Episode 3. “New Money.”
“New Money” isn’t the best episode of Deadwood, but it’s one of the most important. In terms of the wheels it sets in motion for the future of the show, it’s damn near vital. Think, for instance, of just how much the threat of George Hearst (first obliquely referred to) brings to the show in terms of giving it more of a traditional plot structure. One of the main plot thrusts of season two is about guarding against Hearst’s imminent arrival, making sure the claims are secure. The third season will be all about actually dealing with Hearst, and the fourth season would have been about the fallout from what happened when Hearst arrived (without spoiling too much). By bringing Francis Wolcott into the picture (as played by the returning Garret Dillahunt, who was Jack McCall in season one), the series indicates that the closed-off world of Deadwood is about to blow wide open. The camp is not just part of the United States or Dakota Territory now. It’s a part of a whole world of people who want to exploit it for whatever reason, and defense will be the first order of business.
In addition, “New Money” does something that was rather controversial and nervy at the time it aired. Toward the end of Deadwood’s first season, Al Swearengen was becoming the show’s standard bearer in pieces written about how good the show had grown as it wrapped up season one. Most of the reviews of early episodes said the show was good but shaky, and the later reviews, praising how the season wrapped up, all pointed out how Swearengen was a guy who never quite did what you expected him to, who was always keeping you guessing. They also focused on how terrific Ian McShane’s performance was, and McShane actually won a Golden Globe for the part between seasons. So when people tuned into the second season (which managed surprisingly solid ratings without a Sopranos lead-in), it’s entirely likely they were they were tuning to watch McShane. Certainly, they got their fill of Al in the first two episodes, where Al and Seth quarreled and he tried to patch things up with Yankton. But in this episode and the next, he’s mostly sidelined by a stone blocking his urine stream. The scenes where Cochran tries to remove the stone are so horrifying as to be indelible in the series’ overall run, but these two episodes feature basically none of the highly colorful and quotable dialogue Al regularly spouted.
At the time, removing the series’ most vivid character (and arguably its best) as well as the character fans liked the most was seen as a bad move. And if this is the first time you’ve ever watched Deadwood, I could see where you might not enjoy having Al sidelined so thoroughly. I promise you it will pay off in interesting ways throughout the rest of the season (ways you can see foreshadowed in these two episodes), but the immediate effect in these two episodes of having Al wander off into infirmity is to both cause the political situation to fall completely apart in the camp (Wolcott’s arrival preceding what would seem to be a period where everyone’s claims will be suspect) and to deepen some of the other characters, who were interesting in season one but become just as vivid as Al was in season one in season two. Normally, when a series sidelines its central character, it fumbles around for something else to do for that episode. Here, the vivid themes of Deadwood, how every human is a part of a larger organism, come to life in a way mere dialogue couldn’t convey.
The practical concerns, of course, are that not having Al there to lean on Wolcott and Yankton’s man, Hugo Jarry (who properly arrives in “Requiem for a Gleet”) allows Tolliver to swoop in and fill the vacuum, imperiling nearly everyone else in town, right down to Wu. Had Al been there, Wolcott couldn’t have gotten the head start in spreading rumors about the camp’s sustainability that he did through Farnum (though Farnum, without Al to lean on, doesn’t put his whole heart into it, you might say), simply because Al would have sized him up. With Al locked away in his room, no one in Deadwood has anyone to turn to. Even Seth, who can’t stand Al, needs him to play yang to his yin, and without him, he can make a better shot at being a family man. Indeed, the last time we see Seth in this episode is through the window of his house, sitting at dinner with his wife and stepson, one of the most graceful familial images in the series.
Wolcott, though, is the main focus of the episode. It seems that he’s here at the behest of Cy, who has been talking with Hearst, though he’s not to speak of Hearst even to Wolcott. Since there are questions about the stability of the currently held claims in the area, thanks to the recent procurement of the land by the government, Wolcott aims to create something of a panic so people will sell, ideally to Hearst. He’s also looking to manipulate the political situation to land any claims that do end up in the hands of the government (as always, it’s more complicated than this by far, but if you’re mostly just watching for the characters and language, that’s all you really need to know). To that end, he’s working mainly with Cy and E.B. Both react rather poorly to the whole thing, Cy taking out all of this and recent defections from the Bella Union (notably by Joanie) on his staff and suggesting if they want to quit, they should step forward and do so. E.B., meanwhile, keeps trying to bring news of what’s going on to Al but finds himself blocked by Dan and Al’s condition. This leads him to turn his rage toward Richardson, ladling out long monologues about his powerlessness in the situation to the poor employee ("Richardson, Richardson, Richardson. When will come the quiet hours of our declining years?"). E.B. and Richardson have been described as the series’ most blatantly Shakespearean characters, and it’s in this episode that the groundwork for the role they’ll play begins to be laid.
