Archive for the ‘Television’ Category

Ken Curtis Does Tom Blog

September 4, 2012


February 21, 2012

Finally saw Generation Kill, which somehow managed to live up to its reputation. Like The Wire, it’s marked by such an even distribution of mood and energy across its episodes that it’s impossible to settle on just one as a favorite. Part of this is thanks to the wall-to-wall military jargon (it’s even more unapologetically jargon-intensive than Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange), but mostly it earns its stripes the old-fashioned way, through solid direction and writing that’s tighter than J-Lo’s kootch. (Just to be clear, that’s a reference to something in the script, and not yours truly being a foul-mouthed fucker just for the shits and giggles it gives him.)

I’m amused by the counterintuitive casting decision that made macho pinup boy Alexander Skarsgård a subordinate to the girlish (and much shorter) Starks Sands, and by the fortitude David Simon and Ed Burns showed by including, and then summarily forgetting about, an off-color running joke revolving around a picture of the reporter’s girlfriend. (Any other production in the history of entertainment would’ve made it the focal point of his goodbye scene.) And yet another raft full of good actors comes out of nowhere? Just how many great actors can possibly be hiding out there? Seriously, they should just all come on out now, from whatever school or shitty job they’re holding down, just to give us some idea of just how many scripts it’s gonna take to keep them all working. (I by no means begrudge him the paycheck, but Skarsgård deserves a lot, lot more than teen vampire flicks.) I especially loved James Ransone in this fucking thing, and the fact that he benefited the most from the writing also worked to our advantage: Ray Person’s ephedra-fueled monologues could have made Ziggy Sobotka’s numbskull perorations sound like the wartime Churchill if they weren’t truly funny.

That said, my biggest grumble about the show involves the scribe’s exit interview with Godfather, the battalion C.O.; it’s a joyless, unworthy scene that resuscitated all of the didactic impulses one hoped Simon had laid to rest in The Wire’s farewell tour. For better or worse, Generation spurts out all of its bullshit in its closing installment as well, its other notable lapses being the chain-yanking close-ups of the incompetent “Captain America” every time he suffers a crisis of confidence and, more generally, a too heavy beating of Simon’s “institutional corruption” theme, which, no matter how legitimate a cause for outrage, has already become a hobby-horse in his hands.

But apart from that it’s a hell of a ride, one which individualizes its characters much as The Wire allowed us observe its characters on their own terms, without preconceptions clouding our gaze—quite an accomplishment given their respective milieus. Much of the humor in Generation Kill derives not from punchlines but from some very droll camera moves, e.g., the slow push-in from an indolent Ransone to a quartet of Marines a mere few yards away as they give some suspicious locals an intense once-over. And the action scenes run absolute circles around all the soft-headed handheld quick-cut bullshit that passes for action filmmaking nowadays: think about The Hurt Locker and then think about the ambush at the bridge in episode 6, and tell me which one looks like Gladiator and which one looks like The Wild Bunch. At its core, though, Generation Kill is a Howard Hawks work for our time.

Claude Chabrol’s The Eye of Vichy provides insight into a different type of military order.  A mix-tape of primary sources, Vichy consists of two hours of newsreel and propaganda shorts—though the two forms are indistinguishable much of the time—which are only occasionally broken up by a narrator who sketches in some rough historical context for what we’re looking at. The material is ordered chronologically so we can feel both the peak and then the long decline of Vichy and its chief of state Philippe Pétain, around whom the Reich and its French minions created one of the shabbiest, most unseemly personality cults the world has ever known. The ancient warrior had been made prime minister just as history was casting about for a dupe, and in that role he was both a manipulator and nakedly manipulated. We see him meeting with Hitler (who kept him waiting) and with Franco (who couldn’t have looked more bored), but he spent most of his time implementing laws designed to curry favor with Berlin (when they didn’t actually originate there) and making appearances designed to swell the hearts of France’s pepperpots and schoolchildren. The Eye of Vichy also contains some interesting cultural sidebars: ads for powdered soap and Scandale girdles; the rats sequence from The Eternal Jew; middleweight Marcel Cerdan giving an opponent a thorough drudging; and various propaganda efforts, some of which came in unexpected forms.

