'Deadwood' Rewind: Season 2, Episode 5: 'Complications' (Newbies edition)

Al recuperates, Alma gets a surprise, and Merrick stirs up trouble

<p>Al Swearengen (Ian McShane)&nbsp;is on the mend on &quot;Deadwood.&quot;</p>

Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) is on the mend on "Deadwood."

Credit: HBO

We're into week 4 of our summer trip back through David Milch's epic revisionist Western "Deadwood." As always with this project, we're going to have two parallel discussions going at once: identical reviews, but one where the comments section is just for people who are new to the series and don't want to be spoiled on anything past the events of the episode being discussed, and one for people who know "Deadwood" backwards and forwards, and want to be able to discuss it all at once. This is the newbie-safe version; click here for the veteran-friendly one.

A review of episode 5, "Complications," coming up just as soon as I give you a sarcastic thumbs up...

"When I get back on my fucking feet, I'll carry my share of the water." -Al

In my review of season 1's "Bullock Returns to the Camp," I noted that it's been my experience that David Milch has little interest in the idea of creative episode titles. As this series moved along, most of the titles were taken from lines of dialogue in the scripts, every episode of "John From Cincinnati" was called "His Visit: Day (so-and-so)," and "Luck" didn't even bother with that device, just referring to each episode by number.

That said, I can't help dwelling on the fact that we are discussing an episode that is now referred to (on the DVDs, HBO Go, etc.) as "Complications," but at the time it first aired was called "Difficulties." There's no legal or practical reason why that title would have to be changed, and the only person with the power to do such a thing (or, at least, with the power to do it who would also bother, as opposed to, say, Chris Albrecht) is David Milch. So if you'll forgive my attempt to psychoanalyze one of the more complicated personalities I've ever encountered, I have to assume(*) that he felt the episode was ultimately more about the one than the other.
That might seem like hair-splitting, or simply a matter of perspective, but the distinction is an important one, and one that's grappled with by many of our central characters this week.

(*) And having made this assumption, I look forward to Jim Beaver, Mark Tinker or anyone else involved with the show appearing to explain that there was, in fact, an incredibly mundane, non-thematic reason for the title change.

Al emerges from his near-death experience to learn just how much has transpired in the camp during his illness. Alma wakes up with morning sickness and realizes that she's pregnant, despite her inconveniently-shaped womb. Commissioner Jarry tries to bully Merrick into publishing an official statement designed to continue the title panic that Cy has started, but Merrick rebels by simply posting the notice outside his office, stirring up anger aimed directly at Jarry. And Cy discovers that his new business partner Wolcott is spending an awful lot of money — and doing some potentially awful things — over at the Chez Ami.

Any or all of these could be read as either difficulties or complications. In a way, the two words are interchangeable — even the way Alma and the Doc use "difficulties" to discuss what it would be like if she brought the baby to term sounds more like how I would ordinarily use "complications" — and yet the former term suggests a clear negative, while the latter suggests that matters may require more work than anticipated to set right.

So, yes, Al and his organization have fallen badly behind what Hearst, Wolcott and Tolliver are up to, but he also has Bullock on his side now — their fight in the thoroughfare, and the end of Seth and Alma's affair having apparently neutralized their feud — and if Al doesn't have the resources of a George Hearst, he knows the camp and its people better than Wolcott or even Cy does.

Alma's pregnancy is a complication for her health, for her relationship (or lack thereof) to Mr. Bullock, and to her standing within the community. (Even in a place this filthy and criminal, it simply wouldn't do for a high-class woman to be pregnant out of wedlock.) But it's also not the death sentence (for herself and/or the fetus) she had always been taught it would be, and much as she cares for Sophia, she does want a child born of her own blood.

In terms of the larger stories of the season so far, Alma's medical concerns don't seem as big a deal as what's going on with Al, Jarry, Wolcott, etc., but many of this great episode's best moments exist in this subplot. It's a wonderful showcase for Molly Parker, Paula Malcomson and Brad Dourif, as these three characters with complicated histories try to get past old grudges in order to help one another. I especially like Malcolmson's reaction after Alma walks away following the "My name is Alma"/"I know your name" exchange, in which her face shows so much about their history, Trixie's resentment over Alma's snobbery coming into conflict with her concern for her as a person, her memories of how Alma took away her chance to leave the camp and the life of a whore because of her fixation on Seth, etc. Terrific work from her, and from "Deadwood" producer Gregg Fienberg (no relation to Dan) taking his first turn in the director's chair in getting that performance from her and the others.

