Episode 31. “Unauthorized Cinnamon.”
Someday, you’re going to die. I probably will too.
I know that you don’t really believe this, deep down. I know I don’t. I know that each and every one of us, no matter how deeply we hold convictions on what the afterlife holds for us, believes deep down somewhere that we’re immortal. We’re going to go on, even if no one else does. And we don’t really think about this again until our mortality is stepping up to smack us in the face. This isn’t really a bad thing, I suppose. If we spent all our time thinking about how our death is inevitable, we probably wouldn’t ever get anything done, and society would fall apart and things like that, but if we’re building our entire society on lies that help us get by, then death is the one thing that cuts through the lies, the unauthorized cinnamon at the table.
The characters in Deadwood, facing the fact that George Hearst is almost certainly going to retaliate for the humiliations he’s suffered at the hands of the citizenry of Deadwood, particularly Sheriff Bullock. Now, trying to figure out a response, dancing between ideas of hiring guns to prepare for a war and figuring out a way to avert Hearst’s wrath, each and every single people who has some idea of what’s going on in Deadwood is contemplating their own mortality in a way they might not otherwise. “No one gets out alive, Doc,” Al says late in the episode as he castigates Cochran for the way he’s given in to his illness. Powerless to predict what the ruthless man across the street is going to do to both him and the camp he’s come to care for on some level, Al’s raging against something he similarly can’t control but can perhaps rage at in a way that will give him some satisfaction. He’s not getting used to a new doctor, he tells Cochran, and it feels as much like a statement of fact as it does an attempt to assert some control over a situation he’ll never control. (And, curiously, Al’s shouting down of Cochran’s illness actually seems to work, though I can’t assume it would have worked into a hypothetical fourth season.)
Faced with the prospect of dying at Hearst’s hand, the people of Deadwood choose to blunt his fury by a collective expression of their decency. Bullock has written a letter consoling the family of a dead Cornish mine worker, and at the meeting of the camp’s luminaries, the men on hand (though she’s high and wouldn’t be of much use at the meeting anyway, it’s telling that Alma is not invited) decide to publish the letter in the Deadwood Pioneer as witness to their agreement with Bullock’s conclusions. As Merrick carries the letter back to the newspaper office, he and Blazanov have a talk about whether or not Blazanov could go see Al, and we realize that Blazanov has made his choice between duty and humanity, and humanity has won out. This whole sequence – from the quiet pan across the men at the meeting as Merrick reads the letter to the furtive glances of Jewel and others listening in – is one of the most evocative things in the series’ run, a quiet, almost mournful look at people whose backs have been pushed against the wall who choose, almost against hope, to do the right thing, or the nearest thing to it that they can find.
There’s not really a lot that happens in “Unauthorized Cinnamon,” which is an episode that advances the plots on the show forward by a matter of inches, but it remains one of my favorite episodes of the series. There’s something about the flavor of the whole piece, of the sense that these people are confronting the fact that they could and will end, that makes it add up to a whole that’s far greater than the sum of its parts. Even the goofy comedic moments – like Jewel insisting that the cinnamon should be placed on the table or Harry collapsing from eating said cinnamon – take on a strange, symbolic relevance as the episode continues. This is a show about how you prepare for the fact that you’re going to die. Maybe you yell at that death, as Al does. Maybe you grit your teeth and do the right thing, as Blazanov does. Or maybe you make plans for the future, as Sol and Trixie do when considering what will happen to Sofia if Alma can’t care for her. Despair has come to Deadwood in the face of what Hearst is capable of, but that despair is always tinged with hope.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that there are numerous moments in the episode that are among the most powerful Deadwood ever came up with. The scene when Ellsworth, who previously swore off his sham marriage and his perpetually high wife to head back to the wild, to the mines, returns to the house to give Sofia a good night kiss is just full of melancholy and hope, while the coming together of Jane and Joanie, something that felt like it was 50 episodes in the making, even though it really hadn’t come up all that much before this episode, carries a sweetness to it that belies the show’s usual rough edges. “Unauthorized Cinnamon,” like its predecessor, is a ruminative hour, but it spends its time in such deep and thoughtful contemplation that it’s hard to hold that quality against it. Indeed, the quality of the rumination here is what sets the episode apart.
