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Deadwood: "E.B. Was Left Out"/"Childish Things"

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Episode 19. “E.B. Was Left Out.”

"So including last night that's three fucking damage incidents that didn't kill you. Pain or damage don't end the world or despair or fucking beatings. The world ends when you're dead. Until then, you got more punishment in store. Stand it like a man, and give some back." – Al Swearengen

It’s maybe the most-quoted bit of wisdom Al Swearengen ever utters, and it comes at the very beginning of “E.B. Was Left Out,” as Al attempts to comfort Merrick, who sits amid the mess Cy’s not-so-thuggish thugs made of his newspaper office. Al, having recently discovered a passage connecting the Gem to the Pioneer’s offices (one of the few times the show goes in for a too easy metaphor), has ambled on over to see what’s up, and when he finds Merrick in abject despair, he lets him know that he hasn’t really been hurt. He’s still alive, right? He lives to fight another day. At first, it feels like a bit of business cut from the previous episode for time, but as “E.B. Was Left Out,” one of my four or five favorite episodes of Deadwood, progresses, it becomes obvious that this thematic cousin to “Something Very Expensive” needs that speech to set itself up. If “Expensive” is about how we deal with evil and tragedy, then “E.B.” is about how we keep on going, how we push ahead, even when life is constantly slapping us in the face. Stand it like a man, and give some back.

The story that Deadwood hangs this idea off of is the conflict between Charlie Utter and Francis Wolcott. Wolcott, as we saw in the last episode, is a man whose moral code is seriously deficient. He’s almost certainly a sociopath (though, again, Deadwood never thinks of sociopaths as wholly amoral monsters, which makes them so compelling). He’s done something unspeakably evil, having killed Maddie, Doris and Carrie, and he’s going to get away with it, thanks largely to Cy, who wants the crime to remain covered up and uninvestigated, the better to keep the Hearst money in town. And because of the tricky status of the town’s claims and the town’s legal status, just about everyone else is willing to wait things out, even when Cy all but spills the beans as to what actually happened at a meeting of the town’s leaders.

It falls to kind, decent Charlie to do what must be done. The deputy hears from his friend Joanie (who insists she’s not coming to him in any official capacity) about just what happened at the Chez Ami, and the news obviously distresses him, as does the fact that there’s really nothing he can do about it. Adding insult to injury is the fact that he ends up directly behind Wolcott in line for breakfast at the hotel, his breath steaming Wolcott’s neck. There’s only so much he can take, knowing what kind of monster Wolcott is, and with a short speech ("I am good at first impressions, and you are a fucking cunt, and I doubt you've fought many men”), he drags Wolcott out into the street and beats the hell out of him, only stopping because Bullock pulls him off. The beating he doles out leads to that meeting of the town leaders described above, where Bullock has to overcome his natural propensity to seek justice, which would normally lead him to back Charlie, for the good of the camp. (The moment when Bullock has to say that he won’t look further into the cause of Charlie’s anger at Wolcott with a curt little head shake because he seemingly can’t even open his mouth to vocalize is one of Timothy Olyphant’s finest acting moments in the series.)

From there, the episode dances around the question of whether or not these two will meet again and what will happen when and if they do. Wolcott lets Charlie know that he has Wild Bill’s final communiqué and that if Charlie will just come and see him, he’ll let him have the letter. It’s, of course, a tempting offer for Charlie, who is still carrying around the intense grief he feels over the death of his friend, but both he and we know that Wolcott is capable of just about anything, and it could be a trap. Everyone’s trying to suss out just why Charlie did what he did, just how much he knows, and in a beautifully written little scene, Al constructs an excuse to talk to Charlie, just to try to trick him into revealing what he knows (he makes a misstep when he overstates what Joanie would have told Charlie). And that, of course, is the reason why Wolcott wants to see Charlie – to learn just what he knows and how much of a threat he is. The scene, which closes the episode, crackles with tension, with the question of Charlie’s decency or his belief in the camp and desire for the letter will win out. The latter does, and he lives, but the look of despair on Dayton Callie’s face when he makes his choice (followed by the surge of hopefulness in his voice when he takes the letter) lets us know just how agonizing it is for him to make that call.