Fienberg's also very strong at staging the riot that Merrick incites with his Martin Luther impression. It's possible that simply publishing the statement in the Pioneer might have had the same effect, but that assumes that as many people read the paper compared to those who might be drawn to the spectacle of Merrick hammering it to his door. Also, putting it in the paper could suggest a certain level of endorsement on Merrick's part, where doing it this way makes it clearly into a protest, and good on ol' A.W. for showing some steel that Jarry (and we) didn't realize he had. There's a palpable sense of danger outside his office, which only grows as Steve the Drunk leads the other Hoopleheads on a charge into the Bella Union, and then off to try to tar and feather the Nigger General when Seth takes Jarry into protective custody.

Witnessing this violent explosion seems to unnerve Mr. Wolcott for the first time of his stay in the camp, which leads to a different sort of night between himself and Carrie. He reads to her from Wild Bill's letter — beautiful, eloquent sentiments that have no business being uttered in their present company — and opts to remove his trousers for the first time of their strange, violent relationship.

And though Cy briefly teases his knowledge of Wolcott's bedroom habits in front of the man, we don't yet know what kind of complications — or difficulties — that knowledge is going to create, given how much of the season's plot is currently being driven by Mr. W.

Some other thoughts:

* The camp's population grows this week with the addition of two faces we'll get familiar with quickly: Michael Harney (who had a recurring role on "NYPD Blue" as troubled night shift cop Mike Roberts) as Steve the Drunk, and Franklyn Ajaye as the Nigger General, based (loosely) on the real Samuel Fields. Ajaye's had an eclectic career: actor, stand-up comic, writer (he penned a season 2 "NYPD Blue" episode), etc. He has a very relaxed energy that bounces nicely off of both Richard Gant as Hostetler and Robin Weigert as Jane. My only complaint is that, because Steve and the General are introduced here but are supposed to be familiar camp fixtures (the General first arriving in between the events of the first two seasons), there's some history between the two that we're not privy to. Obviously, "Steve's a racist" explains much, but not necessarily why he's eager to lynch the General but not Hostetler.

* God, I love the makeup work on Ian McShane this season. Al has been through a lot, and there's no attempt to pretty that up. He looks like a freak: one eye filled with blood, the other half-hooded, bruises everywhere. And the sound work to let us hear his labored breathing is also excellent.

* Interesting to see the different levels of affection that women in the camp must display to win the devotion of the men in their lives. Alma simply has to speak to Richardson to make him obsessed with both her and the antler she gives him, while Miss Isringhausen has to seduce Adams a second time after he realizes that she's been conning him all along, and isn't quite who and what she seems.

* Love how much Molly Parker and Timothy Olyphant are able to say in those brief looks Alma and Seth give each other in the hardware store. Those two have a lot to talk about — even more than Seth realizes at this moment — but their circumstances and social conventions are keeping them from having any kind of conversation, so it's all just furtive expressions.

* Though Trixie notes to the Doc that she's no longer exclusive to Al, it sure seems like Hardware Boy #1 is first among equals in her heart, given how well they're getting along on matters both educational and sexual.

* Richard Gant makes his first appearance as Hostetler since season 1 (remember, Hostetler sold Seth the land where he built the house Martha and William are living in). He's outstanding in that shameful moment where Hostetler has to give up the General to protect his own life.

Finally, in case you missed it, we got a third castmember offering their memories in last week's comments, as Garret Dillahunt joined Jim Beaver and Keone Young (click on their names to go directly to their comments). As always, I'm grateful to each of these gentlemen, as their personal accounts of what it was like to make this show have added enormously to the project. I don't know if we should be expecting more from Mr. Dillahunt, but he's certainly welcome anytime. And, as always, let me remind you that if you like Jim Beaver's writing, you can get a personalized copy of his memoir "Life's That Way" from his website.

Up next: "Something Very Expensive," in which Alma has a business proposal, Al begins entertaining visitors and Cy reveals a secret to Wolcott.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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Alan Sepinwall
Sr. Editor, What's Alan Watching
Alan Sepinwall has been reviewing television since the mid-'90s, first for Tony Soprano's hometown paper, The Star-Ledger, and now for HitFix. His new book, "The Revolution Was Televised," about the last 15 years of TV drama, is for sale at Amazon. He can be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com
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