But it mostly observes official functions—rallies, conferences, visits from Reich big shots, all the while tracking one of the most important components of Franco-German relations in those years, the work programs by which French POWs and civilians “volunteered” to leave home and provide labor for the German war machine. (Cue clip of many tight-lipped smiles at the Gare du Nord.) But the real face of Vichy is clearest in the speeches given by such ugly-souled functionaries as Jacques Doriot and Philippe Henriot, men who in any other time would be dismissed as the thick-necked bullies they were. Chabrol closes his film with a clip from the famous speech that Charles De Gaulle delivered after the liberation—the speech in which he uttered the words “Paris outraged, Paris broken, Paris martyred, but Paris liberated! By herself, liberated by her people, with the help of the whole of France!” Whether he meant them to or not, De Gaulle’s words helped lay the groundwork for a generation of denial; by laying down such clear divisions, he reduced the moral complexity of the war in general, and the Occupation in particular, to an Indiana Jones adventure, and France would pay the price for decades to come.

Busy, Busy, Busy: “Downton Abbey”

April 1, 2011

While directing Gosford Park Robert Altman told his actors to forget about following Julian Fellowes’ script word for word; after getting in whatever plot points had to be mentioned, Altman encouraged them to simply behave in character while his camera floated around the set and his hidden mikes cherry-picked the best dialog. It worked like a charm. The peerless cast, fluent in body language, wound up telling much of the story through sheer physical attitude: important pieces of the characters played by Emily Watson, Richard E. Grant and Kristin Scott Thomas, for instance, could be gleaned just from the singular way each of them handled a cigarette.

Now Fellowes has been let off his chain with Downton Abbey, the upstairs-downstairs drama he created for ITV. Basically an extended version of  Gosford Park (minus the pomo tilt of Stephen Fry’s police detective), it’s the most expensive British TV series ever and a hit on both sides of the Atlantic. Set in “the stately home”—a fooking castle, it bloody well is!—of the Earl of Grantham, his wife, and their three unmarried daughters, the first season kicks off with the (offscreen) sinking of the Titanic and stops at the outbreak of World War I; in between it’s mainly concerned with the advent of two newcomers whose arrivals wreak different kinds of havoc with the Earl’s family and their stable of domestics.

Downton Abbey is everything you expect of a Masterpiece presentation—it’s fundamentally intelligent, well-acted, often gorgeous. But it was also a downhill experience for me. The decision to make Britain’s insane old entailment system of inheritance a pivotal element in the story was a brilliant one, and the first episode or two are full of quiet observations showing how painfully constricted life was—on the most relative basis, natch—for both classes. Mostly, though, Fellowes treats running-times like a racetrack along which he whips his characters, for in a near reversal of Altman’s strategy he foregrounds enough backstories, revelations, exposures, and challenges to choke Charles Dickens. It’s not enough for the oldest daughter to take a handsome young Turk into her bed, but he must drop dead in it as well—and then the stupidest of the maids must spot the woman and her mother spiriting the man’s corpse away. Meanwhile, the mysterious new valet is coping simultaneously with his bum leg, a backstabbing footman, an amorous housemaid, and a lurid scandal in his past—no wonder he keeps wandering off into corners for a good cry. There are also the two daughters who sabotage each other in ugly ways, a Bolshie chauffeur, a maid yearning to become a secretary, a treacherous lady’s maid, a labor riot, a stolen bottle of wine, an attempted murder, a miscarriage and—I kid thee not—a missing snuff-box and a rigged flower show. All this, and more, in less than seven hours of programming.

I say, old boy! Steady on! Leave something for the Battle of the Somme, why don’t you?

How to Become Public Enemy #1 in 10 Easy Jokes

January 18, 2011

What the world needs now
Is love, sweet lo—

[sound of needle being jerked off record]

hot links

October 6, 2010

Some juicy stuff courtesy of my online mates. First, an oral history of GoodFellas; the writers had the presence of mind to look up Donovan, way down below the ocean (where he wants to be), and ask him where he was the night Billy Batts went missing. Even better, here’s David Simon’s original 79-page treatment for The Wire. Ah yes, who can forget those immortal characters Jimmy McArdle and Stringy Bell?

More seriously—or rather, completely damn seriously—there’s El Blog del Narco, the website of an anonymous Mexican blogger who’s countering both the Calderon government’s attempts at whitewashing the drug violence and the Mexican media’s fear of covering it by publishing uncensored photos and videos of the various crime scenes down there. Take my word for it, though: this shit is not for the faint of heart.

