(Deadwood: The Movie premieres on May 31st, nearly 13 years after the show’s original cancellation. In anticipation for the new film, Randy’s re-watching the entire series, in a new column titled One Vile Rewatch.)
Look no farther than a drunken Charlie Utter for an apt representation of “Deep Water”, Deadwood‘s quiet, foreboding second episode. Shitfaced and leaning against one of Deadwood’s many ramshackle buildings, Charlie struggles to take a piss, so anxious and constipated he can barely express his concern for Wild Bill to the newly anointed Hardware Boys (Seth and Sol); like Charlie, “Deep Water” is stuck in place for most of its 55 minute running time, an exercise in tension building that’s never offered comfortable release. Featuring a bit of violence and a lot of pontificating, “Deep Water” slows down to a near crawl for large portions of the hour, but is successfully able to bide its time during those lulls by relying on the show’s incredibly dense, poetic atmosphere, sidestepping the typical post-pilot slump most every series is privy to.
Although “Deep Water” is most certainly a pause between bigger chapters of the Deadwood story, it is a wonderfully intricate, effective hour of world building.
Charlie’s brief, but intense gastronomical struggles also portend the future of Deadwood; from Jack McCall to Brom Garrett, dramas are high in Deadwood, and it’s obvious there’s a storm of shit heading any number of character’s directions. Save for Charlie, Al, the Doc, and Wild Bill, everybody is too busy building and dreaming about their new lives to understand what’s heading in their direction. Dan Dority is perhaps the closest, but his struggle with the inevitable has a much darker, more existential bent than the other arcs of the hour; contending with murdering a child is not going to be easy on a man’s conscience, after all.
The few clear headed entities in Deadwood are all content to be in these holding patterns, lest they are befallen by the ravenous shit storm of chaos slowly starting to form the backbone of the titular town. As long as the money is still coming in, Al isn’t too concerned about the goings on outside the Gem; but when it becomes clear one of his hired guns was involved in the cover up around the Norwegian deaths, Al’s paranoia gets the better of him, and he tries to advance his interests the only way he knows how; kill whoever is a potential interference, and let God figure out the fucking details later. It’s disruption Al seeks to defeat, not any particular enemy; even Bullock, whose unclear nature, at least to Al, makes him a disruption to his growing empire he’s not super excited to tolerate. To a scoundrel like Al, there’s nothing more dangerous than a straightforward, honest man; their stare down in the Gem paints these two men as mirror images of each other, a wonderful visual of the existential fight between “good” and “bad” both Dan and the town of Deadwood is beginning to wrestle with.
Another apt parallel can be drawn from Charlie to poor Calamity Jane in “Deep Water”; her constipation is emotional, a byproduct of the terrifying, clearly abusive childhood she grew up in, giving great definition to the superficially arrogant persona we see her swaggering around town with in the first two episodes. “Deep Water”, nor the series as a whole, will ever get into the details of what happened to Jane as a child; and it doesn’t have to, because the lone scene she shares with Al in Doc’s abode is evidence enough of her pain. When she can finally push through and express herself, she explodes in a flurry of tears and expletives, later collapsing in Charlie’s arms and declaring herself a failure, and a coward – although she clearly has a gift for empathetic care, Jane’s inability to relax and embrace that shows how much she punishes herself for mistakes that were never hers.
That inability to escape past traumas and reputations haunts every minute of “Deep Water”, clouds over every character serving as test cases for how impossible it really is to be reborn. It takes a lot of different forms across the hour, be it racial slurs, like when Al insults Sol multiple times about his Jewish heritage (“I’ve been called worse things by better men,” he later tells Seth), or deeper, subtler traumas, like Alma’s addiction or Dan’s growing hatred for himself and what he does. The past haunt everyone in Deadwood, be it Brom’s reputation as a wimp who can’t do an honest day’s labor, or Trixie, clearly still shaken by the events of the pilot episode – shit, even Wild Bill can’t play a hand of cards without rustling up the interest of a the town’s crusty underbelly, never offered a moment’s reprieve from his legendary reputation.
Deadwood might offer the promise of a new beginning, but that new beginning is the equivalent of a new chamber pot, rather than a solution for all the shit that ends up in it, which is what the many new faces about Deadwood are slowly realizing, learning that the only way to push through all the mud and shit of life, is by sheer, brute force of will.
Even then, the world around Deadwood‘s characters proves hard to budge; Brom realizes he’s been played by Al and E.B., but is unable to recoup the money on what he is starting to think is a dead gold claim (Farnum: “I’m sorry, sir, but I have a weakness for spirits”; that slimy little fuck). In one of the episode’s funniest, bleakest sequences, Brom’s face slowly twists and contorts into dumbfounded anger, while E.B. unconvincingly says his lines about being an alcoholic, and how he couldn’t possibly buy Brom’s gold claim. It’s a perfect proxy for the frustrations characters like the Doc are experiencing; they can try as hard as they want, but taking a hold of one’s destiny is harder than it seems. The Doc can wave his shotgun around in Dan’s face, but he that little Norwegian girl isn’t going to live if Al dosn’t want her to, and Doc is still going to show up to take care of the whores, even if she winds up dead on his watch. He can try and fight his nature as a good, kind person, but it’s the equivalent of trying to swim against the current up a shit-filled creek; he is the man who deals with the violence of Deadwood, not the one who causes it, and he’s got no power to change that, as hard as he tries.
The Hardware Boys’ attempts to buy their lot (which we learn, is to eventually build a bank on) is another great representation of this idea; no matter how much Seth wants to piss and posture about not partnering with Al, he’s going to have to sacrifice his high-minded morality for a brief moment. Everybody’s got to bargain with the devil at some point in their lives, and no matter how much Seth thinks he can resist and do things the “right” way (considering he’s setting up shop on stolen land, however, methinks he may want to get off his high horse for a moment), he is going to have to contend with Al, the closest thing Deadwood has to an immovable object. For all intents and purposes, he is the god of Deadwood, and no matter how badly Seth doesn’t want to partner with him, he’s going to have to make that compromise one way or another, if he wants to escape the marshal identity that immediately defined him in town.
“Deep Water” is not a particularly exciting episode; but it is an important hour nonetheless, reinforcing many of the themes and character observations it made in the pilot episode, and quietly setting up a handful of narrative pins to be knocked down as the season continues. A town that’s already going through a lot of changes is about to experience another seismic shift, so it makes sense “Deep Water” would act to deepen its world and relationships for another hour, to give more weight and surprise to the events just on the horizon. Thankfully, Deadwood‘s infectious dialogue and deep cast of characters are more than enough to carry it for 55 minutes on atmosphere alone – although “Deep Water” is most certainly a pause between bigger chapters of the Deadwood story, it is a wonderfully intricate, effective hour of world building.
- hey look, it’s Nick Offerman as the ill-fated Ned Mason!
- Doc, coming through with the wisdom: “I see as much as misery as them moving to justify themselves, as them that set out to do harm.”
- “He’s got a mean way of bein’ happy.” Understatement of the year.
- Director Davis Guggenheim’s talents as a documentary filmmaker are on full display in “Deep Water”; there are some intensely beautiful close-ups of characters like Jane and Al all through the episode.