Welcome to 12 Days of Deadwood, in which Matt Zoller Seitz, author of the upcoming A Lie Agreed Upon: The Deadwood Chronicles, revisits the first season of the landmark HBO drama one episode at a time. Up today: “Reconnoitering the Rim,” written by Jody Worth and David Milch and directed by Davis Guggenheim, which originally aired on April 4, 2004.
Like any great drama, Deadwood is funny. That aspect comes into sharper relief in its third episode, a comedy of killings and burials that wipes the smile off its face only at the end, a crosscut montage of a murder and an intimidation that we fear might end in another murder. The previous recap contained a list of characters and their addictions, from which Brom Garret was conspicuously absent, but on this, the final day of his life (Deadwood honoring the unities, as always), we come to understand that he got high on a mix of pride and entitlement and died of it.
Al, who seemed a smidge more sympathetic at the end of “Deep Water” after finding a way to let little Sofia live, seems monstrous again here. He facilitates Brom’s murder to stop Brom from calling the Pinkertons to force the return of the $20,000 he paid for a gold claim that he (erroneously) thinks has no gold. While Al’s chief henchman Dan takes Brom to the creek to “reconnoiter the rim” — from which perch he’ll throw Brom before smashing his skull with a rock and making it look like he fell — Al terrorizes his toady in chief E.B. Farnum at the Gem, testing his loyalty after seeing him visit his newly arrived competitors over at the Bella Union.
Al doesn’t know that the Bella Union crew — including owner Cy Tolliver (Powers Boothe), madam Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens), and card sharp-slash-games master Eddie Sawyer (Ricky Jay) — moved into that plum spot only after making an offer on Farnum’s hotel and being rejected. Does Al turn on E.B. in that final meeting after sniffing out guilt in the toad’s flop sweat? We know from the fart protocol scene that he’s sensitive to smells.
The crosscutting between Brom’s murder by Al’s henchman and Al seemingly flirting with yet another murder amplifies our sense that the man is every place at once: a sorcerer whose powers extend past the camp’s borders. Series composers Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil, who also devised the show’s theme, link the two narrative lines with an ominous cue that evokes an early scene in a 1970s stalker flick where the killer is just getting warmed up.
Brom’s death is pathetic because it’s needless: an unintended byproduct of his upper-crust East Coast entitlement — a characteristic that, uncoupled from tactical intelligence, amounts to a death warrant, signed by Brom himself. He swears to Alma that he won’t leave camp without his money, and Al keeps that promise for him. The threat of Pinkertons — the private army of America’s rich — seals Brom’s fate. He could have gone back to New York with Alma. Had he done so, his family might have absorbed his losses, and even if they hadn’t, life would have gone on.
But Brom had to act tough in a place filled with folks who aren’t acting. “Don’t ask me to amend my purpose,” he says when Alma tries to defuse him, then adds, “If I’m stooped when you next see me, Alma, it won’t be worry weighing me down but bags of recovered gold.” Later, there’s an overhead shot from Alma’s perspective looking down at her husband in the street, where she ostensibly dispatched Brom to gather his thoughts in advance of his meeting with Al, but really it was to get him out of the room so she could do drugs in peace. Brom almost walks into the Gem to handle his business, then he pauses and walks further along the thoroughfare and around a corner, telling invisible people how it’s going to be and jabbing the air with his cigar. It’s like watching a child pretend to be his father.
Is the death sentence Al pronounces on Brom partly spurred by his humbling at the Bella Union? He handled the Spearfish Road clusterfuck decisively; “He took a different approach to the problem,” Doc dryly summarizes. But he’s off his game from the instant he sees the saloon’s staff arriving in a stagecoach procession (via a pan downward from the cemetery where Tom Mason was buried — the second Mason funeral in two days), and when he dons his Sunday best before crossing the thoroughfare to enter the Bella Union and ask about “areas of overlap,” it’s as if E.B. Farnum has briefly possessed him. When Al terrorizes E.B later, is he terrorizing the toady within himself?
Al has shown us many sides up until now, but this is the first episode where he’s seemed in over his head. Boothe, who was one of Milch’s original choices for Swearengen but bowed out of the pilot due to illness, is darkly magnetic as Cy Tolliver. He comports himself to Al with the laid-back demeanor of a man who won’t give an inch because there’s no reason to. Boothe, Jay, and Dickens together have powerful unified energy, blunting Al’s attempts to run the room. When he says, “Pardon my French,” to Joanie, she replies, “Oh, I speak French,” with a stare that turns subtext into text. The Gem’s owner uses the phrase colloquially, French jokingly standing in for “coarse language,” but when Joanie uses it, she means French; and there’s poor Al in his bowtie, grinning like a hooplehead angling for a job emptying chamber pots.
