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As he rides off into the sunset... (Series finale)

First, the good news. HBO and “Deadwood” creator David Milch have agreed to two two-hour movies in 2007 to allow Milch to end the show properly. The network had originally agreed to do six more episodes, but Milch wanted a clean break from the “day in the life” format that each episode has represented thus far. So expect the two movies to cover more time, like a normal film.

Now, the bad news. This season is over, with much tension, but without much resolution. Sure, Hearst left camp, but I was expecting some sort of a fight, considering that Hawkeye showed up with his seventeen and a half men and Wu showed up with a group of Chinese. Swearengen seemed content to allow Hearst to leave peacefully, as long as he didn’t put up a stink about which whore was actually killed as punishment for Trixie’s attack last week. Had Hearst pressed Al about the whereabouts of the real Trixie, Al would have gone at him with his knife. That’s quite the display of loyalty for Swearengen to show one of his former girls.

Someone had to take Trixie’s place, and the unfortunate one was Gin, Johnny’s favorite. Johnny didn’t take too kindly to it either, and this storyline has the potential to play out in 2007. But my guess is that he’ll get over it and his loyalty to Al won’t be an issue any further.

Bullock’s temper flashed a couple of times in this episode, but Hearst let his outbursts pass without punishment. Maybe it was enough that Bullock was going to lose the (fixed) county-wide election, or maybe Hearst saw the writing on the wall and just wanted to get out of camp in one piece. Either way, he meant to leave Cy in charge of his holdings, but Cy doesn’t seem to want that, even though he agreed to the deal. Out of frustration, he killed Leon and then pulled out his pistol to take a shot at Hearst before the magnate left camp, ultimately scaring the shit out of Jeanine before heading back into his saloon.

The relationship between Jane and Joanie continues to develop and the two are starting to act like an old married couple. Jane continues to turn to alcohol whenever she gets frustrated, so it will be interesting to see if she’s able to kick the habit with Joanie’s help.

But the surprise star of tonight’s show was Charlie Utter. He was on fire throughout – first, with Hearst at his hotel door and later on in the day in defense of the proper order of the voting line. Don’t get me wrong - Al’s speech to the Chief’s head was terrific, but one expects that from him. Even though Charlie has had a few good rants in his day, his performance tonight trumped them all.

I still don’t know why Milch introduced the theater troupe, as they did not have a major impact on any of the important storylines of the season. Brian Cox is a fine actor, and I was waiting for him to make a move on Hearst in the hotel, but I was once again disappointed in the result. In the future, maybe the purpose of their presence will become clear or maybe they’ll just fade into the background – only time will tell.

So Hearst has left camp leaving Cy in charge, Alma has sold her stake, Bullock is no longer the sheriff and Trixie dodged a serious bullet. Deadwood is in a state of flux and Milch has the challenge of wrapping up everyone’s storylines (or at least most of them) in just four hours. HBO has cancelled a few good series lately – “Deadwood” and “Carnivale” are gone and “Rome” was on the chopping block before getting a year’s reprieve – so I’m wondering if this particular business model is working for them. They’ve put out some of the best TV in the last few years, so let’s hope that this stormy weather will blow through.

Climax? Not until next week...maybe.

Swearengen in the spotlight

The conflict between Hearst and the rest of the camp continues to grow – this week he has the cojones to fire a few shots across Alma’s bow as she heads to bank. Of course, he didn’t take the shots himself – he wouldn’t get his hands that dirty. I was impressed by Al’s leap from his balcony when he rushed to the widow’s aid. Swearenegen’s method of comfort turned into one of the best lines of the episode: “It’s horrible being shot at. It never gets no better.” Bullock was in parts unknown, so it was up to Al to decipher the meaning of the shooting. Brilliantly, he had Dan knock out and tie up Ellsworth before telling him of the incident, so that he wouldn’t fly off the handle and rush Hearst.

It’s clear that Hearst wants to divide and conquer, and with Bullock out of town he saw an opportunity to knock Ellsworth out of the picture. Al, with help from Dan and Alma, managed to rein him in. Al is going to need all the help he can find if he hopes to hold onto the camp, so it’s in his best interests to keep Ellsworth alive.

