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.
We’re doubling up on episodes 8 and 9 this week. Thoughts on episode both “Leviathan Smiles” and “Amateur Night” coming up just as soon as I distract the nations at large from my fiscal turpitudes and miasms…
“Same damn thing, Jack: comedy and tragedy.” -Chesterton
“Leviathan Smiles” and “Amateur Night” don’t form quite as pure a two-parter as the season 2 opener or the episodes about William Bullock’s death. But the two episodes encompass the entirety of Wyatt and Morgan Earp’s time in the camp, deal with the death of the acting troupe’s oldest member and then the survivors’ first public engagement with the camp, and demonstrates the rising threat level of George Hearst in terms of both military and political might, while also continuing other stories like the General reluctantly taking care of a horse-kicked Steve and Aunt Lou getting the devastating news about Odell’s murder.
Let’s start with the Earps, simply because they’re one of the more notable misfires in three seasons of “Deadwood.” I remember hearing David Milch talk about bringing Wyatt Earp to the camp at least a year or two before this happened, because he was eager to show his lawman getting the better of a more celebrated one. There are conflicting historical accounts about whether the Earps ever actually were in Deadwood (Wyatt himself told a biographer of this later in life, but suggested they stayed through an entire winter and left of their own accord), but this fictionalized version is one of those instances of Milch going into story without a road map for getting out. I suppose you can read the Earps’ abrupt departure as another example of how classical Western heroes have no place in the new world. (Though the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral took place several years after the events of this episode.) Cy and Al both fancy Wyatt a potential player in the war between Hearst and the camp, but he’s rendered irrelevant by the arrival of the brutal, efficient Pinkertons. The problem is, this point was already made with the murder of Wild Bill back in episode 4. Worse, Wyatt and Morgan spend so much of “Leviathan Smiles” alluding to Wyatt’s great, mysterious plan that it feels like a cheat to have them slink off an episode later with no explanation of what they hoped to accomplish. (And if it really was just to work that timber lease, then why bother with all the sinister whispering?) In some ways, it’s the equivalent of those episodes of “NYPD Blue” (or any other cop show, really), where big shots arrive from the FBI or some other outside agency and are shown to be clowns who are just getting in the way of our heroes.
The Earps figure more prominently in “Leviathan Smiles,” which feels like the thinner episode as a result. But that hour also features the incredibly moving death of Chesterton (who, in true actorly fashion, quotes “King Lear” with some of his last breaths), which is a remarkable bit of dramatic sleight of hand, give how little we know the man. What matters is that Jack Langrishe knew him, Horatio, and that Brian Cox is an amazing actor, and the staging of the theater troupe inside the Chez Ami conveys the gravity of the situation to all of them. It’s a beautiful moment, and one that leads up to the highlight of the theater company’s tenure on the series in “Amateur Night,” as they officially introduce themselves to the camp by inviting the residents to be performers for the night.
The locals do not prove themselves to be 19th century equivalents of Kelly Clarkson or Carrie Underwood, but that is not the point. They juggle (as Richardson does before a jealous and petty Farnum orders him to stop) or do rudimentary acrobatics, or sing (either in public or – as Al does poignantly in the closing scene because he cannot let the world see this side of him – in private), but it’s the mere act of performance that brings joy to them and the ones around them. Everyone in the camp, and the show’s main characters in particular, spend so much time caught up in misery and unnecessary gamesmanship, but there is this whole other aspect of life that they get to indulge in so unfortunately rarely.
That sense of joy is infectious throughout the camp, and the episode, for much of the second half of “Amateur Night,” and does the best job of of the season of capturing the purpose Milch had in mind when he decided to add Langrishe and the others to the ensemble. When we talked about the series for my book, Milch explained that “It’s seemed to me 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.”
