Savage men who disagree beat each other’s brains in. “Civilized” men who disagree send proxies to beat each other’s brains in.
Such was the lesson of Sunday’s Deadwood, which climaxed with TV’s most brutal one-on-one fight since Tony Soprano and Ralphie Cifaretto had their last tango in season four of “The Sopranos”: a street brawl between Dan Dority (W. Earl Brown), chief muscleman for Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), and the hulking Captain Turner (Allan Graff), Man Friday and designated leg-breaker for George Hearst (Gerald McRaney). The showdown ended with the battered, bloody, clearly overmatched Dan, prone in the mud beneath Turner, jamming his thumb into Turner’s left eye socket, ripping his eyeball out a la Little Jack Horner digging into a Christmas pie, then rising to his feet, grabbing a chunk of firewood and silencing Turner’s screams with a caveman-style coup-de-grace.
It’s hard to say which pay cable mano-a-mano was nastier; featured “Sopranos” weapons included kitchen implements and an insecticide, and the denouement was a bathtub evisceration complete with gratuitous toupee joke. But in the end, the Deadwood fight was dramatically richer. It had a much more tangled motivation than, “It was a long time coming,” and the fact that it occurred in broad daylight in the town’s main thoroughfare meant it had implications beyond who would kill whom.
Like so many public events on Deadwood, the Dority-Turner fight was political theater conducted before a horrified live audience, an event designed to send a message to onlookers that when the drama ended, the town’s direction would be irrevocably altered. I suspect that when the show finishes its regular run, the Dority-Turner fight will earn a spot on any shortlist of the show’s most significant public events—equal to, and in some ways greater than, the shooting of Wild Bill Hickok in season one (signaling the death of the Old West’s mythic self-image and the embrace of a more mechanized, commercialized, safe era) and Alma’s wedding at the end of Season Two (which united the town in spirit, while behind closed doors, Swearengen was uniting it legally, by closing the charter deal with Yankton). The fight between Dority and Turner was really a fight between Swearengen and Hearst. It was a showdown between the lesser and greater of two evils—the first of whom, in his roundabout, often repellent way, has the camp’s best interests at heart.
Gradually, subtly and almost in spite of himself, Swearengen, who initially seemed a putrid goblin spinning wicked schemes by torchlight, has come to realize that he’ll make more money if Deadwood becomes a functioning (though admittedly less interesting) community. That, coupled with his near-death experience in Season Two, has mellowed him (though he sometimes gripes about not being able to kill as many people personally). And over time, his brusque and often violent self-interest has become almost indistinguishable from community spirit. He’s now less a villain than an antihero, a man who does the right thing for the wrong reasons (and sometimes for the right reasons). He’s the town’s most important political player, the thug-as-civilizing-force, handpicking temperamental but righteous Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) as sheriff and dithering blabbermouth E.B Farnum (William Sanderson) as mayor, brokering a deal with the regional powers in Yankton to recognize the camp’s makeshift government and encouraging legitimate elections.
Swearengen has spent the last several episodes puzzling over what, exactly, Hearst wants—fathoming the man’s presumably inscrutable intentions. But I wonder if Swearengen isn’t misreading Hearst, mistakenly assuming that Hearst is a kindred spirit, a vicious yet subtle tactician. From here, it looks like Hearst is just plain vicious—an Old West version of a Third World strongman. He thwarts his disgruntled Cornish workers’ efforts to organize by killing them and leaving their corpses in the street. He tries to intimidate Alma into selling her gold claim by threatening her with unspecified sexual violation. And he lets Swearengen know he doesn’t appreciate his interference by chopping off one of the latter’s fingers. In each case, you don’t need a degree in cryptography to decipher the message.
The wanton crudeness of Hearst’s latest union-busting murder was driven home with one of the most chillingly beautiful shots in the show’s three-season run. A low-angled close-up of Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie) looking down at the corpse tilted down to street level, so that the knife loomed in the foreground, dwarfing the puny figure of Bullock staring at the weapon in the background. The implication was clear: If the sheriff didn’t stand up to Hearst, the town would assume that law and government were agreed-upon lies—that Deadwood was still a place ruled by violence and fear.
