The closing shot of last night’s Deadwood episode was never meant as a series-ender. But that’s what it was, and for a number of reasons, it was both appropriate and troubling: Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen kneeling on the floor of his office, cleaning up a bloodstain.
The blood belonged to one of Al’s prostitutes, Jen (Jen Lutheran), whose only crime was vaguely resembling Trixie (Paula Malcomson). Trixie impulsively shot and wounded mining mogul George Hearst (Gerald McRaney) in last week’s episode to avenge Hearst’s contract killing of the good-hearted miner Ellsworth (Jim Beaver), husband of Alma Garret Ellsworth (Molly Parker), owner of Deadwood’s bank and its second largest gold claim.
Of course Hearst demanded that Trixie be killed. Al realized Hearst never got a good look at Trixie’s face because he was too busy looking at her exposed chest. So Al decided to sacrifice someone he didn’t care about in order to save a woman he still loves—and save Deadwood in the process.
The shot of Al scrubbing that floor didn’t just remind us of how many throats he’s slit. (He’s so experienced he’s been known to lecture employees on their scrubbing technique.) It suited the narrative of this episode, “Tell Him Something Pretty,” which complicated the show’s master narrative—barbarism giving way to civilization—and showed how the former never really gets pushed out by the latter, just enclosed and domesticated.
Written by Ted Mann and directed by Mark Tinker, “Tell Him Something Pretty” closed out the story of Hearst, who used fear and violence to subvert the camp’s fledgling social institutions and gain unfettered access to its gold. Hearst’s menace united the gangster kingpin Al and his longtime foil, sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), and their alliance drew support at every layer of the camp’s social pecking order. Al masterminded a seemingly counterintuitive strategy, which, to everyone’s surprise, actually worked: Deadwood’s citizens played it cool, absorbing more pain than they dished out, revealing Hearst and his thugs for the monsters they were.
Hearst was ultimately exposed as something less than invincible, and that was so humiliating that he took the advice of theater impresario Langrishe (Brian Cox, whose role was thematically interesting but never really satisfying) and did what he’d been thinking of doing for quite some time: He got out. But first he had to save face by reasserting his power over Deadwood and demanding a blood sacrifice.
Dramatically and thematically, Jen’s murder made sense. Yet that closing image—indeed the whole episode—was deeply troubling for a number of reasons, some more defensible than others.
On the defensible end, “Tell Him Something Pretty” was about the horrendous compromises we make in the name of survival, and how those compromises are often driven not by shining moral principles, but by personal needs—for instance, Al’s need to protect his beloved Trixie without inflaming Hearst’s already volcanic wrath.
The expedient hypocrisy of Al’s position was made clear in an early scene where he ordered his henchman, Johnny (Sean Bridgers), who was sweet on Jen, to do the deed in Al’s stead. Johnny couldn’t go through with it (for the same reasons that Al wouldn’t consider offing Trixie), so the boss had to get his hands dirty.
Yet for some reason, the whole episode just felt off. Maybe it was the way Bullock, his deputy Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie) and other influential citizens just went along with Al’s plan without ever really objecting to it, much less opposing it.
One could defend this as an example of series creator David Milch telling us a truth we didn’t want to hear: that Deadwood’s citizens were not really as civilized as they appeared to be. But I didn’t believe Bullock and Utter would accept this scheme so easily—especially not after both Bullock and Charlie publicly called Hearst out on his bully mentality in the same episode. Their acceptance was contingent on an Al-like coldness neither man seemed to possess. At the very least, I wanted to watch those who’d endorsed Al’s scheme grapple with its grave implications.
Equally troubling was the decision to have Jen’s death occur off-screen. One could argue it was an attempt to give this killing more weight—to suggest it was so horrendous, even by Deadwood standards, that the series itself couldn’t bear to show it to us. (Al’s exhaustion as he cleaned up her blood seemed not just physical, but oral.)
But this choice ended up seeming evasive. I wanted to see Al’s face as he steeled himself to commit what was surely one of the least defensible killings he’d ever been party to; instead, the sin occurred behind closed doors.
As I’ve said before, it’s possible that my various questions and objections might have been answered if Deadwood had been allowed a fourth season. Over the years, Milch never sentimentalized the camp or its inhabitants, even when it became clear that most of them were slowly but surely evolving into more outwardly “sympathetic” people, productive components in the larger human organism.
Unfortunately, thanks to a bottom-line-driven, behind-the-scenes spat between HBO and the show’s co-producer, Paramount, we’ll never seen a fourth season—just a couple of two-hour wrap-up movies that may have their merits, but probably won’t be as rich and satisfying as 12 full episodes.
There’s an incidental and unfortunate parallel between the narrative of Sunday’s de facto Deadwood finale and the circumstances that led to the drama’s cancellation: A macho showdown between two warring giants led to an unnecessary, indefensible and shockingly cruel demise.
There is no telling what that young woman might have become had she lived. She wasn’t ready to go, and she didn’t deserve to die; she didn’t see the end coming, and the fact that she was denied her humanity, treated as a pawn in a struggle she couldn’t comprehend, akes the whole thing harder to take.
Sometimes art imitates life without meaning to.
This article was originally published in the Star-Ledger.