So as Hearst is in clear ascent – bringing in the Pinkertons to put a giant scare into everyone in the camp, and arranging with Hugo Jarry to rig the upcoming election with the help of some soldiers who will vote whichever way Hearst tells them to – we also see the first production of note from Langrishe and his players, and one that turns the citizens into both performers and accomplices. It’s a brilliant bit of guerrilla marketing, and one of those moments where the entire camp feels connected, whether people are attending the amateur night or demonstrating their talents in more subdued settings, like Al’s song or Alma aping her father’s sleight of hand skills.
Usually, when the camp seems joined as one, it’s for a dark moment like the death of Wild Bill, Seth’s pummeling of Alma’s dad or the death of William. This is a fallen time for the camp, thanks to everything Hearst is up to, and yet Langrishe is able to bring this moment of utter happiness to these people at a time when they need it most, and when he can probably use it, too.
Some other thoughts:
* The sequence in “Amateur Night” where the kids relocate to their new school is another example of how many more important things there should be in the camp than Hearst’s power play. Like the similar movement in the season premiere, it’s so poignant in so many small ways, like the complete ease that Seth and Alma have with each other as they smile about the children before he casually takes the arm of his wife. This is innocence, and for a few minutes, it is more powerful than the wickedness that watches it from the balcony of the Grand Central.
* The relocation subplot also shows us more of how the troika of Jane, Joanie and Mose are coming to relate to one another, and it’s amusing to see in “Amateur Night” that “Giganto” is the most stable of the three, and then touching to see all three of them stand up to Cy as he attempts to set foot in a building he has no business trying to corrupt.
* One good thing came out of the Earp storyline, though “good” is relative to your feelings about “John From Cincinnati,” as Austin Nichols, who played Morgan, would be cast in the title role of Milch’s next series.
* Before the Earps skip town, Johnny at least gets to demonstrate his growth as a member of the Swearengen organization – and, perhaps, a growing attraction to blonde whore Jen – as he deals with Morgan’s attempt to hustle Jen. And in “Amateur Night,” he proves quicker than Al at translating for Mr. Wu – which unfortunately only earns him a blow from Al, who doesn’t like coming in second to his henchman.
* Alas, poor Steve. It feels poetic and yet sad that he suffers such a horrible fate out of both his stubbornness and loneliness, as the horse wouldn’t have kicked him if he wasn’t trying so hard to keep the General from leaving town.
* Richardson gets his happy moment at the amateur night, and is part of a devastating one when he comforts Aunt Lou after Hearst gives her the news about Odell. Remarkable that such a ridiculous character can be used as powerfully as he is in that embrace.
* Merrick takes a beating from the Pinkerton, but not before he gets to stand up to Hearst himself with a gorgeous minor line: “Events have not yet disclosed to me all that I am.” You tell him, newsman!
* Always laugh at Blazanov’s confused, “Um, the sheriff is going for blow job?” and at all of Jack’s histrionics while working on Hearst’s back in “Leviathan Smiles,” and at the random exchange between the hoopleheads at the amateur night – one crying on command for the other’s dead father, only to be told, “It’s easy for you; you didn’t know the cocksucker!”
* “Amateur Night” is the first credited script for Zack Whedon, who worked as Milch’s assistant for much of the series.
* The song Al sings, by the way, is the folk ballad “The Unfortunate Rake,” which is the exact sort of tune any pimp worth his stripes should know.
* Though I took last week off from reviewing, W. Earl Brown stopped by in the comments to offer a fascinating theory about season 3: that the entire year was a metaphor for Milch’s conflicts with HBO, that ultimately ended with the show’s premature cancellation. Give it a read, and hopefully any or all of Brown, Jim Beaver or Keone Young will have time to discuss these two episodes.
Up next: “A Constant Throb,” written by W. Earl Brown himself, in which Mrs. Ellsworth seeks help from an unlikely source, while Joanie and Jane continue to explore this new stage of their relationship. My guess is I will not be able to have it ready for next week, due to the sheer tonnage of programs debuting that week as I return from press tour. But if not, I’ll do it the following week to give Earl’s script its due, since we should still be able to finish the series before summer’s over.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org