Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Deadwood: "The Whores Can Come"/"Boy the Earth Talks To"

Illustration for article titled Deadwood: "The Whores Can Come"/"Boy the Earth Talks To"

Episode 23. “The Whores Can Come.”

Both Jane and Johnny have procured new boots. Both intend to wear them to the funeral of young William Bullock, being laid to rest today. There’s some discussion of whether it’s acceptable to wear such a thing to a funeral, whether there’s a proper way to act in the face of overwhelming grief (much of the episode is accompanied by the soundtrack of subtle wailing), but it’s Jane who figures it all out. "I ain't afraid of newness. It's the blisters give me pause,” she tells Joanie of her new boots (in a sequence where Joanie tries to get her to wear something other than her usual attire), and that gets at the heart of this episode in more ways than one. Moving on from death is never easy, but we disguise it as best we can. Still, the very act of newness, of acting like nothing happened, causes blisters all the same, and the pain makes us think of what it is we’re doing. We have to wait until we’ve broken our grief in, figured out how to live with it, before we can move on. In the immediate face of it, we can only mourn. You don’t wear new boots to a funeral because it’s like pretending nothing even happened too soon. And that can only bring greater pain.

Each of the first two seasons of Deadwood features a significant funeral scene. In the first season, the funeral for Wild Bill Hickock was a wildly metaphorical sequence, where Reverend Smith did nothing less than lay out the entire philosophical underpinnings of the show. The funeral for William, which closes out this episode, is less over-the-top, but it doesn’t need to be. After 22 episodes with these people, all we need to see is a series of cuts to the people of the town, listening to Andy Cramed read from the Psalms, to know that they are knit together as one body, one body united by its grief, except for a few stray individuals, avoiding the funeral out of lack of connection or out of some other motive. This funeral sequence, which plays out with no overdramatization, with no attempt to goose the grief and make tears come, is one of the finest sequences in the whole series and one of the saddest in TV’s short history.

The final two episodes of Deadwood’s second season manage to perfectly cap everything that’s come before in the season. There’s a sentiment that David Milch is better at beginnings than endings, his style being so fond of following characters down rabbit trails he finds interesting. For the most part, that’s true. The other two seasons of Deadwood have some really strong masterplots throughout, but neither of the other two can match up to the simple way Milch and the show’s writers pay off every plot thread and every thematic thread he’s been dangling in the second season in “The Whores Can Come” and “Boy the Earth Talks To.” There’s nothing here as ruthlessly plotted as season three’s George Hearst arc (which is the most traditionally structured serialized narrative the show attempted), but there are fewer loose ends when compared to that season. Similarly, there’s less of the sense that dominated season one of a series of short story arcs being played out and adding up to a loose whole that doesn’t stick together as well on a master narrative level. Season two is like a grand novel about a batch of characters who find themselves facing legitimacy and react in very different ways. And like so many great novels, it ends with a funeral and a wedding.

First, we have to attend the funeral. I don’t think I’m overstating this when I call it one of the saddest sequences in TV history. The choice to play out everything as it might happen almost verbatim ends up being something that feels bolder than it should. This is just a minister, reciting a bunch of Psalms, to a bunch of saddened townspeople, struggling to articulate why they’re so grief-stricken by this event. Sure, Martha races inside to be near William’s body, with Bullock unable to figure out how to placate her, and when she comes out and asks him to invite everyone inside to pay their respects to the boy, but that’s as far as the sequence goes in terms of breaking away from the rhythms of a normal (albeit truncated) funeral. It’s as if the show, trusting in our time spent here and our connections built to the town and its citizens, is asking us to grieve too, to pause long enough in our viewing to mark something that has happened, a young life that has been cut short.