After the Earp brothers arrived, I thought we might see the familiar story of Wyatt taking over as sheriff (presumably after Hearst takes out Bullock) when all he wants to do is be a private citizen. Their subsequent departure leads me to believe that Bullock will survive at least until the end of the season. Considering that the tension between he and Hearst has reached its boiling point, I don’t know how both of them get out of camp alive. Considering that, in real life, Hearst goes on to be a U.S. Senator, the odds aren’t in Bullock’s favor.

The show continues to spend far too much time with the theater troupe. Jack is an interesting character, but his dealings with a couple of starlets were confusing and disorientating. Clearly, he and this Mary woman have a history, but he chooses to allow another aspiring performer to stay in the theater, much to the dismay of one of his fellow performers (and, of course, to Mary). Jack has worked his way into Hearst’s favor with his ability to relieve back pain, so he should have the opportunity to take Hearst down if he so chooses. I don’t know where the troupe storyline is headed, but I hope creator David Milch has something good up his sleeve.

Joanie and Jane have been growing closer over the past few weeks, and their relationship is starting to head a sexual direction. Jane continues to struggle with her alcoholism, which is a direct result of the blame she puts on herself for Wild Bill’s death. Joanie is a nurturer as well as a tortured soul, and clearly she finds Jane to be a kindred spirit.

But it was Al who really shined in this episode, rushing to Alma’s aid, outwitting Hearst, and beating the snot out of Hearst’s messenger before slitting his throat. It’s been interesting to see Al and Bullock on the same side this season after being at odds for most of the series. Bullock’s return was somewhat uneventful. It was clear at dinner that he was fuming, but he didn’t go after Hearst so Charlie must have filled him in on Al’s take on the shooting.

The camp needs reinforcements, but Al can’t afford to send Dan to get them. Silas convinces him to use Hawkeye, someone Al doesn’t trust, to bring the guns. This adds an element of uncertainty to this storyline, so I wouldn’t be surprised if support arrived at a very opportune time.

There are only two episodes left – how will it end?

Don't mess with Aunt Lou

Dan is the man

The tension between Dan and the Captain has been brewing now for a few weeks, and things came to a head in the thoroughfare. The Captain, thru Adams, called Dan out and Al had to rein him in as he tried to determine Hearst’s motives. After much pontificating, even posing questions to the Chief’s head in the box, Al couldn’t figure Hearst out, so he sent Dan off to do his worst.

The four-minute fight in the thoroughfare was brutal. It was evenly matched for the first half, with each guy getting his shots, but the Captain took advantage in the second half, and it looked like Al, who was watching from the balcony of the Gem, was about to give up on his man. But Dan fought back and ripped the Captain’s eye from his socket, which has to go down as one of the most violent moments in television history. Al gave Dan the OK to kill the Captain, and he didn’t waste any time in doing so.

Prior to the fight, Hearst tipped his hand when he was talking to the Captain about the fight being an “object lesson.” It was definitely a risky move for him to send the Captain, his only bodyguard in Deadwood, off to fight the camp’s toughest man, just to prove a point. It leaves him vulnerable, and it will cost him later.

Meanwhile, Bullock saw that Steve and Hostetler closed out their business, signing over the stable simultaneously to satisfy both of their egos. Steve is quickly becoming one of the most annoying characters on television, whining and complaining about every little thing. He challenged Hostetler to find the board he signed after the horse trampled Bullock’s kid, and when Hostetler produced it, the writing had been wiped off. Steve kept calling Hostetler dishonest and, finally, the old man had enough and shot himself in the head. I would have left Steve in the dust after the transaction, but I guess Hostetler cared too much about what Steve thought of him.

Hostetler’s death, which was ultimately caused by the death of Bullock’s son, sent the sheriff off the deep end and he went to confront Hearst about the murders of the union organizers. Hearst was drunk and insulted Bullock repeatedly, and it was all the sheriff could do to contain himself. Bullock dragged Hearst by his ear to jail, a move that will certainly have ramifications in the coming weeks.

Alma is using again, and it's hurting her reputation at work and at home. Trixie had the line of the week when describing Alma’s actions to Sol:

That's great stuff.

Alma tried to woo Ellsworth at home, but he pulled away (tasting the drugs on her lips?) and indicated that he was leaving her. Just when she was getting her life back together, Alma is once again navigating a very slippery slope.

The series is spending a lot of time with the theater troupe and I wish we could see more of Jane and Joanie. Other than that, the season is going well.

