Welcome back to Lost and Found, where we resurrect and reappraise the cancelled television shows of yesteryear. As of this week we’re almost at the end of Deadwood’s first season. If you missed the last column you can catch up right here. If you’d like to check out the other shows I’ve covered, you can surrender several days of your life over here. Want to spelunk around in my brain? Follow me on Twitter.
No Other Sons or Daughters & Mister Wu (Deadwood S1, eps. 9 & 10)
“There is this difference between the nature and principle of government: that the former is that by which it is constituted, the latter that by which it is made to act. One is its particular structure, and the other the human passions which set it in motion.” – Montesquieu
Magistrate Claggett: “To define ‘right’ in this environment is very liable to be an ongoing process.”
In No Other Sons or Daughters, Al goes about summoning up an informal municipal organization (“not government!”) out of thin air. In Mister Wu we get to see how that organization begins to define itself through the actions of its members. Deadwood’s first (mostly)-reluctant (unofficial) (not) government is born out of greed, self interest, pragmatism, idealism – which is to say that it’s born the way that many governments are.
Claggett’s words at the top of this column refer to the tricky legal position that Al and the camp will be in, once the Black Hills are annexed to the US Govt. They also describe the camp’s fluid morality and lack of established law. What’s “right” is literally tricky to define in a place like Deadwood, and what’s right is likely to be what’s decided on by its ruling class, not its rank and file citizenry – which is to say that Deadwood more or less resembles our own lives, devoid as they are of any real power or control over the sorts of decisions that actually affect us on a daily basis. That power and control is held by people who are, by nature of their elevated status, inclined to think of themselves before they think about others.
Part of Deadwood’s brilliance lies in how it often manages to make virtues out of these vices; how it makes this amalgamation of self-interests look somehow inspiring. This combination of selfishness and selflessness rings true because it is true – out of such contradictions are communities forged. Creator David Milch and his talented collaborators recognize this and, more importantly, are able to dramatize it in ways that are by turns funny, poignant, exciting and sad. Deadwood’s first season is haphazardly constructed in terms of overarching plot, to say the least. A lot of Stuff happens, but little of it creates the sort of traditional narrative structure that most television shows – even the weirdest ones like Twin Peaks – hang their characters from. In Twin Peaks, the first season was about the mystery of who killed Laura Palmer. Almost all of the characters in that show had some connection to that central mystery, and most of the various storylines whizzing around in that first season connected back to the central narrative engine of the show: Who killed Laura Palmer?
The closest you can come to giving Deadwood’s first season any kind of real narrative arc is to say that it’s about the first steps in the creation and expansion of a community and/or the ways in which Law and Order clash and cooperate in a burgeoning community. But that description is (a) waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay more nebulous than the question of who murdered a high school girl and (b) only applicable to a portion of the various stories being told here. Maybe that’s why some folks find the show forbidding. You can’t latch onto any one thing in Deadwood and expect it to define the whole. Each part of the show’s body is in some way essential to the whole, but no one part defines the body.
I love that. I think it illustrates a desire to bring life’s vast, messy sprawl to dramatic life without artificial contrivances, and I enjoy the way that the way the show evolves in the first season more-or-less reflects the way that the Deadwood camp is itself evolving. As the camp coalesces, so do the storylines. As the self-appointed leaders of the community band together and organize, so too do the various storylines and characters begin to organize themselves. This evolution becomes much more obvious and pronounced in season 2 (if I remember correctly), but it’s in these last episodes of the first season that this collective organization – of community and of narrative – really begins to make itself known.
Milch and his team have succeeded in creating a living, breathing environment here, one that teems with life in all it’s variety. And they’re carefully documenting the evolution of that environment as it happens. Merrick’s suggestion to Bullock, Star and Utter that they form a “walking club” (the Ambulators!) isn’t just an amusing moment, it’s also a miniature illustration of how growth in any community inspires some people to collect and form into exclusive groups. That everyone but Merrick thinks this is a terrible idea, and that they excuse themselves without actually telling Merrick it’s a terrible idea, informs their characters and their philosophies even as it remains an amusing, throwaway moment.
Bringing Wu in more fully accomplishes much the same thing. Al’s dealings with his “Celestial” counterpart (Wu arguably fulfills the “Al role” among his people) literalize the ways in which community leaders need to bridge the gap between each other and learn to communicate (in thus case, literally) in order to maintain a larger Order. That Wu communicates largely with variations on the word “cocksucker” is very funny, but it also serves to show how he nevertheless does communicate effectively with Al.
