Deadwood has never shied away from theatrical flourishes that make metaphors concrete. But the one that kicked off Sunday’s episode—a portentous, King Lear-style thunderstorm that howled through town and turned the already muddy streets into soup—was so capital-D Dramatic that during certain shots, one half-expected the camera to pull back and reveal a proscenium arch framed by velvet curtains. Dramatically speaking, a storm was about to hit the camp; what simpler way to say that than with an actual storm?
On this gray, wet morning, the Deadwood Pioneer published a letter by Sheriff Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) to the family of a miner who was murdered for trying to organize against his boss, George Hearst (Gerald McRaney). Hearst, a gold mining tycoon who aims to rule Deadwood by destroying its burgeoning sense of law and order, was in a vulnerable spot for the first time since arriving in Deadwood. In the past few days he had already been humiliated by the public death of his feared chief henchman in a street fight (the killer was Dan Dority, boss strongman for Hearst’s main business rival, Al Swearengen) and by his subsequent arrest by Bullock for cursing and threatening the sheriff. Fearing Hearst’s wrath, the town’s most influential citizens then gathered to discuss a pre-emptive strike against any gunmen he might hire; but instead of using force, they decided to publish Bullock’s heartfelt condolence in the Deadwood Pioneer, in order to “bear witness” to the man’s death and bring the camp together against Hearst and his minions.
As the storm winds blew, the newspaper’s publisher, A.W. Merrick (Jeffrey Jones) and his constant companion and maybe-protégé, the telegraph operator Blazanov (Pasha D. Lynchnikoff), went from storefront to storefront, delivering the paper. It was a Robert Altman-style narrative hand-off device, moving us from location to location and character to character while building dread of Hearst’s response. A succession of simple but meticulous shots by director Ed Bianchi—the show’s most elegant storyteller—invested this elemental display with Old Testament coldness. (The wide shot of Blazanov and Merrick entering the Grand Central Hotel in the background, while two out-of-focus pots swung and clanked in the foreground, was pure John Ford.) After 52 minutes worth of anxious anticipation, the human storm finally arrived, heralded by hoofbeats of Hearst’s hired guns riding into town and assembling beneath Hearst’s balcony.
But here, as always, there was more going on than the advancement of plot and characterization. Last week’s rich, moving episode, “Unauthorized Cinnamon,” was about death, and the emotional abyss that opens up when the living are forced to peer into it after years of looking the other way; fittingly, Sunday’s follow-up was concerned with legacy and succession. Simply put, “Unauthorized Cinnamon” was about confronting mortality. “Leviathan Smiles” concerned itself with the practical response to death: Recognizing its inevitability, and going on about one’s business while trying to better oneself and share any useful information one might have learned throughout life.
To wit: There’s Blazanov, who seems to be following Merrick into the thick of Deadwood’s political melodrama, and Merrick, who seems to have grown bolder and more righteous thanks to Blaznanov, a straight arrow who treats the telegraph operator’s ethical code as a reverent text. There’s theatrical impresario Langrishe (Brian Cox), whose elderly, terminally ill acting mentor and father figure died quietly in his presence, spurring Langrishe to finally move his troupe into the Chez Ami and get his first Deadwood production going. There’s Cy Tolliver (Powers Boothe), who’s offered himself up as Hearst’s chief minion and apprentice, and clearly hopes to succeed him one day, and the General (Franklin Ajaye), who recently endured the suicide of his best friend and employer, the livery owner Hostetler (Richard Gant), and wavers between fleeing town and taking over Hostetler’s business. (The latter subplot took an unexpected turn this week when Hostetler and the General’s racist tormentor and the new boss of the stable, Steve the Drunk, got kicked in the head by a horse he’d been taunting, leaving the stable’s ownership up for grabs.)
Last but not least, there’s a three-link chain of succession over at the Gem saloon: Swearengen (Ian McShane), a onetime villain who’s become more compassionate and involved in public life by the week; Dan, whose own brush with death during the streetfight has given him a newfound gravitas that makes him a plausible successor to Swearengen; and Dan’s own lieutenant, Johnny Burns (Sean Bridges), who’s become a swaggering stand-in for Dan, confronting anybody who looks like they’re about to make trouble in Al’s saloon.
