Episode 21. “Amalgamation and Capital.”
I almost wrote about “Amalgamation and Capital” and “Advances, None Miraculous” as one unit, as I did the two-part season premiere. Like those two episodes, they take place over the course of one day, and like those episodes, their stories are tightly tied together, to the point where they mostly tell one big story that ties together every citizen of Deadwood, some by tragedy and some by politics. These two episodes finally pay off much of the groundwork David Milch and his writers have been laying in terms of building their universe and the relationships between their characters. It’s so evident in a series of great shots that closes “Amalgamation and Capital,” as a horrific event transpires and everyone in town is somehow aware of it as it happens, the human intuition for knowing something’s gone wrong kicking in.
In some ways, the whole season feels like it’s been building to William’s death. While the season has been mainly about questions of the legitimacy of the junior civilization the people of Deadwood are putting together, civilizations aren’t just created by legal paperwork and the like. They’re also created by people being knit together by common cause, by sharing feelings like pain and joy and need (the season finale is one of the most profound expressions of this I’ve seen in any medium, but “Amalgamation and Capital” starts us on the path there). What’s amazing is how funny “Amalgamation” is before it descends into tragedy, how subtly the episode tugs all of its characters into the places they need to be for William’s death to take place. If you change one thing about any of this sequence of events, William won’t die, and everything that happens because of that won’t happen (Cochran even has a line to this effect in the second episode we’ll be reviewing today). I remember being gobsmacked by the death the first time I watched this episode, but watching it again, I was surprised by just how much foreshadowing there was. (And to that end, if this is your first time through the series, did you see William’s death coming? Or how it would happen?)
William dies when Hostetler and the NG (and thanks for the suggestion, comments section dwellers) are unable to tie down a wild stallion brought in to be broken and tamed. After the stallion shrugs off Hostetler and breaks free, it rampages through the streets of Deadwood, where Tom Nuttall is inviting William to try riding his bicycle with him, where Steve the drunk is watching the two cavort with a genuine smile on his face (“Great. Beautiful,” he says). William’s with Tom because Tom asked if he could entertain the boy while his parents deal with the messy business of setting up the camp’s bank (something that Alma needs necessarily be present for, Martha suggests, further ramping up the tension). Everybody’s otherwise occupied. Cy’s trying to deal with Mose. Al’s trying to figure out the twin problems of Miss Isringhausen and getting Yankton to deal with him. Everything conspires either directly or indirectly to lead to William’s death, as though it were something inevitable, something that could never be avoided. In stories, as in history itself, events link together in ways that seem obvious in retrospect but play out devastatingly at the time. We are pawns of history or the narrative, but we are also driving it.
I like the way that “Amalgamation and Capital” suggests before William’s death the specter of mortality already. In many ways, it’s an episode about the things that are lost to the encroaching press of modernization or when a man dies or when a camp decides to become a town. Charlie Utter rode into town in the wake of Wild Bill Hickock and his particular brand of frontier justice. Now, he has to leave, both to take a letter to Bill’s widow but also because he just might do something he can’t take back, so hot does his anger toward Francis Wolcott still boil. Now, he’s mourning for the way things were before people like Wolcott brought their ways to the West. "It's all fuckin' Amalgamation and Capital, ain't it, Mr. Wolcott?" he asks (Wolcott is impressed by his understanding of economic terms, at the very least), and when he goes outside to explain to Bullock why he’s riding away from town, he adds, "The money must buy these bastards any fucking thing they want." He says, not in so many words, that there was a time when this sort of thing could be dealt with. Now is not that time. When Bill rode and could strike out, things were different, but now, Charlie is off across the prairie, unable to deal with the way things are changing, chasing after the ghost of a man he once knew.
That tone is set expertly in the opening scene, when William sits and talks to his stepfather of who his father was, the things he enjoyed (in a scene that will pay off devastatingly in the following episode). He had a father who liked to sing. He had a father who could make great duck calls. He had a father who barely knew his own brother (he left home when Seth was only 9). This is another scene about the things that are lost when we’re not even sure that we’re still looking for them, this time taken from us by something as concrete and bruising as death. “Amalgamation and Capital” is, in many ways, an episode that focuses on the ways that we all chase after these ghosts of things that once were, of people we once knew, before it goes and introduces an actual death into the proceedings.