This is also the first episode where Al is significantly out of his office and wandering the camp since the season premiere, and he seems almost like a wise sage now, as if his brush with death has left him both more personable and more aware of just how deeply his destiny is now tied into the destinies of everyone else in the camp. Sidelining Ian McShane for so long allowed the show to build many of the other characters into significant personages within the show’s universe, but it did occasionally leave the show feeling like it had no center (purposefully, of course), and having him back makes all things feel right within the show’s cosmos again.

The episode, in particular, does a good job of laying out just what Miss Isringhausen’s game is and why she’s come to Al (who, as always, has a better sense of just how everyone’s trying to play him than those trying to play him even seem to have), as it ties together Al and Alma, two characters who have shared very little screen time (and even less in one-on-one scenes) up until now. Now, even though their past is knit together with sadness, Al and Alma have a shared future, so long as her claim can remain the sole holdout against Hearst and keep Al’s machinations in play. That, coupled with his intense hatred of the Pinkertons (whom he’s figured Isringhausen to be working for) and Alma’s desire to keep her gold out of the hands of her in-laws, brings the two together in a way that the series might have seemed incapable of even at the beginning of the season. Circumstances change, Deadwood argues, but the great thing is that people can change with them. On most other shows, a character like Al would approach this problem like a blunt instrument, but some combination of his illness and his natural savvy has led him to realize there are other ways around the problem. The genius of Deadwood is that it makes these character shifts feel perfectly in character.

Of course, not everyone is able to keep pushing past the slights the world deals them. Just look at the character singled out in the title, who lurks in the background of so many shots this episode, drinking in information as he usually does but finding himself unable to use that information in any good way. When E.B. isn’t invited to the meeting of the town’s leaders, he takes it as a slap to his ego, as a way for everyone in town to taunt and provoke him. And why shouldn’t he? He’s the mayor! Unlike Al or Bullock or even Charlie, though, he’s unable to move past it, needing the calming words of Al near episode’s end to stop bristling over the perceived insult. E.B. is, in some ways, the show’s most tragic character (though his tragedy is so hilarious that it rarely seems that way), his lofty ambitions conflicting with his limited means and his personality utterly lacking the self-awareness that would lead him to step back and reevaluate his life. Instead, he just heaps the punishment the world dumps on him on Richardson, and things continue apace.

But, for the most part, Al’s advice holds sway. What is that scene where Bullock goes to see Alma but an example of two people feeling the bruises left by emotional beatings but choosing to push past them? The looks on both of their faces show how much pain this brings them, but it’s important that they feel out how this is going to work, how the two of them can live together, how Bullock’s partner can set up a bank with Alma’s backing and he can just grin and bear it. And, yet, neither of them is out of the woods just yet. Alma, after all, is “unwell in the mornings,” and both she and Bullock know why, though neither of them can ever vocalize that. For the good of the camp. For the good of themselves.

Because if “E.B. Was Left Out” is about knowing how to press forward, to get past the damage done to you, it’s also about knowing when it’s time to stop fighting and let things work themselves out. Bullock and Alma have to keep fighting their passion because it’s the right thing to do for all involved, but just as they must do that, Charlie must stop his fight against Wolcott, lest things go from bad to worse, what with Hearst still lurking over the horizon. Al is never happier than when he’s finding ways to carry the fight to his enemies, and now that he’s out and about, marshalling his resources, he’s going to give some back (as he elucidates so terrifically in that scene where he tells Dan why he needn’t go round up help in Cheyenne). Trixie, scared of change, of what she could be, gets back in the game both at the behest of her boss and at the behest of her own deep-seated desire to become something else. And everyone in town, though they know what happened at the Chez Ami, must overlook it for now. There are bigger things coming. This doesn’t make any of this any easier. They’re still left with Joanie, sitting alone, unprotected and destroyed in the empty Chez Ami, darkness coloring her beautiful face. They’re still left with three deaths. But they do what must be done. They’re still alive, aren’t they?

