“No one gets out alive, Doc.”
That's Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) talking to the tenderhearted, terminally ill Doc Coch ran (Brad Dourif) in Sunday's Deadwood. Swearengen's terse statement didn't just reveal the empathy that has become his watchword; it was the key that unlocked this episode's unexpected sweetness and wrenching power.
Death has always hovered over Deadwood; like many hard-edged TV dramas, it's set in a savage universe that kills characters without warning. But Deadwood separates itself from nearly all other such series—with the possible exception of ABC's “Lost”—by portraying death (and its kissing cousin, near-death experience) not just as random individual tragedies, but as communal events that have the power to change the course of human events.
On this series, unlike many others, no deceased character is ever forgotten; we are frequently and pointedly reminded of their passing, sometimes when we least expect it. Some invocations are straightforward—Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie) and Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert) visiting the grave of Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine), for instance, and talking to him as if he were standing right there. Others are more subtle: Seth and Martha Bullock (Timothy Swearengen and Anna Gunn) walking the adopted daughter of Seth's mistress, Alma Garret Ellsworth (Molly Parker), to school, a ritual they would have done with their own son if he hadn't been trampled by a runaway horse.
The show's sensitivity to pain and loss is so acute that it even extends beyond the series' roster of lead and supporting characters, embracing people you never even knew when they were alive. At the end of the fourth episode of season one, the vigilante pursuit of Wild Bill's killer was interrupted by the arrival of a horseman who rode into town bearing the severed head of a Native American—a bit of terrorist street theater, designed to divert Deadwood's citizens from their domestic anxieties and unite them against a (manufactured, it turned out) external threat.
But rather than discard the head after it had served its purpose, Swearengen ended up stor ing it in a box in his office. From time to time—often when he needs to think out loud and can't endure conversing with characters who likely aren't as smart as he is—Swearengen will haul out the box and address it like Yo rick's skull. Grotesque as this description may sound, Swea rengen's conversations with the head illustrate the show's empa thy; the gruff Western gangster, who in Season One electrified throngs of hoopleheads with speeches about “dirt-worship ping heathens,” tenderly addresses the box as “Chief” and has, over time, gifted it with the personality of a wise warrior—Swearengen's equal and perhaps even his shaman.
Sunday's episode, “Unautho rized Cinnamon,” was so focused on death and its impact on the living that it felt like a summation of the show's thoughts on what it means to be mortal. The title came from Al's decision to call a meeting of the camp's appointed officials and assorted powerbrok ers (including Bullock, Powers Boothe's Cy Tolliver and Jeffrey Jones's fussbudget newspaperman, A.W. Merrick) to decide what to do about a possible im pending attack by recently humiliated mining boss George Hearst (Gerald McRaney). Since season one, camp meetings have developed their own specific rituals, one of which is the consumption of canned peaches; in this episode, Swearengen's palsied housekeeper, Jewel (Geri Jewell), decided to put cinnamon on the table to keep things lively. The “unauthorized cinnamon,” as henchman Dan Dority sneeringly called it, caused an allergic reaction in a candidate for public office; he fell to the ground, his throat closing up. He survived, but for a minute there, he thought he was a goner.
That charmingly absurd phrase “unauthorized cinnamon” became a stand-in for death it self, a specter that glides in without warning, snatching some souls and scaring others. The reaper had a busy schedule this week. Though there was a fair amount of the usual plot ad vancement—Hearst dancing around a gold claim offered by his cook's son, Odell (Omar Gooding); the miner Ellsworth (Jim Beaver), Alma's husband-in- name-only, returning to her home after a night's absence to reassure her adopted daughter that he was still in her life—much of the episode concerned itself with death and loss. The script's concentration on this topic recalled not just Donne's phrase “Ask not for whom the bell tolls,” but also a line from Bob Dylan's song “Shelter from the Storm”: “It's doom alone that counts.”
