“Reconnoitering the Rim” & “Here Was A Man” (Deadwood S1 eps. 3 & 4)

“Death is before me today:
Like the recovery of a sick man,
Like going forth into a garden after sickness
Death is before me today:
Like the odor of myrrh,
Like sitting under a sail in a good wind.
Death is before me today:
Like the course of a stream
Like the return of a man from the war-galley to his house.
Death is before me today:
Like the home that a man longs to see,
After years spent as a captive.”  –  from “Dispute Between a Man and his Ba”

Bill: “I don’t wanna fight it no more. Understand me, Charlie? And I don’t want you pissin’ in my ear about it. Can’t you let me go to hell the way I want to?”

Welcome back to Lost and Found, where we resurrect and reappraise the cancelled television shows of yesteryear. Now playing: Deadwood. If you missed last week’s column you can catch up right here. If you’d like to check out the other shows I’ve covered, you can surrender several days of your life over here. Want to spelunk around in my brain? Follow me on Twitter.

Reconnoitering the Rim and Here Was A Man sketch a portrait of Wild Bill Hickok as a dead man walking, a man weary of his own damned company. These episodes mark not just the death of a historical legend, but of a myth. Hickok looms too large, too iconic, and too mythically-pure for a place like Deadwood – where a man will shoot another man in the back, or toss him off a cliff before mashing his face into deliberate guacamole. Men like Hickok are relics of a pioneering period that is already shifting and evolving to eclipse them.

Hickok himself seems to know this. Seems to be slowly turning his back to the world by degrees so that his fast hands can’t stop the man who comes to murder him. He’s a man looking for an ending, and Deadwood is full of those. But if Deadwood kills Hickok the Myth, it’s arguably in service of birthing its own mythos (much more on this in the future).

It’s not just Hickok that dies in these episodes; Brom Garret meets his Maker as well at the hands of Dan Dority, Al’s enforcer. It’s as if creator David Milch and his writers are intentionally killing our symbols of the traditional Western. We’re left without clean archetypes; left with messy, uncertain people.

Death itself is practically a supporting character here; it hangs over these episodes like a shroud. I’ve a soft spot in my heart for ludicrous, dandified city folk in my entertainment, and Brom Garret’s chipper obliviousness to the very real danger that slithers all around him is kind of hilarious to me, until its suddenly not. It’s not a surprise that Brom is murdered during Reconnoitering the Rim – it’s a surprise that it’s taken this long. That his death also evoked sadness in me as a viewer is a testament to the talent of Timothy Omundson, the actor in the role. Brom may be a gullible “dude,” but he’s not – by the evidence we’re given in these episodes – a bad guy. He’s just not fit to swim with human sharks, who view him with a dead-eyed sociopathic detachment that’s far more frightening to me than any violent rage would be.

Outside of Garret and Hickok’s death, the specter of mortality rears its head in two other notable ways: A man named Andy Cramed arrives at the Bella Union, bringing with him a terrible disease; an unnamed man on horseback rides into town clutching the severed head of a Sioux tribesman (calling back to Al’s promise of payment for every scalp brought back to camp), reveling in his kill even as Jack McCall’s being hauled through the streets like a human sacrifice – the crowd around him mad-eyed in disbelief and anger. There’s some irony in this, since the camp as a whole has been content to watch Bill slowly try to kill himself up until now.

In the end, its arguable he succeeds in doing just that. Before Bill sits himself back down at the poker table at the end of Here Was A Man he drives Charlie Utter off with a plea to let him go to hell on his own terms, he writes a letter to his wife, does a good deed, tells Jane “so long”; When McCall enters the bar after Bill’s seated himself you can see Hickok registering him, sensing a new presence. He doesn’t turn around. We’ve seen him draw before; we know there’s enough time for Bill to jerk that pistol and go to work, but Bill never moves. He keeps his back to the door – a position he’s never sat in before. The real Bill Hickok died with his back facing the door as well. In reality he sat that way because another player refused to trade seats with him. Here, Bill doesn’t even bother asking.

Jack McCall really did murder Wild Bill Hickok in Deadwood. There’s debate over exactly why, and what I like about Milch’s version of things is how it extends that ambiguity. Who’s really pulling the trigger in the end? McCall? Or Bill?

The answer, I’d suggest, is that it’s complicated. Part of the brilliance of Deadwood is in the way its cast conveys all those complications on their flickering faces.

It’s an interesting contrast to have Al get the urge to fuck amidst all this death, to cut back and forth between Al and Trixie, then to Andy, who’s far sicker and more dangerous than he appeared, then to Alma as she confesses to Jane that she wished her husband dead, and then finally, after climax, to McCall shooting Hickok. The violent need to engage in an act of procreation (minus the actually, y’know, procreation) is one of humanity’s most common, understandable responses to death.

I don’t know about you, but I found these episodes moving to watch as a pair. Keith Carradine brings real gravity to Wild Bill as the man continues to plummet toward hell before finding a kind of temporary salvation in helping Alma Garret in the aftermath of Brom’s death. And speaking of Alma: In all the hoopla over Wild Bill and Brom and Al’s continued machinations in the camp its easy to overlook her story over these two installments, but you shouldn’t. It’s quietly riveting. Molly Parker does excellent work here, shading Alma’s reaction to her husband’s death in widening degrees of grief and anger and self-awareness. Brom’s wife has so far been a shadow of a human being, content to stay to her quarters and drown herself in laudanum (a medicine intended not for headaches but for heartache – to make bearable a marriage to a silly man she felt no deep love for). That begins to change here. Fans of Mad Men’s Peggy Olson ought to pay close attention to Alma.

