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Deadwood: "Tell Your God to Ready for Blood"/"I Am Not the Fine Man You Take Me For"

Illustration for article titled iDeadwood/i: Tell Your God to Ready for Blood/I Am Not the Fine Man You Take Me For
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Episode 25. “Tell Your God to Ready for Blood.”

Deadwood’s third season is very, very good. And yet …

To watch this third season is to learn an exercise in frustration in many ways. Before the season began airing, HBO announced that it intended to bring back the show for a fourth year, and creator David Milch and his writers self-consciously structured this season as part one of a two-part story that would conclude in season four. To that end, there’s a lot of material that’s raised that feels perfunctory and a bit incomplete, as though we’re being set up for a bunch of stuff that will pay off later. The most notable case of this is with the theatre troupe, which will turn up in the next handful of episodes, but there are a number of things in season three that feel a bit meandering.

Meandering isn’t necessarily a bad thing in a world as richly constructed as Deadwood’s is, though. There’s a scene in this episode that’s pretty much just Bullock and Martha walking the length of the town as they head from their house to the Chez Ami, which has become the town’s schoolhouse in the wake of Joanie having to shut it down last season. But it’s just a terrific, moving scene, sending the two (and, eventually, Sofia) past all of the townsfolk we’ve come to know and love over the course of the first two seasons and letting them interact. It’s a scene that’s purpose – reintroducing us to everyone in the town as the third season begins – doesn’t necessarily justify all the time spent on it, but it’s still one of the nicest bits of business in the whole episode.

“Tell Your God to Ready for Blood” isn’t as pulse-pounding a season-opener as season two’s “A Lie Agreed Upon, Pt. 1,” but it doesn’t need to be. One of the chief pleasures of a long-running TV series is the point when you can just sort of lose yourself in the world it has built, the point when you know it well enough to have absorbed its rhythms but don’t know it so well that you find those rhythms suffocating. Usually, this point comes somewhere in the midst of seasons three through five, especially on shows that don’t radically reinvent their premises at the drop of a hat, so there’s a sense of Deadwood settling in like this, inviting us to step back in for another season of political intrigue, foul-mouthed monologues and frontier world-building. To that end, “Tell Your God” can get away with not being as driving as the other premieres simply because its aims are different. Where the pilot had to establish an entire world and “A Lie Agreed Upon” had to contextualize the show for new viewers happening upon the series in the wake of awards success, “Tell Your God” is a greeting card to fans, suggesting they come in and have a seat.

On the other hand, it’s hard to talk about this episode without talking about the circumstances it was first broadcast under. A few weeks before the third season debuted in June of 2006, HBO announced it would not renew the actors contracts for a fourth season when the deadline rolled around. From there, a storm of rumors swept the Internet, suggesting that the show’s sets were being dismantled, many of the actors were already seeking new work and that David Milch himself had decided to end the show to pursue a new “surf noir” series (which would become John from Cincinnati).

Over the years, the true details have come out – HBO, which had ridden the ratings and DVD sales success of The Sopranos, Sex and the City and Six Feet Under to embrace a long series of frankly complex and difficult programs like Deadwood or The Wire or Carnivale, just had too many expensive series, and even though Deadwood had a loyal audience and much critical praise, its ratings didn’t quite justify its expense. In addition, the show was produced by a separate studio entirely (Paramount), which meant that HBO benefited even less from DVD sales than it did with other series. The network was also undergoing a change in management, and it was struggling to find a new identity as all three of its biggest hits were either on the way out or already gone. (Apparently, “Your home for quality television” wasn’t enough.)

HBO had always prided itself on being the place for TV creators with something to say could turn to say what they needed to, but it also was a business, and Deadwood was just the most notable example of a show that probably would have continued had it debuted even a few seasons earlier but got caught under the aegis of a network in transition. In the case of Deadwood, sending Milch off to do John from Cincinnati allowed him to keep many of the Deadwood cast and crew members employed on a series that was cheaper to produce (thanks to a lack of period accoutrements) that HBO could keep all of the proceeds from. It was win-win, until the series debuted and scored lower ratings than Deadwood had and critical head-scratching. (And, actually, I’ll try to include a short paragraph or two about the series at the end of the last Deadwood review.) We may never know exactly what happened to shut the show down, but that seems to be the version of the story that best sticks to the evidence and actually makes sense in regards to how Hollywood, even HBO, operates.