I’m actually not a huge fan of children being killed in works of fiction as a way to needlessly create drama where none existed before. In so many ways, it just feels too easy, too much of a way to get the audience in the desired emotional state of numb unawareness, of extreme grief. “The Whores Can Come” came after a long string of dead kid movies (Mystic River springs readily to mind), and I recall thinking at the time it aired that the series would have to find a way to differentiate itself or else feel like it was just killing William to provoke us into easy emotion. Instead, Milch and the writers avoid easy emotion, trusting us to get that this is very sad, a moment of extreme tragedy. They also trust that they can use the funeral to draw parallels between the Deadwood of season one and the Deadwood of season two.

Remember how few people turned out for Bill’s funeral. Remember how much it turned into a grandly theatrical gesture on the part of Smith. It seemed almost endowed with the spirit of the frontier. The funeral for William is more staid, but it’s also a funeral nearly everyone in town attends (the camera picks out everyone from Al’s three right-hand men to Alma and Sophia to Jane, standing in the creek, her new boots getting wet), and it’s a funeral that feels like something we might actually encounter in our day-to-day existence. It’s the tradeoffs of being a part of something more civilized – you might not get something as wild and free as Smith’s sermon on the nature of community, but you also get your friends at your side, ready to help overcome your grief in the small, kind ways we try to help others. We leave flowers. We tell people we’re sorry for their loss. We gather together.

Deadwood, more and more on this rewatch, strikes me as a series about what it means not only to be a part of a community but what it means to be a human being, to live and breathe and laugh and love and, ultimately, die. It’s not the world’s most original theme, but it’s a theme that’s expressed with a rare rawness in this series, as we look in on a series of lives in crisis, buoyed by kindnesses and the feeling of belonging to something larger than the self, an almost mystical series of connections going beyond our own limited perceptions. It’s there in the way that Martha wants to leave town but is gradually able to accept that her future lies in Deadwood, regardless of what happens in her marriage. It’s there in the way that Al refuses to let on why he won’t be attending the funeral beyond his own reticence to do such things (particularly involving Bullock) until he unleashes a torrent of the sheer misery of his childhood to a whore. It’s there as Mose struggles back to life and wishes only to die, only to realize he’s been given a gift we know William will never receive.

And, of course, the business of the camp continues as it will. Jarry is trying to ascertain if everything Al has told him about Montana is true, even going to Bullock’s house to inquire (the sound of barely restrained hostility in Bullock’s voice when he tells the commissioner that everything Al says is true is note perfect). As Al continues to try to work Yankton to his own advantage, Wolcott’s awaiting the imminent arrival of Hearst, who will come “within the week.” And the war between Wu and Lee, mostly a cold one until now, boils over into Lee killing prostitutes and roasting them on a fire (I also love the way the war between Wu and Lee roughly parallels Al’s fights with Cy throughout the series to date). All of these things must be dealt with, but Al uses William’s funeral to negotiate a series of tenuous pauses, one day designed to let the town grieve and to buy himself time. Al knows that everyone’s growing paranoid in the wake of his scheming, but he also knows that raw grief will cut through that paranoia to the quick, and he’s not above exploiting that.

So in the end, “The Whores Can Come” is about the pause that’s necessary whenever a community needs to come together for one reason or another (it’s significant that this episode is immediately followed by another where the community comes together, just under very different circumstances). A haunting sadness, not least of which is expressed in the vacant, lost faces of Bullock and Martha, permeates every inch of the episode. While it’s not as immediately and obviously funny as some that have preceded it, there’s a warmth and love to it all the same. It’s an episode where Trixie, perhaps the character who’s grown the most from the pilot, can seemingly traverse the whole town to make sure the funeral is appropriately solemn. It’s an episode where Al can look down from his balcony on the town he lives in but can never really be a part of, no matter how much he shepherds its future. It’s an episode where a woman can accept a man’s marriage proposal under the most unusual circumstances possible and it feels not like a cynical expression of someone trying to protect her interests (as it is in a lot of ways) but as the first green shoots of hope.

Episode 24. “Boy the Earth Talks To.”