As far as other ghosts go, Mose is just as affected by the ghost of his brother, as he both attempts to fend off the investigation of the mysterious death of his brother and tries to deal with his own guilt in the matter. Even as the tension builds in the run-up to William being run over by the horse, Deadwood throws in what amounts to a fake-out. Mose is gambling in the Bella Union, simultaneously receiving a blow job from one of the whores, but he’s angry, at how his luck is running, at how he perceives Cy has cheated him, at, potentially, himself, for being so craven as to shoot his own brother. And, in a marvelous sequence, Wolcott rattles off a list of impossible demands Mose might make of them (“Including youth, Mr. Manual? And why not beauty?” he begins, and you can find the full text down in the quotes section), then is fired upon by Mose, who misses and is gunned down by the man Wolcott and Cy have placed to guard against just such a thing. But Mose, perhaps because he’s a mountain of a man, doesn’t die, not like William will die, and it’s just another cruel reflection of life in Deadwood.
From all of that, I’m making the episode sound like some sort of dreary dirge (and considering the last shot is a God’s eye view of a broken little boy lying in a muddy street, you’d be forgiven for thinking it is one), but it’s one of the series’ funniest episodes, constantly great lines rolling off the tongues of all of its characters. Deadwood is better than almost any series at celebrating the rich variety of experiences life can throw at us, at the many, many different kinds of people we might meet, and “Amalgamation and Capital” precedes its dark, dour ending with an hour of scheming, sure, but also lots of comedy. You’ve got Al commanding E.B. to befriend Blazinov ("Of course I'll befriend him. I'm very fond of Russians."). You’ve got Trixie trying to figure out why Ellsworth and Alma aren’t engaged yet ("Did you present yourself enthusiastic?" "Well, I didn't dance a fucking jig."). You’ve even got Merrick rambling on loquaciously to anyone who will listen, up to and including E.B. and Al. These people, like us, caught up in the currents of history, have no idea of the darkness the narrative has in store for them, and that gives them occasion to continue on with their lives, to joke, to scheme, to laugh, as though death weren’t a riderless horse just around another corner. But at some point, we begin to clue in to the fact that this show rarely lets day last so long in one episode, that something must be around the corner, and that laughter starts to feel a little false, a little hollow.
Funny as it may be, it’s hard to look at the episode without coming back to that final shot, to the way it utterly destroys everything that’s come before (and look at the long succession of shots of the people of Deadwood before it – Al and Miss Isringhausen in his office, Alma and Ellsworth, Sol and Trixie, the Bullocks, Tom quaking with sadness). William lies in the mud at an impossible angle. Tom rushes to his side. Steve picks himself up from the dust, moans about how he’s broken his back. Nothing can set this right. It’s the one thing that can’t be undone. Death stalks Deadwood, just as it stalks us all (there’s a great episode in season three that pretty much makes this blatant), but this death feels different. It’s an accident that befalls an innocent, perpetrated by no one, unless you count God (as Cochran might).
Earlier in the episode, William is planting seeds in his garden, and he pulls out three remaining sunflower seeds. I could speak at length about things like the symbolic import of the number three or something like that, but I think this is just a scene about a boy who’s lost everything (even the jar containing his sunflower seeds broke) who does not seem to mourn it but still wants to get something of the life he once led back. All seeds planted in a garden are a hope for some future, just as Sophia and William are hopes for some future. The reason William’s death so shatters Deadwood (the reason the death of any child so shatters us) is because it seems utterly irredeemable, utterly without hope. His sunflower seeds, then, are not just a way to grasp at the life he once led. They become, in some odd way, a way for him to grasp at a life he might have led. It’s in the balance between bygone ways and the hazy mists of futures that just might be that “Amalgamation and Capital” lies.
Episode 22. “Advances, None Miraculous.”