Even plots that felt unnecessary an episode earlier, like Odell’s attempts to make a deal with Hearst, take on a resonance here that helps them add to the overall tapestry that David Milch and his writers are weaving. Seeing Aunt Lou so distraught at the thought of losing her son works better in this episode, where it’s a rich undercurrent to everything else going on, than it did in the last episode, which was more tense and full of intrigue. In addition, the plot offers up one of the finest moments for Hearst in the season, when he launches into his monologue about the things men will do in service of the “color,” and his avarice and greed become even more apparent than they already were. Similarly, the ongoing arguments between the NG and Steve have a poignancy to them that previous episodes, which almost treated the arrogant Steve as a buffoon, have not conveyed. When Steve suggests he was going to offer a job to the NG, you almost believe he’s turned a corner until he heads right back into braying about how little he trusts the other man.
Most of all, though, an episode like “Unauthorized Cinnamon” is a treat because it suggests the rich tapestry of humanity that the show has been building throughout its run. This is no longer a show just about a few men trying to mete out their will on the harsh frontier, nor is it even a show about a collection of characters doing so. This is a series about a camp, a community of people who come together as one organism and try to express who they are, to say that they are more than just a handful of lives that can be snuffed out but something unique and perfect in its own way, something worthy of preservation. For as much as we can talk about who the main character of Deadwood is, the answer is always staring us in the face in that title. In its third season, Deadwood has ceased being anything other than a broad portrait of the human organism and its attempts to carve out a place for itself. And in this season’s best episodes, that impulse unites even the weakest of plots together with a common thread of hope, desire and love.
Episode 32. “Leviathan Smiles.”
While “Unauthorized Cinnamon” is one of my favorite Deadwood episodes, “Leviathan Smiles” is one I’d have to put on the second tier of the show’s episodes. There are a lot of good moments in it, but there’s one significant plotline that falls pretty flat, largely thanks to the actors involved, and the whole thing has the feel of Milch realizing that the ball needed to be moved farther downfield if the show were to keep progressing toward the finale, so the story, which had been resting in the previous two episodes, lurches back to life, but only in fits and starts. There is, of course, that magnificent image of Hearst’s 25 men (the “bricks” of the telegraph) coming to town, torches lit, ready to destroy anything that comes into contact with them, but this arrives at the very end of an episode that has wandered a bit too far afield over the prior hour.
Milch has a love of following rabbit trails and seeing where they go. There will be times when he follows one down a long, winding path that seems completely unnecessary and he finds unexpected gold at the end – as with the wrap-up of the Odell plot – but sometimes he just gets utterly lost out in the woods. I think it’s fair to say that the story of Wyatt and Morgan Earp coming to Deadwood is one of those times when he just completely lost the track of where he was going. While Wyatt murmurs about his true plans and the two are celebrated by some in town and gleefully shot down by others (the scene where Al shows the story of their encounter with the road agents to be the lie it is is a highlight), the storyline never really justifies its existence on either a plot level or a thematic level. The Earps show up, they talk to some people, and then in the next episode, they skip town. While it’s possible this happened historically, there’s really no reason to include it in the series, as it feels like an attempt, again, to go back to the revisionist Western well the series had abandoned when Wild Bill died. The two are also played by Gale Harold and Austin Nichols, whose sensibilities are too modern to really bring the gunslinger and his brother to life. It’s just an oddly paced and thought out storyline that never quite gels with everything else that’s going on.
On the other hand, the theatre company storyline is finally starting to work for me on this, my third time through the series. I had forgotten, in particular, just how much I liked Jack Langrishe as a character and just how much I relished the scenes between Bryan Cox and Ian McShane. Similarly, the scene where Chesterton finally dies in this episode, the other troupe members coming to take away his body from all corners of the darkened theatre, was a powerful and lovely one. On a thematic level, though, the theatre company plays up something that’s been important to the series throughout its run – the idea that we construct a series of artful lies designed to make our society hum along and designed to help us interact as people. The season and this episode have been filled with people who are stepping out of their own skins and into assumed ones as they attempt to, say, convince Hearst that they’re a terrific chiropractor or puffing themselves up so that they can fool themselves into thinking they are braver than they actually are. “Perhaps events have not disclosed to me what kind of a man I am,” Merrick says as he stands up to the man who questions why the letter was published, and it gets at a truth in the series. We never really know who we are until the chips are down. Will the elaborate lies and disguises we place in front of our true selves hold in the face of opposition? Or will they crumble? While the theatre company storyline does have that feeling of the series constantly cutting to something that isn’t as immediately fascinating as Al vs. Hearst, there’s so much more to it than I’ve been willing to give it credit for in the past, and I’m actually sad I never got to find out what Milch had in store for the characters and their plot in the fourth season, which is a new feeling.