A couple of months ago while my parents were visiting, they and I attended an evening game of our local, world-beating Los Angeles Dodgers. Somewhere around the middle of the fourth inning, the oddest sensation descended over me. I was with people I loved. The sky above was a deep, charcoal blue, dripping down to reach for the green of the field. And, I don’t know if you know this, but a Dodger Dog is the finest in ballpark eats. Somewhere in the middle of this, I realized something. I was happy. Unequivocally and without forcing the feeling. There was no concern over things that needed to be done or conflicts hanging over my head or the Deadwood piece I had due later that night. I was just me and in the middle of a beautiful night and happy. And that was enough for then, for that instant.

Unforced happiness, happiness that comes without strings attached, is the rarest thing in all of life. How often do you just sit down and feel not delirious joy but a nice, low-grade happiness that isn’t constantly crowded out by worries and fears and the constant nattering of the subconscious? As we cross over from the relatively easy world of childhood, where emotions run in high spurts of epic feeling, into the more fraught emotional territory of adolescence and adulthood, we find ourselves entering a world where every emotion must be couched in other emotions, where we rarely get a chance to just sit back and simply be. But as rare as this emotion is in life, it’s even more rare in art.

There are a lot of things I love in a work of art, but I doubt I love anything more than when one leaves its characters with a few moments of hard-earned happiness, a few acts of unforced kindness, a small nugget of grace. You can find it in the marvelous last moments of Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, one of my favorite films. You can see it peeking out from behind the curtain in some of the more gleeful passages in Dickens. And it’s there, somehow, in the last half of “Boy the Earth Talks To,” where David Milch and company take a season filled with pain and politicking and wrap it all up with joyous dancing. Season one ended with dancing, too, but it was a restrained dancing, more of an escape from the world of Deadwood than an expression of extreme happiness. The dancing at Alma and Ellsworth’s wedding, though, is full of unfettered joy.

Catch me on a good day, and I’ll tell you “Boy the Earth Talks To” is my favorite television episode of all time, one of only about seven or eight I rotate in and out of that top spot. But unlike a lot of those other episodes, I’m not sure I could ever just sit down with a casual TV fan and show them the episode. It’s so steeped in everything Deadwood is and was and would be that to watch it blind would be to miss everything that makes it so great. Indeed, every time I watch the episode, I find myself wondering why I thought so highly of it before only to reach that latter half, where the people of Deadwood, despite all of the things lined up against them (and the lurking monster who is now in their midst), find time to celebrate an unusual union. It’s a bravura sequence, and it hits me direct in some unpaved portion of my soul, as if the small personal anecdote above weren’t enough proof of that.

There are two central thrusts in the episode – Alma and Ellsworth are to be wed and carry out preparations for that, and Al is closing down the deal to make Deadwood a part of Dakota Territory with Jarry, finally managing to get the deal negotiated on terms most favorable to him. At first, it seems that these two storylines are going to run in a rough parallel, but near episode’s end, the series ties them directly together, intercutting between the wedding and Al and Jarry signing the papers, Andy’s wedding ceremony legalese overriding the soundtrack to both scenes, suggesting with a wry humor that all of this is just the nature of unions born out of necessity, that the marriage between two people and the marriage between a renegade camp and an undeveloped territory are roughly the same thing. And then the sequence expands outward, encompassing more and more people in the camp – Charlie returning to town! Martha finding that William’s sunflower seeds have begun to grow! Wolcott writing a letter, a rope hanging ominously in the background! – and the sequence goes from a wry joke to something very profound, the finest expression of the show’s generosity of spirit in its entire run.

For as much as I absolutely love the language Milch and his collaborators utilize on the show, I think the choice to let so much of this episode’s emotions play out with only diegetic soundtrack of everyday life as the accompaniment is absolutely the right choice. It’s as if in this episode and “The Whores Can Come,” Milch is stepping back from his authorial pen and inviting us into the world he’s so scrupulously created and built, almost as if it’s a documentary that we’ve stepped into or as if we ourselves have been invited to the wedding. The final ten minutes of the episode have very little of the show’s much-praised dialogue, turning themselves over to dancing and music and fun or two four men dealing out punishment in a back alley. But it’s not just in the ending that the dialogue drops out. The episode even opens with cutting between the war between Wu and Lee exploding yet again in violence (but without English dialogue) after a sleeping guard let Wu escape the Gem to attack, mildly endangering Al’s plans, and a telegraph coming in to Blazinov’s office, the dots and dashes adding up to a message only Blazinov can understand. Matters of translation all around.

