"Mister Wu" reminds us again that—as we've discussed before, and will discuss throughout the entire run of the show—the real subject of Deadwood is a community in constant flux. What fascinated David Milch was not the American "Old West," in and of itself. (His original proposal, as I've mentioned, was to do a series set in Ancient Rome.) Milch was interested in the idea of improvisation: He wanted to explore people who were "making themselves up as they went along," and discover how a makeshift social order emerges out of conditions of lawlessness and chaos.
This is not always a smooth, steady process, of course. There is never going to be universal consensus on how things should be; not everyone (as we saw last week) is going to move at the same pace, or in the same direction; and the very notion of improvisation assumes the possibility of amateur mistakes and awkward surprises. This week, "Mister Wu"—written by Bryan McDonald, and directed by Daniel Minahan—finds the camp going through some of those growing pains, failing to incorporate everyone equally into the new order, and struggling to understand the unspoken new rules that are emerging in such an unruly place.
"We got us a situation here, Al!"
The main plot of "Mister Wu" is set in motion, significantly, through an act of social transgression: with the titular character boldly walking through the front door of the Gem Saloon. "We got us a situation here, Al!" Johnny yells, as Mister Wu refuses to turn around and come in the back, as custom dictates all non-whites should do.
This is only the first in a series of breaches of propriety that will occur throughout this episode, exposing an accepted caste system and illustrating the ongoing theme of a community whose rules are still (and always) in flux. We will see throughout this episode that—for all its vaunted freedom, amorality, and lawlessness—Deadwood is a place that has inherited a sort of behavioral common law that can be surprisingly conservative. There is a class hierarchy, and there are expectations about how people are expected to behave, related to where they fall in the social strata. As much as the community of Deadwood is being shaped out of "chaos," it is also forming in reaction to—and, often, in rejection of—these entrenched customs, conventions, prejudices, and mores.
And an aspect of all of this—one I don't think I probably discuss often enough—is that these sorts of improvisations, improprieties, and social transgressions are inherently comic conditions. For all its darkness and violence and pathos, Deadwood is a very funny show, and "Mister Wu" is one of the first season's funniest entries. (Milch is interested in the entire human experience, and it is no contradiction that a creator with such lofty concerns, erudite references, and florid language also revels in low-brow humor. Shakespeare, remember, was not above a nice piece of slapstick or a good shit joke either.)
Wu's meeting with Swearengen is an all-time classic. "I'm that amazed how the fuck you and him can make yourselves understood anyway to each other," someone says later in the episode, but Al and Mister Wu have developed an elaborate system of communication that breaches the language barrier through crude drawings, pantomime gestures, and hurling variations of the word "cocksucker" at each other. ("COCKSUCKA!" Wu bellows, gesturing to his drawing. "Yeah, glad I taught you that fuckin' word," Al says wryly.)
Their conversation comes perilously close to degenerating into Abbott and Costello's "Wu's on First:"
Al: Who the fuck did it?
Al: Who, you ignorant fucking chink!
Al: Who? Who! Who stole the fucking dope?
Al: Oh, Jesus.
But what eventually emerges from this meeting of community leaders is a mutual problem: Two white men have murdered a Chinese courier, and stolen Wu's shipment of opium, which also disrupts Al's business. And Mister Wu is demanding justice.
The two "white cocksuckas" in question are a couple of dope fiends: Jimmy Irons (Dean Rader-Duval), who works for Al, and Leon (Larry Cedar), who works for Cy Tolliver. (We have met both before: Leon is a dealer at the Bella Union, and it was Jimmy who brought Al news of the murder of Sofia's family in the pilot. Deadwood frequently takes seemingly minor background characters like this—glorified extras, really—and suddenly elevates them to importance: It's one of the many things that make this feel like a rich, complex community, and underlines Saint Paul's point about how all members of the body are necessary. Any minor character might have a story to tell, or an important part to play.)