Doc Cochran is at death's door. Tolliver—who's recovered from his own near-death experience at the hands of a knife- wielding minister, and now wavers between renewing his faith and redoubling his wickedness—told Swearengen that the camp should place a want ad in Eastern newspapers seeking a new physician. (Swearengen added, with evident contempt, “... once we've ceased our weeping.”) The telegraph operator Blazanov (Pasha D. Lynchnikoff) broke his own vow of confidentiality and told Swearengen about a telegram to Hearst that appeared to confirm an impending attack on Deadwood; Blazanov took this extraor dinary step because he had sur vived pogroms in Russia and feared similar carnage in his adopted home. Theatrical impre sario Langrishe (Brian Cox) visited a beloved old friend on his deathbed and listened as he described seeing white spots on his tongue. “I hear it whispering in my ear, 'Forget your name,'” his friend rasped—“it” meaning Death.
But the show's powerful centerpiece was that camp meeting, a grimly amusing send-up of government formalities that evolved into a meditation on the value of every human life. It started out with Dan grousing at Jewel about the cinnamon—a thug on edge after his own near-death experience in a brutal streetfight, questioning everything he ever be lieved about his own worth. Then it acquired a melancholy tint when Charlie Utter stood up at the meeting to second Sweareng en's call for a pre-emptive strike against Hearst, then sat down and added softly, “... as Wild Bill would have done.” At the mention of Bill's name, the room fell silent.
But this was all just a setup for one of the most touching monologues the show has ever offered—the reading of Bullock's condolence letter to the survivors of a Cornish mine worker who was slain by Hearst's goons for daring to organize.
“It becomes my painful duty to inform you that Pasco Carwin was killed earlier this week,” said Merrick, reading Bullock's letter to the assembled citizens in subdued tones. “His death seems to have been instantaneous, as he was stabbed through the heart. Pasco's funeral occurred today and was attended by co-workers and friends who shared the same high opinion of him. Everything was done by kind hands that was possible under the circumstances, and a Christian burial was given him. I was not personally acquainted with Mr. Carwin, save for one encounter where he demonstrated grief and deep compassion at the passing of a friend. I knew him as an earnest worker and a diligent believer in right and wrong. His memory, I am sure, will always be with those who knew and loved him, among whose number I imagine you as first. A letter from you, which I found in his tent, causes me to convey this sad intelligence to you. Sincerely yours, Seth Bullock.”
At Swearengen's insistence, Merrick agreed to print the letter in the camp's newspaper, in order to “bear witness” to the worker's death and galvanize the camp against Hearst. Six episodes into the show's third and presumably final season, Milch's larger intent finally announced itself: To demonstrate how life feeds writing, and how writing, in turn, shapes life—by expressing basic truths in language simple enough to move strangers to action. This might seem a tall order in a place as foul as Deadwood. But the assembly's astonished silence after the reading suggested that the impossible had already occurred: One letter had pushed nearly everyone within earshot toward common cause, cementing a civilizing process that had begun in the series pilot.
One was inevitably reminded of all the Deadwood characters who changed their lives, even their personalities, after glimps ing the abyss. Former prostitute and whorehouse madam Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens), who sur vived a massacre at her own brothel, became a makeshift social activist, and in this week's episode, shared a romantic kiss with her friend and ward, Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert). Alma, a society dame who became a town powerbroker after her husband was murdered; now she's spiraling into drug addiction again, and fears either dying or allowing her adopted daughter to suffer. (Watching the child sleep, Alma repeated, “I want to be good. ... I want to be good ...”)
Then there's Bullock, who sur vived a brutal fight with a Native American scout on the frontier, then returned to camp and never left; and Tolliver, a dirtbag might still be within redemption's grasp; and the Reverend Andy Cramed (Zach Grenier), a degenerate gambler and rascal who caught the plague in season one, survived both his illness and being dumped in the woods on Tolliver's orders, then remade himself as a man of God.
And let's not forget Swea rengen himself; his evolution has been too gradual to diagram exactly, but his shift from villain to antihero was cemented after he survived a bloody bout with kid ney stones in season two. (The horrifying sequence where he squeezed the stones out of his body was deliberately written and staged to suggest a ghastly version of labor and birth.) Even Dan Dority seems a different man after his brush with the hereafter; too weary to resume his old ways, he admitted that his old adver sary Bullock had written a very fine letter, and then attempted a fumbling explanation of what it meant to “bear witness.”