As mentioned, I almost blended these two reviews into one longer piece because “Advances” is pretty much the completion of the stories begun in “Amalgamation.” In the immediate aftermath of William’s death, Hostetler and the NG worry about being lynched for their inadvertent role in the tragedy (especially once they realize it’s the sheriff’s boy who’s been killed). Bullock carries the boy through the camp, shots once again tying together all of the people who live here, who can only stand as silent bystanders to the tragedy (the way Timothy Olyphant calls out “Mrs. Bullock!” is a highlight in what’s probably his best episode in the series run). Al is still ensconced in his office with Isringhausen, who begins to suspect that he’s somehow constructed the tragedy beneath her as a way to avoid dealing with her. It’s, by necessity, a much less humorous episode than “Amalgamation” (though it has its moments), but it’s also the flipside of that episode. If “Amalgamation” is about the ways that death haunts us even in our happiest moments, “Advances” is about how real life haunts us when all we want to think about is death. William may have been struck down, but Cochran still has to deal with removing the bullet from Mose, and Sol still has to go see Al because Al’s running a con on Jarry, and Jarry’s picked today, of all days, to come back to camp.
Jarry’s return is the one bit of new business in “Advances,” which is mostly a long, slow descent toward William’s death (well, Andy Cramed also returns, but that’s a perfunctory plot point near episode’s end). It puts just another damn thing on Al’s plate that he has to deal with, another thing that he finds himself going alone on (since Bullock is otherwise occupied), and even if he can share, in some ways, in the town’s sorrow (the final shot of Al, watching Cramed approach the doc’s office in a long montage of the whole camp pausing to pay respects to the moment, suggests that he can sympathize in some ways with Bullock’s grief but will never be able to empathize with it), he’s never going to be able to put things on hold to deal with these massive changes. Life plods on, and how we react to the deaths and changes in our midst defines who we are as human beings.
Because I skimped on the politics in the “Amalgamation” write-up, I should probably focus on them more heavily in “Advances,” where they are of more major import. Al, via the report he has planted in the Deadwood Pioneer (featured also in “Amalgamations”), has created a scenario whereby he hopes to convince Yankton that Montana is attempting to sway Deadwood and the Hills to their territory, via their man Bullock (a former Montana marshal, you may recall). Obviously, this is completely made up, but since there’s gold in the Hills, Yankton is sufficiently worried about the possibility of losing that source of revenue that they send Jarry back to propose bribes to Al (falsely believing that Hearst may be simultaneously backing this play and Cy’s, since what does Hearst have to lose?). This, ostensibly, gives Al the leg up in negotiating the camp’s placement within the new arrangements and presumably protects the Garrett gold interests, which are vital to Al’s continued independence and success. As always with Deadwood, there’s a hell of a lot more to it than that (much of it having to do with Isringhausen playing constant fly in the ointment), but if you understand that much, you understand enough to know what’s going on and not be too confused.
The major animating concern of the episode is whether or not Jarry’s going to buy what Al’s selling, particularly with Bullock with his wife and child and not present to speak to what’s purported to have happened (Al has to improvise by calling in the expertise of Sol and relying on Jarry believing what Silas says, even though Silas is known for betraying Yankton). It’s a pretty high-wire act Al has to pull off, but, really, all he has to do is put just enough doubt in Jarry’s head that it can sit there and fester. Cy, back at the Bella Union, has a pretty good idea of what’s going on (he’s at least with it enough to know that the newspaper article is an Al plant), but neither Jarry nor Wolcott seems terribly inclined to listen to him. And, honestly, I don’t know why they would be. Even if there’s only a one percent chance that the newspaper article is the truth, that one percent chance could completely cut off Yankton from a huge potential revenue stream. He has to prepare for all eventualities, no matter how sure Cy is. Seen in that light, it’s a wonder the episode tries to build suspense at all over whether Al’s plan will work. Of course it will work! It’s Al!
Before he can get to that, though, he has to deal with Isringhausen, who’s trying to negotiate her safe evacuation from Deadwood after being found out by Al (I love his telegram reading to her in the previous episode). Naturally, she, too, wants Bullock on hand to witness her signing the documents Al has prepared and then to escort her from the camp, but without him able to attend, she’s less willing to trust Al, and the whole thing turns into one long standoff. Al barely leaves his office in these two episodes, but he seems to wield so much influence on everything that happens outside of the plot where William dies, and it’s a testament both to how the show has built up Al as a character and to how Ian McShane plays him that it all feels credible and, indeed, wouldn’t feel credible if Al didn’t succeed.
