‘Deadwood’ Rewind: Season 3, episode 11: ‘The Catbird Seat’

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 11, “The Catbird Seat,” coming up just as soon as just as soon as I’m used as a weight to be dropped on villains from above…

“Shoot me, or he’ll do for all of us!” -Trixie

A few weeks back, W. Earl Brown shared a theory about this season that I haven’t been able to get out of my head as I’ve watched succeeding episodes: David Milch had a feeling long before the very public mess with Chris Albrecht, Tim Olyphant’s agent, etc.,(*) that the show was coming to an end, and he shaped the season’s entire town vs. Hearst conflict as a parallel to the fights he was having with HBO.

(*) Short version, for those who haven’t read my book or don’t know the story: though Milch and Albrecht disagree on the timing of certain events, and HBO’s level of desire for a fourth season at any length, the gist is that Milch wasn’t happy about doing an abbreviated fourth season, and on the weekend when he was considering what to do, Olyphant told him he was about to buy a house, and Milch decided to give him a heads-up so he wouldn’t spend money he was about to lose, Olyphant’s agent contacted the Hollywood trades, and that’s how news of the cancellation came out. No matter who is exactly right about what went down, it was a mess. 

I don’t know if that’s the exact origin of this conflict, in part because there’s rarely only one specific reason for anything Milch does. But as the sense of impending doom rises throughout “The Catbird Seat,” it’s not hard to imagine Milch using the series as an outlet for his fears that the greatest work he’d ever created was about to come to an abrupt end.

In “A Constant Throb,” Hearst tried an indirect approach to get what he wanted – though in that case, what he wanted was an excuse to burn the whole camp to the ground. Here, he seems to have calmed enough to decide that he’ll be satisfied with scaring Alma – once again a widow, and much more grief-stricken over Ellsworth than she was over Brom – into selling her claim and rigging the election, giving him absolute economic and political control over the town. (That he can also feel some satisfaction from killing a man who was so brazenly rude to him a few episodes ago is a nice bonus.)

And Hearst succeeds in his most direct goal, as Al recognizes that selling is Alma’s only choice, at least if she wants to stay in the camp. Now the good guys also want her to sell, and everyone is well and truly scared – Hearst glaring at Langrishe in the Grand Central hallway is simultaneously the most intimidating Hearst has looked and the least confident Jack has appeared – upset and saddened by the death of poor Ellsworth, and by the latest bit of tragedy heaped on Alma and Sophia. (Tissues were in unfortunately short supply at my office when Charlie carried Sophia into the Gem, and then later when Doc Cochran explained to Alma why it was so important to let the girl see Ellsworth’s body.)

But other events don’t go quite as planned, for either side. As happened last week with the fake assassination attempt on Alma, Ellsworth’s death only winds up bringing the rest of the camp together. Having already worked up the courage to wipe Hearst’s dried phlegm from his face, E.B. winds up back on Al’s side again, and most of the series’ major players pass through the Gem at some point in the hour, either to pay their respects to the family or see about what can be done next in this war. Charlie has never been especially comfortable in this place, but by episode’s end, he’s sharing a drink, and some jokes, with Dan and Johnny and Adams.

And though Bullock is able to keep his wits about him upon returning abruptly from Sturgis for the second day in a row, Ellsworth’s old confidante Trixie complicates matters for both sides by marching right up to Hearst’s door and taking a shot at him. That she only hits him in the shoulder at that range speaks poorly for her marksmanship, her Derringer or both, but it creates what seems to be the worst scenario for all of Hearst’s enemies: the great man lives, and now has another reason to desire revenge on all these small people. On the whole, it’s for the best that Hearst doesn’t die – as Al and Jack discuss at one point, Hearst has so many shareholders and other allies that the camp would be overrun in investigating his death – but this bear certainly did not need more poking, and Trixie’s self-hatred over what she failed to do, and what may happen as a result, was palpable and painful. (And note how much more sadly Al describes her as a “loopy fucking cunt” in this context than when he used the same phrase in anger earlier in the season.)

Because of Ellsworth’s death, because of the potential for more violence to come, and because Milch may well have known that the next hour would be the series’ last, much of “The Catbird Seat” plays like a wake – with moments both difficult and darkly funny – and I keep thinking of Al and Jack’s conversation near the end about their advantages versus Hearst’s. As Jack admits that Hearst’s amount of guns beats their dexterity, he adds, “The world is less than perfect.” In a perfect world, we wouldn’t be talking about the series finale next week (or, depending on some last-minute summer vacation plans, the week after). In a perfect world, Milch would have told the story to the end, whether with the burning of the Gem or some other development drawn from the real lives of Swearengen, Bullock, Star and company.

But the characters of “Deadwood” do not live in a perfect world. Nor do the viewers of the show. So one more hour to go, dammit. Lots to talk about when we get there.

Some other thoughts:

* Thanks, once again, to Jim Beaver, Keone Young and W. Earl Brown for their contributions throughout this season. Earl had a lot to say about his work writing last week’s episode (deflecting much of the credit to Milch and others), and I imagine Jim has a thought or 12 about being killed off, and that Keone has some memories of Wu’s big man moment, which was a lovely capper to the Al/Wu relationship.

* One of Earl’s comments last week, by the way, says that the plan was to eventually reveal Claudia as Langrishe’s daughter, a fact he knew and she didn’t, and that her jealousy of Jack’s various brunettes was born out of misunderstood longing for paternal love. Even with that knowledge, so much of this particular theater company conflict plays as if large swaths of material were cut out – or like the audience is expected to know more about the history between the characters than has ever been revealed on “Deadwood,” as if they were being imported in from another show.

* The episode’s credited screenwriter is Bernadette McNamara, who had worked as Milch’s assistant back in the “NYPD Blue” days, and also got to work on a script late in Milch’s tenure there.

* This is also the fourth and final episode directed by longtime “Deadwood” producer Gregg Fienberg. Whether it was his choice, Milch’s, or someone else, the decision to shoot the corpse wagon’s journey through the camp from the POV of Ellsworth himself is all the more chilling as a result. The man is dead, but through him, we’re seeing even more bluntly how much his murder is affecting Alma, Trixie and others. (Even Cy is upset about this, but mainly that he’s once again on the sidelines, and that a low-class whore from Swearengen’s place has more initiative than any of his well-dressed ones.)

* Adams’ buddy Hawkeye has been such an infrequent presence in the series (last seen midway through season 2) that Al’s overwhelming disdain for him – and for Adams’ loyalty to him – often comes across like Al being wildly irrational, even though I have vague memories of Hawkeye being an idiot.

* That’s David Anders, better known as Sark from “Alias,” as the soldier who keeps poking his head through the window, much to Seth’s annoyance.

* The sequence where Langrishe and Farnum bow to each other at absurd, theatrical length before Jack decides to leave the Gem first is just marvelous.

* Another bit of welcome relief from the overall gloom of the episode: Jane entertaining the schoolkids by playing Duck, Duck, Goose with them. The kids tend to bring out the best of Jane, and there was an extra layer of joy and relief here, given all the bad things happening elsewhere in the camp.

Up next: It all comes to an end with “Tell Him Something Pretty,” and we can all argue once again about whether it’s an effective series finale or not. Like I said above, it may be published next Friday, or else the week after if my vacation plans conflict.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com