“You stay in hailing distance.”
That was the last line of last week’s Deadwood, delivered by saloon owner Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) to appointed sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), after a dramatic day that set up a confrontation between Al and the town’s newest would-be patriarch, mining magnate George Hearst (Gerald McRaney).
When last we left our nasty little town, Hearst had terrorized Al by staging a shooting in his saloon, the Gem, to let everyone in Deadwood know who was really running things on the eve of the town’s first elections.
How fitting, then, that the follow-up episode, “I Am Not the Man You Take Me For,” started with a strangely beatific image of Al in his bed in the wee hours of the following morning, being stirred awake by a speech from a drunken miner who’d clambered atop the makeshift speechmaking scaffold erected down in the street outside Al’s saloon.
Al listened for a moment but didn’t get out of bed. At one point he turned on his side as if he’d made a decision to ignore the speech—as if he’d decided that it was just a dream and if he paid it no mind, it would go away. The drunk fell off the scaffold into the street and broke his neck; Al went back to sleep but seemed both surprised and disturbed the next morning, when he ambled to the window in his long johns and saw the hooplehead (Deadwood slang for a know-nothing prospector) lying there.
Like so much in Deadwood, this low-key sequence of events had a metaphoric undertow. When we first met Al, he was a literally cutthroat capitalist who used to pride himself on the acquisition of power, money and property by any means necessary, killing anybody who stood in his way.
Now, between brokering a deal with the regional government in Yankton, sponsoring Deadwood’s first elections, and fending off a fearsome challenge from Hearst—the most powerful foe he’s ever faced—he has to be wondering if his changed circumstances are real and irrevocable, or just a strange dream that will vanish when he wakes.
Al’s henchmen are as anxious about the town’s evolution as he is—maybe more so, since they’re not as strong or smart as their boss.
“I’m older, and I’m much less friendly to (expletive) change,” snarled Al’s chief goon, Dan Dority (W. Earl Brown), who longs for the good old days when the Gem boys could just whack an interloper like Hearst without fear of seismic social, political and economic repercussions.
“Change ain’t looking for friends,” Al replied. “Change calls the tune we dance to.”
The town’s citizens are dancing as fast as they can. Ex-prostitute Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens) wants to extricate herself from her dealings with former pimp and perennial bad daddy Cy Tolliver (Powers Boothe); she’s now repulsed by the realization that she spent so many years selling her body for money and can’t escape the life. (After two seasons of abuse, rotten luck and somewhat unfocused characterization, Joanie is finally coming into sharp focus this year, and Dickenss’ performance has sharpened along with it; she’s truthful, precise and sometimes unnervingly powerful.)
Last week, Joanie put a gun to her temple and contemplated pulling the trigger; in Sunday’s episode, she revealed this dark moment to still-bedridden Cy. Joanie’s pained admission suggested she was finally starting to figure out that by continuing to hang around Cy’s brothel, the Bella Union, and oversee the health of its prostitutes, she wasn’t redeeming herself, or really even helping the prostitutes, just enabling Cy’s business, fighting a losing battle to keep Cy’s sexual slaves as healthy and happy as possible. She’s not a crusader, just a glorified meat inspector.
Predictably, Cy, the show’s most hateful character, twisted Joanie’s revelation around to suit his selfish ends.
“I don’t wanna run women no more,” she told him.
“That’s turning from your gift, and your training,” Cy exclaimed.
“When you speak, I feel like it’s the devil talking,” Joanie told him.
True enough, but in Deadwood, even the devil can change—and Cy, who was stabbed by a man of god during last season’s finale, is reacquainting himself with the Bible.
Improbably, Cy, a character whose sheer loathsomeness made him hard to take except in tiny doses, has been at the center of some of this season’s longest, most complex, most surprising scenes. There were two keepers this episode—the early scene with Joanie, and another in which Cy’s assailant, the Rev. Andy Cramed (Zach Grenier), visited Cy in his bedroom, and asked for (and was granted) forgiveness. Cy even told the Rev. about his reawakened interest in the Good Book, in regretful and oddly touching tones. Who could have imagined that these two would have so much to talk about?
“Therefore I say to you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven, except blasphemy against the spirit,” said Cramed, holding Cy’s Bible and reading a passage from the Book of Matthew that Cy himself had marked.
“Where is this strength coming from, that I feel flowing into me?” Cy exclaimed.
An unanswerable question, but one that Deadwood specializes in asking.
Thinking back over the hour, you realized that nearly every scene showcased characters getting ready to transform, often finding strength they didn’t know they had.
We saw a genuinely tender moment between Seth and his wife Martha (Anna Gunn), a woman Seth had once treated with cold formality—finally, a real marriage. We saw Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert) overcome her shyness and speak before Martha’s schoolkids about her experiences with General Custer. Ex-prostitute turned apprentice bookkeeper Trixie (Paula Malcomson) assisted Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif) in a crude abortion performed on socialite Alma Garrett (Molly Parker), who’d been warned she’d die if she carried the child to term; Trixie, who’d had several abortions herself, handled herself with such confidence that you had to wonder if medicine was her true calling.
By episode’s end, the political speeches postponed by Al in the season opener had taken place, but Al paid a price for his defiance—a hammer blow to the hand, delivered by Hearst himself. (It seems fitting that Al’s chosen weapon is the dagger—wielded Sunday night in a brutal sequence where he cut the throat of one of Hearst’s assassins—while Hearst’s is a hammer, a weapon that’s literally more blunt than a knife, and a standard item in the miner’s toolkit.) But Al pooh-poohed the injury and readied himself for bigger confrontations ahead. He’s a changed man, but he’s still Al, ready to endure short-term pain for long-term gain.
That’s how all these characters survive misery and misfortune—by looking ahead, then mustering the strength to either change their circumstances or escape them.
“How do you make it through?” one of Joanie’s prostitutes asked her.
“Go on, girl,” Joanie said. “Get out”—a curt reply, and sound advice.
This article was originally published in the Star-Ledger.