It also leads to this priceless interaction, which plays like an Abbot and Costello routine (scroll to the one minute mark in the video):
Al: “These two white cocksuckers? Who the fuck did it?”
Mr. Wu:: “Wu!”
Al: “Who, you ignorant fuckin’ chink!”
Mr. Wu: “Wu?!”
Al: “Who! WHO! Who stole the fucking dope?!”
Mr. Wu: “Cocksucka!”
Al: “..Aw, Jesus.”
Al’s dealings with Wu also illustrate the complicated, essential maneuvering that a community’s leader must engage in to ensure that his interests, and the interests of the camp as a whole, are served. Al may prefer to be a loner, the sole King of the (Black) Hill(s), but that’s no longer possible given the explosive growth of the camp. To maintain power and evade the threat of the Yankton Authorities, Al needs to see that the interests of others are also served, without putting a fat target on his chest in the process. And so Al must juggle a truly staggering number of figurative balls throughout these episodes, all while seeing to it that he remains partly in shadow. An example:
The ad hoc (“free fuckin’ gratis”) way in which E.B. is elected to the position of Mayor, and in which all the meeting’s attendants receive their designated titles, is completely random and hilarious. Al doesn’t really seem to care who does what in the new “municipal organization,” and that’s pretty clearly because he expects to continue making most of the decisions around here for the time being. Al’s the real Mayor here. E.B. is an ineffectual figurehead. And that suits Al’s purposes just fine. Al is free to continue being Al – running the show while EB puts on a show.
But while Al’s reasons for running the show are steeped in self-interest and venality, there’s enough pragmatism leavened into the mix to make his character sometimes startlingly sympathetic. Al’s a man of base instincts, but also of enlightened understanding. When he negotiates with Wu to kill one of the men who robbed Wu’s dope stash he does so knowing that killing two white men will bring wrath down on he and Wu both. He kills his own man and lets Cy Tolliver’s live because he knows that his fragile peace with Tolliver is dependent on Tolliver maintaining a sense of his own control. Al sees and plays the angles, and both he and the camp benefit from his ability to see ahead of the rest of these people – to forecast future possibilities and adjust his scheming accordingly.
Ian McShane plays Al’s many moods and faces with astonishing aplomb. From time to time you read or hear about an actor finding a role that they were “born to play.” For McShane, that role is Al Swearengen. He inhabits this role completely – shading every word and every expression with different colors and meanings. It is an extraordinary performance in a show that’s full of good to excellent performances, and these episodes in particular highlight just how extraordinary it is.
Al: “Everything changes. Don’t be afraid.”
That’s good advice. For a man who’s murdered to achieve power, control and a modicum of stability, the prospect of a change to that self-forged order has to be frightening. And a frightened Al is something like a chastised Tigger – weirdly vulnerable in unexpected ways (for those of you now picturing a murderous Tigger feeding Eeyore to Wu’s pig(let)s: you’re welcome; for those of you wondering why I’ve made two Winnie the Pooh references in two consecutive columns? No idea. New Father Syndrome, maybe?). That vulnerability is, I think, the key to Al’s hypnotic power as a character. Al remains a monster, but unlike Powers Boothe’s Cy Tolliver, that monstrousness is constantly undercut by startlingly-human glimpses of warmth (see: the way Al tenderly ejects Reverend Smith from his bar) and uncertainty (see: Al scrubbing up the blood on the floor of the Gem, while wondering why Trixie hasn’t come back to him). Tolliver has no doubt, no regret, no warmth or uncertainty – if they exist at all they’re buried under a mountain of implacable cruelty and contempt.
Over the course of the first season we’ve watched as Al has quietly sought out a protégé for himself – someone to whom he can impart his wisdom and his ruthless business sense. We’ve seen him hint at making Dan this figure, in the way he instructs Dority on how to run a saloon, and we’ve seen him take a shine to the young con man brother of Kristen Bell, teaching him the ropes of running a joint like the Gem. In some sense, Al wants a “son.” Someone who he can instruct, but who might also be Al’s equal. (Small SPOILER here – skip to the end of the paragraph if you don’t want to know anything about the show’s future) Al finds that someone in Silas Adams, the “bagman” for Magistrate Claggett, played by Titus Welliver – aka Lost’s Man in Black. Silas is smart, and just as important, he has no problem standing up to Al.
Reverend Smith: “An evening stroll with friends. I would so enjoy that.”