Soap with a Prize Inside! (Some Afterthoughts about “Deadwood”) #1: “The Fucking Pinkertons”

July 16, 2010

Swearengen swore all along that the Pinkerton National Detective Agency was nothing but bad news, but until they actually appeared on the scene we had to rely on our historical memory of the Pinkertons’ most notorious deeds—the dead-of-night firebombing that killed Jesse James’ little brother, the violent, depraved union-busting that lasted well into the ’30s—to accept them as a legitimate threat. The first agent arrived only at the beginning of Season 2, and even then her true identity went unpublished for several episodes. Alice Isringhausen turned out to be small-fry, easily dispensed with, but the night that George Hearst’s “bricks” thundered into camp in a cavalcade of hoofbeats and satanic shadowplay represented, as Cy Tolliver put it, the advent of professionals. By light of day they congregated in intimidating knots along the thoroughfare, managing to stand out in a town already festooned with memorable faces.

Where did Milch find them all? He’d been using real cowboys to give the place tone all along, and the Pinkertons must’ve come from their ranks: they certainly carry the whiff of such stuntmen-turned-actors as Ben Johnson, Richard Farnsworth, and Allan Graf. Their unshaven and pockmarked faces looked sculpted by alkali dust blasted out of a wind machine, and they needled the miners with gibes—“Wipe your ass, Hiram! It feels strange at first but the shit protects against blisters!”—which they delivered in coarsely musical American cadences. Each man of them sported like an odor his own brand of unnerving self-confidence: even the old buzzard who breaches protocol by drinking Hearst’s liquor is fit enough to murder Ellsworth by merely raising his hand. Like a biker gang crashing a family reunion they settled in and all but destroyed the camp’s serenity; the incredible tension that turns even Swearengen and Bullock into dithering Hamlets, and which lasts until a tidal wave of mourning sweeps everything away in the show’s closing minutes—that’s all the Pinkertons’ doing.

Silk from a Sow’s Ear

June 4, 2010

What I wrote about Justified still goes, and then some. Its unflashy, straightahead brand of storytelling (presumably fallout from its modest budget) may keep it from ever being considered one of the great TV series, but it’ll do until one comes along. There have been weak episodes, such as the one where Raylan Givens’ pursuit of a dentist-embezzler carried him into a half-assed shootout on the Mexican border, the only time where the show’s violence, and Raylan’s almost divine facility with a handgun, were cartoonish and uninteresting. (It was also a case of someone’s affection for Midnight Run getting the best of them.) But even that episode could boast the classic confrontation between Clarence Williams III, playing a vinegary Vietnam veteran, and the young cop who tiredly confesses to him “Sir, I don’t know what the Mekong Delta is.” Justified is full of lines like that, lines which, while written totally in character, contain a bemused, aware measurement of American life.

It’d be too much to say that Justified breaks the fourth wall, but it definitely messes with it. Its one identifiable character arc—something to do with Raylan coming to grips with his “anger”—would be a groaner if the show’s creators took it at all seriously. It’d be just as easy to make Justified sound slovenly and lax, what with its nick-of-time appearances by characters who couldn’t be more genie-like if they showed up in puffs in smoke, Raylan’s fail-proof ability to intuit what the bad guys are going to do next, and the unlikely presence of not one but two small-town goddesses—Raylan’s current squeeze, Ava, and his ex-wife, Winona—either of whom could burn the big city down.

The truth is, Graham Yost and his writers aren’t crafting a masterpiece of Sopranos-level subtlety or polish (the direction is often merely functional), but they preempt such carping by focusing on Elmore Leonard’s menagerie of felonious, lovelorn fuck-ups and the back-country no-class world they inhabit. If Jake Gittes’ M.O. in Chinatown was to let sleeping dogs lie, Raylan Givens likes to kick them awake, demand their tags, and then start whacking them on the snout with their own chew-toys. But his self-righteousness never descends to a Death Wish shellacking of the bad guys, and sometimes, as when he picks a fight with two burly barroom louts, it even blows up in his face. It’s Raylan’s very fallibility that makes him, if not heroic, then at least endlessly diverting. Timothy Olyphant had to place his natural warmth under house arrest to play that natural-born prick Seth Bullock, but here he lets it ooze all the way through, and there’s something commonsensical, even disarming, in the calm, splay-fingered way Raylan addresses the hit-men and hostage-takers who are evidently overrunning southern Kentucky nowadays, even when he’s threatening their lives.

