(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.)
“Do you know the sound of thunder?”
“Here Was a Man” opens roughly where “Reconnoitering the Rim” ends, just in a different location: it is not hard to imagine Wild Bill defeating Jack in a high stakes game of poker, just as Dan is reluctantly (if effectively) throwing Brom Garrett over the side of a ridge. Gold prospecting is its own form of gambling, after all, and Deadwood‘s never one to waste the opportunity at a little poetic justice. But these two scenes are connected by more than their temporal similarities; dimly lit and sweaty, Deadwood takes great care draw parallels between these two episodes, and particularly these two characters, the upstart prospector way in over his head, and a downtrodden legend too tired to fight to keep above water anymore.
The longs days in the South Dakota sun have done Deadwood good; “Here Was a Man” is a young drama firing on all cylinders, a singularly powerful episode capped off by the operatic, tragic death of the show’s most enigmatic presence.
“Here Was a Man” is a natural bookend to “Reconnoitering the Rim”, flipping each and every developing story in Deadwood on its head, in turn bringing great energy and pace to the young, still meandering drama. Much of “Here Was a Man” feels like an inverse of its predecessor: the arrival of the Bella Union and the death of Brom Garrett brought the thunderous roar of change to Deadwood, and this hour is all about observing how much that rattles every single member in town.
The most striking of these is Alma, dealing with the death of her father; though the episode’s primary focus is Wild Bill, Alma is really the center of the storm in “Here Was a Man,” trying to parse the circumstances of her husband’s death, now a woman alone in a land full of desperately violent men. In the first few episodes, it was hard to see the charms of her character, beyond a feigning interest in the isolation she surrounded herself in; “Here Was a Man” brings great depth to Alma, unleashing the talents of Molly Parker to great effect in the hour (the scenes where she’s paired with Robin Weigert’s Jane are an absolute wonder to behold).
Not only does the episode offer her some back story (she married Brom on a rebellious whim, something she has very complicated feelings about), but it also offers her the chance to leave her room for the first time, contrasting her clean white dress against the Deadwood’s mosaic backgrounds of mud and shit. “Here Was a Man” makes no mistakes about the terrifying position she’s in, now in charge of a claim that Al Swearengen has already killed one person over; in showing her deft management of the situation, Deadwood offers up a much more layered, driven character than what we’ve seen in the first few hours, further deepening the ever-growing roster of engrossing Deadwood characters.
Her situation neatly intersects with Wild Bill, her neighbor at Farnum’s hotel (where breakfast always looks awful), employing him to feel out Al and his cronies in regards to her husband’s death and as-yet-untested gold claim (which Al now knows is ready to cash in). Wild Bill is the calm between these two storms; as both try and make sense of the many conflicts they suddenly find themselves juggling, Wild Bill acts as intermediary of sorts, taking on the dangerous (and pro bono) position of Al Interpreter, trying to find the thread of truth through all the bullshit he weaves while pouring shots of whiskey.
As Al points out, everywhere he (and Alma, inadvertently speaking for them both) looks, a new shit storm is brewing for him to navigate – as they’re trying to figure out how to survive, Wild Bill is trying to find a way to die in peace. As he tells Charlie, “let me go to hell the way I want to,” and it’s clear he planned his trip to Deadwood as his last stop, one way or the other. “I’m tired,” he tells Seth at one point, and there isn’t a moment of “Here Was a Man” that doesn’t feel that weight on his soul; being an idol to Jane, meeting Charlie’s expectations, managing his celebrity reputation – he’s done with the circus of his life (his real-life marriage holds great poetic weight, another great example of Milch and his writing team finding poignancy in history), throwing up the white flag to his bad habits and the complications they bring.
The dissonance between Alma and Bill (and by proxy, Al and Bill) provide a key foundation to the episode, setting the stage for Bill’s tragic death at the hands of Jack, a historical moment given Shakespearean weight by director Alan Taylor (The Sopranos, Game of Thrones) and writer Elizabeth Sarnoff (LOST). “Here Was a Man” is an earnest portrayal of a complicated man, a Western sendoff of iconic proportions. From his poorly-penned letter to his wife, his bro-tiful last scene with Bullock, to the unceremonious way his dead body falls to the floor in front of Seth and Jane, Will Bill touches every corner of Deadwood on his way out. Keith Carradine soaks in the opportunity, and delivers a powerful, moving performance of a man resigned to his own failures, happy to take Al’s advice on “letting the world do its own spinning” and decide his ultimate fate.
In an hour observing two characters trying to take a definitive hold of their lives, seeing a third come to peace with the circumstances of his existence gives great emotional weight to the cost of freedom – and serves as a neat parallel to Deadwood’s identity as a town. For better or worse, Wild Bill Hickok was his own man, who made all the decisions, good and bad, without concern for the law: Deadwood’s existed the same way since its reinstatement, but “Here Was a Man” marks the death of the town as a lawless camp, especially when Jack is apprehended alive. Unlike the previous murders in town, where self-defense was a relevant legal option, Jack’s cold-blooded murder of Wild Bill is a blatant crime – in a town without police, or any connection to a recognized government, what happens to a murderer?
This episode doesn’t directly grapple with this question, given that Wild Bill’s death is really the episode’s thematic coda; but it lays an important foundation for that crisis of identity through the many running narratives in the hour, to harmonious effect. It does hint towards this rapid path towards capitalist democracy the town’s about to face, in the hint of other forms, primarily the sores on Bella Union friend and conman Andy Cramed, who brings the smallpox plague into town with him.
Forget how much this could ruin the quickly-growing reputation of the Bella Union (which is introducing competition to the monopolized economy of the town), but an outbreak of smallpox in the camp is a potential hellscape without the organization of a government to respond: while taxes are a bitch, medical experts and plague cures are useful things to have, as are murder trials to make sure people are culpable for their actions.
All of these elements make for the first truly great entry in Deadwood’s oeuvre; everything in the show’s opening hours coming together as quickly as Seth and Sol’s hardware store building in an emotionally driven 58 minutes (it’s also the longest episode since the pilot, by a number of minutes). It took a lot of work – three episode’s worth, in fact – but the longs days in the South Dakota sun have done Deadwood good; “Here Was a Man” is a young drama firing on all cylinders, a singularly powerful episode of the series capped off by the operatic death of the show’s most enigmatic presence, an exciting sign of the show’s quickly growing confidence.
- Wild Bill’s death is still a shocking moment, even fifteen years later; modern prestige dramas would never kill off a major character so early, especially one embodied by such a moving performance as Carradine’s.
- “Pretty quick you’ll have laws here… and every other damn thing.” Wild Bill is not a man for civilization’s constraints.
- Alma points out to Doc that his sudden proclivity to keep his opinions to himself is quite interesting, in one of my favorite, underrated scenes of Deadwood dialogue.
- “My visions of locusts returns.”
- Ellsworth knows the key to surviving change: the key to a long life is “same as a dog keeps his nose; don’t poke it where it don’t belong.”
- Dan’s continued reluctance to act as Al’s executioner continues to provide these fascinating moments, compressed observations on the state of Dan’s soul. W. Earl Brown’s work as Dan can’t be understated here, capturing the inner conflict of a bad man with abundant depth.
- the end of “Here Was a Man” also sees a random dude run into town with a dismembered Sioux head, a strange image that’s never really addressed, beyond an earlier scene noting peace between the Sioux and the American government was apparently imminent. While it serves the chaotic purpose of the episode’s final moments, it’s a strange inclusion in the closing montage of images, even though it does serve as a thematic parallel to Deadwood being dragged feet first into civilization.