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 6, “A Rich Find,” coming up just as soon as I finish showing water how to run downhill…
“This place displeases me. I’m taking measures to bring it down.” -Hearst
Joanie Stubbs turns up in “A Rich Find” almost at the end, mere minutes away from being a no-show in the episode just like Doc Cochran, Mr. Wu, the actors and some other familiar faces. But her brief appearance – escorting a drunken, ailing Jane with her to the boarding house – is a lovely scene, as well as a thematically important one for the hour, which is filled with scenes of the people of Deadwood trying to help friends and allies who have tremendous difficulty helping themselves.
The General failed to curb his friend Hostetler’s demons over the previous two episodes, but that sense of generosity is visible throughout “A Rich Find.” Al and Seth spend much of the hour trying to undo the enormous damage Seth’s temper caused last week. Trixie and Ellsworth each try in their own way to help Alma stop using dope, though Ellsworth’s gentle self-sacrifice seems to have more of an impact than Trixie’s usual profane aggression. (Even Leon tries to help out Alma, though mainly out of an understandable fear that he’ll be dead shortly after she is.) And Aunt Lou spends much of the hour desperately trying to keep her son Odell (played by Omar Gooding) from trying to hustle George Hearst, given how much smarter and more powerful her boss is than the boy she once sent to Liberia for his own protection.
Unfortunately, you can’t always help people who don’t want to be helped, as Aunt Lou(*) discovers after she sends the General to offer Odell her entire stash to leave town and never come back. And even help may be irrelevant when a man as powerful – and vengeful – as George Hearst is lurking around with designs on destroying the camp and returning it to the forest from whence Al, Seth and the other misfit citizens first came.
(*) I gave Cleo King short shrift when she first appeared a few episodes, so let me make up for that here. Though her screen time often comes at the expense of some of the beloved regulars, it’s a terrific performance, especially in the way she’s able to flip the switch between the mammy act Aunt Lou puts on in front of Hearst and the way she carries herself in private. Because Lou is a newcomer to the series, and Odell even newer, it would be easy for her concern over her son to feel like a distraction from the characters we’ve grown to love over the previous seasons. Instead, she gives instant weight to the relationship, to the tricky history that Odell has with Hearst, and to Lou’s fear of what could happen this time if her son doesn’t stop with the foolishness.
As we saw last week, George Hearst is a man not accustomed to losing, and he’s even less accustomed to being treated so harshly – and below his station – by the likes of Seth and Charlie. Charlie’s big show with Pasco’s corpse is delightful, but also the sort of humiliation that you know Hearst won’t let go unanswered. And, indeed, Hearst makes his displeasure known in chilling, completely silent fashion when he retrieves the knife after Seth turns up to let him go.
It’s another hour for Hearst to demonstrate his mastery over all he surveys, and for Gerald McRaney to demonstrate his command over this role of a lifetime. The scene where Hearst takes hold of Cy’s ear to demonstrate how it felt when the good sheriff did it to him is terrifying; we have no sympathy for Cy, and yet in that moment Mr. Hearst seems capable of doing anything, and getting away with it because he’s George Hearst.
As Al and Seth and Charlie and Sol and E.B. and Dan run around different scenarios about what to do next, the conclusions remain the same: Hearst is a more potent enemy than any they’ve faced before, and the rules are different than they were before. Gone are the days where Al’s knife or Seth’s gun could solve any problem. They wanted Deadwood to be a civilized place, and there is a cost to that, which includes the entrance of men such as George Hearst. And so long as he has a mad-on for the sheriff and all the people Mr. Bullock protects, all the gestures of friendship and familial loyalty may be for naught.
Some other thoughts:
* I’ve been really enjoying Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black,” which has Michael Harney in a supporting role as a soft-spoken prison counselor. It’s been very disconcerting to go back and forth between that performance and all the bile he spews here as Steve. Also amusing to see that Steve is worried about his reputation even in regards to the suicide of a black man, and especially to see Tom Nuttall’s delight at being able to serve Odell in Steve’s presence.
* Interesting to once again see Martha demonstrating so much respect, and even affection, for Al, given that her first glimpse of him was when he had a knife to her husband’s throat. Martha’s a smart cookie, and understands the role Mr. Swearengen plays in this community.
* It’s Larry Cedar’s turn to monologue to thin air this week, as Leon rants into his reflection in a mud puddle while trying to decide what to do about Mrs. Ellsworth.
* It’s nice to get a scene where Sol is offering Seth strategic advice. It’s been a while since Seth has turned to his smarter business partner as a sounding board, usually going to Al or Charlie or just making stupid decisions based on his own temper. Mainly, I’m just happy whenever John Hawkes (one of the few actors in this ensemble whom Milch didn’t use to his fullest potential) gets anything to do.
* Because Milch shows are written so last-minute, it becomes a logistical nightmare after a certain point in a season to film anywhere but on pre-existing sets. Given the nature of the set at Melody Ranch, this usually wasn’t an issue for “Deadwood” – the whole town was right there – but every now and then you get a scene like the one of Jane and the General discussing all the exciting things that happened while they were off burying Hostetler, since it was too much of a hassle to leave the Ranch to film at the Cemetery Hill location. (In previous seasons, green screen effects were used to put the camp in the background of any cemetery shots.)
* An amusing scene where Al won’t take Trixie back into the fold. On an even slightly more formulaic drama, you just know the firing from the bank would have been used as an excuse to put Trixie back at the Gem to revisit a popular and creatively successful dynamic, but as Al notes, she’s not that person anymore.
* An unexpected encounter between the camp’s most powerful individual and one of its least bears interesting fruit, as Hearst asks Richardson if he’s stupid, and Richardson matter-of-factly replies, “Yes, sir.” For a brief moment, the candor seems to turn Farnum’s punching bag into the one Deadwood citizen whose company the great Hearst can stomach.
* We’ve had the great pleasure of having Jim Beaver and Keone Young’s recollections in this space, and last week brought an added bonus: W. Earl Brown providing more of the backstory behind the epic Dan/Captain Turner fight. Hopefully Early will come back a time or three before this season’s out, especially since he wrote the script for the season’s 10th episode, “A Constant Throb.” A good, if brief, Dan episode this week, as he finally emerges from solitude wrapped in a bearskin rug, determined to show that he’s doing just fine after the previous day’s ordeal.
Coming up next: “Unauthorized Cinnamon,” in which the eponymous spice causes ripples at yet another gathering of the town elders.
We’re about to go into the teeth of my summer travels, with Comic-Con next week and the TV critics press tour the week after that. I’ll do my best to stay on schedule with these, but it may not always be possible.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org