One of the reasons I resist calling Deadwood a “western” is that the word suggests something familiar and formulaic. Period pieces are popular and comforting, in part, because we know what to expect: movies and TV shows have turned certain historical eras—the Old West, Victorian England, the Great Depression—into stock settings: phony and frozen moments in time, as static and unchanging as Disneyworld’s Frontierland or Colonial Williamsburg.
With this tendency to treat time as little more than trappings, few movies or TV shows capture history as flux in quite the way that Deadwood does. Creator David Milch understands that time is a river, not a lake, and he very intentionally sets his story in some serious rapids. Deadwood provides a microcosm of American history that seems to develop before our eyes like time-lapse photography, in a time when the Old West is disappearing, and “progress” is coming on a daily—even hourly—basis. “Things sort out fast in Deadwood,” Al Swearengen said last week, and this week we see that even Al is unprepared for how fast the modern age is coming to the Black Hills.
“If I want to I can burn the whole fucking camp down. Cut your throat first, and then burn down the whole fucking camp.”—Al Swearengen
Throughout “Reconnoitering the Rim” and “Here Was a Man,” we see signs of the change that is coming to Deadwood. The most obviously symbolic of these is the ongoing construction of Star & Bullock Hardware, which acts almost as a framing sequence for these two episodes as Seth and Sol turn their makeshift tent into a permanent structure, signifying the evolution of the transient camp into a permanent town. But they’re not the only new business in town.
Just yesterday (in story terms), Al Swearengen seemed to have a stranglehold on nearly everything that happened in Deadwood. But “Reconnoitering the Rim” opens mere hours after the events of “Deep Water,” and Al awakens to a changed world. Overnight, rivals have sprung up on his doorstep: right across from his Gem Saloon, newcomer Cy Tolliver (Powers Boothe) and his partners are opening up a new joint, the Bella Union.
This event represents one of the key moments of transition for Deadwood. The Bella Union is a cleaner, more modern establishment than anything in camp so far; it has fancier games, classier decor, and prettier whores than Al can provide. And its proprietors—including Tolliver, Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens) and Eddie Sawyer (Ricky Jay)—seem to come from—and exist in—a different era than the rest of the camp. If the Gem Saloon represents the Old West, the Bella Union has a more fin-de-siecle feel to it, with one foot firmly placed in the rapidly-approaching 20th century.
Al—as Tolliver condescendingly reminds him—is a “pioneer type,” and so are his clientele. (“Meaning I get the ones who don’t wash,” Al says.) Al essentially built the camp with his own two hands, and it has largely been his effort and vision that have created Deadwood. (“Cocksuckers,” Al says of the upstarts. “Where were they when Dan and me were chopping trees in this gulch?”) Al has certainly been something of a dictator or warlord, forcing his will upon other town business leaders such as E.B. Farnum, Tom Nutall, and newcomers Bullock and Star. However, as much as this has been out of self-interest, it has also been out of a desire to make sure things go smoothly in Deadwood—which is, after all, one of the more precarious communities ever formed.
Now, however, things have changed: when a shaken Al goes to the Bella Union to discuss ways to avoid “areas of overlap,” he quickly discovers that the newcomers have no intention of deferring to his will, or of working with him to shape the town. Should they agree on rates? “As far as pussy, Al, we’ll want to let the market sort itself out,” Joanie tells him—and just like that, real competition and free-market capitalism have come to Deadwood.
“I mean, short of burning it all down, you have to trust someone.”—E.B. Farnum
Last week I said that, in the first two episodes, Al came across as evil personified. But now, in just the third episode, our view of him is already changing. He seems smaller here—almost sympathetic—putting on his best suit, bragging about how he’s “been to Chicago,” and going with his hat in hand to make nervous, insincere pleasantries with his new competitors. Additionally, we now have Cy Tolliver to compare him with, and Al’s soul seems far lighter contrasted against such darkness. Tolliver—as we glimpse in these episodes, and will see more clearly later—is a different brand of evil: amoral, opportunistic, and with a sociopathic lack of regard for the camp or anyone in it. His presence leads us to dramatically recalibrate how we measure Al Swearengen.
