Writing archive

Adapt or Die: The Deadwood Finale

— Friday, July 27th, 2012

I love the series finale – by which I mean the third season finale – of Deadwood, one of my all-time favorite shows. This doesn’t set me overly apart – it’s an incredibly strong episode of an incredibly strong show – but what sets me apart just a little is that I think “Tell Him Something Pretty” is nearly perfect as a series finale.

Don’t get me wrong – we all deserved the fourth season that we didn’t get. The theatre troupe’s subplot should have had the time for stronger resolution and integration, and the show should by all rights have ended with the Gem Saloon burning to the ground (for the first time). Knowing as much as we do, not only about what actually happened historically, but about David Milch’s plans – the premiere would have featured Al, likely a town pariah at that point, coaxing Bullock out of his hole to give up the sheriff star) – makes the wound sting even now.

However, I think that Milch was actually able to bring things to a perfect close given what he had to work with, was able to tie up the thematic thrust of the show with no loose ends. He did it with three characters, two of whom were his own creations for the show, and one of whom has been unfairly maligned, I think, in looks back at the show and how it all played out.

Al Swearengen

The most obvious first, here.

“This fuckin’ place is gonna be a fuckin’ misery. Every fuckin’ one of them, every fuckin’ time I walk by, ‘Ooh, how could you? How could you?’ With their big fuckin’ cow eyes. The entire fuckin’ gaggle of ‘em is gonna have to bleed and quit before we can even hope for peace. What’s the fuckin’ alternative? I ain’t fuckin’ killing her that sat nights with me sick and takin’ slaps to her mug that were some less than fuckin’ fair. I should have fuckin’ learned to use a gun, but I’m too fuckin’ entrenched in my ways. And you ain’t exactly the one to be levelin’ criticisms on the score of being slow to adapt. You fuckin’ people are the original slow fuckin’ learners!”

So Al says to his Yorick, the severed head of a Native American who was killed in the first season, the friend of the man who Seth Bullock battled in the woods in his own moment of (perhaps short-lived) clarity. He’s killed Jen for George Hearst, rather than give up Trixie, who he loves in his own broken way. In doing so, he provides one of three capitulations that saves the town in the show’s finale.

Al’s act here is the source of the episode title, both in its literal quote at the episode’s end, referring to Johnny’s struggle over the whole situation, and also to we in the audience, horrified that after all of Al’s maturation over three years of the show, everything ends with his murdering an innocent prostitute. Al’s rant here, however, shows the two most important elements of this moment – the first, that his killing Jen rather than Trixie is an affirmation of Al’s humanity; not without condemning his act itself, but that after all his manipulations, despite all of his barbarous history, and with the town’s entire survival on the line, he still acted out of love. This for a woman he’d finally realized would be better if he let her go off with Sol Starr.

Secondly and more importantly, though, is that Al had done so much to transform the lawless camp into a town, a community, that the town had grown to the point that it was leaving him behind. Deadwood is at its heart about the forming of this community, and Al (against all odds) did more to build the town out of nothing, create this living place that glows with warm humanity. But a true community has no place for someone like Al unless he is capable of becoming someone other than he is, and he knows it. This act has severed his ties with that humanity, for their own survival.

Alma Russell Garrett Ellsworth

Someone who had her own problems adapting to being a part of a community.

The second capitulation (or rather the first, I suppose, it occurs earlier in the episode) is when Alma signs over her gold claim – the impetus for much of the plotting and scheming of every season of the show – over to George Hearst, so that he’ll leave the town and harm no one else. Alma does this, even though it is against everything she stands for, because it will allow her to stay in the town.

This is the conclusion to a story arc that has stretched over the length of the show – indeed, as much as the show became about Al over time, Alma’s story was a sort of shadow of that. As Al slowly gave the town up so that it could live, Alma slowly grew to accept the town as her own. The difference is most obvious when you see that Al’s story was always about power, and giving it up, whereas Alma’s seemed to be about having none, and slowly gaining it – until this finale proved that wasn’t so.

When we first meet her, she asks her husband if they can just leave – she does not like the look of the place at all, and she seems at first to have been proven right when that husband is killed. By the end, though, she has helped found the town’s bank, and is able to walk the streets without looking for (say) Richardson to escort her around. The third season threatened each element of this growth in turn – she lost her pregnancy, relapsed in her drug addiction, was shot at in the thoroughfare – and then the capper was (as it had to be) losing a second husband over the same gold claim.

There is a scene in the third season where the Gem’s women are remarking that the town’s “elders” had been called together, but Alma was not invited to the meeting, despite running the bank. On the one hand, it was a pointed note about the place of women, even in this community. On the other, though… Al never so much gave a shit, really. That meeting was about whether the town would be overrun in gunfire and bloodshed. He invited the men in town whose opinions he valued on the subject. And as an objective observer, the viewer knows that at that particular town meeting, Alma would not have belonged. She had already dealt poorly with Hearst, and she wasn’t really a community “elder” because in all the ways that mattered, she was still not part of the community.

At any point, the possibility of taking her money and running was essentially still on the table. She’d only ever really stuck around for Bullock. In the finale, though, she finally commits to the town itself, becomes a true member, because being there for her was now more important than her own pride – the thing that had all too often held her back.