The arrival of Cy Tolliver (Powers Boothe), Eddie Sawyer (Ricky Jay), Joanie Stubbs (Kim “Yowza” Dickens) and the rest of the Bella Union Saloon signifies another inevitable development in the growth of the camp – competition. The larger order demands that the two businesses learn to coexist, but the larger order isn’t necessarily Al’s order. As Cy says, he’d definitely burn the place down.

The Bella Union stands in sharp, opulent  contrast to the bare, utilitarian wooden walls of the Gem and it’s interesting how the Gem’s trinity of characters – Al, Dan and Trixie – have upscale analogues of themselves at the Union in Cy, Eddie and Joanie. There’s a polish and surface warmth to them that their Gem counterparts pretty much lack. They and their establishment are civilized in a way that Al & Co. simply aren’t. And it’s worth pointing out generally that in a cast that’s already deeper than most, Deadwood adds another handful of characters to its ranks and manages to make each of them just as interesting as anyone else we’ve met so far. There’s not a dud in the bunch. Credit needs to go to the writers, obviously, but just as much credit should go to the casting directors and the actors. Powers Boothe is always a welcome presence, Ricky Jay manages to make Eddie Sawyer sound perpetually bemused, as though observing what fools these mortals be from a Puckish distance, and Kim Dickens brings a gilded magnetism to her line readings.

Reconnoitering the Rim and Here Was A Man are sprawling, overstuffed installments of a show that’s already brimming over with story and character. The first four episodes of Deadwood deliver unto us a fully-realized, absurdly rich world at once familiar and utterly alien. By the end of Here Was A Man that familiarity has largely been taken from us by force, leaving us like Alma Garret – alone among butchers and strangers. As both she and we will discover in continuing to deepen our bonds with the larger Community of Deadwood, there is solace and strength to be found in the act of reaching out to those around us.

Stray bullets:

  • “What a douche.” That was my wife’s summation of Jack McCall, and it’s pretty accurate as summations go, though Garrett Dillahunt brings a nice, unexpected woundedness to the role here that makes McCall weirdly sympathetic. He’s a jerk, but he’s a strangely pitiable jerk.

  • In Reconnoitering the Rim, Davis Guggenheim (director of Waiting For Superman, and producer on an impressive number of critically acclaimed and/or beloved shows – ER, The Shield, Alias, etc.) films Hickok’s angry dressing-down of McCall with what I can only describe as “Raimi-cam.” He pushes in uncomfortably close to Hickok’s face, and the effect is to put us right in the man’s verbal line of fire. Carradine boosts the discomfort straight through the roof, staring straight into the intrusive camera with cold, dead eyes. I really admire the effect. I also admire how the writers have McCall try and use the insults Hickok hurled at him on another cardplayer, only to have Jack stumble badly in the attempt.
  • E.B. Farnum starts to come into his own over the course of these episodes, and his role in trying to buy back Alma’s claim makes clear why Al keeps him around – he’s a damp-palmed weasel of a man, but sometimes you need a weasel. Farnum may be slimy but he’s also someone capable of talking truth to Al: “I don’t think Hickok’s comin’ at ya, Al.  No I don’t.  I think you’re a man with so many different responsibilities, you sometimes get feelin’ beset.  And in that frame of mind, take things personal.” That’s impressively accurate, and it’s also great writing. Both Farnum and Al’s characters are illuminated in that little speech.

Great moments in Deadwood dialogue:

Al: “I’ll tell you this, son, you can mark my words.  Crazy Horse went into Little Big Horn, bought his people one good long term ass fuckin’. You do not want to be a dirt worshipping heathen, from this fucking point forward. (to Joanie) Pardon my French.”

Joanie:  Oh I speak French.

  • We learn here that Bullock is married, with a wife and a child. This bears paying attention to.
  • Deadwood receives a lot of praise for being intelligent, erudite and thoughtful. I don’t know that it receives enough credit for being freakin’ hilarious though, which it regularly is. There’s something very funny about Bullock shouting “goddammit,” and watching as Reverend Smith silently waves goodbye – seemingly too shocked by Seth’s blasphemy to say another word.
  • There’s a moment in Here Was A Man where Hickok’s Noble Archetype is threatened – where it seems as though he’s selling both himself and Alma Garret out to Al for a quick payday – and that moment is especially discomfiting. A gunfighter like Hickok can be a sad/angry drunk and not risk losing our admiration (for some reason) but suggesting that he can be bought creates a moment of genuine disappointment (until you realize the long-con at play). It’s a nice moment of misdirection in a pair of episodes that pride themselves on being chock-a-block with misdirection.

“As for the language, it represents the people’s attempts to exude a civilized aura with flowery speech, while revealing their own savage nature with the profanity. They’re aping what they think the high-falootin upper crust speak like, while not being able to hold back the baser elements of their own thoughts from escaping their mouths alongside the big words.

It’s similar to the costumes many of them wear; they -look- like fancy enough suits and dresses, but would surely be scoffed at in the big cities for being old and dirty and wrinkled. Deadwood is a town in the middle – too civilized to be called a camp and too savage to be called a city.”

Nice. Thanks for chiming in, Farsight.

  • Reader and Chud-regular “Schwartz” requested two additions to the column, one for the best insults in a given week, and one for the best philosophical-type musings of the characters. That’s a great idea. Expect both to appear next week. Never let it be said I don’t take requests.