Episode 20. “Childish Things.”

“Childish Things” is kind of an orphan episode in Deadwood’s second season. The first two episodes, of course, are the two-part premiere, while the next two tell the story of Al’s illness and how the town copes with his absence. The next three form a very loose trilogy about what the town’s going to do with this Wolcott fellow, and the final four form another fairly loose quartet (though telling you what it’s about would be a major, major spoiler). But “Childish Things” occupies an uneasy middle ground between the two groups. It’s not a bad episode or anything (can an episode of Deadwood be outright bad?), but it is probably the least compelling of the second season, a throat-clearing episode before the big events that go down in the final four go down. That said, it has one of my absolute favorite sequences of the entire series, and it’s a necessary episode in moving some parts of the storyline forward. But, sadly, I probably won’t have as much to say about this one as I did the last three.

The titular “Childish Things,” of course, hearken back to the New Testament again, specifically Paul (“When I was a child, I spoke as a child,” etc.), but they also refer to the episode’s best sequence, when Tom Nuttall takes his new bicycle (and I like the way he pronounces it with the second syllable sounding like Cy’s name) and rides it over a muddy patch, against long odds that he won’t be able to make it. The bicycle (or velocipede) captures the imagination of most of the townsfolk, including young William and Richardson, and when Tom takes it on his ride, the editing of the sequence, cutting between the many watchers and Tom on the contraption and Merrick snapping his photograph and Al unexpectedly cheering him on from his balcony, is propulsive and filled with the sheer joy and wonder the residents of Deadwood must have felt at seeing such a thing, unprecedented in their muddy little camp, happen. Deadwood is better than almost any other series at showing how moments like these can unite all of us by causing the same emotion to rise up in all of us (even Wolcott can’t stop the smile from forming on his lips). The joy at watching Tom’s wild ride might be a bit of a childish thing in and of itself, but it feels so pure and good that it almost doesn’t matter.

The galloping modernization of Deadwood continues in other ways in this episode, as telegraph operator Blazanov shows up and takes up his seat in Merrick’s office (where Al immediately begins trying to corrupt him by offering him free blow jobs over at the Gem). Merrick’s guided tour of the camp to Blazanov feels almost too similar to when he showed the teacher around two episodes ago (though there are hints dropped at a handful of points in the series that Merrick is gay), but the Russian man’s arrival means that Deadwood is finally connected more thoroughly to the outside world, an outside world that can bring in joys like the bicycle or darker clouds like Hearst’s arrival (which is imminent, if Wolcott’s letter is to be believed).

“Childish Things,” more than any other, seems to dig into the fact that so much of the American dream in the late 19th century was built on the backs of cheap immigrant labor, as we delve into the Hearst operation in a terrific mini sequence that juxtaposes Wolcott’s guarded words about just what’s going on at the many claims Hearst has bought up with the brutal reality of how the Cornish and German miners are treated, one of them streaking, naked, away from the group shower he’s a part of, shot dead by one of Hearst’s men. Again and again, Deadwood makes these points about the raw, unfettered nature of a capitalism that doesn’t account for the human beings that make up its building blocks, but it never does so in too loud a manner.

It’d be too reductive to say that Deadwood hates all capitalism. After all, it seems decidedly in favor of Al’s form of capitalism, which is in favor of making a buck any way it can but also doesn’t neglect the fact that those bucks are being taken from actual human beings. Hearst’s form of capitalism as something that exploits often poor and uneducated workers and even the earth they dig into, though, the show views as unhelpful, just another way that people can be subjugated and not celebrated as individuals. Wolcott is a murderer and user of women because his boss is an even more corrupt murderer and user of people of all stripes, and if this is not clear by this point in the second season, it will become crystal clear in the third season, when Hearst shows up in the flesh.

