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Deadweek: The Levee Will Hold—A Portrait of Ellsworth

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Deadweek: The Levee Will Hold—A Portrait of Ellsworth

“Inform your dealers and whores of my credit, and pour me a goddamn drink.”

With his first line in Deadwood, the prospector Ellsworth (Jim Beaver) announces to Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) his blueprint for a satisfying life, unapologetic in its simple construction: pan for gold, then trade it for his “quota of whiskey, pussy, and food.” He thrives in Deadwood’s lethal landscape by sidestepping conflict and peppering his encounters with a self-deprecating wit won over many terrains.

Among a contingent bent on personal reinvention, Ellsworth knows who he is and where he fits. In a camp where alliances are traded like commodities, Ellsworth retains the distinction of being liked by practically everyone, even the most suspicious or traumatized. The whore Trixie (Paula Malcomson), who would as soon shoot a john as befriend him, saves Ellsworth from reprisal when he witnesses a murder. The child Sofia (Bree Seanna Wall), the lone survivor of a highway massacre, engages him in some peek-a-boo in the hotel lobby soon after revealing her name for the first time. A dog whose master is gutted and fed to the pigs takes to Ellsworth like they’ve been together all along. Even the geologist Wolcott (Garret Dillahunt), who sports an inhuman disregard for his fellow man, recalls Ellsworth from a past experience as “a hero,” albeit in his practiced tone of mockery.

Ellsworth’s survival counts on more than his geniality. When he witnesses Dan Dority (W. Earl Brown) commit a murder in the hills, he gets in front of the dilemma by privately notifying the hulking henchman what he saw. Ellsworth tells Dan that “the key to a long life” is the “same as a dog keeps its nose—don’t poke it where it don’t belong…A lesson hard come by, but thoroughly learned.” As testament to his reliable silence, he offers to leave town, thereby placing another option into the mix of solutions. Later, he and Dan struggle to climb a ridge near the spot of the murder while assaying the claim of the widow Alma Garret (Molly Parker), and though the threat of retribution hovers, Ellsworth manages a graceful good nature about his prospects: “If I’m to get my throat cut, Dan, I’d rather not exert myself further.” When Dan informs him he’s safe in the matter, wary relief gives way to barely suppressed exhilaration at the new lease.

One short scene in the first episode of season two, when he escorts Alma to deliver a welcome basket to her lover’s newly arrived wife, blends the essential Ellsworth elements—the studied avoidance of unnecessary conflict, the humor at his own expense, the basic decency, and the polite acknowledgement of his proper place.

Ellsworth: “Not as I’ve been asked, Ms. Garret, I wonder if this ain’t a call better paid another day.”
Alma: “I’ve stopped believing I can dictate the terms of my opportunities.”
Ellsworth: “Well, some would say it might be your choice what chances you decide not to take. Some being the butt-in, loudmouth types.”
Alma: “Shall I walk all alone, Mr. Ellsworth?”
Ellsworth: “No, ma’am.”

One chance Ellsworth does decide to take is when he confronts Wolcott, the surrogate of the country’s richest and most ruthless prospector, as the geologist inspects Alma’s claim, of which Ellsworth is now superintendent. With his hand resting on his holstered pistol, Ellsworth rudely shoos Wolcott from the diggings, even though he knows from experience and reputation what a relentless threat Wolcott poses. The fierceness of his stance is surprising, given Ellsworth’s repeated vows of minding his own business, but the act indicates he’s beginning to take on a duty to something beyond his own carnal habits.

That transformation from lovable rogue to a vital player in the affairs of others deepens when he advises Alma on how to handle the local panic over rumors that Yankton, the territorial capital, might overturn all claims. “Panic’s easier on the back than the short-handled shovel…The Creator, in His infinite wisdom, Ms. Garret, salted His work so that, where gold was, there also you’d find rumor…And now I come to camp to find the waters called muddy and the current quickened, though I see no change in the creek. And the hooples, certain sure the flood crest fast approaches, have begun to think keenly, ’I’ll get ahead of the event, maybe I’ll sell my claim at a discount,’ anything to un-harness so they can head for the higher ground. Myself, ma’am, I’d be betting that the levee will hold.” Alma’s look of calm reassurance upon hearing this wisdom reveals a new level of gratitude for Ellsworth’s stewardship.

Ellsworth’s burgeoning position brings with it new complications as well. When he implies to Trixie that Alma might be pregnant, Trixie, who already knows the truth, demands that he step forward and “do the right fucking thing,” by which she means marry Alma to forestall the public exposure of her affair with Sheriff Bullock and subsequent humiliation of Bullock’s family. The concept takes hold slowly in Ellsworth’s mind, and when he lends voice to the notion (“Would she fucking have me?”), his eyes burn with a glint of possibility that his life could again be about more than one man and his appetites. Later, while trying to rationalize such a bold step in a speech to his dog, Ellsworth cites his ability to rise to the occasion, declaring, “Keenness to my shortcomings don’t blind me to seeing it right that when a boulder needs hauling, I will haul a boulder.”

In his introductory scene with Al Swearengen, Ellsworth quizzes Al on the rumors of his noble descent and offers a toast. “Here’s to you, your majesty. I’ll tell you what. I may’ve fucked my life up flatter than hammered shit, but I stand here before you today beholden to no human cocksucker.” Ellsworth is able to navigate the vagaries of Deadwood because he has the measure of himself, a trait that carries its own nobility.