Nobody puts Swearengen in a corner

Deathwatch: George Hearst

I can’t imagine that George Hearst is long for Deadwood. His enemies seem to be growing by the day, while he only requires the protection of a single bodyguard. What’s stopping someone from sticking a knife into his heart at one of these meetings he’s so fond of having? Ellsworth hates him. Bullock hates him. Swearengen hates him. Cy hates him, . So who will kill him? The odds are that Swearengen or Cy will do the deed, but something tells me that it will be one of the more honorable types that will take Hearst down.

My head is spinning from all of the subtext in the show’s dialogue. These people continue to speak politely to each other while there is thunderous anger under the surface. Take, for instance, Alma’s first meeting with Hearst. Ellsworth can’t stand the man, and can’t keep his emotions in check. Alma is embarrassed and she and Hearst continue to speak politely to each other, ignoring Ellsworth’s ramblings. In their next meeting – this one without poor Ellsworth – Hearst’s anger at Alma’s financial proposal was palpable. He told her he was offended, insulted her and then threatened her, all without any overt action. Moments later, when Bullock sees Alma in the thoroughfare, he knows – just from Alma’s expression – how her meeting with Hearst went. Creator David Milch had a similar writing success with "NYPD Blue" - you just knew how Andy Sipowicz was going to react towards any given situation. The subtext on "Deadwood" is just as dense, if not more.

Brian Cox joined the cast tonight, playing a character with a long history with Swearengen. This promises to be an interesting on-screen relationship as Cox is built for this type of supporting role. As far as I can tell, his character came into camp independently of Hearst’s group, so he might be a bit of a wild card.

Also, one observation of Trixie: she seems to be in Al’s pocket, but her interactions with Sol Star indicate that her feelings for him run deeper than she lets on. How she comes to terms with this should be one of the more compelling storylines of this, the final season. I also hope that Joanie and Jane have more of an impact on the camp’s happenings in the weeks ahead.

The thorny olive branch

In this corner...

…we have George Hearst, prospector/emperor, in dire need of power, money and more power. And in this corner, we have an unlikely tag-team, the honorable (if increasingly ill-tempered) sheriff Seth Bullock and his partner, the dastardly and devious owner of the Gem, Albert Swearengen. The first episode of the third and final season of “Deadwood” was like the first round of a heavyweight boxing match. A couple of giants – in this case three – feeling each other out, looking for strengths, and more importantly, weaknesses.

George Hearst wants control over the town and Al Swearengen isn’t about ready to give it up. Hearst met with Bullock about his re-election as sheriff and made inferences about Bullock’s relationship with the widow Garret, or more recently, Mrs. Ellsworth. Hearst wants to back Bullock’s candidacy, ensuring his re-election, but wants Bullock to convince Alma to leave Deadwood, allowing Hearst more profit. Hearst also wanted the sheriff to ignore the morning’s murder at the Gem, indicating that Hearst arranged the assassination of a potential labor organizer; Hearst wants no talk of unions in his businesses. Assuming that E.B. Farnum told Hearst about his former relationship with Alma, Bullock unleashed a flurry of punches to Farnum's face that sent E.B. to the doctor and postponed the evening's campaign speeches. Meanwhile, Al took offense that Hearst conducted the murder at the Gem and made it clear (in no uncertain terms) that he was not about to bend over for the megalomaniac.

But the most compelling storylines of the episode revolved around three of the female characters. Calamity Jane is back on the bottle and continues her quest to be the show’s biggest “lost soul.” I sense a growing affection between Jane and Joanie Stubbs, who has been acting as an unwilling caretaker to her old pimp, Cy Tolliver, after he was stabbed by a former employee that he left for dead. Joanie nearly took her own life due to her powerlessness to – once and for all - leave Tolliver to his own machinations. Then there’s Trixie, who is irritated at Al for arranging that her beau (and mayoral candidate), Sol Star, take over ownership of a house that shares a wall with a fleabag hotel, allowing the former whore to service Star without the camp’s knowledge. Like Joanie, it’s clear that Trixie is growing frustrated with her inability to exorcise her former boss from her new life.

Considering the history of the series, it was a fairly uneventful episode, but it was intended as a setup, not the payoff. The writing and acting are as good as ever, and Al Swearengen is already on fire, so I expect this will be yet another fine season from creator David Milch.

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