Al’s frazzlement at Cy’s arrival muddies his thinking in other matters, chiefly his obsession with the notion that Seth Bullock and Bill Hickok are forming an alliance and/or that Bullock and Star plan to undermine Al or assist his competitors. (Al’s bigotry might play into this as well. He has the classic anti-Semite habit of presenting stereotypes as compliments, fixating especially on the idea that Jews are preternaturally gifted at business. But he does eventually give Bullock and Sol permission to build a permanent structure following a sit-down wherein Sol says yes to almost every request and Seth to the remainder.)
Seth is being treated as a pet project by at least two characters. One is the Reverend Smith, who once again directs fragments of a graveside sermon to Seth. The targeted line this time is, “A man’s ways please the Lord when he maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him” — a piece of advice that bounces off the forehead of Seth Bullock. (“If you’re gonna preach at me, reverend, you gotta throw a little bit more light on the text,” Seth says later.) The other is Charlie Utter, who confesses to Seth what the audience could already see: He’s been playing platonic matchmaker with Bill and Seth since their arrival. When he invites them to dinner with him and Bill — an invite that becomes a nighttime construction project — he jokes, “I guess I shoulda brung posies.”
The clock already seems to be running out for Bill. For the last several years, Bill has played a version of himself invented by the press and the public, hating (it seems) that he’s been reduced to that. Everywhere he turns, people recognize him and want to relive his exploits, but the exploits involve killing people. It’s the 19th-century version of a celebrity’s avatar or brand — a thing to be preemptively exploited lest others do so first. Bill’s no good at that. He won’t even take Charlie’s advice, and he seems uncomfortable dealing with his public because few of them are as respectful as Seth and Sol. Charlie is right about Seth’s goodness (even if his temper obscures it). He respects Wild Bill but sees his humanity, and Bill is comfortable around Seth because he never acts like he wants something from him.
To be famous and admired is to be resented. A larger-than-life persona stands in for people’s dreams and admirations while reminding them of their limitations and failures. Late in the episode, Bill is accosted by two starstruck drunks while helping Seth, Sol, and Charlie build the store. The second drunk plays the hero and ejects the first, only to make an even bigger scene. When Bill says he’s had enough (“Move along, I’m tired of yer yappin’”) the man responds by telling Bill that he hopes he dies in this camp. It’s a more straightforward expression of ill will than the one proffered earlier by Jack McCall, showing up at Seth and Sol’s hardware store after having been dressed down by Bill at Tom Nuttall’s saloon in a characteristically tense poker game. Jack, a poster boy for unhinged fandom, makes a scene, telling the partners that he’s doing a favor for Wild Bill Hickok by going prospecting because if he’s out panning for gold, Bill “ain’t getting his just desserts, at the poker table or otherwise … don’t ask me what I mean by that last part.”
How to read that moment when Seth snaps and throws Jack into a mud puddle? He didn’t do it earlier when Jack intimated homicidal wishes (something that would not have escaped a lawman’s attention), but he pounces when Jack spies Charlie Utter, drops his snaggletoothed jaw in delight, and exclaims, “I know him … yew follow him uh-ROWN!” Maybe Seth’s rage is sparked by Jack’s failure to recognize that Charlie isn’t just a glorified fan who’s lucky enough to orbit Bill close-up. Like Tom Nuttall, who seemed convinced that Charlie would cut a side deal for himself while negotiating appearance fees, Jack assumes everybody else is as big a suck-up as he is. Seth puts Jack where he belongs.
That Deadwood feeling of the camp as a gigantic neural network, its synapses firing in random patterns that can’t be anticipated but that lead to a seemingly inevitable result, continues here, culminating in a closing scene that starts off feeling like a coda. As Trixie shaves the calluses on Al’s feet — and listens to him yammer about how he’s grateful for each and every beating, her own face still purple from the damage her pimp inflicted — Johnny comes in to deliver good news and bad news. The good news is that Brom is dead. The bad news is that the claim might be worth a fortune. There’s something karmic in the notion of Al’s treachery trying to neutralize the threat posed by a New York dandy only to make his widow rich enough to pose a threat.
The show was always half a theater piece, but here it starts leaning into that tendency, giving supporting players soliloquies. Ellsworth gets a spotlight moment in the first scene (a bookend to the horrible climax) talking to Johnny when he isn’t talking to himself (and a dog that may or may not be his). Jane gets a bigger one in a scene at Sofia’s bedside, telling the girl that Bill passed out and slept on the upstairs landing of their hotel because he wanted to protect her. Robin Weigert’s delivery of this absurd idea both here and earlier in the hour makes it plain that Jane believes it with all her heart.