It certainly helps that Wolcott is one of the series’ most fascinating characters. It doesn’t take long to realize that there’s something off about him, and everyone who’s met him at some point before (just Maddie at this point, though we’ll meet someone else in “Gleet”) knows that he’s bad news. But he’s also a natural philosopher, taking time to expound both on the nature of mankind (though he’ll do more of that later) and the nature of his enterprises. As played by Dillahunt, he’s the closest the series comes to making one of its borderline sociopaths something closer to a Hannibal Lecter than an actual human being, but he’s also always saying something incredibly interesting about the human condition. He’s also got a kind of intuition for what it is that drives the various people he meets that makes him good at his business. He’s a geologist, yes, but his main goal here is to both cause unrest and to manipulate the situation to Hearst’s advantage.
That he does as good a job of that as he does in so short a time is both due to Al and Seth being called away by separate obligations and due to his natural ability to play people against each other. Watching Dillahunt as Wolcott is one of the finer pleasures of season two, and I look forward to what he’ll do in the weeks to come. (A good example of all he’s capable of comes in that final scene he shares with Joanie, where he seems so ill at ease, knowing how he can get out of control around women – Maddie intimates that he’s killed one. He removes himself from the situation, but you can sense the tension within him, and his note that he’s impressed Joanie armed herself indicates that he knows something’s up and someone’s trying to play him, rather than the other way around. He’s an instinctual character in a show full of characters who deal in political machinations, and that’s what makes him so fascinating.)
That said, it really all does come back to Al. The episode’s end deals with Cochran trying to get the stone out using a metal rod he sticks up Al’s urethra (and good God is that horrifying for any male and a good number of females, if my wife’s reaction is any indication) to free the urine. As Al screams in abject pain, we cut down to the faces on the street, looking up to the lit window of their absent king, wondering what can be going on to cause him to scream like that. Their faces reflect their concern. As much as some of them hate or dislike Al, he’s the devil they know, and in the cases of at least two of them (Jane and Sol), their hearts are big enough to hate his suffering anyway just for being suffering. As Johnny comes out to say that the stone hasn’t passed, there’s a wavering concern in his voice, and we realize that a Deadwood without Al is as good as dead. Al, violent, unpredictable Al, has become a paragon of the forces of Deadwood’s independence simply by being absent at an inconvenient time. The places that will push his character in the episodes to come are another pleasure of season two.
As mentioned, “New Money” isn’t the staggering masterpiece so many episodes are in season two, but it gets the job done by far. Its main goal is to set the major plots of season two in motion (Al’s illness, Hearst’s play for the gold of Deadwood, Seth’s adjustment to domestic life), and it does a terrific, efficient job of doing all of this. It is, as its episode title might suggest, mostly concerned with what is new and noteworthy (interesting that Merrick doesn’t really appear in it), with what will be changing and altering Deadwood almost beyond recognition in the weeks to come.
Episode 4. “Requiem for a Gleet.”
As everyone has mentioned in comments throughout the run of this series, “Requiem for a Gleet” is a pretty awful episode title. As an actual episode, though, it’s pretty terrific, filling a similar function in comparison to last season’s fourth episode, “Here Was a Man.” Here, the episode is as much about the absence of one man – Al Swearengen – as that episode was about one man’s presence – Wild Bill Hickock. This episode also has one of the most beautiful shots of the series, as the people who worked to eject Al’s stone without the doctor having to cut into him (which would likely end disastrously) collapse back on the bed with him. The way the shot captures Al, Cochran, Johnny, Trixie and Dan, hidden in shadow, is really artful, suggesting all of them in some interconnected tangle (one of the series’ major themes), the camera pulling back to see more and more of them. Indeed, at first, it’s hard to tell Dan is even there, but the camera’s pull back allows us to more fully see him. They all look exhausted but happy, a community of man, having successfully completed their task.