But the politics are only one straw here. There’s also Mose to deal with, Leon and Con sent forth to drag his huge body to the Chez Ami on the sledge (and Con refuses to pull, forcing Leon to do all the work). There, his gasping breaths will be contrasted with William’s final ones, as the doctor tries to save him, Jane and Joanie working with him, trying to draw out the bullet that threatens to end his life. If either of these two human lives deserves to end, it’s Mose’s, since he’s become venal and greedy in the opportunity he’s had to make so much money, but that’s not the way you can think, ultimately, if you’re Cochran or even Jane. There’s work that needs to be done, and it needs to be done well. Mose is a human life, and he deserves, still, to live, even if it doesn’t seem fair. How the show builds Mose from this point out can be kind of contentious for Deadwood fans, but it’s something I like very much, and I think it hinges firmly on Mose’s realization of just which life was taken instead of his.
Because it’s William who hangs over every moment of this episode, coloring every interaction with the idea that in Cochran’s office, there is a young life about to end. He’s there in that fantastic moment when Jane happens across Tom sitting alone in the alley, face wracked with grief, snot running down his nose. He’s there as the NG and Hostetler attempt to run from camp for Oregon and then find a way to get a measure of grace for something they had no part in when they come across the horse responsible for William’s death on their way out of town (and I’m reminded again of the basic decency of these characters as Hostetler realizes just how little good it would do to flee). He’s there as more and more from the town stand vigil outside Cochran’s and there as Andy Cramed arrives from Lead to finally atone, in some ways, for who he was here last season by being with the family as a reverend in the final moments. He’s there as Trixie and Sol have a petty, tiny fight that’s perfectly scripted and acted and there in the look on Trixie’s face when she goes to stand vigil at the prompting of Al.
But, most of all, he’s there in the darkened room where Martha and Bullock stand watch, waiting for him to die. Cochran seems to believe there’s no way he’ll recover, and that leaves the two to watch over and talk to him, to try to ease his passage from this world by mopping his brow with a wet cloth or saying things he would like to hear. It’s here that we get the payoff to the scene where William described Bullock’s brother to him, as Bullock uses what little he knows to pretend to be that dead man ("Ducks have landed on the Spearfish pond,” he begins before his voice falters). It’s just another lie we agree upon, another lie we tell to make life a little easier, a little more kind. It’s what William needs to hear so he can take those final, horrible breaths, so he can move on, and it’s what Bullock needs to do to help his wife too, as she rues ever leaving Michigan to come to a place to be with a man who can never really love her like she was loved, to lose her son.
"The hoof hits just one inch to the right, boy's pain is gone, don't have to watch him suffer. I doubt He's omniscient. I know He's myopic,” Cochran says, as he works on Mose, his typical bluster turning God into something of a doddering old man. Cochran has to find this bit of wisdom to hold on to, lest he break. Life continues and continues and continues, and as much as you might wish it would pause for a moment to let you be, to give you a chance to grieve, it won’t. The best we can hope is that there might be someone waiting for us to carry us through the gloom. One of the last lines of dialogue spoken in the episode is by Alma, who instructs Richardson to wait by her open hotel room door while she, too, goes to see what’s happening. Just in case Sophia should wake, she gives Richardson words to soothe her with: "Your mother is just away, Sophia. Very, very soon to return, and all is well." They’re words we all long to hear in times of stress and trial, but, unlike Sophia, we’re not necessarily going to get them. Life intrudes on the privacy of grief. Grief intrudes on the vibrancy of life. What we are is a collection of conflicting emotions, driven by impulses we sometimes don’t understand. The best we can hope for is that we stand together in the dark, to provide the kind of comfort for each other that we would want, should we awaken scared and frightened and alone.
- We’re in the home stretch of season two now, and the four episodes covered this week and next week cement the season as the finest in TV history for me. The variety of experiences contained within are just so perfectly realized that I kind of can’t wait for the whiplash one-two punch of “The Whores Can Come” and “Boy-the-Earth-Talks-To.”
- I enjoy the story of Jane and Joanie coming to rely on each other bit by bit, and I’m rather sorry I didn’t get a chance to touch on it here. As it will become a major point in season three, I’m sure we’ll be talking about it more in weeks to come.