“As witness that Bullock wrote a nice f———letter,” Dority snarled, “and it proves that that's the sort we are here, the caring sort that would write a letter of that ilk, and we don't give a f—- who knows it.”
Once you know you could die at any moment, what do you do with that knowledge? The details are meaningless; in the end there are really only two choices: business as usual, or change. That so many Deadwood characters embrace the latter makes it, for all its profanity and bloodshed, the most inspiring series on American TV right now (although HBO's The Wire, which returns this fall, might give it a run for its money.) Change, for these characters, means rejecting lawlessness—and with it, the freedom to be immoral or uncaring—and form a civilization with a government and laws and some semblance of manners. And it means conceding that in some cases, at least, the good of the group must eclipse the needs of the individual.
That's why Hearst is so chilling—because he doesn't just reject that philosophy, he seeks to destroy anyone who honors it, and make the world safe for people men who “seek the color,” meaning gold.
“I hate these places, Odell,” he says, in another scene from Sunday's episode, “because the truth that I know, the promise that brings, the necessities that I'm prepared to accept make me outcast.” Then, astonishingly, he tears up a bit. “Isn't that foolishness,” he says grimly. “An old man disabused of certain yearnings and hopes as to how he would be held by his fellas ... and yet I weep.”
Hearst frames his tears in terms of momentary weakness; he's telling Odell he's ashamed because he's defined his own ruthlessness as a positive value, and therefore should have no reason to feel sad when other people treat him as an ogre. But he's really weeping because he knows, deep down, that his ruthlessness makes him something less than human—that while the majority of the species, whatever its individual faults, is at least capable of prizing love over money on occasion, Hearst can't even meet that baseline standard of decency. He prizes riches over all else and unleashes his fury when anyone of any social station dares obstruct him. To repudiate greed is to re pudiate Hearst and people like Hearst; to stand against Hearst is to stand for civilization.
In this unexpectedly touching scene, Deadwood defines its humanistic values. A line has been drawn; to step over it—to treat people as a means to an end, instead of recognizing their unique radiance and their poten tial for evolution and then encouraging it—is define oneself as evil, perhaps irredeemably so.
This is not moral relativism as practiced on “The Sopranos,” it's a sophisticated absolutism. In Milch's universe, good and evil aren't starkly defined opposites; they exist on the same continuum. A Deadwood character's position on the continuum de pends on his or her willingness to identify with, then comfort and protect, other people.
Swearengen slid to the other end of the continuum long ago, and two marvelous moments in Sunday's episode suggest that if he doesn't know it, he'll get there eventually. One scene finds him being offered colorful fabric swatches to hide the finger lopped off by Hearst; McShane's curiously introspective expression implies that on some level, he realizes that the loss of his finger is an objective correlative for being traumatically separated from his mother in childhood, an event that presumably set him down the path toward savage selfishness. The salesman tells him that the swatches will be a comfort to him, telling him, “Mama's got you, little lamb. ... Everything will be all right.”
In the end, though, he gives the swatches to Doc Cochran—actually, he hurls them onto the street from the balcony of the Gem saloon, before ordering Doc upstairs for a visit. Before Doc ambled along, Al had been up on the balcony by himself, watching citizens pass by on the street below, each citizen lost in his own private moment, but always intersecting in a wide shot that confirmed his status as but one molecule in the larger human organism.
It's no coincidence that the music in this scene was the same player piano song that scored the final sequence of Season One, which ended with the still wicked Swearengen, then only beginning his journey toward decency, standing on the interior balcony of the Gem and watching the gambling, drinking and carousing down below—a prince of vice, ruler of all he surveyed. That sequence and Sunday's were composed and edited to bring out their similarity, but the deeper difference was impossible to miss. Al is still near the top of the camp's pecking order, but his vantage point has changed from night to day. He's kinder and more forward-thinking than he used to be, even if he doesn't yet realize it. He throws the swatches to Doc because he doesn't need their comfort.
Deadwood's got him, little lamb; everything will be all right.
This article was originally published in the Star-Ledger.