But how do you stand up to this sort of thing? Deadwood’s been asking this question in smaller ways in the previous episodes, but it begins to expand that question out to encompass the entire camp in this episode (a method that will reach its apex in the masterful season finale). The episode still looks at this on an individual basis (as in that marvelous scene when Joanie at first seems to be re-embracing her death wish but then fights off Wolcott by smacking him with the bourbon bottle), but it’s also very interested in the brick-by-brick way that Al and his collaborators are building a resistance that will be able to withstand whatever is thrown against it, sometimes completely accidentally (Charlie sends Jane to look after Joanie almost as an afterthought, just because he wants to give her a purpose to help her assuage her grief, but the relationship that develops between the two is one of the best in the series). I love the way Deadwood captures how people come together to accomplish greater things, even when they can’t quite capture just why they’re doing such things, and “Childish Things” builds on that theme more than adequately.

The Bullock and Alma relationship continues to drag other unwitting participants into its wreckage, as Martha and William go to visit Alma and just being in her presence is enough to make Martha go to Bullock and tell him that he need not fulfill his marital duties to her anymore and that he can go off with Alma, should he so choose. Both of these scenes are terrifically done, but neither is the match of the scene where Ellsworth goes to Alma to propose marriage to her, his nerves clearly overwhelming his carefully prepared speech, which is really rather sweet and reveals just how deeply sad Ellsworth is and just how happy even a fake marriage to Alma would make him. That Alma doesn’t immediately reject him seems to fill him with a kind of hope. (I also like the scene where Ellsworth tells the little dog just how good of a husband he could be – "When a boulder needs hauling, I will haul a boulder” – though talking to animals is generally not a good sign on this show.)

“Childish Things” is positively filled with monologues. Al continues talking to the head of the dead Indian chief (something he began in the previous episode, where he launched into a long monologue about where everything in the camp stood to the box containing the chief’s head), while Charlie goes to Bill’s grave to talk to him about how worried he is about Jane and other matters. I don’t mind Deadwood’s outright theatricality (indeed, it’s one of the things I love about the show), but “Childish Things” pushes this theatricality a few degrees too far for me, as all of the monologues feel like things the show needs to let us know to get us caught up with before we enter the plunge into the finale.

Wolcott, meanwhile, is trying to buy a claim off of two brothers, including Pruitt Taylor Vance as Mose, a character whose yet another the show introduces as though he’s going to be a one-shot thing and then keeps around just because David Milch seems to enjoy writing for him (come to think of it, this may be why the show’s budget was always so astronomical – no one ever left!). Mose, blinded by his desire for the $200,000, murders his brother, whose more skeptical about selling (neatly timing his gunshot to the commotion surrounding the bicycle race), but he, from there, crumbles, unable to deal with the fact that his brother is dead and that he killed him, despite having Wolcott there to coach him through his guilt and grief. It’s an interesting turn for a storyline that the show seems to have visited before, and Vance plays the hell out of it.

“Childish Things,” as mentioned, isn’t bad, per se, but it never accumulates the thematic throughline that the last three episodes had in spades. It’s full of great individual performances and individual moments, but the storylines all feel scattered, as though Milch and his writers needed to have all of this stuff happen but couldn’t figure out a way to tie all of it together. That said, there’s a host of terrific stuff in this episode, even including something as seemingly perfunctory as Alma confronting Miss Isringhausen, and at this point, it’s just a joy to hang out with all of these characters and see what they’re up to. “Childish Things” is an episode mostly designed to get us from point A to point B, but it’s a stylish one, and that makes it well worth it.