I’m also surprised, on this rewatch, by just how much of the middle section of this season is turned over to the twinned stories of Hostetler and the NG and Steve the drunk. The third season of Deadwood is full of characters monologuing to things that cannot respond, something that used to be the provenance of Al alone, but whenever a character starts delivering a long speech to an animal, you know they’re in trouble. (Interestingly, the character who most constantly erupts into long monologues at actual humans is Hearst, which is perhaps another indication of how low his regard is for his fellow humans.) So as Steve launches into his talk to the horse in this episode, then attempts to sabotage it so the NG cannot get very far, it’s obvious something will happen to him. But the unexpected poignancy of this storyline continues in this one as the NG works out his hostilities at the comatose Steve, whose grasp on this coil is slipping after being kicked by a horse, but then comes to care for him somewhat sweetly. It’s odd that this storyline continues in future episodes, but the surprising sweetness of it makes up for that oddity.
While much of the episode is devoted to the Earps and to the playing out of scenarios between Hearst and Al, a stealth plot is given over to Jane and Joanie, Jane suddenly trying to avoid what happened the night prior (though it certainly doesn’t help that the two get to hear an extended Biblical lesson from Shaughnessy upon leaving the hotel). As the rest of the episode continues, she wanders through the town, caring for people again (as in her season one role), her life intersecting with the others she comes across. Though she never comes out and says it, it’s obvious that she’s a woman shaken by the affection shown her by another human – Jane and Joanie are often the most self-loathing characters on the show – and she tries to pour as much of that as she can out onto others.
In the end, “Leviathan Smiles” is good, especially for those terrific closing moments when the camp’s threats are so vividly externalized and the opening passages when Merrick and Blazanov deliver newspapers in the early morning chill, but it very much has the feel of an episode that is just recounting a series of events in the interest of making sure the story moves forward, instead of an episode that adds up those events in a fashion that feels organic to the characters, plots and themes. Coming at this point in the season, it’s perhaps necessary that there be an episode like this, but for all of the fascinating stuff about, say, how people play roles to better fit into the holes they see for themselves in society, there’s something that just doesn’t quite work, like everything with the Earps. “Leviathan Smiles” is far from the worst episode of Deadwood or even the worst episode of season three, but it sometimes feels a bit too perfunctory, and that’s the kiss of death on a show as brimming with life as this one.
Episode 33. “Amateur Night.”
On the other hand, there are few episodes more brimming with life in the history of television than “Amateur Night,” the one episode of season three that recaptures some of the zest and joy that “Boy the Earth Talks To” closed out season two with. It opens with a man preparing for his death and closes with another man – who was the first man’s rival when the show began and is now his uneasy associate – performing a folk ballad for an empty bar. In between, there’s a tremendously executed montage where everyone in town is confronted with the true sense of what it means to be an innocent, to be unable to defend oneself and an even better sequence that features a heavily bearded man crying on cue and Richardson juggling. It may seem odd to break the tension that’s been building steadily all season with an episode as fundamentally good-natured as this one, but the comedy here rests surprisingly easily against the other elements present. It’s a much-needed pause before the plunge of the final three episodes of the series, and despite its formal messiness, it’s another of my favorites in the series’ run.
The big issue in this episode is, again, the Earps, who now reveal themselves to be almost wholly plot devices, when Morgan shoots one of the men Hearst has brought to camp, leading to a situation where Bullock imprisons another and scares the brothers out of town. I’m usually willing to cut Deadwood a lot of slack in just about any regard, since it’s a series capable of doing something as terrifically out of left field as that astonishing moment when Aunt Lou turns to Richardson to comfort her in the wake of Odell’s death (likely at the hands of Hearst), both weeping underneath the curing hams, but the Earps feel like something Milch became briefly interested in and then just couldn’t figure out a way to incorporate. Even the tangent about the two child thieves in season one (and how long ago does that feel?) offered up a lot of interest in how it portrayed the fundamental difference between Al and Cy. The story of the Earps never finds that tie in, feeling like a plot device at worst and a half-hearted attempt to redo the idea that our Western heroes were not as pure as we’d like them to be at best.
