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3292Untimely end for 'Deadwood' and one of its citizens

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  • Lynn Ellingwood
    Aug 28, 2006
      Untimely end for 'Deadwood' and one of its citizens

      Monday, August 28, 2006

      THE CLOSING shot of last night's "Deadwood" episode was never meant as
      a series-ender. But that's what it was, and for a number of reasons, it
      was both appropriate and troubling: Ian McShane's Al Swearengen
      kneeling on the floor of his office, cleaning up a bloodstain.

      The blood belonged to one of Al's prostitutes, Jen (Jen Lutheran),
      whose only crime was vaguely resembling Trixie (Paula Malcomson).
      Trixie impulsively shot and wounded mining mogul George Hearst (Gerald
      McRaney) in last week's episode to avenge Hearst's contract killing of
      the good-hearted miner Ellsworth (Jim Beaver), husband of Alma Garret
      Ellsworth (Molly Parker), owner of Deadwood's bank and its second
      largest gold claim.

      Of course Hearst demanded that Trixie be killed. Al realized Hearst
      never got a good look at Trixie's face because he was too busy looking
      at her exposed chest. So Al decided to sacrifice someone he didn't care
      about in order to save a woman he still loves -- and save Deadwood in
      the process.

      The shot of Al scrubbing that floor didn't just remind us of how many
      throats he's slit. (He's so experienced he's been known to lecture
      employees on their scrubbing technique.) It suited the narrative of
      this episode, "Tell Him Something Pretty," which complicated the show's
      master narrative -- barbarism giving way to civilization -- and showed
      how the former never really gets pushed out by the latter, just
      enclosed and domesticated.

      Written by Ted Mann and directed by Mark Tinker, "Tell Him Something
      Pretty" closed out the story of Hearst, who used fear and violence to
      subvert the camp's fledgling social institutions and gain unfettered
      access to its gold. Hearst's menace united the gangster kingpin Al and
      his longtime foil, sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), and their
      alliance drew support at every layer of the camp's social pecking
      order. Al masterminded a seemingly counterintuitive strategy, which, to
      everyone's surprise, actually worked: Deadwood's citizens played it
      cool, absorbing more pain than they dished out, revealing Hearst and
      his thugs for the monsters they were.

      Hearst was ultimately exposed as something less than invincible, and
      that was so humiliating that he took the advice of theater impresario
      Langrishe (Brian Cox, whose role was thematically interesting but never
      really satisfying) and did what he'd been thinking of doing for quite
      some time: He got out. But first he had to save face by reasserting his
      power over Deadwood and demanding a blood sacrifice.

      Dramatically and thematically, Jen's murder made sense. Yet that
      closing image -- indeed the whole episode -- was deeply troubling for a
      number of reasons, some more defensible than others.

      On the defensible end, "Tell Him Something Pretty" was about the
      horrendous compromises we make in the name of survival, and how those
      compromises are often driven not by shining moral principles, but by
      personal needs -- for instance, Al's need to protect his beloved Trixie
      without inflaming Hearst's already volcanic wrath.

      The expedient hypocrisy of Al's position was made clear in an early
      scene where he ordered his henchman, Johnny (Sean Bridgers), who was
      sweet on Jen, to do the deed in Al's stead. Johnny couldn't go through
      with it (for the same reasons that Al wouldn't consider offing Trixie),
      so the boss had to get his hands dirty.

      Yet for some reason, the whole episode just felt off. Maybe it was the
      way Bullock, his deputy Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie) and other
      influential citizens just went along with Al's plan without ever really
      objecting to it, much less opposing it.

      One could defend this as an example of series creator David Milch
      telling us a truth we didn't want to hear: that Deadwood's citizens
      were not really as civilized as they appeared to be. But I didn't
      believe Bullock and Utter would accept this scheme so easily --
      especially not after both Bullock and Charlie publicly called Hearst
      out on his bully mentality in the same episode. Their acceptance was
      contingent on an Al-like coldness neither man seemed to possess. At the
      very least, I wanted to watch those who'd endorsed Al's scheme grapple
      with its grave implications.

      Equally troubling was the decision to have Jen's death occur
      off-screen. One could argue it was an attempt to give this killing more
      weight -- to suggest it was so horrendous, even by "Deadwood"
      standards, that the series itself couldn't bear to show it to us. (Al's
      exhaustion as he cleaned up her blood seemed not just physical, but

      But this choice ended up seeming evasive. I wanted to see Al's face as
      he steeled himself to commit what was surely one of the least
      defensible killings he'd ever been party to; instead, the sin occurred
      behind closed doors.

      As I've said before, it's possible that my various questions and
      objections might have been answered if "Deadwood" had been allowed a
      fourth season. Over the years, Milch never sentimentalized the camp or
      its inhabitants, even when it became clear that most of them were
      slowly but surely evolving into more outwardly "sympathetic" people,
      productive components in the larger human organism.

      Unfortunately, thanks to a bottom-line-driven, behind-the-scenes spat
      between HBO and the show's co-producer, Paramount, we'll never seen a
      fourth season -- just a couple of two-hour wrap-up movies that may have
      their merits, but probably won't be as rich and satisfying as 12 full

      There's an incidental and unfortunate parallel between the narrative
      of Sunday's de facto "Deadwood" finale and the circumstances that led
      to the drama's cancellation: A macho showdown between two warring
      giants led to an unnecessary, indefensible and shockingly cruel demise.

      There is no telling what that young woman might have become had she
      lived. She wasn't ready to go, and she didn't deserve to die; she
      didn't see the end coming, and the fact that she was denied her
      humanity, treated as a pawn in a struggle she couldn't comprehend,
      makes the whole thing harder to take.

      Sometimes art imitates life without meaning to.

      Matt Zoller Seitz may be reached at mseitz@..., or by
      writing him at 1 Star-Ledger Plaza, Newark, N.J. 07102-1200. For more
      articles on "Deadwood" by Seitz and Star-Ledger colleague Alan
      Sepinwall, visit Seitz's blog, The House Next Door, at

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