Throughout these episodes Al is floundering a bit, unable to deal with changes and challenges that are coming too quickly. In addition to the Bella Union “cocksuckers,” Brom Garret has figured out that he was duped about the gold claim, and is threatening to call in the Pinkertons. (More outside interference: more unwanted agents of so-called “civilization.”) Alongside these genuine threats, Al sees imaginary threats: Seth Bullock and Sol Star (who just want to open a hardware store), and Wild Bill Hickok (who just wants to drink and play poker). “See,” Al explains to Seth and Sol, “I’m the simple-type cocksucker that, when he sees lightning, readies for thunder. And takes the thunder if it comes for part of the same fucking storm.”
Interestingly, it is the loathsome E.B. Farnum who sets Al straight about Hickok, Bullock, and Star. Farnum, brilliantly played by William Sanderson, is a cringing, craven thing: he is a mud-encrusted rat who has convinced himself he’s an important man, and the illusion is so thin that he always sounds like he’s lying even when he’s not. Yet, like many a minor, comic Shakespearean character, Farnum’s role is sometimes to hold up a mirror to the main characters, and provide brief flashes of insight and wisdom. He has some wonderful scenes in these two episodes: first, a tense scene in which he fears Al will kill him for helping to broker the Bella Union sale; and second, when he summons the courage to stand up to Al and talks him out of killing Wild Bill Hickok:
Swearengen: Let me pose you a question, E.B., you fucking cunt! Someone comes at you, what are you supposed to do about it?
Farnum: And I pose you a question back, Al Swearengen! If a friend, or at least a professional colleague, has a mistaken impression of who’s coming at him and who isn’t, what are you supposed to do then, huh?
Swearengen: You don’t think he’s coming at me?
Farnum: I don’t think Hickok’s coming at you, Al. No, I don’t. I think you’re a man with so many different responsibilities, you sometimes get to feeling beset, and, in that frame of mind, take things personal.
Swearengen: I’d sooner the cocksucker were dead…
Farnum: We don’t get to choose the world we live in.
Swearengen: Bella Union cocksuckers to worry about, and every other damn thing.
Farnum: Well, you got a full plate.
Swearengen: I need to fuck something.
Al is, indeed, a “simple-type cocksucker” in many ways: his way of dealing with pressure is to fuck something, and his way of dealing with problems is to kill someone. (The business owner who secretly sold Cy Tolliver the Bella Union property points out that Al would have killed him rather than make a fair counter-offer.) He takes things personal, and though he becomes paranoid, and gets some things wrong, he also rightly perceives the cumulative effect of so much change, coming so fast: a threat on his (rapidly fading) way of life. Deadwood is already outgrowing his ability to control it, and from this point on we’ll see Al scrambling to maintain a fine line between order and anarchy, always trying to keep it from moving too far in either direction, ensuring its survival while preventing it from becoming the overly-structured society that he and most of the other residents came to Deadwood to escape.
It will become an increasingly political game from here on out: fucking and killing will always have their places, but Al, like Deadwood, will have to change with the times. (We see signs of this already: at the end of Episode Three, Al says “please” to Trixie for the first time; it is a quiet, lovely, moment that shows Al is capable of adapting his methods and manners for the more “civilized” era to come.)
“You know the sound of thunder, don’t you, Mrs. Garret?”—Wild Bill Hickok
The conflict between the order of civilization and the chaos of the wild cuts both ways, as the hapless Brom Garret discovers. A wealthy, city-soft dilettante, Brom represents a romantic, naive vision of the West: he’s the kind of “modern man” that Deadwood isn’t quite ready to accommodate. (There is a marvelous, wordless scene in Episode One that perfectly captures Brom’s personality: dressing for his first day of prospecting—in an absurdly clean outfit—Brom stands preening before his wife Alma’s bed, hoping she’ll wake up to admire his transformation into a frontiersman. This scene also sums up his relationship with Alma, who pretends to be asleep rather than engage with him.)