But this ends up being a minor quibble about the episode. Everything else here works. The gaming between Hearst and Al continues to grow more and more tense, with less room for error on the side of our Deadwood citizens and Bullock continuing to be a wild card who eliminates options for Al left and right. As Al and company realize that the men Hearst has brought to camp are the dreaded Pinkertons (that they finally arrive in this season feels like the sort of thing a show WOULD do in its last year), while Wu reveals he’s got a small army of reinforcements camped out in Custer – the city, not the general – ready to swoop in on Al’s side in the end. But, at the same time, Hearst may have the longer term solution, as Jarry is going to help him rig the elections using an encampment of soldiers near Sturgis.
But this strategizing pales in comparison to the real highlights of the episode, which almost entirely have to do with how the town comes out from under its dread just long enough to mark two important passages – the opening of the new school and the debut of the Langrishe players in town, as they set up an amateur night to allow the town to show itself off. The latter takes up a surprising amount of time in the episode, especially as it doesn’t feature any great number of series regulars performing and showing off their unexpected talents, as you might expect a scene like this to do. Indeed, on most series, this would have turned into a lengthy segment where we learned that Sol could tap dance and Trixie could belt out show tunes or something of the sort. Instead, this turns into an opportunity for the show to again suggest just how deeply the talent pool in the town runs, just how many people are living here beyond our regulars. The only semi-regular to do anything is Richardson, who indulges in a well-received juggling act and is yelled down by E.B.
Few television shows really suggest that they exist in their own worlds or universes. We get to hang out with the regular characters, and the guest players are often there to service those actors, but we never get a sense that there’s a living, breathing, organic world out there beyond all of the people we see from week to week. Deadwood, sometimes frustratingly for its fans, is often willing to just completely embrace this world of people beyond its main characters. It always know that Al and Bullock are its primary movers and shakers, but it thinks nothing of turning over several minutes out of an hour to hang out with someone like Mose or Aunt Lou. “Amateur Night” is the ultimate expression of that egalitarian impulse, that sense of the town of Deadwood being so rich with humanity that the series can barely contain it. Our regulars are there, yes, but they’re sitting and watching the festivities or politicking out in the crowd or cheering on the performers. One of the things I like in any work of art is when it seems as if any of the characters present could have been the lead of the story had it been structured differently, and there’s perhaps no TV series that’s more true of than Deadwood. This episode suggests a rich series not about the men and women guiding the town so much as those who are attempting to eke out a living, a series running parallel to the one we know but one that’s just as good.
There’s another moment in the episode that suggests just how deeply the series has sketched its little town on the edge of civilization. It occurs when Joanie moves the kids from the old schoolhouse, soon to become the theatre for the Langrishe troupe, to the new one, built by a Norwegian man around a tree that sticks through its entirety. It calls to mind the Norse world tree, Yggdrasil, the world tree that stretches its being into every inch of our world and the next. Milch is, perhaps, making a point here about the centrality of children to our very existence, to the idea that we place them at such a position of importance because we recognize in them both potential and hope. But the notion of the world tree seems to exemplify Deadwood itself, a smaller thing that stands in for a larger whole – in this case a tiny town standing in for the whole of American society or, if you will, humanity itself.
It’s that humanity that will be tested in the weeks to come, but it’s tested just as strongly tonight, as the children of the camp walk from the old schoolhouse to the new one, led by Joanie, who manages to draw strength from Jane, who shows up after being prompted by Mose, their hands knit tightly together. Bullock and Martha bring up the rear, but as the children walk the street, an example of a world that is still pure enough to not be ruled by such things as greed and avarice, they draw in nearly every character on the show, who either looks on as they pass or greets those in the procession as they go (I love Sofia waving to Alma, who is now, somewhat improbably, sober again and waving back proudly). And it all closes with Al and Hearst looking at each other across the skyway, their balconies still worlds apart, even though both watched this tiny procession. This is what is at stake in all of this, not just a camp or the people in it but the very future of what we’ll come to know as America.
