Season Three, Episode Eleven: “The Catbird Seat”
Note: each writing will spoil the episode in review but will not discuss any future episodes.
In the years before Game of Thrones, it wasn’t a common practice for television to off any major characters. Star Trek even was famous for only using characters introduced that very episode to take the plunge and display the dangers, hence the phrase “red shirts” used for unknown characters dying on screen. Other than The Sopranos, which was still airing at the time of Deadwood, most shows were fine with letting characters survive until the show ended completely. And while the events of season three of Deadwood were coming to a apex, the death of Ellsworth still comes as a shock, likely because of how it happens. It’s early in the episode with only Hearst’s vague allusion to the death to hint at it coming. There’s almost no pretext as Ellsworth sits, midday, in his tent on the Garrett Claim and talks to his reliable dog. It’s a heart-wrenching moment that only grows in sadness: Ellsworth laments to his dog that Sophia has had enough hardships in her young life and doesn’t need to reckon with the fact that he won’t be around much any more or that he will disturb her by visiting in the evenings. And now Alma is twice widowed. It’s that sudden.
“The Catbird Seat” opens with high tension in everyone’s face as no one is sleeping in the dark, early morning hours, not even Cy Tolliver, who doesn’t have as much at stake in the recent upheavals in camp. Al is about to head over to Bullock and Star’s hardware store (not before he gives Dolly a piece of advice by saying, “You know, saying I like you hefty don’t mean you couldn’t stand losing a couple of fucking pounds”) but he’s interrupted by Merrick, showing him the day’s newspaper, particularly the article about the shots fired at Alma Ellsworth. Merrick wants to blame Hearst for the shooting without naming him, wants to get under his skin. Al believes that the mission is accomplished (or “wafted”). Blazanov then interrupts the two of them to give Al the telegram from Hawkeye. Al fears incompetence from Hawkeye: there’s no way anyone could hire twenty-three killers who are worth a dime in four hours time. It feels like a waste of money to Swearengen.
Before joining Al in the thoroughfare, E.B. is in his hotel not having moved since George Hearst spit on him in anger. When he declares “I’m going to fuck you up,” it’s hard not to cheer for E.B., normally an annoying if not funny character. He finally wipes his face and in that bit of rebellion lies hope for the entire camp to take a stand against their oppressor.
While Seth, Al, Jack, Sol, Charlie, Trixie, and E.B. meet to decide on exactly what would construe a telegraph for Bullock to come back from Sturgis again, George Hearst has a small meeting himself. It’s here that he learns of the ease that the Pinkerton will have to kill Ellsworth. Gerald McRaney’s countenance of glee at the though of ending Ellsworth’s life communicates that he knows he’s one step ahead of the rest of the camp, that he’s safe, that he’s going to tear the camp apart, and — most importantly to him — that he’s one step closer to owning Alma’s gold. Even Richardson knows there’s an ominous atmosphere about camp as he prays for his loved ones with his antlers in the Grand Central Hotel.
In Sturgis it doesn’t take long for Bullock to piece together that the soldiers bivouacked there are up to more than just soldiering. There’s not a fort nearby. He realizes they are there to mess up elections on some front, and after hearing from Commissioner Jarry in the previous installment, Bullock’s not wrong.
As Ellsworth’s body comes to town, director Greg Fienberg makes use of a P.O.V. shot that puts the viewers in place of the dead Ellsworth. It amps up the scene into that of horror, especially when paired with the look of pleasure that Hearst gives when he discovers Ellsworth’s body outside and menace that he uses on Jack as he tries hurriedly to open his hotel door. It’s here that Jack realizes that maybe no one is safe from Hearst.
Swearengen once again comes to Alma’s aid and takes her back into his office at the Gem to calm her. He sends for Bullock to be wired. Even Cy Tolliver is upset — at least angry — over Ellsworth’s death, and, of course, he takes it out on his helpless workers. Trixie, in a moment of rashness, exposes herself to Hearst so she can shoot him. It isn’t a fatal shot as she only gets him in the shoulder. He’s alive and well enough after a visit to Doc Cochran to remove the bullet. Not only does Alma and Sophia now gather at the Gem, but Sol rushes Trixie over there for protection. Al surmises that it will take Alma selling her claim to Hearst if she were to remain or that she would have to leave if she wants to maintain the claim herself, which would lead to an ongoing war that wouldn’t end until they’re all dead or Hearst has control of the whole place.
To worsen the anguish of the chapter, Sophia cries over Ellsworth’s death and comments that she’ll no longer feel his beard waking her at night for a kiss. Then she clings to Bullock, in all likelihood remembering that he was one of the men who rescued her from the road agents in season one and knowing that he’s been one of her chief protectors. It’s all heartbreaking. And has there ever been two men who do not know what exactly to say to a child, much less a girl in the early stages of grief, than when Al and Seth are in the room with Sophia by themselves?
It’s also here in the final scenes at the Gem that Brian Cox is well used again. Though Jack Langrishe has been stymied with some wretched and plodding narratives, he’s such a great addition when he’s paired with Al Swearengen as it humanizes Al even more (“Monitor my thinking,” Al says to his old friend).
“The Catbird Seat” ends with the series’s best composition shot: Al demands his girls rouse a drunk for a profit or for thieving, and he leaves the camera’s view only to come back into focus and take up most of the screen in an intense close up to have a drink of whisky. It’s the look of a man who looks offscreen at what lies ahead, a future likely full of war and death depending on the decisions of one woman whom he’s come to admire.
- Ellsworth’s death created higher stakes than the show had seen, which is partly the biggest shame of its early cancellation. It seemed as though anything could happen moving forward. Fans felt adrift. Also, Jim Beaver was so great as Whitney Ellsworth.
- Want to make this episode that much more sad? Ellsworth’s dog has lost its second owner. Ellsworth had adopted him in season one.
- Much like the soundtrack that rolls over the end credits, the title is anachronistic: the phrase “the catbird seat” likely wasn’t used until 1942 in a James Thurber story, who may have taken from a baseball broadcaster named Red Barber at the time.
- I suppose it’s a stretch to think of Alma being thrice widowed, but if you see her and Seth’s affair immediately dissolving as a sort of death, then maybe so. It’s certainly tough on her as well.
- Though this may be one of the saddest episodes of the series to date, it’s also the funniest. Blazanov asks that Al not strike him after delivering the news of Hawkeye. Harry Manning has some sort of digestion problem as he’s not only seen farting on his horse to begin the episode but he admits to disgusting Martha Bullock with his farts in the Bullock house! The men keep handing off their rifles to one another as they climb the stairs to Al’s office only for all of the guns to end up in E.B.’s untrained grasp. Jewel reprimands Richardson, telling him that he’s too ugly to be sneaking up on others. Wu notices that he’s being treated importantly and even smirks as he says “Big man” upon leaving.
- Though I said it a few times above, this is really a mournful episode that could very well bring a viewer to understandable tears.
Quote of the episode:
Ellsworth’s final words before he’s shot where he thinks of Sophia and Alma before himself: “Would my conversating with her or lingering after supper have disrupted the little one’s routine on a day that had been disrupted previous? Yes. Already she’d seen a series of people taking up watch to protect that schoolhouse, and how many questions must have occurred to her—because that is a bright child—’What is transpiring that we need guarding from?’ And what memories must that have brought back of her own dear family murdered in a sudden fake Indian depredation by shit-heel fuckin’ road agents. Not solely how would I like to be passing the evening, the like. When I’ve left, have I given the mother more calming down to do before she gets the child asleep? Them’s the sort of things is what you have to consider.”