Al’s absence is so keenly felt that the final shot is also of him, head on pillow, lips letting out a contented puff of air, his body finally free of his illness. But despite those two scenes, Al’s not really in the episode, and, again, his absence allows people like Tolliver, Jarry and Wolcott to move against him, and it allows Farnum, in the absence of a wiser man to lean on, to be played pretty thoroughly by Wolcott, realize he’s being played by Wolcott and yet be powerless to do anything about it. Without Al, Wu’s in real danger of being supplanted (or even killed) by Mr. Lee. And the people in Al’s immediate orbit are affected heavily by his potential death. Trixie turns mean and spiteful (in the last episode, she and Jane shared a conversation about men that’s one of the better conversations of that sort on this show). Dan seems on the verge of a tearful outburst at all times. Johnny just can’t deal with it. And Silas tries to get information to Al, even though he’s not really capable of receiving it. By showing how thoroughly things can fall apart when Al goes missing, the show makes his importance even more impressive. (And I realize that folks in comments have already talked about the two shots I single out above, but I was sufficiently impressed with them as to write them down of my own accord.)
Seth, meanwhile, is trying even harder to live within the new domestic constraints he finds himself in. The episode opening conversation about how he and Martha might “start a discussion” is a very funny and moving scene confronting the question of just how much these two people owe each other in the vein of traditional married people obligations. It takes a few moments to realize that the two are talking about sex at all, and the final shot – of Martha out of focus in the background as Seth closes the door behind them – is another terrific one, encapsulating nicely the worry and concern both have about something they probably want to do but still find rather troubling all the same. Seeing Seth with a jaunty smile on his face later as he comes down for breakfast is another good laugh about how the two’s relationship is progressing, though the labored negotiations they have to go through are the direct opposite of the way Seth and Alma’s relationship seemed to proceed.
In the absence of both Seth and Al, it’s Alma who morphs into the power player against Cy and Wolcott’s forces. When Ellsworth sees Wolcott out at the claim, he realizes he’s not a good guy, thanks to the way that he and Hearst were complicit in the deaths of many miners in an accident at a Colorado mining claim. He all but chases Wolcott off the claim, then informs Alma that he thinks the guy’s interests in the town are both less than wholesome and probably overstated. Using that information, Alma is able to play E.B. off of Wolcott, suggesting that she’s ready to buy his hotel and he should name a fair price for it. She, of course, is not, but as far as an aim to tighten the screws further on E.B. and get him to pop (something she seems uniquely capable of doing), it’s as good a play as any, and in the absence of Al and Seth, it’s probably the best one available to her. (Alma’s also dealing with the fact that she feels Miss Isringhausen acted inappropriately in warding Seth off the day before, the better to keep her boss from scandal, I guess. She’s dismissed her, as such, and Isringhausen is now stuck in town without a role, though it’s not spoiling too much to say that we’ll discover she does, indeed, have one.)
What emerges the most for me in this storyline is not just Alma’s steel but Ellsworth’s inherent decency. He’s always been a decent guy (we could tell in season one), but here, his decency shines through in a big way. Ellsworth may be the most purely innocent and noble character on Deadwood (perhaps notable in a character who was introduced as someone who had just struck it rich), and while he may have his darker moments, they’re always in the service of some greater good. He also seems mostly unselfish, as we learn here when we find that he dug out a handful of miners from the accident that occurred on Hearst’s watch. When Ellsworth suggests that Wolcott switching the subject from the awful number of men lost in the accident to his own heroic acts is Wolcott’s way of avoiding the question, Wolcott’s evasion is artful but suggests who he is at his base ("Always a choice … to count the saved or lost”). Ellsworth has that way about him. His inherent goodness tends to corner the people of Deadwood, who are often have souls blacker than they are white, and make them admit things they might not otherwise. (Interestingly, Charlie Utter also serves this function, though with an entirely different set of characters.)
Hugo Jarry’s arrival is another signifier of the town moving toward being a part of the United States officially. But he’s a more venal reminder that the more official channels can be just as filled with corruption and selfishness as the unofficial channels Deadwood had when it was still an illegal operation. He’s easily bought out by Wolcott and Cy (though the scene where he is bathed by a Bella Union whore is hilarious), and he tells them that there’s a lottery coming, and everyone in Deadwood could stand to lose everything to Hearst. Having this information puts the Wolcott faction ahead, but ideally, not for long. Wolcott, of course, has his own weaknesses, as suggested by a late scene where he tries to educate the Chez Ami whores about life in a way that alienates Joanie (it’s here that the notion of Joanie being sexually abused comes up again – this is a motif David Milch returns to again and again in his work). Wolcott is attached to the whore Carrie, who is newly arrived in town, and in a small, private scene, we find that their connection is stronger than it might have seemed to be.