So when “Tell Your God to Ready for Blood” first aired, there was an air of sadness to it that, I think, made many fans underrate it a little bit. It wasn’t like when the final episodes of The Sopranos or Battlestar Galactica or The Shield began airing. Those were negotiated closures, where the creators had time to implement whatever their final plans to close out the stories were. Deadwood’s final season debuted under a haze of recrimination toward the network, the studio and Milch himself, fans convinced that they had been wronged and unable to understand why they wouldn’t get the ending they wanted. (There’s actually a great vignette on the complete series DVD set where Milch wanders around the Deadwood set and talks about how season four would have gone and some of the reasons we think we’re owed endings to ongoing narratives, which is well worth checking out for any fan of the show.) I’ll deal more with the exact ending of the series when the finale rolls around (I think it first frustrates and then gradually reveals itself to be a terrific encapsulation of every one of the series’ themes), but when this season began, the cloud of anger surrounding its airing was sufficiently large to choke out some of the episode’s pleasures.

Seen now, a little over three years later, “Tell Your God to Ready for Blood” reveals itself to be a warm and witty return to the city of Deadwood. Things are going to get awful fairly soon (“Fixing toward a bloody outcome, boss,” says Dan to Al in the first line of dialogue of the season), and, indeed, one of the first things we see in the episode is a murder, but this episode is all about reimmersion, reinserting yourself into this world. Indeed, right after that murder is when we get the scene where the Bullocks walk the length of the town and nearly every series regular and recurring character comes out to greet them, whether from above (Al) or at street level.

If season one of Deadwood is its most self-consciously mythic season and season two is about humanizing and expanding on those myths, season three is the series’ most self-consciously humanistic season. These people, seen as icons just a couple of seasons earlier, are now revealed to be as human and flawed and foibled as every one of us is. And that makes them all the more inviting to us. When Al schemes to get one over on Hearst in this episode, it feels byzantine as always, but it also feels like what he does, and we can’t wait for him to get one over on the guy. When Bullock tries to restrain his temper, we know exactly where it’s heading. It’s that unique pleasure that lies in the balance between knowing exactly what’s going to happen and not knowing quite how it’s going to happen.

But if the regulars and recurring players have all settled into nicely human niches then their chief antagonist for the season, George Hearst, is the mythic character here. He comes burdened with a name we all know from history, and we know he can’t die, since he must raise the son we know the name from, but he also comes representing something we already know to be a force for evil in the Deadwood world: unfettered capitalism. As with all things on Deadwood, the series can see both the good and bad in capitalism, but it tends to regard the absolute lust for money at the cost of either individual humans or the human collective as the worst thing any one person can do. When Hearst says that he wants only the color, it should become obvious where all of this is heading.

And yet it never quite is. Watching Al somehow become the lone protector of the camp because that’s what he has to do to make sure his advances get pushed forward (and because, let’s face it, he has some affection for the place and its people) is a continuation of the most fascinating evolution of any one character in the medium’s history. The season, meandering as it feels at times, also somehow contains the series’ most tightly plotted storyline, paradoxically, in this story of Al and Hearst marshalling their forces and squaring off.

Everyone in the series would seem to fall on Al’s side, but what is he and what is the camp up against a man who commands so much money and so much force? “Tell Your God to Ready for Blood” suggests that Al might be able to spin this man around as easily as others, but we can already see the hints that this man is different, that this man will react disproportionately, that Al is already underestimating him. If Deadwood’s third season is the show’s most humanistic, then the antagonist is one man, yes, but it’s also the suggestion of what happens whenever one man is pushed to extremes by his lust for any one thing.

Episode 26. “I Am Not the Fine Man You Take Me For.”

Having spent so much time discussing the history of the series and the arc of season three overall in the “Tell Your God” review, let’s see if we can’t get to some of the other storylines of the season and the highlights contained therein with this piece, starting with Joanie Stubbs.

Joanie’s always been a deeply sad woman. She was abused at some point in her childhood (if we can believe Wolcott). She’s deeply repressing parts of her sexuality. She works in a profession where she is essentially used and abused for fun and profit. And she’s spent much of her life kowtowing to a decrepit, wrathful father figure who says he wants her freedom but is always finding ways to keep her tied to himself. What I love about the Joanie storyline (something that many fans don’t like in this season) is how quietly it’s been building since at least the midpoint of season one but just how backgrounded much of it has been (outside of her suicide attempt in season one). Bad things happen to Joanie, but she seems to take it as her price to pay to exist in the world. Joanie is a woman who is almost certainly suffering from some sort of clinical depression, but because of who she is and when she lives, she has absolutely no language to describe how she feels and how she’s ripping herself apart.

