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matt zoller seitz

Seitz Asks: What’s Your Favorite TV Fight Scene?

Seitz Asks: What's your favorite TV fight scene?
Seitz Answers: Dan Dority vs. Captain Turner on Deadwood.

The season three Deadwood episode "A Two-Headed Beast" contains one of the greatest fight scenes ever — epically nasty but never cartoonish, choreographed and acted with maximum attention to psychology and physical realism. There have been a lot of great fight scenes on TV, in all sorts of modes — comic, stylized, or even superheroic — I love those, too. But this one takes the bloody cake. You can view it at this link, though I wouldn't advise watching it (or even rewatching it) if you're eating lunch, particularly if your lunch contains olives or hardboiled eggs or any other vaguely spherical foods. (Deadwood fans know what I'm getting at.)

Directed by Daniel Minahan and written by Regina Corrado and series creator David Milch, the episode is set against the backdrop of the camp's impending takeover by gold magnate George Hearst (Gerald McRaney). Hearst has been stirring up all kinds of trouble and challenging the authority of Deadwood's established bigwig, saloon owner and gangster Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), and it has become clear that Deadwood's power brokers have to make a public gesture of defiance. The episode's high point is the long sequence where Hearst's henchman, Captain Turner (Allan Graf), fights Swearengen's right-hand man, Dan Dority (W. Earl Brown). I love the slow buildup with the men psychologically and physically preparing themselves for battle, especially the shots of Dan greasing himself so that he's harder to get ahold of. These rituals are at once comical and terrifying; you can sense the fury rising in both men, and fear along with it. It's like the prelude to Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris in Return of the Dragon, but with beer-bellied galoots.

The fight itself is not graceful, not "awesome," just ugly and scary. Both men expend much of their energy early. The rest of the fight reeks of desperation eclipsed by pride, the combatants stumbling and falling and crawling around like big hairy schoolboys, and as is so often the case in real-life brawls, one participant is clearly overmatched and can only be saved by resourcefulness and luck. The finale coup de grâce, administered with a stick of firewood, underscores what the fight choreography told us all along: that this scenario is as old as humanity itself. They might as well be cavemen fighting over who gets the last mammoth steak.

What's your favorite TV fight scene?

Photo: HBO