Welcome back to Lost and Found, where we resurrect and reappraise the cancelled television shows of yesteryear. As of this week we’re underway on Season 2 of this outstanding drama, and from this point onward the column will be posting on Wednesdays, not Fridays.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 know what I had for lunch? Then follow me on Twitter.
A Lie Agreed Upon Part II & New Money (Deadwood, Season 2 eps. 2 & 3)
E.B.: “A fish to rival the fabled Leviathan has swum into our waters.”
Being a contributing member of any community – whether it’s as large as a nation or as small as your family – means accepting responsibility; for others, for the greater good, but most of all for ourselves. It means surrendering certain freedoms. Some of this surrender is codified as Law: those we’ve elected propose community standards in the form of legislation. I CAN go out, get an eight-ball, a half-dozen hookers, and take them all by cab down Park Avenue, where we toss eggs at random passersby, but we’ve all decided as a community that this is a Bad Idea. Should I elect to hold my annual Crazy Hooker-and-Eight-ball-assisted egg assault anyway I’d go to jail (or to “rehab,” if I’m famous/rich enough to carpet Manhattan in lawyers). Some of this surrender is social, and unspoken, but no less powerful for that. Drug-assisted hooker-related shenanigans would likely also draw the ire of my wife, even if the event were scaled down to, say, a single hooker. We have a firm “no sexworkers, felony-grade narcotics or assault” (or FUN!) policy in the Morse household.
By agreeing to surrender certain freedoms I ensure that no one else can take advantage of my newfound abstention from hookers n’ blow. I live in a safer, more ordered community. I maintain love and respect with my wife. Ideally, I get something for every thing I give.
Some folks can’t bring themselves to agree to that exchange. Some have real trouble adhering to the various codes and expectations that such surrenders require. Some acquiesce only reluctantly, out of a desire to preserve their own remaining freedoms in exchange for those they’re giving up. And some freely ignore those conventions and codes and expectations because they are rich, or powerful, or psychotic or all of the above.
Deadwood contains all of these people – the moral, the merciless, the mercenary, the mendicant and many more besides. David Milch and his writers went out of their way in Season 1 to illustrate to us that even the most vicious of the camp’s residents had the capacity for compassion and the pragmatism to establish certain structures of order. That generosity of spirit continues here in season 2, even as the arrival of two predatory new characters – Maddie and Mr. Wolcott (played by a returning Garrett Dillahunt, who also played Jack McCall, Wild Bill’s murderer in Season 1) – and the further fleshing out of Cy Tolliver, a man who makes Al Swearengen look cuddly by comparison, remind us that a capacity for compassion does not excuse people their overt monstrousness.
Joanie’s new partner Maddie, who has so far seemed like a relatively benign, matronly presence, reveals a sinister side to us as we learn her plans to give one of the Chez Ami’s girls to Mr. Wolcott so that he can murder her and satisfy some primal, terrible sexual need in the process. For this, we understand that she stands to make a great deal of money. Morally, this is repugnant. Thematically, this is Sacrifice. An offering to the god that some folk in the camp revere above any god of justice or morality. In one sense, that “god” is money. In another sense, that “god” is George Hearst – a man of legend and a figure of awe and fear among many of the camp’s residents. The very name of Hearst evokes something like the fear of God in the people of Deadwood, and given this idea of “sacrifice,” that association feels appropriate.
In a very real sense, the first three episodes of this season are about deciding what you’ll sacrifice, in both the positive and negative senses of that word; deciding to deny desire and sacrifice your own needs in favor of caring for somebody or some body, or deciding to give over someone else’s life or happiness as sacrifice to guarantee your own comfort, safety or security.
Al sacrifices his pride in returning Bullock’s badge and guns, in return for peace between them and a stronger, united front against the encroaching political and mercantile forces of the U.S. government. Seth sacrifices his desire for Alma to assume responsibility for his brother’s family, in exchange for satisfaction of his own intense, personal code. Alma sacrifices her desire for Seth in exchange for the opportunity to remain in Deadwood and to begin asserting a power she’s so far been denied (by herself and by others). Joanie offers herself up as sacrifice to Wolcott when his preferred girl is unavailable despite (because? We know Joanie has something of a death wish) her knowledge of his monstrous appetites, and earns Wolcott’s frightening respect in the process (“I admire that you came armed”). Cy sacrifices his honor and autonomy in exchange for a relationship with a man of power. And, as mentioned above, Maddie intends to sacrifice a girl on Wolcott’s terrible altar, in exchange for the freedom to retire from the whoring life.
Wolcott, like his employer Hearst, is an enigma to us. We spend a good portion of the episode following him as he insinuates himself into the camp with a near-supernatural ease but I can’t say as I feel like I “know” him after doing so. Who is this man, really? At one moment he seems almost boyishly naive, at another cold and distant, at another frightening and just plain weird.