Brom is a fool, and not a particularly sympathetic one, but if we’re honest with ourselves we see that he’s the exact kind of fool many of us would be in the same situation, venturing into the wild with romantic, self-deluding notions about seeking fortune and adventure. Brom thinks he’s far more capable than he is, and he thinks putting on the clothes—which he gets wrong anyway—will transform him into a formidable man. (To put it simply, he thinks he’s in a western, but he’s not: he’s in Deadwood.)
Alma—far smarter and, as we shall discover, far more capable—understands perfectly that Brom is nothing more than a tourist. She sees the danger he doesn’t see, and she tries to dissuade him from attempting to recover the money Al swindled. “Consider we’ve had an adventure costing us $20,000, and let matters rest there,” she pleads. But Brom thinks he’s the hero of this story, and he ignores her warnings, as he ignores similar warnings from Wild Bill and Charlie Utter:
Charlie: Mister, that fella you said had my room before me?
Brom: A man named Tim Driscoll, yes. Pure charlatan.
Charlie: Fresh stain on the floor when I moved in. He may have checked out short a useful amount of blood.
Brom: Wouldn’t surprise me in the least.
Charlie: That would make these accomplices you’re talking about dangerous people to deal with.
Brom: Yes, I quite take your point: no honor among thieves. Well, thanks for your time. I’ll pursue my remedies in some other fashion. [Leaves]
Wild Bill: I don’t think he took your point, quite.
Charlie: I think he quite missed it.
Brom, of course—like many who went west during the gold rush, but more literally than most—ends up smashed up on the rocks of his dreams, when Dan Dorrity throws him off a cliff. “Make it look like an accident,” Al instructs Dan, and that’s just what Dan does—right before discovering that Brom’s supposedly worthless property is not so worthless after all. “He died ownin’ one hell of a gold strike,” Dan reports to Al, and what seemed like a minor plot device becomes the major MacGuffin that will drive much of the series.
As a result, Alma—played by Molly Parker—moves from an apparently minor role to center stage. The Widow Garret—as she’ll largely be known from here on out—has appeared to be one of the weakest figures in Deadwood, a laudanum-addicted woman trapped in a loveless marriage. (We learn during these episodes that she only married Brom to get her no-good father out of debt, and her hatred for her husband will lead her to feel guilt over his death.) In fact, Alma has been “trapped” in more ways than one: until the fourth episode we have never seen her leave her hotel room. She is a bird in a cage, hindered by the strict rules of decorum that define the role of women in so-called “civilization.” (If life seems hard for other women in Deadwood—Trixie and Jane, for example—Alma makes us realize that these women also have more freedom and agency: for women, lawlessness and social disorder may have their advantages.) The first time Alma ventures out is in her nightgown, to stand in the street—decorum forgotten—and view her dead husband’s body. (Relative to our discussion of the function of swearing in Deadwood, it’s interesting to note this is also the first time Alma swears, telling Farnum to “get the goddamned doctor.”)
(I’m trying to avoid most spoilers for later episodes, but it would be interesting to construct a chart of all the various ramifications of Al’s decision to kill Brom: like Sophia’s arrival in Episode One, this is one of the events that catalyzes nearly everything that happens after. Al tries to have E.B. buy back the claim from Alma, but they underestimate her: she immediately smells a rat, and enlists Wild Bill to assist her in determining the proper course of action. This brings Alma into incidental contact with Jane and—more significantly—Sophia, who will be accidentally left with Alma at the end of these two episodes. Wild Bill enlists Bullock to the widow’s cause, and in subsequent episodes Ellsworth and Trixie will both be brought in to deal with the claim and the child respectively. Strange friendships, relationships, and surrogate family units will form around Alma and Sophia, with far-reaching and sometimes terrible consequences.)
The overall sense of doom that pervades these two episodes keeps getting expressed, and ignored. Wild Bill—who refused to help Brom Garret—takes an active interest in the widow, and repeats the advice he gave Brom in stronger terms:
Wild Bill: You know the sound of thunder, don’t you Mrs. Garret?
