The Quick and the Deadwood: Full Faith and Credit (3.4)

Al:   "Another invite.  Fucking Hearst. Must take me for a fucking optimist."

Just a few scattered notes on the fourth episode of Deadwood's last season, since I neglected this post for too long a time after watching to give you more holistic coverage.  George Hearst would never tolerate that sort of sloppiness.  I'd better watch my back.

This week we see various explorations of belief (or lack thereof) in word or promise - faith and credit - as Alma opens the town's first bank, Hearst continues to dally with Al in the most threatening and condescending way, and Joanie receives a genial offer from the actor-manager Langrishe for the whorehouse-turned-schoolhouse that sets last week's rape-tinged encounter between Alma and Hearst into stark relief.

We get a trace of Al's back-story, in the middle of another surprisingly tender scene between him and a much blustered-at whore.  (Whores are always falling for Al in a Stockholm syndrome sort of way.  And many of his best "soliloquies" are in fact delivered in company - in the midst of less than engrossing blowjobs.) His mother left him at an orphanage when she went to sell her body in Louisiana - he recalls being held down by an orphanage owner while she screamed from the boat that she had changed her mind, hence his mania for freedom. With this comes the realization - fleeting - that he denies his whores exactly that freedom.  He holds them down, both figuratively and literally.

There are continuing racial tensions with the return of Deadwood's two black residents, Samuel Fields and Hostetler, bringing the horse that killed Bullock's nephew/stepson.  Steve the Drunk, who has been caring for the hostelry in Hostetler's absence (having threatened him with lynching if he stayed), spews uninterrupted racist bile for much of the beginning of the episode.  Bullock, who is stuck mediating the issue, deals with Steve's drunken tirade with considerably more patience than any modern sheriff would.

This highlights the canniness of Deadwood's treatment of the conflict: it would be historically implausible for Bullock to come to Hostetler's defense on an abstract foundation of civil rights principles (although the sheriff is allowed enough enough basic goodness to show frustration with Steve's racist paranoia).  Instead, the show permits him to develop an impatience with Steve's irrational rage and suspicion, especially as contrasted with Hostetler's saintly forbearance.  He sympathizes with Hostetler because Steve is an unreasoning, uncompromising jackass, rather than because Steve is a racist.  However, with irksome neutrality, Bullock doesn't allow this leaning to influence the outcome of the conflict, which seems to me to favor the Drunk.  Alma's bank gives Steve a loan, allowing him to buy the hostelry from under Hostetler.  It seems fortuitous to me that Hostetler actually wants to sell and get out of town; otherwise, this would look considerably more like an eminent domain-type forced sale, using racism to deprive a black citizen of the right to ownership.  Not to say ethnic cleansing, since the deal assumes (rightly) that Hostetler won't want to stay in a camp that tolerates and even rewards the Drunk's rhetoric.  Deadwood seems destined for racial homogeny, and a sameness that privileges the more idiotic facets of the populace while eliminating the more sensible.

The most interesting facet of this episode (both within the world of the narrative, and as a meta-issue regarding representing historicized racial conflict to a modern audience) is the difficulty of Hostetler's position.  He deals honorably with his responsibility for the horse that killed the boy, telling Bullock that he and he alone must bear the consequences of the horse getting free.  He thanks the prickly, bilious Steve for caring for the hostelry in his absence, and explains why he ran in fear of his life. But in the face of an avalanche of hateful bigotry from Steve the Drunk, his goodness begins to seem... passive.  Both to him and to us.  How do you maintain dignity in this face of this kind of treatment? Does non-violence and rationality fail when your opponent refuses to play by the rules of reason and justice?

Take a look at Todd VanDerWerff's brilliant essays about the final season at the AV Club - I will link to them in my future posts.  In his first entry, he discusses the effect of the show's fuzzy cancellation on its original reception ("HBO had always prided itself on being the place for TV creators with something to say could turn to say what they needed to, but it also was a business, and Deadwood was just the most notable example of a show that probably would have continued had it debuted even a few seasons earlier but got caught under the aegis of a network in transition.") and what distinguishes the tone of Season 3 from its predecessors:
If season one of Deadwood is its most self-consciously mythic season and season two is about humanizing and expanding on those myths, season three is the series’ most self-consciously humanistic season. 
His second post takes up "True Colors" and "Full Faith and Credit" ("maybe the most rage-filled episode of Deadwood (no easy feat)"), and ponders whether Deadwood doesn't struggle, at this point, from a plague (a veritable surfeit) of characters.

