Sunday’s Deadwood contained a simple exchange between madam-turned-do-gooder Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens) and deputy Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie) about the new schoolhouse that could be read on multiple levels at once.
On a pure plot level, this particular scene was about Joanie asking for help in locating the man responsible for building the town’s new schoolhouse, a simple wooden structure that just happens to have a tree growing up through its floorboards and out through the its roof. Joanie told Charlie she was acting on behalf of the schoolteacher Martha Bullock (Anna Gunn), the wife of Charlie’s boss, the sheriff (Timothy Olyphant); Martha wanted to be able to tell the kids why their schoolhouse looked the way it did. What would possess a man to build a house around an old tree instead of cutting it down?
Charlie asked Joanie why the teacher felt she needed to track down the architect and find out about the schoolhouse’s past.
“To finish the story,” Joanie replied.
“More than where the man got to once he was through, I think the story was of the tree, and the schoolhouse built around it,” Charlie said.
Then, after Joanie grew uncomfortable and turned away—perhaps realizing that she might never get the answers she wanted—Charlie amended himself. “I guess you’re right, though,” he said. “I guess children are like that, wanting to know all the information. I guess that’s how they are.”
This conversation wasn’t just about a schoolhouse, but about many other things as well.
For one thing, it was about adapting to one’s surroundings rather than destroying and remaking them. Americans are not predisposed to celebrate this principle, and mining boss George Hearst (Gerald McRaney), who just hired an army of Pinkerton thugs to break the camp, holds it in contempt. Hearst is a not an adapter, he’s an acquirer; when he wants something, he demands it, and when he’s refused, he tries to grab it, and when it can’t be grabbed, he obliterates it, to send a message: “This is what happens when you refuse me.”
Aside from Hearst’s patronizing but sincere affection for his cook, Aunt Lou (Cleo King)—who lost her son Odell (Omar Gooding) this week under menacing and mysterious circumstances—and his grief over losing his favorite legbreaker in a street fight, he seems incapable of mustering up anything resembling basic empathy or, for that matter, even a sense of comradeship unconnected to the acquisition of gold (or as he puts it, “the color”).
Hearst’s mindset is illustrated by his living quarters, a room on the top floor of the hotel that he forcefully purchased from the town’s appointed mayor, E.B. Farnum (William Sanderson). When Hearst wanted an exit onto the balcony, he bashed a hole in the wall; weeks later, the hole is still there, jagged and crumbling: an open wound.
The hole in the hotel and the tree in the schoolroom gave this episode, titled “Amateur Night,” two powerful images around which the episode organized its narrative and themes. The hole was an abyss, a reminder of Hearst’s emptiness, and the emptiness of anyone who views people as obstacles. The tree, on the other hand, was made to seem sacred, mythic: it was shot from dramatically low angles so that it seemed to be frozen in the act of exploding up through the soil, like the giant vines snaking up toward the clouds in Jack and the Beanstalk. Simply put, the tree was the answer to the hole, a symbol of creation—biblical, scientific, and artistic/literary.
This last aspect was highlighted throughout the season—in Bullock’s eloquent condolence letter to the family of a miner murdered by Hearst’s goons; in the burgeoning integrity of Jeffrey Jones’s newspaperman, A.W. Merrick, who printed Bullock’s letter, and endured a retaliatory beating as a result; and in the person of theatrical impresario Langrishe (Brian Cox), who paid for the construction of that school so he could move into its old headquarters, a converted brothel. Langrishe then borrowed money from banker Alma Garret Ellsworth (Molly Parker) to start a permanent theater in Deadwood and inaugurated it with amateur night, encouraging every citizen to take center stage for a moment and reveal unknown talents and hidden sides of themselves.
Langrishe’s motivation isn’t saintly; he knows that a theater’s fortunes rest on the affection of its patrons, and what better way to earn their loyalty than to make them the stars, if only for a night? His introduction to the evening was telling: He invoked the spirit of Shakespeare with a quote from As You Like It: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” But this wasn’t an example of series creator David Milch wrapping himself in the bard’s aura, inviting more Deadwood-vs.-Shakespeare talk. It suggested merely that there’s a through-line connecting the highest art (Hamlet, for instance) and lower forms of art and entertainment.
