Summering in Deadwood: “Sold Under Sin”
Season One, Episode Twelve
[A note before we move on: friend of the blog Todd VanDerWerff is going through the show from a different perspective than I am, having already seen it, and is recapping the show for The A.V. Club. You can check out his thoughts on the first three episodes there – I am sure they are far more entertaining than my own.]
Just as I expected, there was a moment in Season One of Deadwood where my ability to successfully stop after each episode to blog about it, or to find enough time after watching a disc to sufficiently try to summarize where things were going to that point, pretty much disappeared. This isn’t a sign that I have become disinterested in the show, or even necessarily that I was so engrossed that I couldn’t take the time to stop. Rather, it was a combination from some “real world” commitments and the fact that this show may have some of the most unique pacing I’ve seen in a drama of this nature.
Admittedly, I’m used to watching The Wire in terms of my epic ensemble HBO shows go, and as such I got used to a single plotline denoting a season, and that plotline representing the plot that you could sort of follow your way through. In the process, you learn things about each character, the process serving as the main impetus while the characters react as seems necessary, often times to tragic or at the very least suspenseful results.
But what I’m learning watching “Sold Under Sin” is that Deadwood operates differently: yes, each season represents more one large storyline than any small selection of storylines contributing to a whole, but what sets Deadwood apart is that there isn’t really a plot to speak of. While the show’s finale shows the outside world infiltrating this lawless camp more than it has before, the show has been clear from the beginning that this was an inevitability, rather than anything we would find surprising or that would bring forth surprising behaviour from these characters.
On some level, this would be a complaint about another show: I can’t think of a single characters whose path has fundamentally surprised me, or gone in a different direction than I expected, and the show has relied almost entirely on nuance and performance in terms of its characters fulfilling predetermined destiny more than charting their own path. The show’s plot, meanwhile, has moved so slowly that a majority of its more explosive conflicts are left entirely absent from the finale, left smoldering while smaller and more recent conflicts prove the most dramatic in the episode. If we were to judge this finale based on these qualifiers, expecting dramatic shifts in character or plot resolution, “Sold Under Sin” is an abject failure.
But, just to be clear, this isn’t a show that should be judged on those qualities: those acting nuances are just plain compelling, the performances coming alive in this episode as in every episode right in line with Milch’s particular brand of dialogue, and the smoldering embers of conflict in the town are so full of potential that it was all I could do, even finishing the finale as the sun rose, to keep from popping in the first disc of Season Two.
And isn’t that the right way to judge a show, especially one which has clearly not yet begun (and considering its cancellation might not end) its journey?
This finale did put an end to a number of lingering storylines: the good Reverend finally met his end, for example, and the Magistrate was one loose end that Swearengen was able to tie off before we move onto the second season. And to an extent, certain storylines that have been gestating for a long time (Bullock and Alma) or at least started recently (Tolliver’s efforts to push out the Chinese) came to an impasse of sorts. But that’s really interesting is that so many of these storylines have been entirely choreographed to the viewer from day one. This isn’t a series that thrives on mystery when it comes to the motivations of its characters: we’ve known about Bullock and Alma’s inevitability (to use the logic Tom used to get his sheriff candidate appointed) for so long that delaying any further would seem ill-advised, and it was clear the moment Tolliver spoke to Leon that he had every intention of making a play based on Swearengen’s dependence on Mr. Wu.
But that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable to see the way the General intimates his desire to hang Tolliver, or the conflicted sense of Bullock evoking his dead brother’s honour in order to gain Alma’s father protection only to then fall back on his own honour by following his passion rather than his honour in sleeping with Alma. The show may be falling into a pattern of inevitability with some of its storylines, but the complications that result are always extreme beyond a normal show set in a normal setting. Trixie and Sol’s tryst, for example, was a disaster waiting to happen, and yet it was clear from their time together earlier that there was a connection, an impulse the show made note of and that it seems always comes to fruition in this particular camp. Similarly, the complications that Bullock and Alma’s relationship creates (his brother’s wife and child on their way, and the ramifications of her father’s eventual return) are so large that Bullock takes on the responsibility of Sheriff primarily in order to tackle them with something close to authority.
The season has been subtly moving more and more towards scenes of Al Swearengen looking out over his balcony. The show utilizes these scenes to offer that sense of power over what’s going on: you have Alma’s view out of her hotel room (obscured, and in many ways an isolation more than a perspective), and Swearengen and Tolliver looking from their respective establishments. Everyone else is usually on the ground floor, stuck there struggling to get a good view (note the humorous, but telling, act of Farnum standing on a barrel in his effort to appear taller than the crowd during the general’s speech). More and more we’ve been seeing Swearengen in that spot: this isn’t to say he wasn’t there earlier, but he’s turning more to the outside to get a sense of the way the camp could be falling away from him just as it was falling away from Tom.