Or, of course, you could read Sycorax Pine on

The Quick and the Deadwood: True Colors (3.3)

Langrishe, gazing out at Hearst's building: 
Strange affectations your devil friend has.  Shabby appearance, derelict hotel.

Al Swearengen: 
Put the hole through that wall just before he worked on my hand.

Americans! It never occurs to them to try the window.

Race and nation come to the fore again in the third episode Deadwood's last season, with the return of Wu (Westernized in dress and having quadrupled his supply of English words during a long trip to San Francisco to recruit Chinese workers for Hearst),  the arrival of Hearst's "tyrannous" black cook Aunt Lou Marchbanks, and the appearance of Al's friend (if this is really the right word), the British theatre impresario Langrishe.  Add to that the fact that this might be the first time that Cornish has ever been spoken on American television (by a weeping union agitator, who mourns the friends Hearst had murdered for their industrial politics) and we find ourselves stewing in a heady brew of ethnic difference.

The profanely even-keel relationship between Wu and Swearengen (who between them ruled the two halves of the camp before Hearst's arrival) has always been one of the series' most delightful, and Al seems genuinely heartened by his ally's return this week.  Remember back in the good old days, before Hearst rode into town, when Wu and Al could while away the hours plotting, never uttering anything but a series of increasingly expressive variations on the single word "cocksucker"? Those were good times.  Good times.

These are darker days, however, and stranger ones.  Bullock is now allied with Swearengen, a relationship that Wu (and who can blame him) is slow to comprehend.  Mayor Farnum is in ecstasies of anxiety that he and his staff will be ousted from the Hearst-owned hotel in favor of Aunt Lou, which he interprets to mean that he either hasn't smarmed sufficiently or has abased himself too egregiously.  The irony is that Aunt Lou barely bothers to smarm at all, treating Hearst with a wary ebulliance, bullying him with minor threats and wooing him with home cooking (no cobbler until you give your boots to me for a good cleaning!) in what seems at first to be an evocation of every sassy servant stereotype known to Hollywood.  Farnum takes particular glee in doomsaying, telling his wizened and filthy cook that he is going to be replaced by Aunt Lou :
Your error, surprisingly enough, is not to be a grotesque of inconceivable stupidity, but that you are white, male, and not repulsively obese. 
Ironically enough, Lou and the grotesque take to each other immediately, and soon he is following her around devotedly, clinging to her hand.

All this may make us wonder why it is that Aunt Lou seems to be the only person Hearst treats with affection and respect, waxing nostalgic about the perfection of their home in Georgia to Lou's faint affirmations.  Is this just that old trope of the grim Southern racist who nonetheless finds room in his heart for the black woman who raised him?  Not quite - it is more explicitly taken up with power than that.  As the episode progresses, Hearst brings the scaly, surely-not-sincerely born-again Cy Tolliver firmly under his thumb.  Or, shall I say, "to heel," since Hearst informs Tolliver that he will be serving him in future in a purely canine capacity.  Once that is agreed, Hearst reveals a bit more of himself, giving voice to his discomfort with a rage that is always barely contained:
But I should say too that in these rooms this afternoon such displeasure brought me near to murdering the sheriff and raping Mrs. Ellsworth. I have learned through time, Mr. Tolliver, and as repeatedly seem to forget, that whatever temporary comfort relieving my displeasure brings me, my long term interests suffer.  My proper traffic is with the earth.  In my dealings with [considering pause]... people, I ought solely have to do with n****rs and whites who obey me like dogs.
Is the implication that he has more or less respect for his black servants than for "whites who obey me like dogs"?  Or that he can only confer with those over whom he has absolute power? The scene cuts immediately and pointedly to Aunt Lou, playing (sharking, really) mah jong in Deadwood's Chinatown, and lampooning George Hearst at the top of her lungs.  Not for her canine obedience - she is not so easy a character.

But let's go back to that near-rape that Hearst mentioned.  Early in the episode, Ellsworth is climbing the walls with anxiety during his wife's meeting with Hearst, volcanically spewing expletives and accusations of murderousness until Mrs. Ellworth is forced to withdraw as tactfully as possible, both she and Hearst pretending that he is inaudible. The confrontation between the Ellsworths in the street afterward is a piece of brilliance. He categorically forbids her to make an offer to Hearst for her mine, uncharacteristically asserting his legal privilege as husband.  She gives him her back momentarily before turning to him with a chilled smile: "Well, that's settles it."  The ambiguity of this should keep him up at night.

