Season One, Episode Two
There will be no deep thoughts here, as this episode was very much a transition episode as opposed to anything particularly revealing about characters or “plot,” but I’ve got some time to kill at the end of this shift and figure I’ll drop a few thoughts off – spoilers after the jump.
The character parallels are flying around these parts, aren’t they? Hickok and Alma both struggle to reach for the coffee in this one, implying that they are both ill in some fashion (although only really Alma admits to this, and even then it seems just a ploy to gain some medicine). It isn’t entirely clear what represents the cause of either of their maladies, but the show is clearly building to something.
Meanwhile, the slow build between Swearengen and Bullock became explosive in a hurry, faster than I expected it to: the two characters were bound to butt heads, that much was clear from the pilot, but it’s also clear that this won’t be one of those relationships where everything smolders under the surface: Bullock is not the kind of person to withhold his distain and I think Al actually respects that. When he eventually kills the leader of the ruffians who murdered the family, after we learn that he gets a cut of any haul they grab on their way along the road, it’s as much because he tried to play it cool than it is about his bungling of the young girl’s fate.
Al being culpable in the murder of that family was something very clearly kept out of the pilot for a reason: you don’t want to give him too much of a mean streak when first introducing the character, and while McShane certainly doesn’t make him a likeable character one can at least get a sense that there are shades to his character despite the fact that he profits from murder, commits murder, and is pretty well the personification of evil within this particular universe, at least on the surface. There’s a lot of shades to come to his character, I can gather, but right now we’re definitely not seeing the most positive of portrayals here: just look at how he reduces Calamity Jane into a blubbering mess without really even doing anything for an example of just how powerful he is in this world.
In terms of the action of the episode, and the scene that gives the episode its title, we discover that in some ways Wild Bill Hickok really is in too deep: not just at the poker tables, as we learn he is in desperate need of a steady flow of income that he is too proud to have drawn from exclusivity appearance fees, but also in terms of his ability to gauge situations regarding threats on his life. Yes, Ned’s brother was planning on killing him, and Hickok knew that his instincts were right when he pulled that gun on him: however, since he pulled the gun before the would-be murdered managed to get to his own, Bullock was forced to essentially lie, taking Hickok’s word for it regarding the threat on his life. He might have the fastest draw in the West, but if he pulls the trigger too quickly and too hastily it’s a problematic discourse. Bullock couldn’t have been more angry than when Swearengen accused him of having shot Ned too hastily, but here he sees Hickok actually shoot too quickly if for what we know were logical reasons.
I want to single out the performance of Brad Dourif in this episode: I’ve only really known his work from the Lord of the Rings films, but as the good doctor he really captured that person trapped between morality and authority in his quest to protect the little girl. He knows that he is valuable to Al, and that his services are most important to his business remaining reputable, and is able to use that position as well as the conscience of the barkeep sent to kill the child to convince Al the child had been abducted by Calamity Jane as opposed to being given to her in an effort to spare her life. Dourif brings a real deft skepticism to the role: the way he wouldn’t even trust Bullock with news of the child’s condition, fearing what would happen if that word would get back to Swearengen (which it did, eventually, when Al went to see for himself), shows a starkly human perspective, and his moment with the child (who doesn’t seem to speak English) convincing her not to speak should someone come to her was a fantastic dramatic moment.
It was matched, of course, by the touching final moment with Calamity Jane and Charlie singing “Row Row Row Your Boat” in a round (Charlie less than successfully) to the child in the wagon – a really sweet moment in an episode with plenty of death.
- Gareth’s discovery that his gold claim was all a ploy by Swearengen, which became very clear once Farnham proved the world’s worst liar about his bid the previous night, is going to be interesting: his idea of going to Hickok isn’t a bad one on paper, but he is so bumbling and incompetent that it’s hard to imagine a scenario whereby he is actually successful. Plus, since I only know Timothy Omundson from Psych, it’s hard to take him seriously as it is, yet alone when his character is so out of place.
- The deal for 50% of profits until the next snowfall is established, and no gambling or anything similar, is definitely a deal with the devil all things considered – it isn’t made yet, sure, but their bigger plans (establishing a bank, for example) shows exactly the kind of entreprenuerial spirit that Swearengen won’t approve of. Seriously, who is going to gamble away their money if they can put it in the bank? He’s not going to stand for that.