But the episode strangely, at least by that logic, ends with him standing over the balcony looking over his own establishment, where a drunk Doc Cochrane and a newly braced Jewel are dancing their way around to the tunes of the new piano that Al didn’t want in the first place. It’s a nice little coda to the season, and perhaps a fitting one for the way the season hasn’t really ended at all, in terms of plot. If you look to the general’s logic for some thematic connections, Al has created a garrison in allegiance with Bullock which can help the camp against external concerns (like the potential of a garrison, now riding away with the cavalry), but there’s always going to be other concerns waiting behind you, another balcony to look over to see things you didn’t want to see. Al, of course, sees Trixie and is either reminded of her infidelity or of the fact that his human connection with her may be the only one he legitimately has left.
I’ve noted before about Emmy-nominated Brad Dourif (so good in his prayer here) and Robin Weigert (sorely missed as she’s took her leave in these last few episodes), but I want to throw some spotlight on the two ostensible stars of the show, Ian McShane and Timothy Olyphant. The latter has had a pretty darn stoic experience thus far, but Olyphant has proven the ideal choice for the character in moments where his emotions truly overcome him. Whether it was his first glimpse at a murdered Wild Bill Hickok, or here as he loses his temper (rightfully so) with Alma’s father, he manages to take a character who runs quite hot and cold always seem something close to human. Admittedly, the box art for the Complete Series set pretty well told me he was going to be Sheriff soon enough, but Olyphant sold me enough in his recognition of the need for him to be sheriff, even knowing that Swearengen was not acting in pure good faith in desiring him to the post (knowing that he will be helpful as a pawn to put forward as a law-abiding leader for the town when beginning the annexation process). His journey has been pre-determined, but Olyphant’s ability to sell that is what really put him over the top, his nuances really emphasizing how out of control he was, his emotions for Alma driving him, in the early moments of the finale.
As for Ian McShane, not enough can be said: if there was one character who has really been ingrained into my consciousness from this series, fully formed enough to imagine their reaction to any given situation, it is Al Swearengen. McShane just nails every single scene, whether it’s comic (like his outbursts at or related to Farnum, who Sanderson continues to give such wonderful greasiness), dramatic (his various conversations with people while gaining the upper hand mentally and physically) or personal (his episode-ending monologue given while receiving pleasure was one of those moments that could have been a gimmick on paper but wasn’t in McShane’s capable hands). In many ways, his character hasn’t changed since we saw him in the pilot: while we hear Tolliver talk about having to present a public persona in order to save face in his murder of Kristen Bell and her brother, we see Swearengen have to face that fact in a more human fashion, and to see that he seems to be both more selfish but, accordingly, more personally involved with those decisions on his end. Swearengen is a man who has been complicit in too much innocent killing and swindling to be considered a tragic figure by any means, but the show has been pretty consistent about establishing his humanity amidst this whole process: that final shot showed him pretty vulnerable, if not yet to Hickok levels, and McShane has really managed to pull more sympathy out of me than I would have anticipated early on, and perhaps than he deserves.
As for what will follow in Season Two, no need to wax poetic on the subject now: I’ll be back in a few days with my thoughts on the premiere.
- Didn’t get to actually blog about Kristen Bell’s appearance as a young con-artist looking to make a buck at the expense of the saloon owners, but she was as charming as always, and I particularly liked the way the storyline was one thing the show left a mystery for at least an episode, but then let play out with the audience more aware than the characters. It also introduced an element of mystery, however, in that we weren’t entirely clear how much Joanie, Cy or Al suspected anything, and began to draw some lines in the sand in terms of ethical treatment considering Cy’s outright murder of the pair of them.
- Mr. Wu had me at “Swidgen!” but he’s pretty awesome either way: we’re not really rooting for Tolliver in any way (with Joanie and Ricky Jay (who wrote an episode? Huh, man does it all.) against him, and Al), but when he goes after Mr. Wu I feel a particular affront is being committed.
- The Reverend’s arc was definitely one that was kind of confusing: I enjoy that the tumour was foreshadowed as far back as the pilot (not in the Reverend’s behaviour but in the good doctor’s focus on the brain activity of the victim of Trixie’s gunshot), but his steady regression never really felt like it was connecting with anything in particular. His death eventually gave Al that tragic moment where for once one of his kills was done for the purpose of giving someone peace rather than terror, but otherwise it seemed like his disassociation from reality meant that time spent with him (beyond potential thematic or comic purposes, the latter of which just became awkward) felt like a tangent which never served a real purpose.
- Anyone else with any thoughts on Season One, or any non-spoiler things I could consider before embarking upon Season Two, leave ’em below!