Review of Season Two finale. Originally published in the Star-Ledger May 23, 2005.
David Milch’s profane, philosophical HBO western Deadwood ended Season Two with a series of unions - one actual, the rest symbolic.
In public, there was a formal, according-to-Hoyle wedding between widow-turned-gold-mogul Alma Garrett (Molly Parker) and her right hand man Ellsworth (Jim Beaver). Behind closed doors, other bonds were created or strengthened.The secret father of Alma’s baby, Deadwood marshal Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), sat out the wedding to grieve with his wife, Martha (Anna Gunn) over their son, who was killed by a runaway horse. Despite her grief, Martha said she planned to stay in Deadwood and teach the camp’s children; Seth resolved to stay with her and make their marriage work. Later in the episode, Bullock met with saloon owner and power broker Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) and commissioner Hugo Jarry (Stephen Tobolowsky), who brokered a deal with the territory’s capital, Yankton, that recognized Deadwood’s ragtag government and spelled out fine points of residency and voting.
Tellingly, writer Ted Mann and director Ed Bianchi cross-cut between Alma and Ellsworth’s wedding and the signing of the Yankton deal. The reading of wedding vows served as unifying voice-over narration: two social contracts cemented in the presence of witnesses. On top of all this, Swearengen joined forces with Chinese immigrant powerbroker Wu (Keone Young) to kill Wu’s Chinese rivals and establish him as the sole supplier of cheap labor to newly-arrived mining boss George Hearst (Gerald McRaney). These events pushed the lawless mining camp closer to its goal of becoming a legitimate town, and reinforced the show’s underlying narrative: the process by which order emerges from chaos, and civilization creates itself. The hour was organized around images of diplomacy, compromise, favor-trading and punishment - the blood and marrow coursing through civilization’s body politic. Deals were brokered, properties purchased. Differences were downplayed, commonality affirmed, stability embraced.
Mining scout Francis Wolcott (Garret Dilahunt), a serial killer of prostitutes, hanged himself. He may have been pushed into it by Swearengen’s rival, Cyrus Tolliver (Powers Boothe), who disclosed Wolcott’s viciousness to his boss, George Hearst. If Wolcott hadn’t done himself in, Hearst probably would have ordered him killed. You can’t have psychos running wild; it’s bad for business.
The wedding reception occurred in the camp’s muddy street and was attended by most of the series’s recurring characters. Seeing all these marvelous eccentrics in the same place reminded us of how much they’ve changed in two seasons - another quality that distinguishes Deadwood from the rest of TV, a medium that prefers its characters stay the same from week to week and year to year. Twenty episodes into the story, Milch’s characters still get tangled up in ugly, crazy, sometimes violent situations. But you can see the town and its people moving toward stability, one baby step at a time.
Hard-bitten prostitute Trixie (Paula Malcomson) has distanced herself from her longtime pimp and lover, Swearengen, and fallen in love with law-abiding hardware store owner Sol Star (John Hawkes), who’s teaching her the basics of accounting. Foul-mouthed cowgirl Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert) pulled herself out of an alcoholic stupor and befriended brothel owner Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens), who needed protection from Wolcott. Jane attended the wedding in a dress provided by Joanie, her pulled-back hair highlighting her scabbed-up face.
The ceremony was performed by the Rev. Andy Cramed (Zach Grenier), a onetime gambler who contracted the plague in season one and was left in the woods to die by Tolliver. Nursed back to health by Jane, Andy disappeared for a while, then re-entered Deadwood as a man of God, presiding over the funeral of Bullock’s son and stifling his rage when Tolliver manhandled him, blasphemed his religion and otherwise treated him like horse dung. But he could only swallow his anger for so long. When Tolliver publicly abused Andy a second time at the wedding, Andy stuck a knife in his guts. Like most of the show’s violent acts, this one was symbolically charged. Tolliver is a relic who stands for the every-man-for- himself Deadwood, while Andy has changed so much that even old friends had trouble recognizing him. Viewed this way, Andy’s attack wasn’t an instance of backsliding, but a pivotal event that confirmed the narrative’s inexorable forward march.
It’s strange to think of Deadwood as a life-affirming show, but it is. Beneath its dirty, bloody surface, it’s an essentially optimistic, at times oddly inspirational drama. It suggests that while we’re all born with certain physical flaws, emotional blind spots and social limitations, our lives are still defined by moral choice, that people and communities can re-invent and improve themselves, and that deep down, the human race craves order.
Moments of brutality are eclipsed by acts of kindness: palsied saloon janitor Jewell (Jewell Brooks) helping Trixie dress for the wedding; Swearengen, who’s become a lot nicer since his near-death experience, tossing Trixie and Sol a bribe earmarked for an undercover Pinkerton agent, and asking them to give it to Alma and Ellsworth; Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif) tenderly probing the healed-up gunshot wounds of plump miner Mose Manuel (Pruitt Taylor Vince), then showing him how to touch his toes, spread his arms and take a deep breath. By the episode’s end, Wu hacked off his ponytail, cried “Wu America!” and gestured to Swearengen with crossed fingers, signifying their alliance. Swearengen, a brute who once prided himself on owing nothing to nobody, returned the gesture.