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Deadwood: "True Colors"/"Full Faith and Credit"

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Episode 27. “True Colors.”

If the first two episodes of Deadwood’s third season functioned mostly as a prologue to what was to come, closing with that awful scene showing what Hearst was truly capable of, then “True Colors” is almost a second season premiere, a new chapter one, if you will. It involves the arrival in Deadwood of a number of new characters, and it ratchets up the Hearst threat considerably by having him come in extended contact with Alma and Bullock, both of whom are threatened by him, at first obliquely and then directly. The episode also deals with how Al and Hearst marshal their strength behind the scenes. Oh, and it’s a somewhat lengthy reintroduction to the camp as a whole, as Al takes his old pal Jack Langrishe on a quick journey through town. So it’s very much a setup episode, and it can’t quite avoid some of the pitfalls of the typical setup episode.

The new characters are all introduced promisingly. Langrishe, played by the terrific Brian Cox, and the theatre troupe will be one of the things that drags down the season and causes it to meander in later episodes, but they’re introduced well enough here. In particular, as this is sort of Al’s darkest hour, it’s nice to have him find an old friend who seems faithful enough to stand by his side, even though he probably won’t be as handy in a fight as Dan would be. Cox plays Langrishe as an over-the-top Western dandy (Johnny’s word for him), and the performance is so grandly theatrical that it threatens to break the flimsy fourth wall Deadwood has constructed for itself, but Cox somehow walks the line between believably over-the-top and scenery chewing and, as such, Langrishe is generally fascinating to watch, even when the material handed to him seems pointless.

It’s the rest of the theatre folk who never quite take off in the way they were intended to. The mass of them seem to blend together for far too long, despite attempts to differentiate them, and they’re not substantially funny in a different way from everyone else in the cast. We’ve already got E.B. and Richardson dealing out Shakespearean comedy in a broad fashion over at the hotel, so it sometimes seems as if the theatre folk are a bit redundant. To some degree, I wonder if this wasn’t a function of the show just having too many characters at this point. If you count the number of recurring characters whom the show checks in on from time to time, it already approaches 50 (and maybe even more if you count those who are passed away but whose passings still affect the proceedings), and these characters are split between a number of settings where little pods of them are expected to be tracked.

Think, for example, of how many settings there are at this point. You’ve got the Gem, the hardware store, the Bella Union, the hotel, the Number 10, the Chez Ami, the Ellsworth house and an assortment of other residences and businesses. All of these places have a variety of characters, some who cross over into the show’s other worlds and some who remain tied enough to their settings that it’s a welcome surprise when, say, Richardson ventures out of the hotel and into the world at large. The show had already added Hearst and his minions, but it put them in a pre-existing setting and also set up Hearst as a different enough character from everyone as to instantly define himself in relation to them. So when Aunt Lou shows up in this episode and is integrated into the world of the hotel, it doesn’t feel terribly abrupt, and she acquits herself well.

But the theatre people are a completely different case. They tend to be off in their own world, and only Al really has constant occasion to come in contact with them. Sure, they’ll have an arrangement with Joanie starting in the next episode, but it’s hard to see how she’d become a part of their world. Thus, any scenes set within the theatre company are just another place for the series to cut to when it’s already stretched so thin that it doesn’t really need other places to cut to. A lot of the stuff that happens within the theatre company scenes is fascinating and terrific and even occasionally profound, but it always feels somewhat structurally unnecessary and that sets it at a disadvantage before even coming in.

To a degree, a lot of the settings in season three start to feel structurally unnecessary. I’m not sure that everything we see happening with E.B. and Richardson needs to be there, tangential as it can be, but E.B. has been grandfathered in since he’s been around since the start of the show. It’s a similar case with Tom Nuttall or any number of other characters, but these folks have had so many great moments over the course of the show that we’re a bit more generous with their eccentricities, I think. At times, Deadwood’s somewhat messy structure creates a feeling where there’s just too many damn things to keep track of, even in its best episodes. If it’s a flaw, it’s a flaw of over-ambitiousness and over-generosity, both of which are the most forgivable of flaws in my eyes, but the lack of tightness can make the introduction of a whole troupe of new characters hard to deal with.

But, for the most part, the theatre troupe is deployed as comic relief (the one exception to this is the marvelous late season episode “Amateur Night”), which is a bigger necessity than ever in this season of Deadwood. Hearst isn’t shy about taking what he wants, and he’s a scarier monster than any of the long string of elegant sociopaths this show has come up with. Even Wolcott felt like he could exist within normal society well enough. Hearst is someone who would much rather not have to deal with society at all. If he could kill everyone on Earth and be alone with the color, you get the sense he just might do that, and Gerald McRaney finds the full, terrifying nature of the man in his performance.