What might be my favorite scene in the entire episode is when she tries to articulate the torment inside of her soul, how she feels utterly lacking in self worth to sensible, dependable Charlie. She tells him that if Cy had known the truth about her, he never would have chosen her (an echo of the scene in season one where Cy and Joanie try to talk around the fact that their relationship is utterly broken). Charlie, of course, has the answer for her if she’ll see it (which seems unlikely). His old friend Wild Bill Hickock, who increasingly begins to feel like a historical figure or fictional character as the series wears on, had a rampaging case of poor self worth as well, yet everyone who met him loved him. Charlie always urged him to see himself through others’ eyes, and now he urges Joanie to do the same. Or, as Jane puts it when Joanie asks her why she hasn’t been sleeping at the Chez Ami in “Tell Your God,” "Every day takes figuring out all over again how to fuckin' live.” Joanie’s working out this process that most of the rest of us find natural enough, and before she gets a handle on it, it almost defeats her.

Of course, the big deal plot device in this episode is how quickly Hearst gets the drop on Al and turns the tables on him. We’re so used to Al just getting whatever he wants and pulling over his schemes on everyone in camp that it’s natural to assume that he will be able to do the same with Hearst. After all, he bamboozled an entire territorial government last season, so what’s one business magnate? The difference here is that Al gravely underestimates both his relative power to Hearst and what sort of playing board he’s on.

At least when he was fooling Yankton, everyone involved seemed to agree what sort of game they were playing and what sorts of rules it was played by. Hearst, however, isn’t really playing by the established rules of the game of capitalism as Al seems to be in the first two episodes. Be a thorn in the side of a richer, more powerful man, Al figures, and he’ll more quickly move to get the camp established. Maybe if Al’s lucky, he’ll get a bribe or two. Al obviously knows that there will be some violence (or the premiere wouldn’t have its title), but he seems to not understand just how quickly Hearst can change the rules. This is a man, after all, who demolishes a wall when he wants a veranda. He’s not going to stop at all the points between point A and point Z.

Or perhaps Al overestimates his own abilities. He walks directly into the lion’s den at the end of the episode, after all, all by himself. He doesn’t even signal to his right hand men that he’s in trouble when he’s pulled into the hotel at gunpoint, even though he clearly could. If Al could talk himself out of previous scrapes, he can talk himself out of this. Except he can’t. Hearst is ready to jump past the usual banter and swagger and jump right to the violence Al usually manages to keep his antagonists just short of. The scene where Hearst takes Al’s finger is horrifying in its abruptness but also oddly impressive in the way that Al refuses to capitulate to Hearst’s demands, even as he begins to realize that he’s playing on a completely new playing field.

Or perhaps Al relishes the conflict. That final scene, where he walks back to the Gem deliberately, only accepting the slightest of help from Bullock, shows Al’s face rigid with determination. He’s going to get his revenge, and Hearst has opened up the door to letting things get violent and physical. Al, who’s been making backroom deals and playing games with cryptic notes and turning Yankton’s men to his side for so long now, relishes in some ways the ability to just go back to the way things were in the camp’s earlier days, when he could just slit a man’s throat and mostly have everyone shrug it off. He’s not happy he’s missing a finger, but he’s certainly back on a playing field that seems to be less of a headache (though that won’t completely be borne out).

One of the other major thrusts of the season is present in full force in these episodes as well, and that’s the Deadwood elections, featuring Sol running against incumbent E.B. for mayor and Harry Manning running against Bullock for sheriff. The candidates’ speeches form the backbone of both episodes, as they’re canceled in the premiere and rescheduled to form the cutaway from the Hearst vs. Al tension in the second episode (this orderly transition is what these two men are being so brutal toward each other over in many ways). The elections will provide a less overt spine to the season than Al and Hearst’s conflict, but they will always be there, the lurking specter of a camp that is lurching toward respectability. The episode title is taken from the campaign as well, as uttered by a drunk atop the speech platform in the middle of the night, functioning almost as the conscience of an Al who cannot sleep. Until he pitches forward and falls from the platform, breaking his neck, thus letting Al sleep.

Here’s another way respectability is on the horizon: The camp has a school now, currently operating in the Chez Ami with Martha as teacher (and here’s something I’m a little unclear on: Did Miss Stokes just run off after Merrick’s operation was ransacked?). There’s a thoroughly delightful little scene in this episode when Jane sobers up and takes a bath, the better to present herself to the children, to whom she’s telling stories about her time as a scout in the forces of General Custer. Jane is always the most open character on Deadwood, willing to take just about anyone at face value and draw them into her confidence, and she proves surprisingly good at talking to the kids and also setting Martha at ease. It’s a lovely little scene that there might not have been room for in a more tightly plotted show.

