3292Untimely end for 'Deadwood' and one of its citizens
- Aug 28, 2006Untimely 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 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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