When Mrs. Ellsworth returns later that day, filled with confidence and a script she reads from throughout the meeting, she presents an offer to Hearst for a minority stake in her mine, only to be rebuffed in the most sexually threatening terms possible.  He refuses to let her leave the room, which she has come to alone.  She can scream, he says, but the thoroughfare is so unreliable at this time of day.  He leans close, forcing her head back and her face away from him. "You are reckless, madam," he tells her, with an ominous, constrained pause, "You indulge yourself."

The gender politics of this strain of plot intrigue me.  Is her confidence in fact overweaning?  Does she not have a right to play the violent game of Deadwood with all the men?  Indeed, she is in no more or less danger (and no more or less outflanked) than Swearengen or Bullock was in the game.  And there is, truthfully, nothing that either the tormented Ellsworth or Bullock (who watches with increasing anxiety and keen understanding from across the street as the drama unfolds) can do to protect her, since her immense land-wealth has brought Hearst's attention crashing down upon her.  Is she just to give up her mine to him in its entirety, without complaint or counter-measure?
Ellsworth: "Well, I guess I know what that means.  That you're a goddamned fool who almost got what she deserved."

Mrs. Ellsworth: "And what would that have been, and why would I have deserved it?"

Ellsworth: "I only wanted to protect you."

Mrs. Ellsworth: "You can't."
Indeed her defeat is not on account of her gender, but her refinement.  She (unlike Swearengen or Bullock) cannot conceive of a conversation that unfolds like the one in Hearst's rooms.  She is from a different culture, and speaks a different language.  This puts her at a considerable disadvantage that has nothing to do with her gender.  It is a disadvantage of information and expectation, not of strength or sexual vulnerability or wiliness or legal power.  Those who have had all of those features have lost to Hearst in recent episodes.  And I feel that Alma Ellsworth, like them, will not take her defeat lying down.

Assorted notes on the episode:
  • For the first time (perhaps since the very beginning of the series) we get a tour through the space that is Deadwood, as Al shows Langrishe around town, only to be fobbed off by him at the end of the venture: "It's not the first impression I'd make."
  • Sol Star is the sweetest character in town by far, as evidenced by the delicacy, the endless slow affection, with which he responds to Trixie's wild lashings of mood.
  • Note that Hearst feminizes the earth, even as he asserts that his conversation with it is the only one he is interested in having.  What are we to make of this gendering in light of the sexual overtones of his conversation with Alma and the symbolism of the act of mining?
  • Oh, Major Dad is so good as Hearst.  Will he ever be this good in anything again?  Perhaps the new J.J. Abrams series?
  • I think the Hearst family has to go down in history as the single bloodline most reviled by Hollywood. Because Rosebud wasn't enough, now we have a finger-breaking, Cornish-murdering, union-busting rapist.  But he does love his cobbler, and he doesn't care who knows it.

Read Sycorax on Episode 3.1 and Episode 3.2 of Deadwood.

    The Quick and the Deadwood: "I am not the fine man you take me for"

    Swearengen's minion:     "I'm older and much less friendly to change."
    Swearengen:      "Change ain't looking for friends.  Change calls the tune we dance to."

    The second episode of Deadwood's last season opens with a man climbing drunkenly up on the campaign platform and making confessional summary of his life to date.  Our favorite motive-hunter-of-motiveless-evil, Al Swearengen, listens with insomniac exasperation to the man's ramblings, and then (with an alarm that belies his murderous nature) to a sudden, squelching silence.  The drunk has fallen, headfirst, from the political pedestal, and snapped his neck in the Deadwood muck.

    And there we have a thirty-second allegorical precis for the show as a whole, like the dumb show Hamlet's Players show to Claudius before getting down to the real, spoken Mousetrap.

    Everyone is making reckonings this week. Some because they are running for election (as almost everyone of note seems to be).  Some because they are confronting the spectre of death, like pregnant Alma Ellsworth or Joanie, with a gun to her temple. Or there is Jane, who is looking a more terrifying spectre square in the eye - a room of giggling schoolchildren, eager to hear about her time under Custer.