Finally, there’s the plotline that just doesn’t work for me in these episodes. Alma’s losing the baby, even as Ellsworth and the Doc work to save it. The growing tension of Bullock’s baby growing inside a woman who was not his wife and was, indeed, one of the chief financial bedrocks of the community was one of the great driving forces behind season two. And it’s easy to see how season three could have incorporated a problematic pregnancy into its storylines, what with Hearst constantly trying to oust Alma and seize her claim. Instead, the baby is lost, even after Alma uses the occasion to besmirch Ellsworth by saying she still wants Bullock to be Sofia’s guardian should she die. There’s a certain logic to this – Bullock will better protect Sofia, Alma’s heir, from any attempts on her life made by Hearst – but Ellsworth has stood by so long and has had so few demands from this marriage that it still seems like sort of a slap in the face. The death of William in season two and the loss of the baby here suggest, perhaps, that Milch is not terribly interested in writing about parenthood except in broadly symbolic terms. This is OK, I suppose, but a miscarriage is such a cop-out way of ending a storyline like this that I still have to call it out.

Outside of those last few moments, “I Am Not the Fine Man You Take Me For” is mostly an episode designed to settle in and get all of the various plot engines up and running for the season. In that regard, it succeeds handsomely. It’s not the best episode of Deadwood, and it’s not even the best episode of this season, but it’s a terrific collection of scenes that add up to some sort of greater whole. They don’t all tie together as well as they might, but what they add up to is fascinating nonetheless.

Stray observations:

  • We’re in season three now, which is the only season to have episode-by-episode coverage available on the blog of King of the TV Blogosphere, Alan Sepinwall. Please follow along there as well, to get a sense of how this all played out in real time. You should also check out the June 2006 Deadweek festivities over at The House Next Door, where you’ll find a number of terrific articles on the show as a whole, a few character profiles and one piece of very dubious quality. Scroll all the way to the bottom to read them.
  • "Tell Your God to Ready for Blood": Very good episode title or THE BEST episode title?
  • In all the memories I had of “Tell Your God to Ready for Blood,” I had forgotten just how screamingly funny it was. Here’s a representative discussion between Trixie and Sol over the question of why Al is manipulating things to get Sol a house to live in: "The wrist business on Adams' house loan. Adams being nothing but his fucking stalking horse from the gambit's fucking beginning. You sign to take those over, we'll move in your 12 possessions, you will be free to come and go by your own front fucking door, and as you lay in your beddy-bye, I'll pop from the wall like Grandma Groundhog in a storybook and attend to your Johnson, as he'd not see you jeopardize your mayor's campaign, whore-fucking in your place of business. And I'll be installed in room 3-fucking-C or the like of Shaunnesy's adjacent shitbox that he's paid Shaunnesy to cut a hole through to ease my fucking fucking you." "Swearengen has." "Who the fuck was I just talking to?" "I don't know. You said you'd just gone to piss." I love the use of “Grandma Groundhog” and “fucking fucking you” there. Just terrifically funny and elegantly written to boot.
  • Steve’s taken over the livery in the absence of Hostetler and the NG. Considering his previous actions around horses, this can only end well.
  • Didn’t have much to say about E.B. and Richardson in these episodes. In season three, the two become so overtly Shakespearean that it’s hard to think of them as actual characters at times. Still, they’re usually good for several laughs in some of the season’s grimmer moments. On the other hand, Seth’s beatdown of E.B. when he can’t beat Hearst is pretty amusingly horrific.
  • Cy is recovering from his gut wound from Andy Cramed by feigning Christianity. At the end of episode two, he’s up and about and threatening Andy with a gun, so he’ll soon be back to his old self, hopefully, and not weakly threatening everyone from his bed.
  • I do not know that I ever thought we’d get a Jane nude scene, and yet there one is.
  • I like how in all of the campaign speeches, the major issue seems to be that of shit in the town creek. Except for Bullock’s speech, which seems to have nothing to do with him being sheriff and more to do with him enjoying living in the camp.
  • Also, E.B.’s speech consisting almost entirely of anti-Semitism is similarly terrific. “Farnum: CHRIST knows he’s earned it!”
  • We’ll continue through season three at two episodes at a time, though we may have to split the final six into groups of three just to end before the fall TV season starts.
  • Finally, here’s some quotes.
  • "She wants to try it on the ceiling." – Whitney Ellsworth
  • "If the chance comes up natural, stomp on the cocksucker's foot." – Whitney Ellsworth
  • "She no more needs a watchman than she does a fucking balloonist." – Calamity Jane
  • "Wash and stack, shitmonkey. Or ready yourself for worse." – E.B. Farnum
  • "It's close to a mortal certainty he ordered the murder." "Hearst?" "Shut the fuck up!" – Al Swearengen and Johnny Burns
  • "Loopy cunt!" – Al Swearengen
  • "As for your meeting with Hearst, may I offer a fervant ‘Godspeed’ and hopes for your fucking self-control." – Al Swearengen
  • "He might also indict the sunrise. For men of that sort, events such as these are as natural." – George Hearst
  • “My only passion is the color.” – George Hearst
  • "The Jews burn sacrifices upon an altar of stone." – Whatever that grammar textbook Martha Bullock teaches from is
  • "Don't I yearn for the days, a draw across the throat made fuckin' resolution." – Al Swearengen
  • "If it'd been me, I'd have gone ahead and killed him." – Charlie Utter
  • "And of my temper generally, I'm wondering about, as far as running for office." – Seth Bullock
  • "It's my family luck over centuries to get repeatedly fucked up the ass." – Steve
  • "That was a wiggle worthy of a fuckin' reptile, Harry." – Steve
  • "Why don't you just tend bar and let everybody punch you in the face?” – Tom Nuttall
  • "It is I! E.B. Farnum!" – E.B. Farnum
  • "You ain't the center of the universe in other words." "No sir." "Don't that drive you to despair?" – Al Swearengen and George Hearst
  • "Fuckin' pagan. Tell your god to ready for blood." – Al Swearengen
  • "Custer was a cunt. The end." – Calamity Jane
  • "Oh. A piss puddle. Must not have seen that when sitting myself." – Calamity Jane
  • "I am not the fine man you take me for. No no." – random drunk
  • "Would you close your flap, so I don't forego my boiled eggs?" – Al Swearengen
  • "I do not make weak tea." – Martha Bullock, getting’ frisky
  • "Change ain't looking for friends. Change calls the tune we dance to." – Al Swearengen
  • "Getting gut stabbed by a minister of God will bring you to examine your path." – Cy Tolliver
  • "When you speak, I feel like it's the devil talking." "Ain't that a lovely thing to hear yourself accused of." – Joanie Stubbs and Cy Tolliver
  • "Camp get up a petition?" – Mose Manual on the prospect of Jane bathing
  • “Could you have been born, Richardson? And not egg-hatched as I've always assumed? Did your mother hover over you, snaggle-toothed and doting as you now hover over me?” “I loved my mother.” “Puberty may bring you to understand, what we take for mother love is really murderous hatred and a desire for revenge.”  “Will you give your speech to be Mayor tonight?” “Whatever night I give it, count on me not to mince words. 'Electors of the camp, as to who should serve as Mayor reasonable men may differ, but as to who should be Sheriff we all ought speak with one voice and our words should be turn out the maniac Bullock, who set upon the Mayor unprovoked, who beat him with merciless protraction. Bulllock should be murdered! We should rise up and murder Bullock! Thank you very much.'” “My father didn't liked me.” “I'd like to use your ointment to suffocate you.” – E.B. Farnum and Richardson
  • "I always called him 'General' to his face and 'Armstrong' behind his back." – Calamity Jane
  • "Listen, and you won't get scalped. And don't look at yourself too much in the mirror." – Calamity Jane
  • "I know another brave person here too. Several." – Calamity Jane
  • "Please remind Sofia the full moon is in three days." – Alma Ellsworth
  • "That was Hearst showing Al his ass." – Dan Dority
  • "Won't you see with me what this might portend?" – Al Swearengen
  • "If he was trailing water, we might get took for ducklings." – Silas Adams
  • "Deception don't preclude the search for fucking conviction." – Cy Tolliver
  • "I thought he was a gentleman." "He was." "I felt he had a good soul." "He did, Miss Stubbs." – Joanie Stubbs and Charlie Utter
  • "Maybe, coming the verdict, credit others opinions of you like you do when you think of Bill?" – Charlie Utter
  • "Show me your hole in the wall, which I find a useful advance." – Al Swearengen
  • "Farnum: Twice Measured. Star: Once cut." – E.B. Farnum
  • "That's Captain Turner at three steps removed. He has heard about your knife work close up." – George Hearst
  • "I'm glad we're in the camp, even on the sorriest of days." – Seth Bullock
  • "It's my will, to which I will have you bend." – George Hearst
  • "Act averse to nasty language and partial to fruity tea." – Al Swearengen
  • “I'm having mine served cold." – Al Swearengen

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