The balance between available talent and worthy material has probably always been out of whack, but these days, when a single show like The Wire can uncover literally scores of good actors in one fell swoop, it’s a joke to hope that any more than a few of them will find gigs that exploit everything they can do while treating them right money-wise, making it extra nice when a show like Justified comes along and starts passing out the juicy parts like Halloween candy. It took me a while to warm up to Walton Goggins—with his harshly chiseled features and thousand-yard stare, he looks like he ought to be a terrible actor, but he’s actually as much of a hoot as the shape-shifting, homicidal Boyd Crowder possibly can be. In fact, all the Crowders are fun to watch, especially the mountainous M.C. Gainey as the patriarch Bo, a habitual criminal who lumbers about in cammies and seems like the world’s coolest granddad until utterly vile things start spilling out of his mouth. (Gainey was also a kick as the no-nonsense Nam veteran in Citizen Ruth, and those were his blubbery nether parts jiggling against Paul Giamatti’s car window in Sideways.) Justified has also given guest-shots to a handful of Deadwood alumni—the next best thing to a Season Four, I guess, even if it was a sadistic tease to bring Con Stapleton back for only one brief scene.

Some of the other guest stars have given me simply ridiculous amounts of pleasure; along with Williams my favorites include Katherine LaNasa, as a manicured trophy wife with a bagful of dirty tricks, and Stephen Root, as a hanging judge with a weakness for whiskey and strippers. All of these characters, morally maladjusted as they are, are integral cogs in Elmore Leonard’s cosmic, comic view of temptation. His novels and short stories offer something like a malt liquor version of Jean Renoir’s judgment on the human race: people, in his eyes, indeed have their reasons, but they’re almost always half-baked, and are frequently indictable.

“Elvis” (1979)

March 29, 2010

The 1979 TV movie Elvis offers the most commonly held take on Elvis Aron Presley: the poor son of Tupelo who, bereft of an inner life beyond mother worship, a love for performing, and a taste for success—each boundless and unquenchable—succeeded so completely that he lost his soul in the process. It has all the drawbacks common to the made-for-TV format, especially in its second half: rushed action, inert staging (scenes involving a toy airplane and Priscilla hitting a punching bag are so hopeless that their retention is inexplicable), characters popping in and out like restless genii, undeveloped plot points, and a sucker’s fall-back on formula: after an angry Elvis smashes a bedroom lamp, he clutches his head in his hands and wails “What’s happening to me?” That’s precisely the kind of thing that makes me want to grab the sides of my hair and run screaming out of the room, but other flaws run even deeper. Budgetary restrictions limited the concert audiences to a couple of hundred people, so that we never really see the fullest blossoming of the world that terrified and depressed the man. Key chunks of his output are omitted or glossed over, so that hit after major hit—including “Hound Dog”, for God’s sake—goes completely unmentioned. (From a purely entertainment viewpoint, there’s not nearly enough music.) The contractual stranglehold that enabled Colonel Parker to snuff out Elvis’ attempts to widen his musical and acting horizons is shifted into the hands of a few unseen, unnamed producers and, but for one quick reference, Elvis’ absorption of black music is wholly ignored. This is all by way of saying that all the things that actually made Elvis a phenomenon—something bigger and more different than most of us can even imagine—are largely ignored in favor of the ways that he was only like us.

It could have been worse. At least Elvis was made by people—most prominently John Carpenter, working on his first film after Halloween—who were clear Presley fans. In places—a simple shot of Elvis and his parents singing a gospel song on their ramshackle porch one summer night, or the scene in which Presley addresses his dead twin brother by talking to his own shadow on the wall—it’s a surprisingly evocative work. But Carpenter really captured lightning in a bottle when he cast Kurt Russell as his lead.

I first encountered Russell when I was 10 or 12 in the old Disney movie Follow Me, Boys, and in one scene the very young Russell, embarrassed by his drunken father, unleashed a blistering tirade against Fred MacMurray that absolutely gutted me. I’d never consciously gotten it before that a kid could have such strong feelings, or that those feelings could be put into words, or that those words could be pure enough, and angry enough, to spellbind and wound an adult. Most of all it was Russell’s fraught delivery that made me want to look away—it was searing, a bigger jolt of emotion than anything I’d ever feel from a James Dean performance.*

Beginning with the opening shot of Elvis sitting in a hotel room just before the first of his “comeback” concerts at a Vegas hotel in 1969, Russell’s impersonation of Presley is so exact that at times—especially when he’s wearing Elvis’ Army haircut—it’s hard to get your head around the idea that you’re not watching The King. He doesn’t settle for a mere impression, though. When Gladys Presley (Shelley Winters, in yet another of her grisly Oedipal mama roles) dies, Elvis bends over her bed sobbing, and after holding that pose a moment, Russell crashes to one knee in a way that looks not just unplanned but wholly out of control; I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a physical movement by an actor that seemed more alive the first time I saw it. Russell’s taken for a lightweight in some circles because of his square ingénue features, his marriage to Goldie Hawn, or his not always stellar choices of projects, and even people who do like him are more likely to think of Snake Plissken or of Rudy Russo in Used Cars—roles which depend at least partly on a parodic appreciation of his looks. I like him plenty in those movies, too—hell, I even like him in Tombstone—but forget all that. Elvis, for all its problems, makes one thing clear: the man has chops, whenever he wants to call on them.