In particular, Hearst’s two scenes with Alma underscore just how dangerous he is. When he leans in and whispers in her ear after pointing out how truly unsafe she is and he says, “You are reckless, madam. You indulge yourself,” you know instantly just how much damage this man could do. Alma, who’s been so, so capable since rising up from the depths of despair in season one, is instantly exposed by this man who so ably undid Al as well. And the way he quickly reduces Bullock to someone who realizes just how deeply he’s screwed no matter how this war turns out is terrific as well. When he later confesses to Cy that he had to restrain himself from killing Bullock or raping Alma, it’s eminently believable. What’s most impressive about Hearst is that he doesn’t play by the rules of either the show or the world as we know it. He seems to have no connections to anyone who’s not Aunt Lou, and she makes a show of being a “mammy” type figure around him and seems to hold some degree of contempt for the guy behind his back.

I don’t know that Deadwood needed a big, epic villain like Hearst, but the show sure uses him well. Instead of dancing around the edges of what he’s capable of, like the show did in season two with Wolcott, it just cuts right to the heart of how little Hearst is willing to forego to get what he wants. He’s a scary, scary guy, and if his removal of Al’s finger wasn’t indication enough, then “True Colors” is all the proof you need. Hell, he even hooks up with Cy, who’s the one guy all villains turn to when they want to get stuff done in Deadwood. (And Hearst’s speech to Cy about how little he holds anyone in town in regard, which concludes with “My dealings with people I ought solely to do with niggers and whites who obey me like dogs,” is a perfectly written piece of malevolence.)

To a degree, this probably also unbalances the show in season three. While seeing Al show Langrishe around town is a terrific sequence filled with the sort of warmth and humanity this show deals with in spades, by placing a villain as awful as Hearst in the midst of the populace of Deadwood, the show created its own ticking time bomb that the audience constantly wants to see defused or see explode. Every time it cuts away from that plot to something else, the desire to return to that plot grows ever stronger, especially as temperatures approach the boiling point. So, yeah, it’s nice to see how Alma, Al and Bullock are going to deal with the monster in their midst, but it’s not as easy to be generous with long digressions down the alleyways of Deadwood, even though these are the things that made the show so good in the first place.

All that said, “True Colors” is a fine episode by any standards. It ably sets up much of what’s to come in the season, and it quickly introduces a number of new characters who will be important to the future of the show. Furthermore, Wu’s back in town, thus putting all of the pieces from the show we used to know back in place (and Al’s pantomime of Chinese workers entering his office is hilarious). It’s just that the threat to the characters is so present and seemingly so omnipresent that it’s hard to focus on much of anything else, and while the Hearst plotline is one of the strongest the show ever did, I wonder if it didn’t get in the way of some of the other stuff that made the show so great.

Episode 28. “Full Faith and Credit.”

Sheriff Bullock and gold.

They’re two things that drove the earliest episodes of Deadwood and then receded into the background a bit (gold never as fully) to make way for other things that fascinated David Milch and his writers and the audience even more. But “Full Faith and Credit,” which takes a minor respite from the Hearst storyline, brings both back into the foreground as fully as it can. One of the most important themes of the show has been how we agree upon certain lies to get by in a society or civilization. One of the biggest of those lies is the idea that certain metals have any more value than others, that we can have something like a currency that allows us to exchange goods and services. Money is simply a symbol, only tenuously connected to that which it symbolizes (the gold), which is already something that is only valuable because everyone agreed it would be. We all agree to live by these lies because they’re more useful to us than they would be in their absence, and eventually, we stop thinking about how when we turn over $5 to pay for a sandwich, what we’re really doing is engaging in an elaborate sham designed to keep the heart of civilization beating.

Now, Deadwood’s bank, backed by Alma Ellsworth’s gold claim, is in operation, and it’s become a place for money to breed more money. Even though what the money symbolizes here is more direct than it is in our system – Alma’s gold claim is right there for anyone who wants to ride out and look at it – the bank is still a place for symbols to create more symbols, for useful lies to create every less useful lies. Modern society is impossible without economics, of course, but Deadwood has always traced the way symbols become more real than the things they symbolize. And so is it the case here, as the bank finally opens and the money slowly spreads out through the camp, already affecting everything it’s touching (even Steve the drunk). And Alma, at the center of everything, already seems most corrupted, as it sure seems like she’s going to get back on the drugs. (Briefly, early in the last episode, she talks with Cochran about her former addictions, as if to re-establish the premise. In this one, she nods to Leon, who’s the chief of drug operations at Cy’s place. I’m not ashamed to say I don’t even remember how this turns out or if this is not as big of a deal as it seems to be, so it’s fun to see it all play out again.)