So once again in "Mister Wu"—as we've seen throughout this first season—we have the conundrum of dealing with disorderly elements in a place allegedly without order, and ensuring justice in a place without laws. However, unlike in previous examples—Wild Bill's murder, Flora and Miles' theft—the question of "justice" is complicated by the fact that the victims are not white.
And this is where we get into questions of the social hierarchy. A "dope fiend" is pretty much the lowest form of life in Deadwood, as Al makes clear (in another funny scene) when he first confronts Jimmy. Jimmy is a groveling wretch: He's terrified of Al, reeking with the "cat's piss" stink of lies, and because he has—as he explains apologetically—shit his own pants out of fear. He is literally crawling at Al's feet, until Al tells him to throw himself off the balcony—which he does, eagerly and officiously, falling into the muck of the thoroughfare. ("I'm just gonna roll forward so I don't get trampled," Jimmy explains politely, shifting a few precious inches in the mud and shit.)
(Later in the episode, when Al is yelling at both dope fiends, there is a marvelous, completely silent illustration of the social order. Leon has puked on the floor, to the disgust of everyone present. Al nods to Dan to deal with it—but then Dan nods to Johnny, who in turns passes the distasteful task down to Jimmy. Johnny may be the lowest man among Al's minions, but he's still above a dope fiend, and puke, like shit, rolls downhill.)
So Jimmy and Leon are low-life dope fiends, at the very bottom of the pecking order—but they're white, and the men they murdered and stole from were Chinese. "So far, who cares?" asks Silas Adams (Titus Welliver), the newcomer sent as Magistrate Claggett's bagman. Cy Tolliver, similarly, dismisses Al's suggestion that someone has to pay for the crime: "A white dope fiend's still white," he says. "I don't deliver white men to chinks."
Al—it should be noted—is not motivated by any particularly progressive notions of racial justice. He disparages the "slant-eyed celestials" as much as anyone, and—though he forgives Wu's coming in the front of the Gem for the sake of expediency—he makes him leave through the back. ("The back way," he admonishes Wu. "Or we'll start getting people having the wrong fucking idea of things around here, huh?") As they nearly always are, Swearengen's interests are entirely practical: He simply needs to conduct business, and Mister Wu is useful to him in several vital ways, and that's more important than status, prejudice, or custom. (Venturing into "Chink's Alley," Al deliberately acts like Wu has gotten the better of him, diminishing himself just to elevate Wu in the eyes of his own people. It's not something we can imagine Cy Tolliver doing, no matter how it helped his business.)
And this is what's interesting about Deadwood at this moment in its evolution: Progress comes about through necessity, not ideals. Al wasn't especially concerned about the plight of the sick, but he organized the smallpox response and sent for a vaccine, just to keep the camp operating. He isn't motivated by municipal spirit, either, but his interests require that Deadwood be annexed by the Dakota Territory, so that meant organizing a government. Now, Al's business concerns require keeping Wu happy and preventing further disruptions to the supply line, and so Al must break with the white-dominated tradition and deliver to Wu some form of justice. It is a radical adjustment of the inherited social order that comes about almost entirely because of self-interest.
Here, it means feeding one of the white dope fiends to Wu's pigs. (Al explains this math to Wu: "I give up two whites for one chink," he says, "when they're finished stringing you up, they'll come get me.") And so it is Jimmy Irons who (literally) draws the short straw, and ends up drowned in his own bath water. "Don't think there was a long straw," Al tells Silas after: Killing Tolliver's man would have been playing into Tolliver's hands, inviting open warfare and allowing Cy to rally the camp against Al. Some version of that will happen anyway, as Tolliver will use this transgression against the social order to smear Al's reputation in the prejudiced eyes of the camp. But for now Al has delivered a form of justice in this lawless place, and—without ever meaning to—he has actually struck a landmark blow for racial unity. His relationship with Mister Wu—which will grow more and more important to both as Deadwood proceeds—becomes stronger here. "Swedgin!" Wu says, making a gesture that indicates togetherness. "Yeah," Al says. "Swedgin hopes we ain't signed ourselves up for killin' too."
