hold in their tempers when they speak at the Gem.
(**) When I first reviewed this episode on my old blog, several of the commenters – including the late David Mills (posting as Undercover Black Man), who’d worked with Milch on “NYPD Blue” – said they didn’t buy Hostetler’s suicide. A man that proud, who had been through an era that was far worse for blacks than anything Steve could dish out, wouldn’t simply give up and eat his gun, they argued. My take at the time was that Hostetler was already in a bad, bad place after the horse killed William, and this particular argument was telling him that he would never be free of the likes of Steve, no matter where he went or how much money he had in his saddle bags when he got there. I think what ultimately sells it for me is watching Franklyn Ajaye’s reaction as the General. He looks devastated but also not necessarily surprised, in a way suggesting he’s been preparing for a moment like this for a long time.
The events at Casa Ellsworth aren’t as connected to the main action – other than that the sheriff is the man so obviously on Alma’s mind when she closes her eyes to kiss her husband – but they’re as devastating in their own way as what happens in the thoroughfare. Captain Turner gets his eye ripped out; Alma does the same to Ellsworth’s heart. He entered this marriage with a clear understanding of what it was and what it wasn’t, but he’s always had feelings for his legal bride, and our pal Jim Beaver has continually showed us how much that Ellsworth wished this was real instead of playacting to deal with a pregnancy that’s no longer relevant. So for her to finally make a move first comes across to him as shocking, then something to potentially embrace, and then – once he realizes just how high on dope she has to be to view him this way – to be filled with deep self-loathing by. Between this and the scene a few episodes back before her surgery, Alma has torn her husband’s every semblance of dignity into itty-bitty pieces.
Obviously, the fight is what we remember from this episode – and not just the fight itself, but the long build-up (including the marvelous Dan/Johnny prep scene quoted above) and then Dan sitting naked and alone in a room in the Gem, unable to stand human company after how close he came to meeting his maker – but it’s a remarkable episode all around, showing the many ways, physical and emotional, that people in this camp and this life, can do harm to one another.
Some other thoughts:
* Two more members of Jack’s ensemble arrive in Deadwood: Dennis Christopher’s unreliable prima donna Bellegarde, and Aburey Morris as the sweet, dying Chesterton, whose smile upon hearing Jack’s pep talk is a rare happy moment in an extremely dark episode. (Jack’s comments about nursing an actor back to health also evokes the promise David Milch made to Powers Boothe about always having a role on “Deadwood” if he wold just get better.) Between those two, Jack, the Countess (Julie Ariola) and Claudia (Cynthia Ettinger), it’s a lot of newcomers for an ensemble that was already arguably too big to properly use all the great actors assembled.
* That said, it remains a pleasure to watch Brian Cox at work (particularly the moment when he abandons his usual sing-song delivery because he can’t be bothered to conceal his disgust with Bellegarde), and I always enjoy Richardson’s very astute question as he watches the actors divide up subcommittee positions: “Are they performing now?”
* As Al is analyzing Adams’ meeting with Hearst, he of course needs to know exactly how everything is phrase. Like David Milch, Swearengen is a man who believes in the power of exact phrasing.
* As Merrick trips over floor boards and steps into mud while perambulating with Blazanov, all I could think was, “Boy, he’s turning back into Vice-Principal Rooney right before my eyes.”
* Doc Cochran’s appearance is once again brief, but note that he is not coughing or otherwise in distress when he comes to check on Dan after the fight.
* Trixie: “Do you want to get fucked or not?” Sol: “Please.” I tend to view every Sol/Trixie exchange like Ali taking on George Foreman: he just lets her punch herself out until the opportunity is right for him to make his move (or, in this case, to let her do it).
* Thanks once again for the continued contributions by Jim Beaver and Keone Young in the comments each week.
Coming up next: “A Rich Find,” in which Seth and Al plot their next move in the wake of Hearst’s arrest, Trixie is not happy about the state of things at Casa Ellsworth, and Aunt Lou’s son rolls into town.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org