Then there’s Bullock, who seemed like he was going to be the lead of the series when it started. That first scene in the first episode, the long vignette about the attempted lynching of the criminal, was all about setting up his character as someone who walks a knife’s edge between controlling his rage and giving in to it. And the first handful of episodes was about how he and Wild Bill Hickock gradually came together as friends and did what they could to help out Alma. But as the first season wore on, Bullock receded further and further when compared to Al, who came to dominate the show, both because he was such a fascinating character and because Ian McShane brought so many shades to him.

This is not to slight Timothy Olyphant. He’s a fine actor, and his portrayal of Bullock is frequently very, very good. It’s just that the show eventually ended up more interested in other things, even though Olyphant was always billed first. Bullock is still unquestionably one of the most important characters on the show, and the storyline about how he and his wife come to love each other is one of the better ones in the show’s history, but the character of a Wild West lawman, no matter how revisionist it was in its portrayal of that lawman as someone who seemed barely in control at all times, just ended up not having as much to do in a blatantly revisionist Western about how chaos gives way to civilization, especially when compared to an ad hoc mayor who also acts as a powerbroker and operates from the backrooms of a saloon, where he feels no compunctions about just what he can or can’t do.

So “Full Faith and Credit” feels, to some degree, like an attempt to restore the balance. Bullock gets a ton to do here, as he attempts to figure out a way to make peace between the NG and Hostetler (who have returned to camp with the horse that ran down his son) and the hateful, vile Steve, who always seems on the verge of killing everyone within a few feet of him. This is maybe the most rage-filled episode of Deadwood (no easy feat), and a lot of that has to do with how demeaned Bullock eventually feels about having to run back and forth between Hostetler and Steve as he gradually figures out a way to transfer ownership of the livery to Steve, who’s cared for it in the absence of Hostetler and the NG (who went to get the horse). Steve, y’see, is going to need a loan. Fortunately, though the bank has just opened, and Bullock knows both its chief operating officer and its backer pretty well.

Even the incidental storylines deal with Bullock in some way. As Al gets his latest blow job that prompts a monologue, he pulls away the whore servicing him to ask whom she’s going to vote for only to find that she’s planning to vote for Harry Manning (who really wants to be fire chief anyway) for sheriff instead of Bullock. When Al corrects her, she tells him she doesn’t like how Bullock yells at Al, and McShane’s amused expression immediately suggests how he came to take over the show. But there’s some truth to this. For everyone who lives in Deadwood, Bullock must seem like a terrifying presence at all times. I love stories about people who try to live by a code of honor but also expect almost everyone they come in contact to live by that same code. Bullock is one of those people, and the constant realization Deadwood shoves in his face that the code he so carefully keeps himself to is not necessarily obeyed by everyone else (indeed, they flaunt their disregard of it) must be deeply angering to him. No wonder he’s always yelling at Al.

Hearst takes a back seat to much of the action in this episode, presumably to build a little space between the last episode and the next (when the clash between Al and Hearst will explode in rather impressive fashion), but the one scene he occupies – where he tries to get Cy and Al on the same page in regards to what’s going on in camp – nicely reminds us of his presence in the town and just how screwed everyone’s feeling about whatever he’ll do for his next move. The rage felt by Bullock or Steve or Hostetler seems to be spreading throughout the camp, perhaps caused by Al (who fairly snarls through this scene) or mere worry about Hearst. If the camp is a single organism, then perhaps everyone in it can feel the same things as one.

There are so few respites in this episode that it begins to make sense why Alma would take her solace where she could. Sure, Bullock can fall back on the gentle domesticity his wife provides (the quiet dinner scene among friends in the last episode and his talk with his wife about how he’s finally going to get Hostetler and Steve to sign as the two lie in bed are among my favorite scenes for so quickly showing us a different side of a character that could seem one-note without them), and Al can fall back on one of his whores, but nothing is going to quite work to ease away that constant worrying, that constant throb of fear about what’s going to come next. Al, still working out his stress over losing his finger, can’t even perform, though he blames just about everything but his current state of mind. Even the negotiations between Langrishe and Joanie about the purchase of the Chez Ami, which are lighter-hearted than most everything else going on, carry with them a fear for the camp’s future, as Joanie gets Langrishe to commit to building a new schoolhouse for the town’s children.