"So this what it's come to in Deadwood? Ministers kickin' up their heels, and Chinamen walkin' through the front door?"
The other major form of transgression in "Mister Wu" comes from the other end of the social spectrum: Reverend Smith has discovered Al's new piano.
I said last week that I found Smith absolutely heartbreaking, and it's not going to get any easier as this season progresses. Though he does not, and will not, lose his endearing sweetness of nature, Smith's mind and body have both betrayed him, due to what Doc has now definitively diagnosed as a brain tumor. He's having memory problems and hallucinations; he can barely control his limbs; his eyes are akimbo; and he suffers terrible fits and crippling headaches. His entire life has become a total horror that he endures in stubborn good nature, wandering the camp completely alone and trying not to bother anyone.
So who would begrudge him the tiny bit of comfort Al Swearengen's piano affords him? "The piano relieves my headache," he sheepishly explains to Al. And indeed, sitting beside the piano—watching the Gem's customers and whores dance, awkwardly keeping time with one awkward leg and a Bible clenched in his only functioning hand—Smith looks almost ecstatically happy. (I have never watched these episodes without wanting to scream at the screen: Just fucking let him enjoy himself, for whatever time he has left.)
But it's a violation of propriety. "That ain't right, see," Johnny says, watching him. "My father was a preacher of the word, and that ain't fuckin' right." The Gem's whores cruelly mock him, ironically disgusted that a supposed holy man would venture into their domain of sin. "So this what it's come to in Deadwood, eh, Doc?" one of them asks Cochran. "Ministers kicking up their heels, and Chinamen walking through the front door?" Community standards, everyone seems to agree, are slipping.
Al has a soft spot for the minister. (His own brother, as he mentions here for a second time, also suffered from fits.) The first time Al discovers Smith camped out at the piano, he is gentle, but firm, escorting the minister from the premises with a polite request that he not come back. "Not wanting to give offense, would you mind me asking you to frequent another joint?" he says. "A man of the cloth slows business down." As with Wu, Al is initially motivated not by any concept of right and wrong, but only by practical business concerns. (He tells Smith he is welcome to come on the sly for drink or sex, but the minister just likes the music.)
The second time, however—for Smith's addled brain did not retain the first conversation—Al loses his temper and throws him out. "You listen to a piano where you don't make a fuckin' ass out of yourself, huh?" he bellows. (Smith, pitifully, asks him if he knows where one might be found.) And Al's anger makes us wonder whether he doesn't have a sense of decency and propriety after all. ("Well, he ain't coming back in my joint," he tells Doc. "He's a fuckin' man of the cloth, in case he forgets. Kickin' up his legs like a four-bit strumpet.")
It's a curious thing, surely? Deadwood is ostensibly a place without laws, a place without ethics, a place of immorality and sin and casual murder—and yet everyone agrees that there is something intolerably improper about a minister's sitting in a saloon listening to music. In this seemingly godless place there is an intrinsic respect for decorum and an unconscious reverence for God: He must be kept pure and pristine, untainted by the usual depravities of the camp.
And this is ultimately the tragedy of Reverend Smith, who must, as a result, always be kept apart. In enjoying the piano, we wonder if part of what he is enjoying is the joyous sense of togetherness it inspires. "Make a joyful noise unto the Lord," the Psalms repeatedly advise us. "Let them praise his name in the dance." The Gem Saloon is the social center of Deadwood—a community that does not, remember, have a church—and it may be here, amidst the joyful noise, that Reverend Smith feels the communal spirit he helped inspire among his congregation most strongly. But he himself, sadly, can not participate in that community, or even bear witness to it. The spiritual leader of Deadwood must be a pariah; the man who served as a catalyst for communal togetherness must end his life as the loneliest man in town; the white minister is now less welcome than a dope-dealing "chink."