Johnny got to stare down a nettlesome pair of troublemakers this week—Wyatt Earp (Queer As Folk star Gale Harold, affable enough, but sorely missing the hint of lethal temper the role requires) and his brother Morgan (a much more credible Austin Nichols). The Earps—who came to Deadwood to work a timber claim, and got a hero’s welcome thanks to a made-up story of rescuing a stagecoach besieged by bandits—are being positioned as possible successors, or perhaps alternatives, to Bullock as sheriff, or at least as chief muscle for Hearst. There was even an unsettling conversation between Tolliver and Hearst about provoking a confrontation between Bullock and Wyatt Earp—presumably in hopes that Bullock would get killed, leaving Hearst to install Earp, a former sheriff turned free-riding gunslinger, as a puppet lawman.
There were two other themes running through “Leviathan Smiles.” One was the Deadwood creator’s belief that all collective enterprises, from business deals and town charters to religious institutions and domestic relationships, are to some extent a collaborative act of imagination: Two or more people agreeing to agree on certain principles so that they can become allies rather than adversaries. Sometimes the imaginative collaboration comes from a true place, but other times it is, to invoke the title of a two-parter last year, a lie agreed upon—a bit of theater that’s invented on the spot to give each person something he needs, but which then persists for days or months or years, as long as the relationship needs to continue.
This week’s episode kept revisiting the notion of friendship, government, even civilization itself as variants of the agreed-upon lie. And this led to the episode’s other, corollary theme: Life itself as a drama populated by real people playing themselves—actors making up lines and trying to fool people into believing their façade and granting their wish, whatever that might be.
You could see this idea play out in two subplots, the one where Swearengen poked holes in Wyatt Earp’s heroic narrative, and a parallel storyline where Langrishe greeted Hearst in a hotel hallway and sold the tycoon on a miracle cure for his back pain. (The scene where Langrishe laid hands on a naked, face-down Hearst, improvising snake-oil blather and quasi-religious mumbo jumbo, was the second funniest moment this season. The first-place winner also occurred in Sunday’s episode—the scene where Steve reiterated his bigoted hatred of the General in a monologue delivered to the same horse that would later kick his brains in.)
Hearst is no dummy, yet he asked only minimal questions of Langrishe, and most of those sounded suspiciously like straight lines; he believed Langrishe’s lie because he wanted to believe it—because he just wants his back to stop hurting. Earp’s lie is told on a grander scale—on main street in broad daylight—but it’s shallower, because it’s designed to appeal to shallow people: Deadwood citizens who are tired of harsh reality and want a mythic hero they can worship. Earp and his brother get to be celebrities and get breaks on gambling, liquor and brothel services. (“Shall I authorize the watering and feeding of these gentlemen’s horses, sheriff, as mayor, as a gesture from the camp?” E.B. Farnum asks the scowling Bullock.)
These two falsehood-based relationships—Earp/Swearengen and Langrishe/Hearst—underlined series creator David Milch’s overarching theme this year: drama’s ability to both mirror and shape life. The lies of both Earp and Langrishe require them to play a role and improvise details—Earp as the mythic do-gooder (who’s actually taken his badge off and gone to Deadwood on business) and Langrishe the healer (who really just wants to get close to Hearst and either psych him out or tease out information that his pal Swearengen can use). The difference between Earp and Langrishe is the difference between a good actor and a great actor. The former has a limited imagination, while the latter’s seems boundless.
Along the way, there was a typically Milchian surplus of unexpectedly moving moments—the General cleaning Steve’s comatose face after vengefully pelting it with grits; Joanie (Kim Dickens) and Jane (Robin Weigert) leaving the rooming house together and having to pass their homophobic landlord, who taunted them with a Bible quote condemning their “vile affections”—and more memorable dialogue than can be quoted here.
My favorite exchange—no surprise, given my line of work—was the following, from the scene where Hearst tries to intimidate Merrick for having published that condolence letter. Merrick pretends he had no agenda, and Hearst calls him out.
You are less majestically neutral than cloaking your cowardice in principle,” Hearst sneers.
I can only answer, perhaps, Mister Hearst, events have not yet disclosed to me all that I am,” Merrick replies, subtly reinforcing Milch’s belief that all people are capable of change, and have not yet discovered their best self.
Those kind of events might be in the weather, Merrick,” Hearst replies, with malice. “You might have a calendar for them.”
I also smiled at the conversation between Hearst’s cook, Aunt Lou (Cleo King) and her friend, the General, about fears that her son Odell might get killed going into business with Hearst.
No place, I guess, that you could hide a child from danger,” she said.
If I knew,” the General replied, “I’d keep that spot for myself.”