(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.)
Prospecting gold in the hills of the Old West required a few specific traits; without a good work ethic and a lot of patience, there was no chance of hitting jackpot in the shallow waters of unsettled lands. A bit of luck was also necessary, but what truly separated the upper echelon of prospectors was their ability to survey, tracing the path from flake to deposit, analyzing the land to figure out where the treasure was hidden. This particular skill required diligent observation and cautious maneuvering; to reconnoiter (a term with a vaguely militaristic back ground) was to play chess with nature, feeling out its patterns and mastering the layout of the land, to pick at its weak spots and uncover its hidden riches.
“Reconnnoitering the Rim”, Deadwood‘s richly textured third episode, is titled after Al’s ominous conversation with Brom and Dan, encouraging Brom to go search for the source of the gold nuggets he found before buying Driscoll’s claim – however, it’s a term that applies to every major character in the hour, all trying to figure out their places in the rapidly expanding settlement. “Reconnoitering the Rim” carefully observes each and every player of the town, as they react to conflicts large and small, from the radical change brought about by the arrival of the Bella Union crew, right down to figuring out who cut the cheese in Al’s office (which, for the record: my money is on Farnum, because why wouldn’t it be him stinking up the place?).
Deadwood‘s underrated mastery of dramatic pacing is on full display in “Reconnoitering in Rim”, throwing characters and viewers alike into fascinating disarray.
After watching Al pull every possible string around the settlement for two episodes, “Reconnoitering” offers Al his first true challenge during his second stay in Deadwood – and with Cy Tolliver and Joanie Stubbs. All of a sudden, Al’s trying to blindly defend himself from multiple angles; not only are their the unknown of the camp’s new arrivals, but he’s still trying to figure out The Hardware Boys, and deal with Brom’s whispers of bringing the Pinkerton Agency (who are still around, and currently working on weaponizing climate change) into town for a little restitution determination. All of these different pockets of conflict put an intense focus on Al’s ability to react, to assess a situation and figure out how to extract the most value for himself out of it; and with all three, we see Al’s distrusting approach to the world bring him wildly varied results.
The most interesting of the three are obviously the Bella Union, who walk in (with the help of Farnum, no less) and immediately establish their intentions to cut in on the drug, gambling, and prostitution profits Al’s enjoyed to himself thus far. The Bella Union folks are capitalism in its truest form knocking at Deadwood’s door, the ever prescient push of civilization forcing Deadwood towards the realities of the 20th century. At first glance, the Bella Union appears to be a more efficient, cultured version of the Gem, the natural byproduct of the wealthy building on the backs of “innovators” like Al. Where Al is running all aspects of the Gem on his own, Cy, Joanie, and craps manager Eddie Sawyer are all splitting management duties, “specialty acts” that offer a more corporate, calculated version of Al’s business offerings; you’re not going to see Cy behind the bar pouring drinks or negotiating the price of a sex worker, and that evolution of business is frightening to Al.
It’s also the first look through the veneer of Al as master manipulator; he’s as flawed and compromised as anyone else in the camp, stumbling around trying to draw conclusions from the unknown. It doesn’t take him long to figure out Farnum’s role in everything, but being a known entity, he’s the last of Al’s concerns; but it’s the only satisfying answer Al can find. He tries out a few conspiracy theories – primarily, that the arrival of Wild Bill and the Hardware Boys are related to this new business interest in his town – but none of those bite, and Al has to face the fact that he may just have been usurped by something newer, cleaner, and more efficient than he is.
Even his attempts at subterfuge fail; he employs Cy’s heroin dealer to keep him in the know of the Bella Union’s dealings in town, but it’s a move Cy sees coming a mile away, turning Al’s newest advantage against him, a fascinating first sign of just how unbelievably crafty and adaptive Cy Tolliver is. Cy’s literal introduction to Deadwood is a rather quiet one; him and his company get into town and go about their business, not inflecting their presence on the town in anything but an inviting way. But Cy’s actions and maneuvers in “Reconnoitering the Rim” are extremely telling of his true nature, the veneer of an upstanding businessman with a certain sense of class a mere cover for the dangerously confident, cunning business man lying underneath. His ability to instantly assess, and undercut, Al is the thematic foundation of “Reconnoitering”, a perfect contrast to someone like Brom, whose inability to understand the layout of Deadwood, in any aspect, leads to his untimely demise at the hands of Dan.