“Or we could dedicate ourselves to the principle of walking together.”
Speaking of lonely men, let's talk briefly about Merrick and the Ambulators.
As I suggested, Deadwood is undergoing growing pains in "Mister Wu." The dining room at the Grand Central Hotel—despite its terrible reputation—is crowded beyond capacity, generating tensions (men argue about bumping into each other), but also forming new acquaintances and friendships out of sheer proximity. (Charlie and Joanie, for example, deepen their friendship here simply because Charlie has nowhere else to sit.)
For men like the eternally grumpy Seth Bullock, dining at the Grand Central is an annoying necessity (affording only the opportunity to see Alma from across the room). For Merrick, however, we sense this is the social highlight of his day. ("And yet how many memories, fond to the recollection, have their setting in that tight little dining room?" he says.) Merrick, in his own way, is as isolated as Reverend Smith. He occasionally drinks in the Gem, but he does not really belong there. He does not, in fact, really belong anywhere. Last week, after the ad hoc government was formed, we saw Merrick in the bar, talking about why he himself didn't volunteer for a post. "My own strong personal impulse was to offer my name for office," he said. "But a fourth estate, independent in name and fact from the operations of government, is of the essence of a free society." And the camera pulled back to reveal that Merrick was alone, talking to himself.
Like Smith, Merrick is profoundly invested in the camp, yet he is eternally separate from it, unable to fully partake in the communal spirit. (Language is always a social marker on Deadwood, and Merrick's language—he does not swear, and his diction is overly ornate and circumlocutory—sets him forever apart from the "common man.") His class, his position, his clothes, his intellectualism, his oddness of speech and manner, all isolate him, and so he is—like Smith—deeply lonely.
And so in "Mister Wu" he tries to do something about that. Having ended up dining with Seth and Sol—later joined by Charlie—Merrick proposes a walk, and suggests they might form "the most informal and disorganized of clubs," to the purpose of "freeing our friendship from dependence on that little dining room." Sol—one of the kindest men in Deadwood—sees exactly what is happening, and makes a concerted effort to be friendly. ("Well, why don't we just walk together when we happen to be out?" he proposes gently.) But Charlie and Seth look at Merrick like he's just proposed a ménage à quatre. The sort of formal social club Merrick is proposing—particularly one centered on the art of conversation—would be as foreign to taciturn, stoic men like them as joining the ballet. (Remember how awkward Charlie felt when he asked Seth and Sol to dine with him and Bill? "I feel like I shoulda brung posies," he said.) For men like that, friendship—affinity—is something that just happens, without being forced, and without requiring comment. Merrick's suggestion, therefore, is its own form of social transgression. It's simply not done.
Merrick, bless him, is undaunted, enamored of the idea of creating a formal structure in which he might actually enjoy friendship and community. "The Ambulators," he muses to himself, after everyone else has hurriedly fled. Like many scenes in Deadwood, it's a small moment that will come to nothing, rather funny in passing, profoundly sad upon reflection.
But the moment pays off brilliantly at the end of "Mister Wu," bringing the question of the camp's estranged members back to a sort of resolution. That night, as Bullock and Star close up the hardware store, Reverend Smith appears, disoriented and suffering one of his peculiarly spiritual hallucinations. (As we learned last week, Smith is tormented not by voices or visions, but by dreadful feelings of alienation: The sense that he has died; the fear that he no longer feels, or can convey, God's love.) Here—though he recognizes Sol and Seth's faces—he does not feel their friendship.
"Are you Messrs. Bullock and Star? You are the absolute images of them, gentlemen. But what makes me afraid is I do not recognize you as my friends. And, naturally, I am afraid. I don’t know what’s happening to me. I have various ailments, and I suppose this is a further ailment, but of what sort, I don’t know. And I’m afraid if you are devils, which—which I don’t believe you are, because you were the kindest men of all in camp to me. But if you were devils, I suppose that would be the type of shape you would take. And, and if you are not devils, then I am—I am simply losing my mind."