The other major development in this episode is the arrival of George Hearst, the titular boy the Earth talks to. The full nature of who Hearst is and just why he’s not terribly fond of being in or near civilization will begin to come out in next week’s episodes, but for now, we get only a few tiny hints and his dismissal of Wolcott for being a sociopath (something that results in Wolcott killing himself during the wedding dance). Hearst is Deadwood’s primary antagonist, so it’s somehow fitting that he shows up only in the second season finale, but his very presence is felt acutely, as he buys up the hotel and immediately begins making changes to it, tearing down a wall even as Alma and Ellsworth’s wedding is ending.

The war between Wu and Lee ends as well, with Al managing to get Wu on Hearst’s good side, opening the door for Dan, Johnny, Silas and Wu to take out Lee while he enjoys the company of one of the Chinese whores. The battle for Celestial Alley has been playing in the background of this season in almost every episode, and it’s kind of cool that the final bit of plot business dealt with involves these two and their battle that seemed like it would never end. Plus, it offers the terrifically funny sight gag of the Gem three disguising themselves, the better to infiltrate Lee’s establishment.

But all of this is, really, mere plot business, the sorts of things we expect the season finale to a serialized drama to do, if we’re being honest with ourselves. What’s more impressive is that Milch and his creative team take this season, so full of marvelous little moments, and manage to make all of those moments, all of those thematic rumblings, tie together in that final sequence. It’s sometimes easy to forget that Deadwood is not really a show about its political machinations or about the murder and sin that takes place in the camp’s streets or even about the people who live there. Above all, it’s a show about a community, a community that grows and changes with the times and how that drags every individual in it, sometimes kicking and screaming, toward a new future. This is not a happy ending for everyone (Bullock has to tear his gaze from Alma, whom he was so in love with just weeks ago, to head on his way home), but it is a small moment of peace in between larger, more momentous bits of history. Those moments are the things Deadwood captures so well.

So that’s where Deadwood wants us to leave it in its second season (the only season of the show to receive significant awards attention, no less). Just as it wanted us to leave season one with that small, peaceful scene of human kindness (the Doc and Jewel dancing together around the Gem), it wants us to leave this season with the characters having come through hell to find some hard-earned happiness. There are few things harder to do in television than suggesting that the people in these shows are real people who have earned the respite and joy they find (the only other example I can think of off the top of my head is Bubbles’ final ending in The Wire), but by dropping us into this world in its greatest moment of need and its greatest moment of togetherness and hope in these final two episodes, Deadwood convincingly pulls off the feat. We take from our art what we most long for, I think, and the final passages of Deadwood’s second season present a place not where happiness is possible but where happiness is won after struggle. There are no sure things in Deadwood, just like in life, but once you find a moment of bliss, the temptation is to hang on, lest it fly away.

Stray observations:

  • So we start season three next week, and my plan was to go back to three episodes per week, since I don’t think there’s as much to discuss in season three, where there are a lot of dangling plot threads leading into the non-existent fourth season. But we have enough time left in the summer to give season three the two episodes per week treatment. What say you, commentors?
  • Apologies for largely abandoning straight plot recaps this week. There will be plenty more politicking to write about in season three. If there’s something you’d particularly like to touch on, take it up in comments. I’ll join the fray as I can.
  • A couple of weeks ago in comments, there was a discussion of whether or not Mose’s evolution into the watchman for the Chez Ami is at all believable (Mose’s recovery is a minor subplot in both episodes), since it happened so quickly. Watching again, I’m inclined to believe that there’s a gap of a few days to a week between the two episodes, which would leave plenty of time for Mose’s recovery.
  • I do find Andy Cramed’s sudden turn into a minister somewhat unbelievable, though I suppose that could be written off as him trying to get close to Cy so he could gut the guy (though it’s a really poorly thought out plan if that’s the case). Similarly, I remember how big a cliffhanger Cy’s gutting was when the show first aired and now look how little we care! A lesson for cliffhanger planners everywhere, I guess.
  • I’m genuinely impressed both by how these episodes are a summing up of season two and a preview of season three. The final shots involve Merrick’s newspaper printing a special edition with the screaming headline about the elections coming, and the elections and Hearst will be major plot points in season three.
  • Timothy Olyphant always kinda got the short end of the stick acting wise simply because he was on the same show as Ian McShane, but his daze in “Whores” and gruff demeanor in “Boy” are both great. I love the way he wipes off his hand after shaking Jarry’s.
  • After seeing him again at the end of “Boy,” I can now safely say that Charlie Utter is my favorite Deadwood supporting player.
  • Unless it’s Jane, who always amuses when in a dress.
  • Also, because it bears repeating, Wu added his fourth word of English to his repertoire: “America!”
  • Finally, the final quotes for this great, great season.
  • "Yeah, you fat fuck. You're alive." "Let me die." "What is that? Thank you in whale talk?" – Calamity Jane and Mose Manual
  • "My reluctance to intrude nearly kept me from coming at all." – Hugo Jarry
  • "Oh, this is gonna be a pleasant fucking day with their wailing and gnashing of teeth." – Al Swearengen
  • "I don't like funerals." "I do! I do! I can't get to enough of 'em." – Joanie Stubbs and Calamity Jane
  • "I lived most of my life a whore. And as much as he's her misery, a pimp's a whore's familiar. So the  sudden, strange or violent draws her to him. Not that I wouldn't learn another way." – Trixie
  • "I don't do business on the day of my godson's passing." – Al Swearengen
  • "What a type you must consort with that you not fear beating for such an insult?" – Al Swearengen
  • "Know that we are in the world as much in our pain as in our happiness." – Alma Garrett
  • "Wash your fucking mouth. You've got seven kinds of cock breath." – Trixie
  • "Let the people come and say goodbye to William." – Martha Bullock
  • "Do you think you're giving me a fucking treat, drooling on my fucking nuts?" – Al Swearengen
  • "Everyone was sad, I expect." "But it was pretty too." – Al Swearengen and the whore
  • "Can the bison spare you?" "Something strikes me fucking melancholy about that creature." – Cy Tolliver and Con Stapleton
  • "Looks like he stepped out of a specimen box." – George Hearst
  • "I work better closer in." – Al Swearengen
  • "That, San Francisco and Swedgin, that's all I've heard him use." – Al Swearengen
  • "You smell like cat piss." – Al Swearengen
  • "The next sound you hear will be that of your own voice." – Hugo Jarry
  • "Undergarments? Yes. Over privates. In layers. Or bride and groom are doomed." – Joanie Stubbs
  • "I am afraid. I am so afraid that my life is living me and that it will soon be over and that not a moment of it will be my own." – Alma Garrett
  • "He is a good man. And he whom I love is here as well." – Alma Garrett
  • "What if the Earth talks to you to get us to arrange its amusements?" – Francis Wolcott
  • "Whirling her around's OK, Star. Just don't turn on her fucking toes." – Al Swearengen
  • "We ask you all to join us for collation and dancing in the thoroughfare." – Whitney Ellsworth
  • "Is that the cocksucker addressing us from the fuckin' whirlwind?" – Cy Tolliver
  • "Stop moving your hand sir. I mean you no harm, but I can't speak for Captain Turner." – George Hearst
  • "God is not mocked, Cy." "You got a pestilence for every fucking occasion." "God is not mocked, you son of a bitch." – Andy Cramed and Cy Tolliver
  • "Comfort and love await." – Al Swearengen
  • "Wu. America!" "That'll hold you tight to her tit." – Mister Wu and Al Swearengen
  • "Don't you have a fucking home to get to?" – Al Swearengen
  • "Hey. We ain't done fucking dancing!" – Calamity Jane