Stray observations:

  • “E.B. Was Left Out” was directed by Michael Almereyda, a great indie film director, perhaps best known for that version of Hamlet that starred Ethan Hawke and set the “To be or not to be” soliloquy in a Blockbuster Video. OK, he’s not for everyone, but his use of quick, jumpy zooms enhances the tension of the episode.
  • I love the weird runner where Con and Leon try to interest people in the Chinese prostitutes, which features a lot of great lines, particularly from Con, who is turning into one of the show’s funniest characters.
  • I also like that Al seems to be growing even more grudging respect for Bullock. The feeling seems to be mutual.
  • I had meant to transcribe all of Al’s terrific monologue to the Indian head in “E.B. Was Left Out,” but I didn’t do so, figuring it would be on the Internet somewhere. As it turns out, it’s not! But it’s a wonderful monologue!
  • One of the things I hope I get to touch on at length at some point in the course of these recaps is how the characters all do sound sorta similar but also have their own rhythms and cadences. You’d never mistake, say, an Alma line for a Joanie line or even an Al line for a Cy line. Milch writes in a specific rhythm, but his characters all sound different.
  • Quotes!
  • "Among humans for grip, the Chinawoman's snatch has no peer. Among nature, the python is its only rival, though few have lived to tell the tale." – Cy Tolliver
  • "We are dwarfs among a fucking giant." – Con Stapleton (in response to the above)
  • "Should I exhale out my ass?" – Charlie Utter
  • "You frighten her." "I have that effect." "I think specifically, it was you plotting against her life." – Alma Garrett and Al Swearengen
  • "You tell that child no hard feelings." – Al Swearengen
  • "I don't fuck Chinese. I got a mother living yet." – Random drunk guy
  • "Did he condescend, deputy, to your yelp of fucking pain?" – Tom Nuttall
  • “The bald contempt of it. Why not come out five abreast, cavorting and taunting – ‘E.B. was left out. E.B. was left out.’ Cocksuckers. Cunt-lickers. I'll make you filthy gestures. Public service was never my primary career.” – E.B. Farnum
  • "I'm erratic with my decimals and the like." – Trixie
  • "Do not fucking fault them, Trixie, for your own fucking fears of tumbling to something new." – Al Swearengen
  • "I know it was dusk because it's fucking night now." – Calamity Jane
  • "I don't mean see in the sense of seeing." – Al Swearengen
  • "Full fucking day, eh, boss?" "They all are." – Dan Dority and Al Swearengen
  • “I won't stop talking nor show the fucking future my neck.” – Cy Tolliver
  • "To not grab ankle is to declare yourself interested." – Al Swearengen
  • "Dead, without a body, you still outstrip him for intelligence." – Al Swearengen
  • "I'm trying to imagine what courtesy of mine would have forestalled the last awkwardness between us." – Martha Bullock
  • "Those that doubt me, suck cock by choice." – Tom Nuttall
  • "I'm thinking more the chief backer might find unpleasant this building always being in her view." – Seth Bullock
  • "All right then, Mrs. Garrett. You've had your fit of temper. Get the fuck back to your room." – Miss Isringhausen
  • "May I go watch the bicycle?" "Watch the Earth yielding up its dead so long as it's not near me." – Richardson and E.B. Farnum
  • "Lately, I talk to this package. This severed rotting head I paid bounty on last year of that murdered fucking Indian." – Al Swearengen
  • "If we held to that rule, we'd be mute like monks months at a fucking time." – Calamity Jane
  • "I reject the offering. I repudiate it. I find it poisonous." – Martha Bullock
  • "Visit and you will experience a tradition only used in this camp or my place by newly arrived telegraph operators fucking free be their preference of tail tall or fucking otherwise and by all means welcome to America." – Al Swearengen
  • "That easy, to forget a fucking brother." – Mose Manual
  • "There are no remedies discovered yet sovereign against sentimental fucking remorse." – Francis Wolcott
  • "Who runs that joint?" "A grotesque named Farnum." "He ain't lied so far." – Calamity Jane and Francis Wolcott

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