- Man, it’s gonna be sad to see the end of this, but we’re going to be into the very tightly plotted final three episodes of the season next week. We’ll see you then!
- Personal note: I actually worked for a summer at the newspaper in Custer, South Dakota. True story!
- I’m pretty sure I stole the notion that the unauthorized cinnamon is symbolic of death from the great Matt Zoller Seitz, whose writings on these episodes have sadly been expurgated from the Internet.
- I notice how Charlie justifies nearly everything he says should be done with something like “That’s what Wild Bill would have done.” I wonder if that’s actually what Wild Bill would have done or if Charlie is just justifying his own personal opinions by appealing to the highest authority he knows.
- I love this stray bit of description: “a vessel of purposes not your own.”
- Martha tells Bullock he did not “retire last night with (his) customary sweetness.” Yeeeeeah!
- Further thoughts of performance and pretending to be something you’re not: When Langrishe and Hearst finally meet, Hearst is unable to be anything but what he is. That’s both his gift and his curse, I suppose.
- I tried really hard to tie all of that talk of water dowsing into my grand, unified theory of Deadwood mysticism (notice all that stuff about Yggdrasil up there?) but ultimately failed. Go ahead and see if you can’t come up with something!
- Especially given how Milch would use him in the immediate future, having Austin Nichols turn up was REALLY distracting.
- A big reason I’m coming around on the theatre troupe is because I’d forgotten just how thoroughly delighted Langrishe is by everyone and everything he meets in the camp.
- Seriously, Alma just drops her addiction just like that?
- Trixie says that the pistol solved several problems for her. Well, there’s some foreshadowing.
- Gotta love Charlie’s sense of the right thing to do and how often that involves punching a guy in the face.
- Nice callbacks to season one in this episode with Alma pulling the coin out from behind Sofia’s ear and Cy returning to menace Joanie. Had I not known that this wasn’t planned as the final season, things like this would have made it seem as though it were.
- Finally, quotes.
- "Last I looked, I am white!" – Steve Fields
- "Will you mind very much if we have our dinner quickly?" – Seth Bullock
- "Do not put unauthorized cinnamon on the goddamn meeting table." – Dan Dority
- “I wish you wouldn’t smoke in here.” “I wish, when asleep, you wouldn’t snore and fucking fart.” “I have no choice about either of those.” “If I extinguish this fucking cigarette, it’ll be in the middle of your fucking forehead.” – Sol Star and Trixie
- "We might put notice in the Eastern papers." "Once we've ceased our weeping?" – Cy Tolliver and Al Swearengen
- "You'll spank it in front of a goddamn mule team." – Dan Dority
- "You mustn't ask me what and you mustn't ask me why." "You must go fuck yourself." – Gustave the tailor and Dan Dority
- "Well, what's it like then? I never had a sister." "I had two, and I slept with both of them." – Calamity Jane and Joanie Stubbs
- "Mama's got you little lad. Everything's all right." – Gustave
- "Please, God, come in." – Al Swearengen
- “That is our species’ hope: That uniformly agreeing on its value, we organize to seek the color.” – George Hearst
- “I hate these places, Odell, because the truth that I know, the promise that I bring, the necessities I’m prepared to accept make me outcast. Isn’t that foolish? Isn’t that foolishness? And old man disabused long ago of certain yearnings and hopes as to how he would be held by his fellows, and yet I weep.” – George Hearst
- “I want to send you to help your people … and take this place down like Gomorrah.” – George Hearst
- "That's a very nice fucking letter." – Al Swearengen
- "Fuck confidentiality of communications." – Blazanov
- “I imagine the pool that spawned you. I am filling it with rocks. I am holding shut your gills. To prevent you from taking in air. … I suppose the meeting went quite well.” – E.B. Farnum
- "As witness that … Bullock wrote a nice fucking letter. And it proves that that's the sort we are here." – Dan Dority
- "For being gone, I notice I'm frequently back. I come to kiss her good night." – Whitney Ellsworth
- “Mystified, Al, at proclaiming a law beyond law to a man who’s beyond law himself? It’s publication invoking a decency whose scrutiny applies to him as to all his fellows. I call that strategy cunningly sophisticated, befitting and becoming the man who sits before me.” – Jack Langrishe
