That isn’t to say that watching the scene is a pleasure; it’s far from that. It had come to me only earlier in the week how much I’d cottoned to Dority and W. Earl Brown’s work in the role, a realization born of the fact that David Milch and his writers had set Dority on an unavoidable collision course with Turner, an Old West version of Oddjob whose indomitable mien made him seem the inevitable victor in any encounter he might face. Dority, with his paunch and shoulder-length hair, is like your older hippie brother who’s gone bad, but his relative innocence (at least when compared to Al Swearengen or Cy Tolliver) and his sunny drawl take much of the moral stink off of him. Also, as Swearengen has had to evolve, so have his men, even if they didn’t know why or that they’re doing it at all.
Brown has stated that Milch said he wanted the fight to have three qualities: 1) an absence of fistfight clichés (no roundhouse punches or people thrown through store windows); 2) a rolling rhythm, gaining in intensity just when it seemed to be slowing down; and 3) something he’d never seen before. It’s that second quality which really defines the fight, which in memory seems to occur in a mere handful of set-ups even though it’s nearly five minutes long. The sequence in fact does have several cuts, but none of them are for the sake of flashiness—they simply propel us to a better vantage point of the convulsive action, whether we want to go or not.
It’s that motion of Swearengen’s, that downward tilt of his head without any change in his expression, that got to me. I don’t know fully why, though I’m sure it has to do with how the show’s relationships are made so concrete and believable that we can sense with unusual particularity how all of these people feel about each other. Swearengen’s history with Dority has been doled out to us in dribs and drabs—we know, for instance, that they cut the lumber for The Gem together. When Dority’s face is in that water, Swearengen is at risk of passing with him. From his point of view he’d have no leg to stand on if Dan were killed; Dority’s drowning would only finish what Hearst had begun by cutting off Swearengen’s finger. And Ian McShane has never been finer in the role than in his scenes leading up to the fight, when Swearengen desperately tries, without success, to suss out Hearst’s intentions—“What’s in his head, I cannot fucking find in mine”—while pretending to his allies that he’s only working by his own timetable. Al Swearengen may be nothing but a sacred monster, and but for sheer naked circumstance he and Dority would be child-killers, but in this one moment none of that matters. Two men’s lives, and all of their labor, can be seen vanishing into that oily mudhole.
Technically the scene’s a bloody marvel. For one thing, whatever Brown’s makeup artist makes on the show, it can’t be nearly enough: by the end of the fight, his mouth dripping ropes of saliva, his face split and bruised, his hair and clothing slathered in blood and grease and mud, Dan looks like a caveman who’s been blindsided by lightning. The sound design, too, is a thing of beauty. Except for a wagon rolling past at the beginning and the heavy thuds of the men’s blows, there’s barely a sound in the entire five minutes—only a grunt here, a murmur there from the townspeople watching or strolling past. The glaring absence of mood music gives the fight a fluid but fully shaped form—we can clearly retrace the action in all its vigor the second it ends. And in the end we’re left with the sound of Allan Graf’s indescribably ghastly howls after the gouging, at least until Dority takes his cudgel-like fire log to the back of Turner’s skull. We don’t see that last bit of violence, and barely even hear it, coming to us as it does from Al’s distanced perspective on the balcony, just before he flips his toothpick over the railing and goes back inside. After everything that’s come before, it’s a blessing to have things end with a whimper.