    So, naturally, Swearengen's confrontation with the political mogul Hearst comes to a head in this time of reckonings.  Hearst invites his rival over (sans bodyguard) to watch the political speeches from his "balcony" - an imitation of Swearengen's and the one at the Bella Union that the millionaire has created through sheer, speedy force of will.  He had his underlings break down an outer wall so that he can step out on the roof to survey the battlefield of town activity.  Hearst and Swearengen view the political activity below with some satisfaction, although we already see ominous signs that Al refuses to play the game, while Hearst will not drop its pretenses:
    Hearst: Your bosom must swell with pride, Mr. Swearengen.
    Swearengen: Swellings and saggings to the tit I lay at the exactions of time.
    The mogul attempts to win Swearengen over to the virtues of consolidating their interests under the Hearst name.  "Purposes," Al replies, "butt up against each other and the strong call 'consolidating' bending the weak to their will."  He isn't wrong: in the face of this refusal, Hearst breaks the bones in Swearengen's hands with a hammer.  Al makes his way back across the crowded streets of Deadwood, grinning from ear to ear, hand in his waistcoat like a frontier Napoleon. Seth Bullock sizes the situation up in an instant, like the cowboy icon he is, and offers to arrest Hearst.  This sudden solicitousness speaks to their changed attitudes toward each other.  It sounds a chord with viewers who have traveled the whole relationship with them, and understand that strident enemies will always have a natural bond when faced with the invasions of change.  Much is tied up in the epic homosocial romance of this pair.  I can go get him right now, Bullock tells Al.  No, says Swearengen, "I'm having mine served cold."

    Of course, Seth has his own dramas of repression a-brewing.  It's most evident in a brilliantly painful transition toward the start of the episode.  Bullock is attempting to forge a bond of affection with his wife (who was, you remember, his brother's widow, not a love of his), teasing her about the weakness of her tea, raising a defensive response from her,  drawing a careful hand down her spine.  There is a close-up of his hand and its heavy wedding ring, traveling over the dull fabric of her dress.  Then the scene cuts to his former lover, prostrate in bed, worried about losing their unborn child.  He knows nothing of this drama, until he is called to her side by her new husband, who is himself shattered by the knowledge that his wife is leaving care of their adopted child to Bullock.  She has good reasons for this, but she doesn't communicate them to him.  She is contemplating her mortality, and is putting her affairs in order before the necessary abortive surgery.  But there is also a sense, available to both her husband and her former lover, that as she loses Bullock's child, she gives him care of another.

    These are my favorite two strands of plot underway at the moment.  Sol Star and his mistress Trixie have been moved to the back burner, although Sol's run for mayor does result in some of the most ludicrously ham-fisted anti-Semitic campaign rhetoric ever to grace the West.  We do hear a bit about the strained, despairing bond between brothel-owner Cy Tolliver and the suicidal madam Joanie, but both the writing and the acting of this plot strikes me as a trifle overblown.  It is a bad sign that I can't even recall how they came to this point of despondency in previous seasons.

    One great surprise comes from watching this season so long after its original airing: I had forgotten that New Haven actor Titus Welliver - LOST's "man in black" - has a small role on Deadwood that he plays with his normal cynical panache.  Here he is the most disgruntled of Al's minions - at one point, as they all wander dutifully, one by one, behind Swearengen, he grunts, "If we was trailing water, we might get took for ducklings."

    A last word about silences in Deadwood.  I am struck with admiration for how much of this show - one of the most gleefully verbal, linguistically experimental series on television - occurs in moments of quiet.  This is true of every week, but it becomes mightily apparent in this episode, which features a substantial silent exchange through a glass window, in which Sol tells Trixie he has bought a house for them to live in together.  Or not.  Whatever.  The difficulty of communicating the message to his beloved, who is playing nurse and standing guard over Alma's sickbed and abortion*, is matched only by his difficulty in gauging her response.  But the glory of the show's normal silences - charged or repressed - is that they speak to the richness of the world's subtext.  This is a subtext, a layering up of irony and possibility, so thick and viscous that the show could never be understood in a single viewing.

    Read Sycorax on Deadwood, Season 3, Episode 1

    *The abortion, by contrast, takes place amidst a screamed exchange between Trixie and the doctor (one of my favorite characters) - they seem to be taking all their anxieties out on each other, and are steadied by the continuous, raging argument.