- Similarly, the story of how the Deadwood bank comes to be gets swept away so quickly by William’s death that I didn’t much touch on it. It will be back.
- I’m less enamored of Al’s attempts to use E.B. and Merrick to get at the contents of Blazinov’s telegrams. He’ll use this to great effect throughout the rest of the series (in fact, he does so as soon as in these episodes), but there’s something so direct and non-Machiavellian about it that I kind of find it beneath Al.
- Trixie doing the hardware store’s books continues to be both a point of amusement and a wonderful example of how the character has grown from the first episode of the series. I love that she’s the first depositor in the bank but that she refuses to give her last name, insisting Sol call her “Trixie the Whore” on the deposit slip.
- I also love how the series collects all of its characters into tiny little groups of three or four near the end of “Amalgamation” that they remain in as “Advances” begins, almost as if they’re afraid to break out of them.
- The air of paranoia in “Advances” is just excellently done. Adding William’s death into an already bubbling stew of intrigue causes just a few temperaments to boil over.
- Two little details I love from “Advances”: Tom doesn’t even want to look at the bike anymore. Steve’s racism returns full-force after he tries to save William and fails.
- I also love that the sign outside the newspaper office reads, “Yesterday’s Papers. Free. Gratis.” Ha!
- Things I am less certain about: Richardson praying to some sort of deer god.
- And, finally, quotes.
- "I've been prostrated by the agonies of the damned." "Judgment is upon us then." – E.B. Farnum and Al Swearengen
- "Fetch Mose Manual, Tess. Tell him Sheriff Bullock wants to pay his condolences here among the games of chance." – Cy Tolliver
- "Jane, it's nippy on my twat." – Joanie Stubbs
- "Are not all of us, Mr. Blazinov, tethered in some sese to our labors. And at some point in our lives, is not acceptance of that tethering a path to joy?" – A.W. Merrick
- "Let me get my arm through here so I can secure my fucking toast." – Mose Manual
- "Goodbye Charlie. Have a good fucking trip. Shut the fuck up." – Calamity Jane
- "3 + 3 = 6." "Well, I sometimes put nine to amuse myself." – William Bullock and Trixie
- "Yours sincerely, your boss, Pinkerton shitheels." – Al Swearengen
- "William, do we dare ride double?” – Tom Nuttall
- "Hot and cold's the way the cards run, sir. Time immemorial." – Cy Tolliver
- "Including youth, Mr. Manual? And why not beauty? Not credibly restored, perhaps, but as a new, non-negotiable term. Would you not have too your brother Charlie be resurrected? Would you stipulate your envy for him be purged? Surely you insist that Charlie retain certain defects. His ineffable self-deceptions, for example, which were your joy in life to rebuke and purpose as far as you had one. I suppose you would see removed those qualities which caused you to love him and the obliviousness to danger which allowed you to shed his blood.” – Francis Wolcott
- "Merrick, please, as we'll be more often in each other's company, when given to utterance of that type, consider drinking." – Al Swearengen
- "You'll get a pistol whipping and not learn a fucking thing." – Cy Tolliver
- "Don't take much, does it, commissioner, to get your balls tucked up." "They are very sensitive to changes in the weather. Do you feel one coming on?" – Cy Tolliver and Hugo Jarry
- "I am a sinner who does not expect forgiveness. But I am not a government official." – Francis Wolcott
- "I'll lift you up in the air and carry you before the whole goddamn camp like a turtle with its fucking legs wiggling." – Dan Dority
- "Whose horse it was what?" – Calamity Jane
- "Have you come to murder me, Silas?" "I wouldn't turn down the chance." – Miss Isringhausen and Silas Adams
- "I'd punch that cocksucker in the balls before I'd cup him for comfort." – Calamity Jane
- "If I had kept him in Michigan." "Yes." "I wanna take him home." "Doc says better he's not moved." "There's no better about it. Is there?" – Martha and Seth Bullock
- "You talk like you take it up the ass." "I do not, my friend Adams, take it up the ass." – Silas Adams and Hugo Jarry
- "Day saw advances, Trixie. None miraculous." – Al Swearengen