Deep down, you just knew that Whitney Ellsworth (Jim Beaver) was too good to live.
When we first met him, the Deadwood character was a grizzled, foulmouthed prospector. You sensed decency there, but it was buried under so many layers of hard experience that you weren’t sure if he’d ever excavate it. Yet over three seasons, he established himself as one of the se ries’ most good-hearted characters, along with Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif), Martha Bullock (Anna Gunn) and Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie). Time and time again, Ellsworth stepped up and did the right (often difficult) thing, sacrificing his own comfort to give comfort to others, namely his wife, mining heiress, banker and drug addict Alma Garret (Molly Parker), and her adopted daughter Sofia (Bree Seanna Wall), who was orphaned in a stagecoach attack in the show’s very first episode.
And now he’s gone—shot dead in a tent by a Pinkerton goon while seeing to Alma’s gold claim in Sunday’s episode “The Cat Bird Seat.” That Ellsworth’s death was so brutally matter-of- fact—banal, even, like the death of certain Sopranos characters—somehow made it more hurtful, because he was on his way toward being not just a good person, but a great and significant one, an example of how to behave toward one’s fellow human be ings. Just last week, when Alma was shot at by a Pinkerton in the employ of her chief business rival, George Hearst (Gerald McRaney)—in an attempt to spur El lsworth and Alma’s ex-boyfriend, Sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Swearengen), into a violent reprisal that would give Hearst an excuse to level the town—El lsworth let himself be talked down from his rage. To invoke the old western cliché, he refrained from doing what a man’s gotta do. Now one wonders what might have happened if he’d gone ahead; he still might have ended up dumped in a buckboard, but at least he might have taken one or two Pinkertons with him.
Instead, the retaliatory urge was enacted by Trixie (Paula Malcomson), who stormed over to Hearst’s place, breasts bared, then shot him with a Derringer when he looked where most men could not help looking. Though she aimed for his chest, she struck his shoulder. Given Milch’s general fidelity to history, it had to be a flesh wound—the real George Hearst survived his stay in Deadwood. (A critical side note: I didn’t believe Trixie would be so distraught and/or fearful after failing to kill Hearst that she’d ask her lover Sol to kill her; she has too much faith in her convictions, and she’s endured worse trauma without buckling.)
More remarkable than El lsworth’s death and Hearst’s shooting was the continuing account of Deadwood’s unified spirit. One of Milch’s favorite phrases is “the human organism,” meaning a group so unified around shared needs and beliefs that they instinctively function as one collective creature with an infinite number of component parts, each attending to his or her own selfish needs while occasionally pitching in to help the group (or the species).
You could see that phrase il lustrated throughout “The Cat Bird Seat”—in newspaperman Merrick (Jeffrey Jones), still smarting from a Pinkerton beat down, publishing an account of the attempt on Alma’s life; in the image of oddball triumvirate Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), Langrishe (Brian Cox) and appointed mayor E.B. Farnum (William Sanderson) heading over to Sol’s hardware store to demand an ac count of what’s going on; in the jocular barroom conversation between Charlie and Al’s henchmen at the Gem; in Wu’s furious determination to bring armed Chinese-American reinforcements into camp, and in the moment where Langrishe tells Al he’ll be of service however he can, as “... decoy, perhaps, or a weight to drop on villains from above.” Most of all, you could see it in Al’s instinctive, tender protection of Alma and Sofia, in this episode and last week’s. (Notice his discomfort when Alma thanked him; Al thinks nothing of slitting an enemy’s throat, but he’s clearly uneasy being called out as a nice guy.)
Besides Hearst’s overpowering menace, which rattled and even demoralized Al, the biggest sur prise in season three was how Deadwood collectively countered that menace: not by taking up arms (though they did plan for that eventuality, and they still might fight back in next week’s finale) but by refusing to take the bait—by meeting chaos with order. Al’s astute observation last week was correct; by not behav ing as Hearst expected them to behave, they baffled him and made him escalate his menace, and each new provocation only solidified the camp’s opposition to Hearst.
The camp’s collective refusal to seek revenge against Hearst—Trixie’s gambit notwithstanding—seems to be wearing down Hearst’s resolve. The funniest and most surprising image in Sunday’s episode was the shot of Hearst post-shooting, standing at his window and musing on the camp’s eerie restraint, its determination to go on about its business even though Hearst’s goons had turned Deadwood into an oc cupied territory.
“The camp is galvanized,” he growled. “People scurry and bow; they’ve tasks to perform they feel important. I oughtn’t to work in these places. I was not born to crush my own kind.”
It was an oddly Seussian mo ment: the Grinch retreating to the top of Mt. Crumpet after stealing all the presents in Who ville, then listening, bewildered, as the Whos joined hands and sang. Whether Hearst’s heart will grow three sizes remains to be seen.
After last week’s episode, I wondered how Deadwood would resolve all its plots and subplots in time for the season finale, especially in light of HBO’s impulsive decision to cancel the show following a nasty behind- the-scenes spat with co-producer Paramount over international profits. It now seems obvious that a lot of threads will be left dangling until that unspecified point when Milch reconvenes the cast and crew to produce a couple of two-hour HBO movies. And unfortunately, even if the movies are more compact and iconic than the weekly series—and they’ll have to be—I still fear that between Milch’s languorous pacing of Season Three and the premature death sentence meted out by HBO, the unfinished plot threads won’t be tied up in a thoroughly satisfying way—a Deadwood way.
To give just one example, El lsworth’s death fundamentally alters the dynamic between Bullock, Alma, Sofia and Martha. As Al noted, “Guarding Alma personally might cause Bullock problems at home.” That powerful closeup of Olyphant embrac ing Sofia—comforting a terrified child as only a strong father can, yet realizing that his entire domestic/romantic universe has suddenly been rearranged, and all bets are off—promised compli cations that are likely better addressed by a 12-episode fourth season than a couple of cable movies (the critic wrote, hoping to be proved wrong).
Regarding the business with Langrishe’s theatrical troupe, which increasingly seems a parallel drama that’s contained within Deadwood but doesn’t connect with it directly, I’ve decided to give Milch the benefit of the doubt, for a couple of reasons. First, as noted in previous Deadwood recaps, throughout production of Season Three, Milch assumed there would be a fourth season; it seems unlikely he would have integrated Langrishe and his actors into the show so gradually if he’d known this would be the final go-round.
Second, as Slant Magazine critic Keith Uhlich recently pointed out to me, the depiction of Langrishe’s troupe remaining largely disconnected from the drama swirling around them rings true to anyone who has been, or knows, professional performers. The gypsy mentality of actors guarantees a degree of myopia—an ingrained belief that, to paraphrase Shakespeare, the play, and the melodrama immediately surrounding the play, are the things, and all else is either fodder for the play or a distrac tion from it. But here, as with the Bullock-Alma-Sofia-Martha dy namic, we’ll never really know what sort of dramatic plans Milch made, or how he would have carried them out had Deadwood continued for one more season. To quote Langrishe, “The world is less than perfect.”
This article was originally published in the Star-Ledger.