Season Three, Episode Three: “True Colors”
Note: each writing will spoil the episode in review but will not discuss any future episodes.
“True Colors” is one of the more complex episodes of Deadwood, especially when it comes to Alma Ellsworth, who is the focus of many different discussions as she’s recovered from her procedure nine days before. She’s a stand-in at times in the show for all of the women. Here, she’s up and about, even visiting Doc Cochran at his own office instead of vice versa. Alma feels the weight of 1870s womanhood (and beyond), shown as she lashes out at Doc because he implies her to be a weaker sex through possibly slipping back into her addiction. It’s a motif that appears again in her meetings with George Hearst and her own husband.
But first, a few stagecoaches arrive into Deadwood, one of which bears Mr. Wu, all dressed for success as a supplier of Asian workers for Mr. Hearst. Al asks that he lay low for now until he can determine how to react to Hearst again. Al, too, has been staying out of sight since having his hand hammered by the rich man. In fact, no one even knows about it other than Bullock, though Al finally admits the damage to his friend later that morning. It’s a little more than respect now that passes between the two bosses of Al and Wu: Al Swearengen seems to think of Wu as a genuine friend now as shown by the look that Ian McShane employs as Wu leaves his office. His countenance reads as if to say, “I like this guy after all these years.” It’s an amusing view, too, to see Wu practically mirror Al these days, dressed in a suit, bossing and kicking around his own underlings, a la Al with Johnny and Davey.
That image of Wu occurs when Al shows his old friend, actor Jack Langrishe, around the camp. It’s incredibly odd to see Al interact with a peer he doesn’t resent or wish to outmaneuver. In fact, for the entirety of the episode, Al really doesn’t anger or scheme like usual. This is a subdued Al, allowing his old friend Jack to even pat him on the ass as he leaves his presence. Early in their reacquaintance, Jack makes the note that it’s “learning fucking nothing” that keeps him young which brings to mind the Ecclesiastes 1:18 quote “in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.” The camp, and Al himself, experience as much of late via George Hearst’s arrival. On their walk around Deadwood, Jack asks about an open area and to whom it belongs. It’s a quick, nice allusion to thematic focus of capitalism and how everything has a price. That’s the knowledge that’s bringing a lot of people sorrow.
A nice edit happens when the scene cuts from Al blowing his injured hand for some relief to Seth blowing a piece of paper to dry. It’s a notice he’s taking to Hearst that, in a more concentrated way, says that it is not in his best interest to discard workers like one does tools that are broken. Hearst had his agents murder another Cornishman for attempting to unionize — the same reason for the killing of the Cornish in Al’s Gem Saloon. This would have their employer treat them more like humans rather than machines. It hinders unfettered capitalism when people have to be treated humanely. And surprise! Hearst doesn’t take kindly to Seth’s notice, even turning his words on him that he’s putting Bullock on notice. Part of his plan with allowing Al Swearengen two murders in the Gem was also to have that information to hang over the sheriff’s head, since Hearst is smart enough to realize that they’ll likely be in cahoots against him. If Bullock makes a lawful move against Hearst, he would have to do the same to Al.
That dehumanization comes up when Ellsworth and Alma pay George Hearst a visit. Alma wants to take Hearst an offer on her claim, but before she can even get to that conversation, Hearst’s presence triggers Ellsworth’s PTSD that he got from rescuing miners, many of whom died, in a Hearst mine years ago that never should’ve been used for putting the men in serious danger. Hearst doesn’t care, of course. It’s damaged Ellsworth and Alma had no idea how badly until their meeting. Still, she goes back to Hearst alone to present her plan. It would have her holding the majority of the claim as well as making money off of transporting his gold to banks in Denver or beyond. She would also have a small 5% stake in his holdings around Deadwood. Her presentation is meant as a starting point for discussions, but Hearst is so offended that he feels emasculated. He threatens Alma, literally breathing down her neck, and the implication is that he almost rapes her, which he admits to later. Due to his emasculated feeling — a feeling that Alma has to deal with from her own husband earlier in the episode for having him back down and hinting that only Bullock can protect her if anyone can — Hearst attacks with masculinity, a tool in 1870s all men could use against women. Hearst warns that she should’ve brought an escort and her foolishness almost gets her hurt or worse. It shakes Alma, and Bullock notes it from a distance as she walks back home. Hearst, here and in conversation with the sheriff, is the rich, spoiled kid in class who does just enough to disrupt any progress yet not enough to have the rules brought against him. After finding out what transpired, Ellsworth, usually so level-headed, uses the tone and words of victim blaming.
The weight of 19th Century womanhood lies on Alma’s shoulders to bear. Her knowledge gained is that she is not a man nor will she be treated like one. Not that it matters to Hearst, who sees only dogs who can help him and dogs who stand in his way. The sorrow increaseth for everyone but him.
- Upon first viewings, I never cared too much for the character of Jack Langshire because he never felt purposeful, but we’ll see if that changes this time around.
- A once missing Blazanov returns to Deadwood on the same stagecoach as Mr. Wu, both from San Francisco. Merrick is overjoyed to have his friend back.
- It doesn’t look good: Doc Cochran looks to have tuberculosis.
- Cy Tolliver, belittled and broken by both his stabbing and George Hearst’s outing of his lies and blackmail, has succumbed to being a dog for the wealthy man. This puts Cy in direct odds against Bullock and Swearengen. Cy was always sort of against those two men, but at times they would work together. Now having to pay a debt to Hearst — much like E.B. Farnum — it’s unsure if he can align with them any more going forward.
- The shift that E.B. has made as a full-on joker figure, or the fool character of Shakespearean plays, is a little too jolting as he bends and bows like a beaten dog in Hearst’s presence. It makes sense, though, considering E.B.’s relations with men of power even if it doesn’t stop from being jarring.
- Another slightly less jarring shift is from Hearst’s cook and helper, Aunt Lou. She can cuss and gamble with the best of them when she’s not in Hearst’s direct orbit.
- George Hearst twice in the episode claims to be a man of nature by being able to talk to the earth.
- Seth acknowledges that truly to go after Hearst, laws would have to be in place. Like most people who think capitalism should run unregulated, Charlie doubts the use of these laws.
- It’s interesting that the writing wrestles with masculinity and femininity in an episode when a new character, Jack Langshire, wavers between the expectations of the two.
- Al recounts to Johnny and Dan an amateur night that his actor friend Jack Langrishe once held where a man farted for nearly an hour straight. That doesn’t sound like an amateur to Johnny!
Quote of the episode:
Jack Langshire to Al Swearengen at the end of the day while both reflect on if Al is loosing his masculinity by not killing Hearst: “Ambition and the blessed simplicities of action don’t always quarter in comfort.”