Pride had been Alma’s sin from early on – her rejection of Doc Cochran, her “gift basket” stunt in the aftermath of Seth and Al’s brawling in the street, and biting off more than she could chew with George Hearst. It’s a special kind of pride, the pride-as-survival-mechanism, the thing that kept her going as her father and her first husband ground her down and made her small through her whole life, and a pride at finally being free, and a pride in being smarter than your oppressors. It’s a pride that you cannot blame her for, but it’s a pride that can get you killed – as reflected in the tale of old, sad Hostetler.

In season three, though, Alma is finally humbled in a way that does not devalue her. She is able to see the cost of her pride and let it go, and finally joins the community.

Cy Tolliver

And speaking again of being humbled!

In speaking of the final of the three capitulations – the core of the Deadwood finale, and where plot and theme meet in the climax – consider the path that’s brought us here. Each character in the show has joined the community in their own way, one at a time. It’s become a real entity, and they even had their statement of humanity in Bullock’s printed letter (one of everyone’s favorite moments for good reason). Now formed and united, all that is left is to survive George Hearst without losing their souls.

Everything is on the line. The Pinkertons are edgy, violent thugs who are armed to the teeth, and they are all in the town square. Just around a corner, Mr. Wu’s armed Chinese and Hawkeye’s hired guns are amassed, ready to take the battle to Hearst if everything goes wrong. If the two sides join in battle, we have been told, and we believe, that nothing of the town will be left. The place where not long before a group of school children had passed down the thoroughfare hand in hand unmolested will be a charnel house. Everything is about preventing this violence from occurring.

So Alma capitulates in a way that is a loss for her, but brings her up higher. Al capitulates in a way that is a victory – in that his ruse is successful – but it brings him down low. Hearst is about to leave, and Bullock steps out to the armed contingent to give one last piece of mind, and things are still tense because nothing is actually over yet.

And there remains one person in town who has not actually joined the community yet.

Hearst still runs the town in all the ways that matter, remember – the modern America is essentially born in these three seasons, and it’s why Deadwood serves as the opening bookend for which The Wire is the closing one. Just before he steps on his carriage, Hearst even tells A.W. Merrick that he’ll be running his own newspaper, to report what he wants, as if that connection needed to be clearer. He doesn’t fear Bullock, and so Bullock’s temper tantrum doesn’t endanger the town – except that it delays the carriage long enough that something else almost does, almost destroys everything with a single gunshot.

Cy Tolliver has been the last hold out, and the least likely. And since being stabbed – really, since Eddie Sawyer fled town – his impotence in town has been made clearer and clearer. This arc has sit poorly with some viewers and some critics, that it felt like a performer of Powers Boothe’s caliber had been benched unnecessarily in favor of other subplots. But this sequence, the finale, crystalizes the whole thing, and the arc is laid bare.

We knew in season one, when he brutalized those two thieving children, that Tolliver was essentially Al’s ugliness without his strengths, and that redemption was unlikely. Those who might claim that he and Al are equally culpable might note that Al receives no redemption, and wasn’t going to – he ostracized himself. But Tolliver’s arc itself had its own signposts and its own conclusion. Tolliver was dragged into physical weakness by his stabbing, as Al was by his kidney stone (forever paralleling) but Tolliver did not have the family unit that Al did. His terrifying appearance at the doorstep of the school was an acknowledgement that he had nobody and nothing and that on some level he knew it. Some part of his humanity existed still, though, in his reaction to Ellsworth’s death, which horrified even him. He’d hitched his train to Hearst, though, and it had carried him further and further from a community where he’d barely have belonged before. And Hearst’s table scraps, in the end, were the final insult to him. He’d rode into town a mighty rival for Al Swearengen and had been reduced to the most pathetic wretch in town.

On that balcony, Tolliver’s rage – the rage that had destroyed those two kids, had driven away Joanie and Eddie both, focused and narrowed all the way to the single barrel of a very tiny gun (ah-haha, yes). As puny as that firearm might have been, Cy Tolliver had a clear-as-Hell shot at Hearst’s head, and one bullet would probably still have done just fine for revenge.

The third capitulation for the sake of community was from the least likely source, as not even Cy Tolliver could shoot George Hearst and bring Hell to Deadwood. This is the literal climax of the episode, and in a way it’s the climax of the entire series because for this one moment, the entire community stands against what Hearst represents. The town and what they’ve built, their very humanity, is stronger than Hearst. And so Hearst leaves, no weaker but perhaps a little more cognizant of what he truly is (see his spare few tears while talking to Odell a few episodes earlier) and the community will thrive.

This isn’t to speak too highly of Tolliver – see that his response is to turn around and stab Leon – but for at least that moment, he was part of them, for at least a second, and that second was enough to save them.

And so the community lives and exists together, and maybe it’s not how fans might have hoped the show would conclude, but we’d be fools to have expected David Milch to tell us something pretty. In all the ways that mattered, the conclusion of Deadwood brought the story to the ending that it needed to have. The town banding together to, say, put out the Gem fire, is a foregone conclusion – just as the fire itself is all but an unnecessary flourish after Al’s sacrifice here. Knowing Harry Manning ordered the fire equipment is enough. Seeing the the town together once, and then ending with Al scrubbing out the blood on his own floor one last time, alone, is enough.