Brom’s death isn’t necessarily surprising; Alma, along with the rest of the town, quickly realize Brom’s in over his head, both in his gold claim and his attempts to play in Al’s sand box. What is surprising is just how quickly he is guided off the side of a cliff, a stunning reminder of how lawless the lands of Deadwood still remain,a young and dangerously feral society – and how little Al tolerates variables in his life, a cruel reinforcement of his ruthlessness. Not only it is an unexpected ignition of perhaps the show’s most obtuse story in the early goings, but it gives even more dynamic to the brewing conflict between Al and Cy; Al doesn’t immediately kill Farnum and Cy for colluding behind his back, which shows a certain lack of confidence, not able to fall back on his old, reliant tricks of deception and murder to force his will on the town’s occupants. For the first time, Al feels truly threatened by the triumvirate of leadership at the Bella Union; that prospect is an exciting one for Deadwood, a quick shift that muddies the assumed role of Al as the show’s primary antagonist.
There is some other plot movement in “Reconnoitering the Rim”; The Hardware Boys pushing through a relatively simple negotiation to buy their lot is a rather underhanded moment, a sudden distraction for Al with the larger issues of the Bella Union on his plate. Deadwood, while a show with a number of clearly defined arcs across episodes and seasons, doesn’t adhere to the modern formula of the Peak TV era. Rather than building a season around two or three meaningful climaxes, Deadwood zigs and zags from story to story, never adhering to the typical parameters of traditional serialized dramas. Nearly every arc on Deadwood is built around a standard three-act structure, but those stories could last two-thirds of an episode, or two-thirds of the series – often to the show’s benefit, one of the last dramas with the ability to truly surprise audiences.
Deadwood‘s underrated mastery of dramatic pacing is on full display in “Reconnoitering in Rim”, essentially overhauling three-quarters of the show’s main narratives in the span of fifty-five minutes, throwing characters and viewers alike into fascinating disarray. While it’s uncertain what the arrival of the Bella Union means for the town of Deadwood, it pays immediate dividends for the show as a whole, brilliantly building on the atmosphere of the first two episodes to deliver a better paced, slightly more focused third hour. A bit of momentum does Deadwood a lot of good; enticingly dense and patient in its initial offerings, “Reconnoitering” is an electric shock to the many stories percolating in “Deadwood” and “Deep Water”, a welcome jolt of energy setting the tone the rest of the show’s freshman season will follow to memorable results.
- Merrick sneezes through the Mason funeral, a wonderful display of Deadwood‘s slightly morbid sense of humor.
- Wild Bill dresses down Jack after beating him at cards, calling him a cunt in any number of different ways. Jack then gets his ass tossed in the mud after talking shit at The Hardware Boy’s store… not a great day for Deadwood’s most annoying occupant (this side of E.B., of course).
- speaking of Wild Bill, he reluctantly meets some fans (one played by Brooklyn Nine-Nine‘s Joel McKinnon Miller), an interaction that predictably ends well; one leaves particularly disgruntled, cursing Bill and wishing that he “gets what he’s got coming to him” while he’s in Deadwood. This comes after one makes a crack about his acting ability, telling him “you looked like you didn’t know you were dead yet.”
- Al mentions that he’d been pushed out of Deadwood the previous year by the cavalry, a foe Al defeated when the soldiers all started abandoning ship to go prospecting for gold.
- the drug trade in Deadwood is about to get interesting, which will bring Mr. Wu into the fold, one of my favorite tertiary characters of Deadwood.
- Alma sees her husband struggling to work up the nerve to confront Al; even though she’s a laudnum addict, she can see her husband lacks the strength to survive here in Deadwood. Unfortunately, her attempts to convince him to leave do not work out well.
- This episode marks the debut of Ricky Jay and Powers Boothe on the show, both of whom have passed away in recent years.
- Al: “when I see lightning, I wait for thunder. When I see thunder, I assume it’s part of the storm.”