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:
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."Hearst: Your bosom must swell with pride, Mr. Swearengen.
Swearengen: Swellings and saggings to the tit I lay at the exactions of time.
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.