“Full Faith and Credit” almost feels like a standalone episode in a very deeply serialized season, as if Milch realized that there wasn’t going to be as much for Bullock to do this season and decided to give him a showcase episode. I doubt that was what actually happened, but in previous seasons a standalone like this might have felt like a bit of a respite from everything else surrounding it. Instead, “Full Faith and Credit” draws much of its strength as an episode from the sense that it DOESN’T occur in a vacuum, that everything that is occurring is overlaid with a sense of deep, all-encompassing dread of what might lie just around the corner.

Stray observations:

  • The biggest thing I didn’t get into the reviews is that Cochran is very, very sick. Without the plague storyline that allowed him to integrate more fully into the action of season one, Cochran has very gradually been slightly sidelined as a character, and this gives him something to do, at least. Also, I had forgotten how much I like the term “lunger.”
  • A really sharp cut is from Al blowing on his injured finger, presumably to help with the pain, to Bullock blowing on the papers meant to somehow curb Hearst. Bullock thinks he can stop Hearst. Al knows otherwise.
  • Milch and the writers almost had to make Aunt Lou someone other than who she initially appears to be. Can you imagine the furor if they hadn’t? Those early scenes with the character can be hard to watch.
  • I still have little to no idea what to make of that scene where Blazinov and Merrick both speak in different registers, but I do like it.
  • Also, I’m grateful that the show introduced the word “capon” into my vocabulary.
  • I enjoy that everyone who visits the jail has to sit in the cell since there’s really nowhere else for them to go.
  • Poor Bullock. Some of the voters are scared of him. Some of the voters don’t like his neutrality.
  • I’m sure there’s some sort of reason that both the NG and Steve have the same last name. I do not care to speculate on what that might be.
  • Man, all of Al’s stories of his childhood sound like crazy tales from some sort of penny dreadful.
  • Finally, quotes!
  • "You look like a fucking idiot." – Al Swearengen
  • "John Langrishe, sir. The operator has the manners of a pig." – Jack Langrishe
  • "Shit blizzard's early today." – Al Swearengen
  • "Come Hearst. I've seen the Ethiope." – E.B. Farnum
  • "Wonderful, wonderful cook. And a tyrant, as the best ones always are." – George Hearst
  • "Don't disappoint him, being as he's 12 with his aunt in camp." – Whitney Ellsworth
  • "Lurid with Chinese!" – Jack Langrishe
  • "Goes through her men like Sherman to the fucking sea." – Al Swearengen
  • "You and I will have much to discuss on our evening perambulations." – A.W. Merrick
  • "You're a lying, blackmailing sack of shit." – George Hearst
  • "Guy farted, seemed near an hour." – Al Swearengen
  • "God, I hate these camps. All this adjusting and deferring to others wrongheaded stupidities." – George Hearst
  • "Who wants strawberries?" – Martha Bullock
  • "Your duties will be to answer like a dog when I call." – George Hearst
  • "If you hadn't met me to wag it, sir, why would the Lord give me a tail?" – Cy Tolliver
  • "You've seen more to admire in the male asshole than you'd realized hitherto?" – Jack Langrishe
  • "Morning. Best time of day to go fuck yourself." – Dan Dority
  • "Perhaps you'd consider renting." "Perhaps you'd consider fucking yourself." – Jack Langrishe and Joanie Stubbs
  • "Short of following you around with her fucking mine on her back, how else is she supposed to do it?" – Seth Bullock
  • "In a few days, we can do this again. The captain will be back at the helm!" – Con Stapleton
  • "Is that your goddamn idea of quick, Charlie?" – Seth Bullock
  • "Be quick. Fucking delicate operation." – Charlie Utter
  • "Numbers and acts is what's left to discuss. Sounds like a Bible story, doesn't it?" – Cy Tolliver
  • "Tars every fucking drunk with his brush." – Calamity Jane
  • "Lotta shitbags hang around a bank. Did you ever fucking notice?" – Trixie
  • "When will I raise courage to search that woman's room?" – E.B. Farnum
  • "I find you dead because of him, I'll kick your corpse in the ear." – Al Swearengen
  • "Observe a decent interval, and we'll give it another fucking whirl." – Al Swearengen
  • "Petite and quite beautiful your mother is for being a financial powerhouse." – Whitney Ellsworth
  • "Where would the stage be?" "I don't know." – Calamity Jane and Joanie Stubbs
  • "Please see that no harm comes to that horse." – Martha Bullock
  • "Bless you for a fucking fibber." – Al Swearengen