Throughout "Mister Wu" we've seen people unwelcome: Wu at the Gem was unwelcome; Merrick's proposal was unwelcome; Smith was unwelcome at the piano. But here Seth instantly rises from his chair, and welcomes the minister, and offers him the kindness that he would not offer Merrick. And he knows exactly the right code words to trigger Smith's memory. "I'm from Etobicoke, Ontario," he says. "I'm from Vienna, Austria," Sol offers. This was the first conversation they ever had, back in the pilot, when they met Smith. These words came up again after Wild Bill's funeral—the moment Deadwood became a community—when Smith asked Seth what he thought his part was in the larger plan. "The Lord is our final comfort," Smith said, towards the end of the pilot. "But it's a solace having friends. I know that from past experience." Now, Seth and Sol offer him that solace: "You're here with friends," they assure him, and Smith's face beams with the recognition. "Yes," he says. "Yes, I feel that now."
"May we walk you back to your tent, sir?" they offer. Having turned down the proposal of one lonely man to "dedicate themselves to the principle of walking together," they rediscover that principle now. It is a small thing, and small comfort perhaps, but in Deadwood these small gestures of kindness and community mean everything.
"An evening stroll with friends," Reverend Smith says. "I would so enjoy that."
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- In the social hierarchy of Deadwood, perhaps only one man stands completely alone, both despised and admired from a distance: The Tit-Licker. “An august commencement to my administration," EB fumes. "Standing stymied outside a saloon with a degenerate tit-licker!” But a little later, the new Mayor of Deadwood confesses his jealousy of the man's simple, single-minded spirit. "I begrudge that pervert his capacity for happiness," he admits. "I do."
- An interesting addendum, in light of this episode's recurring themes, is the first appearance of Hostetler (Richard Gant), the owner of the livery and Deadwood's first black character. We'll have much more to say about him later, but here he is just a guy from whom Seth is thinking of buying a house. (Seth is incredibly surly with him, but it's hard to determine whether that's racism, or just Bullock's free-floating rage at work.)
- I rather skipped over the first appearance of another important new character, Silas Adams. Swearengen takes an instant liking to him, and folds him under his wing right from the start—something that will create resentment among his other minions later. I think we must assume that he likes Adams for standing up to him—something people almost never do—but he also recognizes that Adams is smart. (Dan Dority is the most loyal person in the world, but one would be hard pressed to describe Dan as a big thinker. I think Al recognizes that he can use someone like Adams.)
- I rarely feel the need to comment on the performances of the actors—everyone is so universally excellent—but I think a special shout-out is due to Keone Young as Mister Wu. This is not an easy character to play, and one that could have gone badly wrong. But Young imbues Wu with intelligence, humor, and dignity that keep him from being the cartoon caricature he might have been. Watching Wu develop over the course of Deadwood—without the benefit of Milch's dialogue to work with—is an ongoing pleasure of the series.
- In other skipped-over plot points, Eddie Sawyer offers to stake Joanie to her brothel, so she doesn't have to do business with Cy. How will he do this? "I'm gonna rob Cy," he says.
- And finally, as always, some quotes:
- Charlie, after a man has yelled at Merrick in the dining room: "Your ass was nowhere near his shoulder, Merrick. Believe me, I had the angle."
- Silas, when Al asks him if he knows what's in the message he just delivered: "No. Think you should have asked me that before you 'motherfucked' me?"
- Al, to Silas: "Get a fucking haircut. Looks like your mother fucked a monkey."
- Al, to Cy: "I’m a purveyor of spirits, Cy, dope fuckin' included, and when chance affords a thief—but I ain’t no fuckin' hypocrite."
- Al, to Wu, with a universal truth of which I remind myself daily: "You can’t cut the throat of every cocksucker whose character it would improve.”