- "Nor would I fucking have you! And do not come and try to murder me as I sleep! And I will not come and try to murder you." – Steve Fields
- “Jesus Christ! The fucking gimp finds something useful to do in the fucking brace you made her! Do you think you could treat being Johnny - always struggling to fashion a thought?! Every fucking night I, that could cut a throat but sleep the sleep of the just, spend six fucking wakings trying to find a piss pot with my dribble, and wondering when I got to be so old. Pick a fucking swatch for a spit rag, use the others for masks, and go about your fucking business! I ain’t learning a new Doc’s quirks!” – Al Swearengen
- "Wanna fight?" – Sol Star
- "Fuck yourself with a fist punch up the ass, today at the present moment." – Calamity Jane
- "Implying what by that fucking lordly look? That he'll outflank my tactics by buying a new fucking saddle?" – Steve Fields
- "You are less majestically neutral than cloaking your cowardice in principle." – George Hearst
- "Can you help me who does not know your name?" "John Langrishe, sir. Permit me to say, you are known to me." – George Hearst and Jack Langrishe
- "Cause I'm a nigger, doc, who don't care what stands or falls." "Hostetler was too." "Hostetler was taller than me." – The NG and Doc Cochran
- "$200 in merchandise in the middle of our store like an interrupted shit." – Seth Bullock
- "I took the badge off myself once, without losing my impulse to beat on certain types." "Well, that seems never to go." – Seth Bullock and Wyatt Earp
- "Well, then, let's kill him and take his job." – Morgan Earp
- "Those as don't eat, without exception, fail to survive." – Calamity Jane
- "You heard the lady, Steve. Them that goes on have got to fucking eat." – The NG
- "Does that trouble you? Keeping watch on a dark place?" "No ma'am, it does not. Especially when I know there's light coming to it." – Joanie Stubbs and Mose Manual
- “Dost thou know Dover? There is a cliff whose high unbending head looks fearfully on the confined deep. Bring me back to the brim of it, and from that place…I shall no leading need. Here’s the fly tower. If you mount up, take firm a rail in each hand.” – Jack Langrishe
- "The wiles of a bullshitter such as oneself may have use as a feint to occupy him." – Jack Langrishe
- “Leviathan fucking smiles.” – Al Swearengen
- "Question extant being, til reinforced, can we learn the ways of church mice?" – Al Swearengen
- "You will not mistake the newspaperman – looks like a big turtle – published a letter meant to embarrass me." – George Hearst
- "Tell Al as we didn't wake to the apocalypse, I suppose all we need fear is their Winchesters." – Cy Tolliver
- "I've been heavy all my life." "I refer not at all to you dear lady." "Salty juicy ham this morning." "I must have it!" – Aunt Lou Marchbanks and Jack Langrishe
- "Not as a pedestrian, ironically, given his heavy-footed virtuosity." – Jack Langrishe
- "Ah! My ham!" – Jack Langrishe
- "If the currency's counterfeit, my fucking Jew boss is the culprit." – Trixie
- "I have no gossamer filament of doubt you have skills to delight and amaze." – Jack Langrishe
- “Oh, yeah, I’m sure them scribblin’s as clear as fuckin’ rainwater to you, Johnny. He who was stymied by a couple of fucking X’s and a goddamn straight line.” – Dan Dority
- “Oh dear.” – A.W. Merrick
- "Bok gwai lo?" "Fuck bok gwai lo!" – Wu and Al Swearengen
- "If you can cartwheel or puff your cheeks like a fish, we have a festivity tonight. I'll live in hope you'll attend." – Jack Langrishe
- "There is a strange fucking bird." – Charlie Utter
- "Give him the fucking telegram and no punching." – Al Swearengen
- "OK, Giganto. Don't tusk me to death with your tusks." – Calamity Jane
- "Soap with a prize inside! Guaranteed prize in every case of soap!" – The soap man
- "The sustenance I would take in any case, Mr. Hearst, like a newly hatched bird, would come from your mouth." –Hugo Jarry (followed by bird noises)
- "I believe I'll attend badgeless, lest I put a damper on stupidities." – Charlie Utter
- "Oft confused with the most high, though our inseams got different lengths." – Cy Tolliver
- "I'll hold your heart in my hand for your beady little rat eyes to look at before I shove it down your fucking throat." – Cy Tolliver