‘Deadwood’ Rewind: Season 1, Episode 3: ‘Reconnoitering the Rim’ (Veterans edition)

We’re continuing our trip back through the first season of David Milch’s epic revisionist Western “Deadwood,” and we’re continuing to do it with two separate but largely identical posts: one for people who watched the whole series and want to be able to discuss it from beginning to end, and one for people who are just starting out and don’t want to be spoiled with discussion that goes past the current episode. This is the former; click here for the newbie-safe version.

A review of episode 3, “Reconnoitering the Rim,” coming up just as soon as I collude and cahoot…

“Short of burning it all down, you gotta trust someone.” -E.B.

“Deadwood” is fundamentally a series about the work and sacrifices necessary to bring order to chaos, civilization to lawlessness. This brutal, amoral mining camp had a long, complicated road towards becoming a place that could acceptably be absorbed into the United States. The first major step in that road comes near the end of this episode, involving the character who has so far been a symbol of all that is lawless and untamed about Deadwood.

When we met Al Swearengen two episodes ago, he was a man concerned with profit and with protecting his territory, and it seemed the most expedient way for him to do that was through violence. Anyone causes a fuss, anyone goes against Al’s way of doing things(*), gets stabbed, shot or thrown off a cliff by Dan Dority or another of Al’s people. No fuss, no muss, and no law to get on his back about it. But as E.B., of all people – obsequious, cowardly, obtuse E.B. Farnum – points out, that approach has a limited shelf life. It’s worked for Al so far in the camp’s early, wide-open days, but gentrification is already coming with the arrival of Cy Tolliver’s more upscale casino. A stopped clock is right twice a day, and E.B. is right for at least once in the series when he suggests – admittedly, out of naked self-interest – that Al can’t just go on killing everyone, can he?

(*) Well, at least anyone to whom he doesn’t have some kind of complicated emotional attachment, like the one he has to Trixie. Not coincidentally, Al’s trusting her, of all the whores, to take a razor blade to his callused feet for a 19th century frontier pedicure as he ponders his new plan to be more trusting.  

So Al gives mercy and trust a try – and, like Ralph Fiennes in a similar sequence in “Schindler’s List,” Ian McShane finds some marvelously black comic notes as Al struggles to accept that he should give E.B. a pass – but it’s still baby steps. E.B. lives(**), but Brom Garret dies – ironically, right before Dan discovers that the bogus gold claim they sold him was exactly the opposite of bogus.

(**) And in part lives so that Al has a second spy in case Leon the opium-addicted Faro dealer doesn’t work out, which we already know he won’t. The level of gamesmanship between Al and Cy is already terrific, and we’re only getting started.

Now Al has real competition, and also a headache on his hands about what to do with the gold claim, and he’s still paranoid as hell about what Wild Bill is up to. And what we see on that score is that the famous gunslinger is mostly looking to numb himself in a similar manner to what Alma Garret is doing.

McShane understandably drew most of the plaudits about this show, even early, but how fantastic is Keith Carradine as Wild Bill in this episode? He’s just so bitter and empty, his voice so deep and gutteral(***), as he moves through a camp, and a world, where his fame has become nothing but a twisted burden. Though he has people in Charlie and Jane who care about him, and others in Seth and Sol who are cordial and could grow into friends, for the most part what he encounters are men like Jack McCall who want to take him down a peg, or the two idiots who try to talk to him while he helps build the hardware store. I talked last week about the idea of Wild Bill’s story being a precursor of the modern notion of celebrity, but I would say Bill has things worse than even the most paparazzi-stalked Kardashian today. People might demand photos, and time and other things of today’s celebrities, but they weren’t constantly walking around rooting for their death – often to their face – in a way that Bill has to deal with. If you were Wild Bill, and this is how people talked to you, wouldn’t you just want to get drunk, play cards (even a long losing streak) and try to tune out the rest of the world?

(***) The monologue in which he repeatedly calls Jack a cunt is a thing of dark, twisted beauty. So venomous, so cruel, and so much more than what Jack expected – and yet so deserving in light of Jack’s ongoing taunts, no?

Hard to believe we’re only three episodes in. The show’s world already feels so lived-in, and we’ve barely even scratched the surface.

Some other thoughts:

• I was remiss last week in not thanking “Deadwood” alum Jim Beaver (who, of course, played Ellsworth) for coming around to offer his own recollections in the comments so far. If we can make our schedules work, I’m going to do a proper interview with Jim to run at some point later in this project, but in the meantime, his presence adds immense value. So thanks, Jim!

• Speaking of Ellsworth, our very first scene features our favorite veteran prospector monologuing to his dog as they each dig for their respective treasures. The device of a character delivering a speech to an animal or inanimate object (or non-Trixie whore, who might as well be an object, most weeks) became one of Milch’s favorite, so get used to it.

• Little-known fact: Ian McShane was actually Milch’s third choice to play Swearengen. First he wanted to use Ed O’Neill (who had just played the lead in Milch’s short-lived CBS cop show “Big Apple,” which also featured Kim Dickens), but HBO was too nervous about building one of its shows around a man still too associated with Al Bundy. Then Milch cast Powers Boothe, but Boothe took ill shortly before the pilot was supposed to film. Hence McShane as Al – the classic example of the “I’d rather be lucky than smart” axiom Doc Cochran quoted last week – and Milch making it up to Boothe by creating the character of Cy Tolliver for him. I do wonder if Boothe’s performance as Al would have been more refined than McShane’s, or if he simply played Cy this way as an obvious differentiation between our two scheming saloon keepers.

• With Boothe comes Dickens as lead whore Joanie Stubbs and David Mamet favorite Ricky Jay as head of gambling Eddie Sawyer. Together, the group makes up a polished mirror version of Swearengen’s gang – better-dressed (look how uncomfortable Al feels to get all duded up to meet them) and perhaps better at subterfuge, but just as ruthless and capable in their own way.

• Remember last week how I talked about the slight fuzziness of the consecutive day timeline? Here’s another possible example of that, with Seth having somehow gotten all the timber for their store cut basically overnight from the events of the previous episode.

• Seth doesn’t like many people, but he clearly likes Reverend Smith, and it’s nice to see him let his guard down with the enthusiastic preacher.

• This is Al’s first use of a bit of slang the show would popularize, but not invent, when, in his conversation with Cy, he refers to the locals as “hoopleheads.” From what I’ve been able to gather with the help of my friend Google, the term likely originated in the 20th century from a popular comic strip, but Milch essentially pulled the phrase out of the air and put it in Al’s mouth because he thought it fit this world and these people. 

• Before Brom takes his nasty fall (and then takes a few extra blows to the head courtesy of Dan’s rock), we finally get a look at his interaction with Alma, and get a sense of exactly why she chooses to stay doped up on laudanum all day.

• Milch’s love of a certain theatrical style, where multiple characters are in the same large space watching and reacting to each other, comes up again here as the various guests at the Grand Central keep looking around at each other, with the passed-out Wild Bill being the center of much of the attention.

Coming up next: “Here Was a Man,” in which both Wild Bill and Seth wind up in support of the widow Garret, and there’s more talk of the sound of thunder.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com