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.