The man who balanced a long board atop his forehead and the man with a sign that read, “Can cry at will” are not the creative equivalent of great actors or playwrights, nor is Milch suggesting they are. But the existence of Shakespeare, the board balancer and the weeper originate in a basic urge to connect with other people, and with society. The man balancing the board on his head distracts people from their troubles, a worthy cause. The crying man—a stand-in for every actor or writer who ever walked the earth—is a more touching figure, however comically portrayed, because he exists to feel on behalf of other people, connecting himself to them, and connecting bystanders to both of them by weeping copiously in public. Bullock’s condolence letter, however measured, performed the same function, and went a step further, stirring citizens who probably never thought of themselves as citizens to realize the extraordinary potential of this muddy little camp, take pride in the part they played there, and support anyone brave enough to stand in the way of Hearst’s thug army.
The show’s obvious affection for creative self-expression, and its deep conviction about the uses to which it should be put, suggest an attitude toward not just the series Deadwood, but toward art and entertainment in general. This season, there have been so many instances where people were entranced, moved, even changed by someone else’s sentiments—written, spoken or performed—that there’s no way an attentive viewer can write off Deadwood as a blood-and-guts spectacle. To watch it is to sense its idealism.
The show depicts human beings as they are—scatterbrained, selfish, myopic, sometimes viciously cruel. But it also suggests what people and their societies can become if they are willing to adapt to their circumstances, join their neighbors in rallying behind constructive values, and reinvent themselves as better people. (When Joanie said it was important to find out how the story ends, she wasn’t just talking about the story of the tree; she was talking about her own story, and the stories of all the extraordinary people she’s met in Deadwood, men and women who are only beginning to recognize their potential to change and grow.)
Art and entertainment enact that evolutionary process though ritualized gestures, words, pictures and music; even when we get lost in the pleasant fiction of the moment, we recognize some aspect of ourselves in the material, rejoice in our sharpened senses and acknowledge the depth of our capacity to feel. Creativity, Deadwood insists, is not just about getting attention and satisfying one’s ego. It’s a means of bridging the distance between lives that seem to have nothing in common, making strangers feel kinship with other strangers, and urging the audience to recognize and appreciate the civilizing urges that make such expression possible.
“Amateur Night” showcased the late stages of that evolutionary arc in scene after scene. You could see it displayed when Bullock publicly arrested a Pinkerton agent for sassing him while he investigated Morgan Earp’s shooting of another Hearst goon; and throughout the episode, the sheriff was so steadfast and coolheaded during what amounted to an invasion that he truly seemed to have become a different person from the man we met in the first few episodes of season one. (Bullock’s leadership was so undeniable that when he ordered the Earp brothers to follow him to the jail, they instantly obeyed, and something in their demeanor suggested they already thought of themselves as his deputies.)
The arc was clear in the scene where Joanie survived a frightening visit from her ex-pimp, Cy Tolliver (Powers Boothe) without losing her cool, or even allowing him through her doorway; and it was verified again later, in the scene where Joanie and her companion, Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert), walked the camp’s children to their first class in the new school. (Jane crawled out from inside her bottle long enough to act as the kids’ “escort” through the war zone, but she was so wasted she had to hold Joanie’s hand for support.) It was time to take sides, and everyone knew it—even the telegraph operator, Blazanov (Pasha D. Lynchnikoff), who wanted to punch Hearst in the face after delivering his telegram, but settled for refusing his customary tip; and Langrishe, a reflexive Hearst suck-up (what theater owner doesn’t cozy up to the rich?) who let Hearst know that he wasn’t going to put Hearst’s needs over those of his old friend Al—then greeted the arrival of their baked ham by whipping out his very own dagger to cut it with.
For the first time in the series’ run, you could sense nearly every recurring character thinking and acting along the same lines—equating society’s survival with their own, then acting accordingly. Bullock’s letter, Swearengen’s insistence that the letter be published and Merrick’s decision to commit it to print made this sense of collective responsibility—this need to honor something bigger than one person—possible.
With this episode, Deadwood reached its own evolutionary signpost; the camp has become a town, its inhabitants have become a community, and any sacrifice they endure to make this status permanent will have been worth it.
That milestone had a sad undercurrent: There are only three episodes left until the series goes off the air, to return (maybe) as a couple of two-hour HBO movies. Despite Charlie’s halfhearted protestations that only children feel the need to know every detail, Joanie isn’t the only one who wants to know how this story ends. We can only hope, perhaps in vain, that the cable channel’s bosses will forget the behind-the-scenes melodrama that led to the show’s untimely cancellation and give it another full season, if only to witness the final stages in the transformation of onetime villain Al Swearengen, whose final scene was truly poignant.
During the amateur night performance, he hid inside the Gem, drinking, singing to himself. The moment showed that as far as Al has come, he’s not fully civilized yet; if he were, he’d have been outside on the street, letting the whole camp hear what a lovely voice he has.
This article was originally published in the Star-Ledger.