All in all, though, this is an episode about what people do when they face trying times without the ones who usually make sure to care for them. Al is not especially, outwardly benevolent. He couches his few acts of decency (caring for the preacher, making sure Jewel has a place) as more acts of someone who doesn’t have a choice other than to be decent. But he is interested in the future of the camp and making sure it exists in the years to come. Yeah, that’s because he stands to make a mint if it does, but it’s also because he’s made a home there, found people he can rely on there. And his relationship with Trixie, complicated though it is, approaches something like an odd form of love and respect between the two. Now, however, that’s all falling apart, and he’s stuck in bed. He’ll have to get up soon if all will be averted.
- It must be said that David Milch has absolutely no idea how to write children. That scene between William and the red-headed little kid about the trout named Jumbo may be the worst thing he’s ever written. Kids just don’t speak naturally in Milchisms.
- I love how the frames in this season are always bustling. Hiring and clothing all of those extras must have cost a ton of money, but it pays off in giving you the sense that the camp is full of new people, looking to make their futures.
- When Trixie’s trying to rouse Al from his room, where he’s laying on the floor, unable to get up, she speaks a little more poetically than I think she actually would, but I do like how she uses the fact that she’s going to the hardware store as a potential motivator for him to come stop her. (And I had forgotten that Sol rebuffs her when she asks to learn how to do the books.)
- Terrific little comment on how the show uses modern profanity to suggest that the way the residents of Deadwood spoke would have been shocking to ears at the time but not our own when Wolcott asks, as, he says, the Romans would say, “Is the gist that I’m shit out of luck?” and E.B. replies, “Did they speak that way then?”
- I like that Leon and Con stumble toward the truth of what’s happening pretty much on their own. They should form a crime-solving team.
- Another thing I like about “Requiem” is just how much of it takes place in the early morning hours. Many episodes have a lot of stuff happen at night but little after dawn. This one’s the opposite.
- Maddie’s plan to get cash from Wolcott should seem dangerous to anyone rational, but Joanie’s not exactly rational at this point, is she?
- More foreshadowing of how the show was to originally end from Trixie: “Say you'll burn it down with me Dan. … This fuckin' place. Before letting Tolliver take it over.”
- Sorry for the lateness. My travel kept me from my normal Tuesday Deadwood watching schedule. I don’t think it’ll happen again, but I’ll be sure to give you warning if it does.
- Finally, quotes:
- “If you're not dead and already mouldering, I send news to remind you. A fish to rival the fabled Leviathan has swum into our waters. … I also have the news you dispatched me to procure of the newly arrived cunt.” – E.B. Farnum
- "Maybe after work, we can make him pay for his slothful ways." – Seth Bullock
- "Sometimes, when disappointed, his crankiness runs away from him." – Maddie
- "Even in an Eden like this, wrongs sometimes occur." – Sol Starr
- "I work for one man." "Jesus Christ. Doesn't every one of us?" – Francis Wolcott and Cy Tolliver
- "Where's it headed, now I'm the occupant?" "It ain't goin' anywheres." – Calamity Jane and Charlie Utter
- "Remove your hand from my forearm. Do not touch me again." – Francis Wolcott
- "Nothing just happens, Mr. Farnum. … And do you think this hat makes my head look big?" "No sir. It makes your head look the perfect size." – Francis Wolcott and E.B. Farnum
- "It's his sick fucking way of protecting her." – Trixie
- "Do you understand me, you repulsive lout?" "No." – E.B. Farnum and Richardson
- "I promise, as I sojourn here, to bring you stories of the world of men." "I'll just be here in the world of girls diddling myself." – Francis Wolcott and Joanie Stubbs
- "Would you like to start a discussion this morning?" – Seth Bullock
- "The noise is terrible, isn't it, Mr. Ellsworth? Like fate." – Francis Wolcott
- "Nobody gets even. We get dead." – Maddie
- "One hopes for the best. One perseveres. One reevaluates constantly. One is an asshole if one doesn't." – E.B. Farnum
- "I'll have you in a dress in no time." – Alma Garret
- "Man might use that time to put some stink on his johnson." – Cy Tolliver
- "Whiskey does not steady the hand. It just dulls the worry over the hand's unsteadiness." – Doc Cochran
- "I can offer you a whiskey or water that I just washed my face in." – Silas Adams
- "Or would you feel better if I shot myself?" – Silas Adams
- "Your titties!" – Hugo Jarry
- "Eamon, we live life however we choose." – Dan Dority