‘Deadwood’ Rewind: Season 3, episode 10: ‘A Constant Throb’

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 10, “A Constant Throb,” coming up just as soon as I’m in command of the all-whore detachment…

“I await an outcome! And the readying for it wearies me!” -Hearst

In this cold war with George Hearst, Al and friends are hopelessly outgunned. Hearst has more money, more men, more muscle and more political juice than the rest of the camp put together. The odds are  hopelessly in the mogul’s favor.

What Hearst lacks, though – and what his opponents have in abundance – is humanity, and empathy. Like the three-year-old child Al compares him to at one point, Hearst wants what he wants when he wants it, and expects the world to bend to his desires, and cannot understand when it does not. His tactics are at times calculated, but also impulsive and arrogant, and he is not the least bit prepared for the camp to respond to the attempted murder of Mrs. Ellsworth with… nothing.

What a great and beautiful thing it is to see this wide array of Deadwood citizens – some high-class, some low, some close friends and some former blood enemies – come together to frustrate the big man with their very deliberate inaction. Once upon a time, Al wanted Alma dead for the very gold claim that George Hearst so nakedly desires; now, they trade smiles in the thoroughfare and Al thinks nothing of leaping down from his balcony to protect her from harm when the shots ring out. It’s an enormous change in both their relationship, and their roles in the camp, and yet it’s one that the show arrived at quite naturally in time.

As he usually does, Al figures out the correct angle – that, to quote “War Games,” the only winning move is not to play(*) – and it’s both terrifying and a joy to see how combustible Hearst becomes as no one fights back against his tantrum, and then as his lead Pinkerton seems to vanish from Al’s office. (It’s a lovely reversal of the scene from episode 2 where Al’s guys couldn’t see what was being done to him and his finger inside Hearst’s room at the Grand Central.)

(*) It helps that the shooting takes place while Bullock is off in Sturgis, because we all know how the sheriff would have reacted had he been in the camp at that moment. Seth’s temporary absence also makes the Al/Alma pairing more necessary and plausible.

The shooting not only brings Mrs. Ellsworth into the Gem, but gives us yet another reminder of just how much Mr. Ellsworth cares for her, and she for him, even if the specific content of those feelings isn’t exactly the same. And Alma’s not-so-casual walk to work – flanked by both Al’s men and Hearst’s – is among the most tense sequences the show ever did. Like the two different scenes this season where Martha leads the kids to school, it’s a sign of what a vibrant world Milch and company created, that a simple walk through the center of town would create this much emotion.

Al’s murder of the Pinkerton – after first ascertaining that there has been a schism between the man and his employer, so as to create plausible deniability later – isn’t quite equal to getting his finger back, but it’s a satisfying moment nonetheless, particularly once Al steps out onto the balcony and begins loudly and enthusiastically spewing out all that malarkey about the Pinkerton running out the back. It’s always a pleasure to hear Ian McShane speak this show’s dialogue, and that speech is a particular pleasure because of how blatantly Al enjoys delivering it.

It’s a rare victory in this underdog campaign, but Hearst’s rage only builds upon realizing he’s been outmaneuvered for once. There are, unfortunately, only two episodes left in this great series, and whether you’re watching for the first time or the fifteenth, it’s clear the dark times aren’t over yet.

Some other thoughts:

* The name on this script is a very familiar one: W. Earl Brown. Hoping Earl can stop by to offer some illumination on how that came about (he and Ricky Jay are the only castmembers who got to write an episode), whether it was his idea to have Dan (in the scene where Ellsworth wakes up) to for once be patiently explaining things to someone else, and what it’s like writing for David Milch. And in terms of actor memories, last week’s from Keone Young and Jim Beaver are both fantastic.

* I’m also hoping Earl, or Jim, or one of you, has a cogent explanation of the business with Jack Langrishe and the two brunettes (and Claudia’s jealousy of the new one). The broadest of strokes are clear, but there’s an awful lot of implied backstory squeezed in at the last minute.

* Another big laugh: Johnny expressing surprise that the rug in Al’s office lasted as long as it did, given all the blood spilled on or near it in the past.

* Cy continues his campaign to lose friends and alienate people as Doc Cochran threatens to stop treating him for self-mutilation. Cy’s role this season is almost meta; he’s around because Milch promised Powers Boothe a job for the life of the series, but Cy has no real role in the proceedings anymore, and he seems painfully aware of it.

* Cy’s new whore, by the way? Janine from Cincinnati. Hmm…

* Characters on this show give a lot of thumbs up, don’t they? I know the gesture dates back at least to ancient Rome (and, remember, “Deadwood” began life as Milch’s attempt to make an ancient Roman cop show), but my understanding is that it wasn’t widely adopted in America until after World War II.

* The whores are once again very interested in Mrs. Ellsworth, and here we see Jewel practically bursting with joy at the idea of waiting on the town’s beautiful, benevolent queen of banking.

* Jarry’s awkward attempt to bond with Hearst has even more of a Shakespearean cadence than usual for this show, and Stephen Tobolowsky makes a meal of all the flowery dialogue, even as Jarry is failing utterly to impress Mr. Hearst.

* Joanie and Jane enjoy a day where they get to feel useful guarding the new schoolhouse, but it’s not enough to overcome Jane’s usual feelings of cowardice and self-loathing – at least not until Joanie kisses her again. Seeing this damaged pair find a connection with each other is one of the more unexpected, poignant delights of the later “Deadwood” seasons.

* I cannot state enough just how warm and inviting Anna Gunn’s presence is as Martha. She doesn’t often get a lot to do, but even in her mourning garb, she lights up the screen whenever she appears, and adds a nice comic grace note to a very tense episode with her desire to say grace while her husband is fighting the desire to march into the Grand Central and kill George Hearst.

Up next: We’re almost to the finish line with “The Catbird Seat,” in which Hearst tries a more direct approach, with tragic consequences.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com