Alma: Of course.
Wild Bill: Can you imagine that sound if I ask you to?
Alma: I can, Mr. Hickok.
Wild Bill: Your husband and me had this talk, and I told him to head home to avoid a dark result. But I didn’t say it in thunder. Ma’am, listen to the thunder.”
“Can you let me go to hell the way I want to?”—Wild Bill Hickok
A man who hears the thunder, but has no intention of getting out of its path, is Wild Bill Hickok himself. His fate has been a foregone conclusion from the moment he arrived in camp; it is determined by history, and it has been foreshadowed several times in the past four episodes. But it is a surprise that it comes so fast in the series, and first-time viewers were no doubt shocked to see the most recognizable actor, and the most famous character, dispatched so quickly. However, as we will discuss more next week, Bill’s death is the single event that turns the camp of Deadwood into a community.
Keith Carradine is another in a long list of superb Deadwood actors who were absurdly overlooked by the voters for various awards, but it’s a beautiful portrayal of a legend in his last days. His Wild Bill is a man who knows he has outlived his expected span, outlived his place in history, and outlived even his desire for life. (“I never thought he’d live long enough for me to meet him,” newspaper man A.W. Merrick [Jeffrey Jones] thoughtlessly says in Episode One.) There are flashes of his former greatness—he is still very much the hero, with extraordinary dignity and decency—and there are brief glimpses of joy, but Bill gives every impression of having come to Deadwood to die.
His friend Charlie Utter—the equally brilliant Dayton Callie—is doing everything he can to hold his friend together, urging Bill to secure a future for himself, and encouraging his friendship with Bullock. In Episode Two, Charlie enlists Bullock’s help, and seems to know that time is running out for Bill:
Charlie: What’s your secret, Bullock?
Seth: What do you mean?
Charlie: You got some of Bill’s qualities, but then you got somethin’ he’s missin’. Get along with people, turn a dollar, look out for yourself. He don’t know how to do that. You see what I’m sayin’? So, I’d like to know your secret, so’s then I can tell it to Bill.
Seth: I don’t know any secrets.
Charlie: Don’t tell me if you don’t want. I mean, find occasion and tell him yourself. He likes you. Just don’t wait too long.
But Bill is burdened by his own reputation, which he can neither escape nor live up to. His brief moments of solace and pleasure are inevitably interrupted by reminders of the way his legend has not only been misunderstood, but has inspired an ugly and brutal vision of the west. He is briefly happy helping Bullock and Star build their hardware store, for example, but passers-by keep approaching him. The first, a harmless idiot, says he saw Bill perform in a Wild West show, and helpfully informs him that he “cannot act a single damn lick,” (which Bill thinks is fair enough). The second, however—a true fan of Wild Bill Hickok—offers a darker reflection that seems to lead Bill to gaze into the abyss of his own reputation:
Stranger: No reason you’d remember me, but I saw you marshal in Abilene. Saw you blow one cocksucker’s head right the fuck off his neck. I also saw you dead center three bullets on a ace of spades playing card at twenty-five goddamned paces. Some other loud-mouth, like this loud-mouth I just sorted out, said you’d doctored that playing card before you ever tacked it to that tree. Wild Bill: And did you sort him out, too?
Stranger: Goddamned right.
Wild Bill: Well thanks for all that help. Now it’s time you moved along.
Stranger: I sorted him out proper. Gouged out the both of his fuckin’ eyes!
Charlie: Alright, friend!
Wild Bill: Move along, I’m tired of listenin’ to ya.
Stranger: You’re tired of listenin’?
Seth: That’s what he said.
Stranger: Oh, I guess everybody’s talkin’ to me now.
Wild Bill: Get the fuck outta here!
Stranger: Alright, I hear you, Wild Bill. You don’t need to insult me twice. I’ll tell you what. I hope you get what’s coming to you, and I hope it’s sooner rather than later. I hope they sort you out! And I get to see it! I hope you’re gut shot and die slow! And I hope they get ya in this camp!