Hearst is a destabilizing force, using money and violence to knock Deadwood one pace back whenever it threatens to step forward. Hearst, a mining millionaire, doesn’t want Deadwood to become more civilized, because it would make it harder for him to conduct his brutal variety of business. He even admitted this last episode in a conference with Swearengen and fellow saloon owner/gangster Cy Tolliver, saying that between the upcoming elections and the recent opening of a bank owned by mining heiress Alma Garret Ellsworth (Molly Parker), Deadwood was starting to look a lot less inviting to him, and he might not be spending much time there in the future.
Director Daniel Minahan’s brilliant staging of the fight had Swearengen and Hearst peering down from their respective balconies like football team owners watching the Super Bowl from their luxury boxes. When the fight was through and Dan emerged victorious, Swearengen went inside without another word; a deft rack focus redirected our attention from Swearengen’s no-fuss exit in the background to Hearst’s face in the foreground, shock and distress seeping into his eyes for the first time since we met him at the end of last season.
This was a public show of force; Hearst’s man lost and Hearst lost face. Now, the veil has been lifted and thinking citizens will realize he’s not an evil god, just a rich thug whose interests run counter to Deadwood’s. Swearengen should understand this now; his crisis of confidence—brought on by the arrival of a man he couldn’t intimidate—should end soon, unless series creator David Milch has more twists up his sleeve.
Bullock’s own journey mirrored Swearengen’s. Both men found their spines again. Bullock, who once trod lightly around Hearst in hopes of securing his endorsement, stood tall last week and put Hearst “on notice.” At the end of Sunday’s episode, he enforced his authority by confronting the drunk, grieving, smart-mouthed Hearst, arresting him for threatening a peace officer (good thing the town council decided to pass laws, eh?) and hauling him off to jail (another significant public event—an assertion of police power and a public shaming of a bad man).
Other developments and moments worth noting:
Alma’s relapse into laudanum addiction after her abortion is fascinating, and exquisitely acted by Parker and Beaver. (Alma doping up to sleep with her husband, and her husband seeing through the ruse, was heartbreaking; anyone who’s known an addict can relate to it.) All in all, it seems less obligatory and obvious than Chris Moltisanti’s recent relapse on “The Sopranos” because, like the Dority-Turner fight, it’s not just about the personal struggles of one or two characters. In a way, Alma’s backsliding mirrors backsliding of the town itself, thanks to Hearst’s intimidation; it’s an example of falling back into old, bad habits, and it feeds one of the show’s recurring themes, the inevitability, even necessity, of intoxicating substances (from dope to fear). That said, I’m still disappointed by it, because I wanted to see Alma become more powerful and centered—to keep rising in stature rather than falling again.
The subplot with Bullock overseeing the transfer of the livery stable from Hostetler (Richard Gant) to Steve the Drunk (Michael Harney) built to a finale that I just didn’t buy. Hostetler’s suicide seemed arbitrary and unsatisfying. I would have believed it if he’d attacked Steve in a rage and gotten killed by Steve or Bullock, or ridden out of town to escape such a fate. But if he had sufficient willpower and focus to track down the horse that trampled Bullock’s son William, then bring him back to camp knowing he might get lynched for his trouble, why would a drunk racist’s bile send him over the edge? I realize Hostetler impulsively considered shooting himself in the aftermath of William’s death last season, but those were very different circumstances. This was probably the least convincing plot twist since the show’s inception.
Gerald McRaney is giving a great and terrifying performance as Hearst—a capper to a long career that’s more often been centered on amiably cranky types—and his scenes have been as smartly and sometimes boldly written as anything in the series. He was the best he’s ever been this week. Just when I had Hearst pegged as another Deadwood sociopath—a heartless tycoon who treats people as cattle—he revealed his heart. His profound grief over Turner’s death deepened both the character and my already considerable estimation of McRaney’s skills. He deserves every award that comes his way.
This article was originally published in the Star-Ledger.