“Reconnoitering the Rim” and “Here was a Man”
Season One, Episodes Three & Four
I didn’t really intend for this feature to be quite this dominant on the blog when I started it: I know that some readers don’t watch Deadwood, or have already seen Deadwood and don’t really care if I’m watching it, but with very little new television combined with a little bit of downtime ahead of some intense thesis editing, I’m burning through Deadwood at a fairly brisk pace (I swear that when I wrote this it wasn’t intended as a pun). I had expected this to happen, to be honest, but I also expected that like last summer (when I tore through The Wire similarly quickly, if not more quickly) I would be so obsessed with moving on that I wouldn’t take the time to sit down and write something about it.
However, perhaps because part of me regrets not writing more about The Wire, or perhaps because Deadwood is its own monster in terms of its plotting and is proving increasingly captivating, here I am: I’m likely to do two episodes at a time from here on out, and still maintain the ability to cut off a few episodes if I feel like I don’t have anything new to add, but considering the show’s pacing as well as the lack of a moment of “lost time” it definitely feels like a show that is always going to be showing you something important, whether it seems like it at first or not.
As commenter DamnYankees noted on my first post, I am literally a blank slate when it comes to every part of Deadwood: the history is even a spoiler to me in some degree, so I have only my past experience with televisual narratives as well as my knowledge of who is a bigger name in the cast to go by when it comes to mapping out the show’s trajectory. As a result, I knew that Wild Bill Hickok wasn’t long for this world as soon as the show placed him into a mentorship position with Bullock, and as soon as Garret Dillahunt was introduced as a vagrant with a bone to pick with the outlaw it became clear that there was going to be something quite familiar to me (as someone who’s watched The Wire – don’t spoil it, people, but you know the moment I mean) about the way that he went to hell.
I don’t want to give “Reconnoitering the Rim” no credit here, as it introduces a storyline that is obviously going to be quite important (the arrival of the Bella Union Saloon) to Al’s future business in the camp, but “Here Was a Man” was the episode we were waiting for. Elizabeth Sarnoff, who has since gone on to write some rather great episodes of Lost, and Alan Taylor, who went on to win an Emmy for an episode of The Sopranos and a DGA Award for Mad Men’s pilot, craft an episode which is never quite obtuse about its march towards that final moment, but also leaves you feeling that any moment something is going to change, that the tide is going to turn and this is just a red herring. Just as the camera pans to such a position that Wild Bill Hickok could suddenly turn and shoot down Jack McCall, McCall pulls the trigger and the legend is gone, fuliflling my own presumption in a rather striking fashion.
Keith Carradine was great in what essentially boils down to a cameo, but as noted his character really couldn’t be sustained in this environment. If the show had been about Hickok in his prime, the character could have played a role, but as damaged as he was shown in these episodes (passed out on in the hallway) he couldn’t possibly stand up to someone as large as Al Swearengen. There’s no sense that, if he had had that dinner with Bullock (before they changed planes to very quickly erecting their hardware store), maybe he would have rediscovered his groove and been willing to take on Alma’s matter on his own, and maybe he wouldn’t have been vulnerable enough to get himself shot; no matter what course of events happened, the man came to Deadwood to retire to hell more than find his fortune.
Garret Dillahunt captured well the mindset of Jack McCall, who perhaps fittingly ends up killing Wild Bill due to an act of kindness as opposed to an act of violence. Wild Bill Hickok is supposed to be this heartless outlaw, but there was was at the poker table passing off 20 to the dealer and handing Jack a dollar so he could have a meal. All of a sudden, Wild Bill was human, and the quality of that meal was such that Jack decided to take matters into his own hands. One gets the sense that, if it hadn’t been him, it would have been someone else who sensed a change in Bill: the braggart who shoves another braggart out of the way to wax nostalgic about his past exploits was drunk, sure, but his reaction to this new, less than legendary outlaw was such that the word would begin to spread, and someone would get liquored up and take a shot at him.
His final moments really were about setting his affairs in order: he never does finish that letter to his wife, who runs a circus, but he does make sure to pass off Alma’s trouble onto Bullock, and even has his final moment of peace with Calamity Jane, who is clearly the most grief stricken by her leader’s death. For Bullock, the death seems like the loss of a mentor on one level, but also a loss of someone who he can trust: he may have managed to buy his lot without any financial liabiltiy to Swearengen, but he is still in need of a friend to get by, and to have his success (getting the store put together) tempered by this tragedy is not going to make him overly pleased.
Alma is, of course, also slowly emerging as a more pivotal character, which was inevitable if you read the show’s credits but not quite so clear from the way the show was organizing itself. Brom’s death was what you had to expect all things considered, but it took two interesting turns that make it quite interesting. The first is the way that Alma handles his death: she was always the more logical of the two, willing to let go of the money in favour of moving on with her answers, but she is also one who is going cold turkey from the dope and choosing instead to find out just what precisely the claim he bought may be worth before moving on. She’s curious, and more shrewd about it than her hapless husband was, and she is going to be a presence as we move fortward.
The other turn, of course, is that the land really is worth something, a secret Swearengen doesn’t want out as it will problematize the entire process. Combine with Ellsworth having witnessed Brom’s grisly death at the hands of the Gem’s barkeep (whose name I keep forgetting no matter how hard I try to remember it, and I don’t want to check Wikipedia or IMDB in fear of spoilers). Al’s life is extremely complicated right now, considering that he suddenly has some major competition (that, unfortunately for Al, appears to both know what it’s doing and have the money to back it up), and this is just one more thing to have to juggle. The Bella Union Saloon is thus far only a competitor, but Al will come to the point where he will become desperate and one can only imagine the ramifications therein.
I will speak to some of the other elements of the episodes in some quick bullet points, but I want to pay special attention to William Sanderson, who brings to E.B. Farnum such a brilliant little twinkle in his eye. The character is more complicated than he first seemed: he’s generally an awkward sort, but he’s conniving enough to lowball Alma with $12,000, and to have been the one to usher in the Bella Union people to begin with in order to allow him to raise his own rates as the only hotel in town. There are just a few moments here when you see that sly undercurrent come through, almost congratulating itself, but then you have him sitting in the corner terrified during Wild Bill and Al’s confrontation, or being nearly destroyed by Al. His usefulness keeps him alive, but just how long that can sustain itself will be highly dependent on whether that ingenuity comes at the opportune time.
Just a couple of really strong hours here, and definitely looking forward to digging into some more episodes in time.
- This is the first we’ve heard Bullock talk of a wife and children back in Missouri with her parents – it’s a common scenario, saving up to bring them out, but it also implies that my presumed romantic pairing of Alma and Seth is off base. Considering they are now going to become business partners of sorts, I doubt their paths will remain uncrossed, but perhaps I’m presuming too much non-prostitution related sex takes place within the show’s environment. Don’t spoil it either way.
- Really curious to see where the show is going with the friend of the Bella Union who is suffering from a rather terrible and likely highly infectious disease (which I presume to be plague, although not quite the Black Death or anything of that nature). The good Doctor is playing it coy to ensure that the high checkup fees stay in place, so he’s not going to be too alarmist, but there is something very, very wrong with that man.
- Some beautiful cinematography in the episodes, especially the shots with Calamity Jane leaning over the child’s bedside: beautiful lighting all around, really, but those scenes really stood out.