So let's see: Hearst is gone, the camp is spared destruction by the Pinkertons, Alma sold her mine so she could stay in camp, and Seth is going to lose his badge thanks to Hearst and Jarry's vote-tampering. That's a fair amount of significant threads tied up, albeit many of them happening in the last 15 minutes or so. So what was left unresolved, and what were the odds Milch was going to deal with them in the mythical season four? In no particular order:
- Where is Joanie and Jane's relationship going? The whole thing was both slow-building and sudden (took Milch forever to inch up to it, and then when he did it was quickly a full-on romance, or the closest thing Jane is capable of), and while they ended the season on a relatively happy note, I think there were interesting roads this could have traveled. Would Milch have eventually gone back to the history books and had Jane become a whore, possibly to spite Joanie? How would Joanie manage to stay out of the legend of Calamity Jane? Etc. (On a side point, Charlie giving Joanie Bill's coat for "you and the other one" answers my question from earlier the season about whether he knew Joanie was a lesbian.)
- Why oh why oh why did we spend so much time with Langrishe and his theater company? You could argue that Milch was setting the stage for a lot of more significant theater stuff in year four, but I'm not so sure. That scene with Jack and Claudia where he lamented an actor's usefulness in the midst of such real-life drama as the camp was facing sure sounded to me like a meta comment on the value (or lack thereof) of these new characters. Then again, Milch rarely seems interested in going meta, so maybe not. Frankly, losing the chance to find out what's up with Jack, Claudia and the two mystery women won't be keeping me up at night.
- What's eating Cy Tolliver? Okay, in this particular case, it was pretty clear: he was hoping his partnership with Hearst would lead to lavish criminal endeavors and the chance to kill or crush his enemies, and instead he became just another cog in the mining operation. Still, it felt like Cy outlived his usefulness a long time ago -- maybe not a surprise, since the character only existed because Milch felt bad that Powers Boothe was too sick to play Swearengen when the pilot was filmed -- and he spent most of his seasons being irritated at how marginal he had become. Hell, maybe Milch really does like writing meta, after all.
- Odell's death and the Earps, two plots that popped up mid-season, didn't really go anywhere and then stopped abruptly. I doubt we would have seen Wyatt and Morgan again, and with Hearst on his way to Montana, would Aunt Lou be following, or would she be one of the people Hearst left behind to keep an eye on his interests (in this case, how E.B. runs the Grand Central)? And would she even be willing to work for him anymore? I suppose Lou might have become yet another member of this sprawling supporting cast in season four, because the show already didn't have enough characters to service. But I doubt we ever would have found out what Odell's game was, any more than we found out what Wyatt's genius plan was.
- Is the Doc really dying, or is he just a hypochondriac with a bad cough? Not sure if Brad Dourif had other commitments that kept him away from the set a lot this season, but I felt like Doc, Sol and Adams suffered the most in terms of screen time sacrificed to new characters and concerns. I can only hope Al's "Get busy living or get busy dying" speech would have continued to keep Doc upright and active through the final season.
- What does Ellsworth's death mean for Seth and Alma -- and, of course, Martha? This could have been one of season four's most interesting subplots: how does Martha balance her innate decency and selflessness with the knowledge that her husband is spending more time with his ex-mistress?
- Whither The General and Steve? Ehhh... I love Franklin Ajaye in this role but could live without more of this odd couple.
- What will Harry Manning be like as sherriff? I actually find it a bit sad that he won, not because Seth is out of a job that he didn't really want, but because the only reason Harry ran was to get enough attention to become a fireman. Tom went and bought the firefighting equipment, and now Harry's going to be stuck policing the camp when he'd rather be polishing the fire wagon. Still, I think I'm okay not seeing where this goes.
So we have greed and wealth (Hearst) triumphing over the rule of law (Bullock), common decency (Ellsworth) and even our famous Yankee cunning and know-how (Swearengen). (Warning: liberal political commentary ahead; skip to the next paragraph if you think I'm a commie pinko.) I know Milch and our Commander-in-Chief were frat brothers, but this scenario feels eerily relevant to our current socio-political situation. As David Simon from "The Wire" likes to say, unfettered capitalism is not a social program, and Hearst represents capitalism in its purest, bleakest form.
We all knew that evil was going to triumph to some degree, in that Hearst's survival and later ascendancy to the U.S. Senate is the kind of historical fact that Milch wouldn't fudge (as opposed to, say, Bullock's family situation), but what was surprising was what a rout evil accomplished. For all of Al's plotting and maneuvering over the last half season -- the stuff with Wu and Hawkeye and the editorial and even Alma's walk to the bank -- Hearst got virtually everything he wanted. Ellsworth is dead, Bullock is out of a job and all of Deadwood's gold claims belong to him. I've said that I wasn't expecting any significant gunplay, but at the end all of Al's scheming feels like just another narrative dead end like Odell and the Earps. Really, the only thing Al accomplished was preventing his people from giving Hearst any justification to have his men start a massacre and burn the camp to the ground. And even that came with the pricetag of two bodies: Ellsworth and Jen.
When Matt's review is up, I'll post a link to it here, but he had a big problem with the death of Jen -- or, rather, the lack of any opposition to it besides Johnny. I can see how even Bullock would be conflicted about the choice between an unknown innocent whore and his best friend's guilty woman, but I would have liked to see some arguments about it, or at least some more obvious internal wrestling by some of the "good" guys (if that term fits any living character on this show) than this. It also would have helped if Jen had been more of a known entity to us. I can barely remember her outside the incident with her and Morgan Earp, which in retrospect was supposed to be a hint that Johnny was sweet on her but at the time just seemed like a sign that Johnny was growing up into a true henchman like Dan.
But even within the all the bumps and wrong turns and whozawhuzzahowzahuh? moments, there was still plenty of room for reminders of the genius that's kept us all so riveted to this show for the last three years: Johnny explaining the meaning of the wall to Jen; Farnum's rant about Hearst and "oozing, gruesome goo!"; the look on Harry's face when Tom shows him the crate; Aunt Lou helping Richardson get dressed to cast a spite vote against Hearst; the troublemaking drunk from the No. 10 quoting the 15th Amendment at the Pinkertons; Al's "Play the lie as mine, knowing I speak of you in Heaven" speech to the troops; every word, look and gesture to come from both Gerald McRaney and Ian McShane; and, of course, one final shot of Al scrubbing blood (the symbol of how, yet again, civilization is built on acts of violence) off his floor.
If that's not the most fitting image to end the series on, I don't know what is.
For the last time (sigh...), the lines of the week:
- Charlie to Hearst: "I'm the guy that, the next time you see me, you better take a different fucking tone with."
- Hawkeye to Adams: "I came to camp to tell you, but I fell one saloon short."
- Hearst to Seth: "You mistake for fear, Mr. Bullock, what is, in fact, a preoccupation. I'm having a conversation you cannot hear."
- Con to Joanie: "I got 'stay the fuck out' written on a stone tablet in my bedroom"
- Johnny to Jen: "On the surface, yes, it is (a wall). But inside, many creatures go about their lives, such as ants. They got a whole operation going. Soldier ants and worker ants and whore ants to fuck the soldiers and the workers. Right inside that wall, baby ants. Everybody's got a task to hew to, Jen. You understand me? Jesus Christ, fucking sake. We'll talk about this later."
- Charlie to a Pinkerton: "If he don't make it, you'll be eating your spuds running till I hunt you the fuck down."
- Al delivering the final line: ""Wants me to tell him something pretty."