Even in Deadwood—a place where misfits and outcasts of all kind end up—there is little place for Wild Bill Hickok. He’s part of an era that is ending, part of a paradigm of the Old West that never really existed. In his lifetime, he’s seen his own story become a lie agreed upon, and has himself taken part in “Wild West shows” that further enforce the legend over the truth. Even Charlie Utter—though with the best of intentions—wants Bill to trade on his own celebrity and arrange “appearance fees” to play cards at local saloons. (“That ain’t gambling: it’s shilling for the house,” Bill says.) He sees himself becoming an aging celebrity, an infamous figure fading into either obscurity or a caricature of himself, inviting mockery and scorn and the admiration of fools. He can’t be a normal person, and he can’t be the legend, as he explains to Charlie in a touching scene that each of them seems to know will be their last conversation:
“Some goddamn point a man’s due to stop arguing with his self, and feeling twice the goddamn fool he knows he is ’cause he can’t be something he tries to be every goddamn day without once getting to dinnertime and not fucking it up. I don’t want to fight it no more. Understand me, Charlie? And I don’t want you pissing in my ear about it. Can you let me go to hell the way I want to?”
Bill’s final nemesis, of course, is Jack McCall (Garret Dillahunt), a droop-eyed wretch of a human being. Poker seems to be the only solace Bill has, but even at the poker table he is dogged by fools like McCall. It’s a nice summation of Bill’s situation now: while there are rare people like Bullock who treat him like a man, to most of the world he is a legend, to either be fawned over or disparaged. (“I am not impressed,” was Jack’s first observation of Bill in Episode One: the urge of a lesser man to diminish a greater one.) Jack is barely a man at all, and in normal circumstances would be beneath Bill’s notice. Jack knows this as well, and seems to get the only affirmation in his life out of beating the great man at poker. (There is a tiny, wonderful moment in Episode Three, when Jack goads Bill into betting his pistol, and Bill pulls it out so quickly that everyone at the table flinches, suddenly remembering that this is one of the greatest gunfighters of all time Jack has been tirelessly mocking.)
Wild Bill: You sure you wanna quit playing, Jack? The game’s all that’s between you and getting called a cunt.
Tom Nutall: Meetin’ adjourned, fellas. Take it outside.
Wild Bill: That dropped eye looks like the hood on a cunt to me, Jack. When you talk your mouth looks like a cunt moving.
Jack: I ain’t gonna get in no gunfight with you, Hickok.
Wild Bill: But you will run your cunt mouth at me. And I will take it, to play poker.
Jack gets fleeced at the Bella Union’s poker table—where Cy Tolliver has ordered the game rigged to ensure that the famous gunfighter wins—and is reminded once again that he is the opposite of a celebrity: he’s nobody. It’s a lesson reinforced by the condescending charity of Bill (who gives him a dollar to get something to eat), and by the righteous anger of Bullock (who refuses to sell him prospecting equipment and throws him in the mud).
It’s to Dillahunt’s credit that Jack almost becomes sympathetic in his last few scenes here. He is the lowest form of life in Deadwood, but we almost feel sorry for him when he has that knowledge repeatedly rubbed in his face. He has a new suit on—like Al, like Brom—but he looks ridiculous in it, and it doesn’t change him: he’s just another lost soul unable to adapt to the changes that are coming. Early in “Reconnoitering the Rim,” the Reverend Smith (looking directly at Bullock) quotes Proverbs: “A man’s ways please the Lord when he maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him.” This theme (which Bullock forgets) is later echoed ironically: “He too is God’s handiwork,” a random card player says of Jack, sarcastically. It is a throwaway line from a nameless character, but the sentiment encapsulates one of Deadwood’s mission statements: there is no one so wretched as to be left out of the community, and we forget that at our peril.
Wild Bill takes his fated seat at a poker table—back at Tom Nutall’s, having fled the rigged game at the Bella Union—and the only chair open is one with its back to the door. Bill sits in resignation, and though he looks up when the door opens behind him, he doesn’t turn around. He may not know what is about to happen, but he knows what might happen, and he decides to do nothing as Jack walks up and shoots him in the head.