The good Reverend’s continued deterioration is heartbreaking to watch, but his condition also provides the characters of Deadwood to prove that “Community” is more than just a word while also showing us the self-interest that always lurks beneath that community. Al attempts to deal with him humanely, before his concern for business takes over and he just tosses Smith out on his ass. Bullock and Star seem (rightfully) unnerved by him, but they do right by him all the same. At one point in these episodes, Doc Cochran tells Smith that if it’s God’s will for Smith to suffer this way then “He is a sonofabitch.” And on the one hand that’s certainly true. But I’d argue that Milch isn’t satisfied with that interpretation being the final word on the subject, and that Milch’s notion of “God” is more mysterious and less literal than the idea of a Bearded Man In The Sky That Causes Suffering. Milch’s final word on the subject (for now) arguably comes to us through Seth and Sol, who offer to guide Smith home. Maybe God IS a sonofabitch. Then again, maybe He loves His children enough to provide them with the compassionate company they need in their most trying times.
- With all this jibber-jabber I STILL haven’t managed to talk much about Ellsworth (played by Jim Beaver, aka Bobby Singer of Supernatural). Ellsworth is a fascinating character, a man who appears to spend much of his time alone but who moves effortlessly among the whole of the camp. He seems to have the ability to get along with anyone and everyone and Beaver’s performance is quietly wonderful. I promise to talk more about him in the near future.
- When Joanie takes a walk around the camp in No Other Sons or Daughters we catch a good long look at Kristen Bell’s dress, crumpled and abandoned in the corner of Wu’s pigsty. It’s a chilling moment.
- Contrasting with that chill are the interactions that Joanie has with Charlie Utter in both episodes, which manage a kind of sweet fragility. Watching these actors play together is like watching two dance partners nervously, but warmly, begin to waltz.
- Jane leaves town at the end of No Other Sons. As much as I like the character and Robin Weigert’s performance I’m of the opinion that she’s best enjoyed in controlled doses. *Small Spoiler* Jane’ll be back, but its good to get a break for a bit.
- Charlie’s question to Jane (“What do they pay you to hold that building up?”) may be one of my favorite bits of dialogue in the show.
- Mister Wu marks the first appearance of Hostetler, at this point the only Black man in Deadwood that we’ve seen.
- Jimmy throwing himself off of Al’s balcony amuses me to no end.
Scott Farkus from A Christmas Story/Jack’s Best Man on Lost/Dude from Frightening Apocalyptic Hellscape on Dollhouse shows up as one of Farnum’s lackeys (he had yellow eyes!!!!). He’s found Wild Bill Hickok’s last letter. I don’t recall whether this has anything to do with any future plots, but I do know what the letter said. And now you do too:
“Agnes Darling, if such should be we never meet again, while firing my last shot, I will gently breathe the name of my wife — Agnes — and with wishes even for my enemies I will make the plunge and try to swim to the other shore. Good bye dear wife. Love to Emma.”” J.B. Hickok Wild Bill
Without getting too dramatic about it, it almost seems as though Hickok had a premonition of his own death while writing the letter. This makes Milch’s suggestion that Hickok allowed himself to be shot in Here Was a Man even more poignant in my eyes.
- No Other Sons or Daughters gets its title from its last scene – in which Bullock reveals to Alma that he’s married to his brother’s widow and helping to raise their child, but that he has “no other sons or daughters.” This is one of Deadwood’s purely fictitious conceits. The real Seth Bullock was happily married to Martha Bullock of his own accord – she was never his brother’s widow. They had three children together – two daughters and a son.
- Something I’m noticing about the show this time around: how very much like a play it all is. Much of the time, what Deadwood consists of is a whooooole lotta talkin’. People talk about their plans, their fears, their anger and hopes and every other thing under the sun . Once an episode or so, someone takes decisive action. Deadwood could probably be a fuckin’ radio play and still be fascinating. As much as I love the look of the camp, I think I’d be happy just listening to these actors, or watching them act this stuff out on the bare floor of a black box theater.
Have there been theatrical productions of any of the episodes? Do eager collegians use these speeches for monologues? They should.
- Merrick: My own strong personal impulse was to offer my name for office but a fourth estate, independent in name and fact from the operations of government is of the essence of a free society.
- Al: “I’m declaring myself conductor of this meeting as I have the bribe sheet.”
Al: “Get a fucking haircut. It looks like your mother fucked a monkey.”
Reverend Smith: “When I read the scriptures I do not feel Christ’s love as I used to.”
Jane: “Oh, is that so? That is too bad. Join the fuckin’ club of most of us!”