As Hearst’s front man, Wolcott is charged with spreading rumors, a task which he accomplishes easily and effectively. He enlists Cy and E.B. in an effort to convince claim-holders that their claims are in danger of being invalidated by the coming annexation. Those who panic at this (fictional) development are urged to sell to Cy, who will then resell to Hearst. It’s a tidy, amoral scheme and already we can see that Hearst is a figure who plans his moves out well in advance. The only other character this adept at playing chess with people has been Al.
And speaking of Al…It’d be brave of this show to sideline its most compelling character – as it does during the events of New Money – if the rest of the cast wasn’t so terrifically fun to watch on their own terms. As it stands, removing Al from New Money serves to give the rest of the camp a little room to stretch out. Wolcott’s arrival and dealings replaces some of the tension and excitement that Al brings to each episode, and the remaining time allows characters like Sol a little more space to show their complications (I adore the way that Sol chews Seth out while under the influence of painkillers and his admonition to Seth that “it’s life either way”). As with all developments on this show, the fact of Al’s debilitating “gleets” (otherwise known to you and I as “kidney stones,” and without a doubt the single most physically painful experience most people will ever go through) isn’t some random happenstance. There’s real thematic resonance to Al’s gleets, or so I’d venture to suggest, and if you’ll indulge me for a moment I’ll elaborate:
The “gleet” is as much symbol as it is stone. It is not coincidence, I don’t think, that Al struggles to pass his stone(s) at the same moment the Deadwood camp struggles with the changes that come from opening itself to civilization. It’s not too much of a stretch to call Al the “father” of the Deadwood camp, insofar as he’s been present from the beginning, helped to shepherd and mold the camp as its evolved, and watched over its development. Along these lines, passing a kidney stone is the closest thing a man can experience to the act of giving birth and as Deadwood births itself anew and becomes an actual society, not just a mining camp, those “birth pangs” are being dramatized literally in the form of Al and his gleets. As the father of the camp, he is “giving birth” to this new uncertain civilization – an act that just might kill him – at the same time that Wolcott, an agent of a force/man that threatens the “life” of Deadwood has entered the body of the camp.
How’s that for wonky overthinking? God, how I love to do that.
- Just as A Lie Agreed Upon Part I ends with Seth’s voice reading a letter to Martha that functions, effectively, as a lie (one which implies that Seth is looking forward to Martha and William’s arrival), A Lie Agreed Upon Part II ends with Al’s voice dictating a newspaper article to Merrick – one which lies about the state of the camp itself in order to preserve the larger order and assuage fear. This comes about after the two of them discuss the concept of truth in general, with Merrick insisting that “truth” can be decent, to Al’s visible amusement.
- Having been injured in Part I, Sol spends the majority of these episodes convalescing and flirting with Trixie. The two of them are almost cripplingly adorable together (“You are a funny fuckin’ Jew” ranks among the all time weirdest, funniest expressions of genuine affection I’ve ever heard).
- Al’s injured eye looks terrible in A Lie Agreed Upon Part II; like the makeup department had a Take Our Kid to Work Day and let their progeny design and apply Swearengen’s prosthetics. Is this a bluray problem?
- I enjoy watching Alma get uppity and pissy. She’s a lot of fun that way, even if she had no right or reason to lay into Sophie’s tutor the way she does here.
- A recurring image over the course of these episodes: hands outstretched, in offering or in need. I’m particularly fond of the hand that Al offers to Dan after Dan confesses his jealousy of Silas and his worry that Silas is usurping him as Al’s right-hand man. Never has thuggery been so touching.
- Jane makes her triumphant return in these episodes (notwithstanding her laugh-out-loud cameo in Part I), and I’m mighty glad to see her leering, slurring, half-sensical face again. While she remains a drunkard and an object of amusement, she’s also brought with her the wounded dignity she developed over the course of the first season. Perhaps her best scene in these installments comes opposite a very drunk Trixie, wherein Jane comes across as the sober, reasonable one between the two of them. There’s something innately hilarious about that role reversal, and Robin Weigert, the actress who plays Jane, does a terrific job with it.
- In a nice, wry sign of the camp’s growth, Wu is charging for body disposal now.
- I went light on quotes this week, due to my wanting to dig into the thematic meat, so to speak, but I feel the need to reproduce this priceless story in its entirety:
Jane: “Fella in Livingston went sweet on me. Finnish fella from Finalnd. Hardly spoke fuckin’ English. Brought me flowers and some dry food they like there…and, uh, one night, he takes my arm and he starts in and he, uh, whispers in his Finland accent…”I wanna suck your cock.” What do you fuckin’ think of that!”