The death of Wild Bill Hickok death has become the stuff of legend and myth. Today, in the real Deadwood, South Dakota, the murder is endlessly reenacted, a moment in time frozen and mythologized and turned into a tourist attraction. (One website I visited calls it “fun for the whole family, as audience members are recruited to play roles is this historic gun fight, card game, and trial.”) But here, the event is far from romantic: it is fast, senseless, and ugly. History is a river, not a lake, and Bill’s death is just a quick moment in time, part of the endless flow of change that is moving through America. Just as the townsfolk pursue Jack through the mud, and word of Bill’s death spread’s through the camp, a rider comes into town brandishing the severed head of an Indian chief. The message could not be clearer: the cowboys and Indians are gone; the pioneers and gunfighters have served their purpose. A new period has been ushered in, and the age of the “Old West” is over.
Random Thoughts, Loose Observations, and Selected Quotes
- It occurred to me, watching these episodes, how most of the residents of Deadwood are people—like Farnum—who could barely function anywhere else, let alone become leaders in their community. What’s more, Al—though he has some capable assistants like Dan Dorrity—seems to go out of his way to employ such outcasts and incompetents. It will come up again, but for now I’ll say that I think it’s just possible that Al, too, recognizes that they are “God’s handiwork,” and that one of his motivations is to ensure that the Cy Tollivers of the world do not take over a community that has room for—to borrow a phrase— “cripples, bastards, and broken things.”
- I skipped over the first appearance of Cy’s partner Andy Cramed (Zach Grenier), whose arrival heralds the next big crisis (and catalyzing event) for the town of Deadwood: he seems to be suffering from an ailment.
- Misunderstanding continues to drive the plot as much as fact: Ellsworth, for example, witnesses Dan’s killing of Brom, and confesses it. “My knowin’ what I know, and someone else knowin’ it, is two entirely different things,” he tells Dan nervously. “If it meant my leavin’ camp to prove I can mind my own business, it’d be a friend who told me that, instead of throwin’ me to the pigs.” (Dan, of course, had no idea Ellsworth was there.)
- There’s a nice moment between Bill and Bullock, standing atop the newly constructed hardware store. Bill observes that soon Deadwood will have laws, and Bullock says he’d be satisfied with property rights. “Would you?” Bill asks, hinting that Bullock is a man who needs the law. And when Bill says he is “flat out tired,” Bullock tells him to go to get some rest. “I’ve got her covered,” he says, looking over the town. The torch of justice has been passed.
- Jane, adorably, has created a swear jar for herself, setting aside the profits for Sophia: “I owe you a fuckin’ penny…Owe you another one.” Surely this is a more lucrative source of income than gold mining could ever be.
- Charlie, awkwardly inviting Seth and Sol to dinner: “I feel like I shoulda brung posies.”
- Bill, when Sophia says something incomprehensible in Norwegian: “Did she just ask to borrow money?”
- Al, on trust: “Generally, if I have a misgiving or a doubt, I kill the cocksucker I have a doubt or misgiving about.”
- Al, on trust: “Trust. Hell of a way to operate, huh? Learning all the ins and outs of getting killed…Every fucking beating I’m grateful for. Every fucking one of them. Get all the trust beat out of you, then you know what the fucking world is.”
- Farnum, on theology: “If you’re gonna murder me, I’d appreciate a quick dying, and not getting ate by the pigs—in case there is resurrection of the flesh.”
- Farnum, on Jane: “A sad story that’s none of my affair, madame. If I guess your sex correctly.”
- Jane, to Farnum: “Kiss my ass.”
- Joanie, after Al follows a profanity-laced rant with “pardon my French”: “Oh, I speak French.”
- Tolliver, on human nature: “Some boys can’t go near a cliff without jumping off.”
- While I don’t flatter myself anyone is sitting around repeatedly hitting “refresh,” impatient for these posts to go up, I apologize for the week’s delay. With my other regular shows on hiatus, I took a bit of a hiatus myself. I’ll try to keep them coming in a more timely fashion.