*After writing this I watched that scene on YouTube for the first time since I was a kid. It was like going back to a childhood home and being surprised by how small it is—the scene’s barely a minute long and what I remembered as a tirade is just a short sentence or two. Russell’s tears and quivering anger are still there, though, and still feel real.

“Outlaw life’s hard, ain’t it?”

March 25, 2010

I finally got caught up on Breaking Bad, the surrealistically tinged drama about a high-school chemistry teacher who contracts lung cancer and, wanting to put a quick little something by for his family, begins manufacturing methamphetamine—a decision that brings out sides of himself which have never seen the light of day. The show’s first season was riddled with flaws but I never could quite shake its vibe from my cranial caverns; the second season is largely a huge pleasure, with a storyline that’s turned into a sinuous and extremely dark journey. My complaints about the show are large ones, though, and none of them have gone away:

  • Lifts from other shows are too obvious (“Four Days Out” is a reworking of The Sopranos’  “Pine Barrens” with nothing like its depth) while other scenes, such as the one featuring the little bicycle assassin (who looks inspired by a particular moment in The Wire), are so predictable as to be painful.
  • Its attempts at humor, rare to begin with, are usually forced and only fitfully successful. The scene where a narc busts one of Jesse’s dealers (in a very Wire-esque pre-credit sequence) is telegraphed from the get-go, yet it goes on and on, milking a myth—that cops have to identify themselves as officers if asked—that was old hat 40 years ago, and which nobody believed even then.
  • Far too many scenes between the central characters Walt and Jesse repeat each other, with Jesse doing something unaccountably stupid and Walt chewing him out using the same tone and language he used the last time Jesse did something stupid.
  • The dialogue is often just TV-clever, with the characters jerking off for the audience rather than talking to each other. If Walt is going to twitch and tweak and flop around every time someone asks him a simple question, that’s fine; what’s not fine is for the other characters to never notice these St. Vitus’ Meltdowns (or to be put off too easily by his rote assurances). The trend continues in the opener of Season 3, with the mute cartel hitmen who do everything in unison (why?) and a high-school principal who hands an open mike to the last person a real principal in that situation would give it to.
  • The notion that every moment of the show should work to create tension is cheap and, in the end, counterproductive. Breaking Bad is so intent on not having any relaxed or normal moments, moments where the characters are just sitting around and feeling okay about things, even for a second, that it can be fatiguing to watch it. Even a nothing little driveway scene has to be jazzed up with a remote-controlled car which keeps whizzing around Walt’s feet; the scene ends with a real car crushing the toy car, a bah-duh-bum of pseudo-snappiness which plays like the toast popping up in The Graduate. Nor does it help when Walt reacts to it with his patented doleful expression, as if “in the death of that little plastic car he foresees his own death,” or…something. All I know is, it’s icky.
  • The show’s surrealistic bent sometimes makes it trip into troughs of mistypoo self-importance, with things like the mid-air jet-crash and (in Season 3) the villagers who approach a cartel shrine by crawling to it, even over great distances, on their bellies. What Vince Gilligan is trying for with these outtakes from The X-Files is a mystery; one hopes there’s more to it than “It feels weird.” In any case, it’ll be interesting to see what he has left to top himself with by the end of the show’s run.

That’s a pretty serious list of complaints, yet I still enjoyed Breaking Bad’s second season, and in spots I was in awe of it. Flourishes like the narcocorrido video or the lyrical little out-of-body sequence when Jesse tries junk for the first time all work like gangbusters, additions such as the junkie with a Bettie Page haircut and the nebbishy restaurateur who turns out to be a drug kingpin improved the show’s population, and the introduction of another major character—Bob Odenkirk’s interestingly principled shyster—was elegantly parlayed into a great little sequence involving a professional convict. There’s also the consistently mind-boggling cinematography of Mike Slovis, whose surface brattiness and atomic attention to detail does a better job of illustrating the stresses and quandaries of Walt’s existence than anything in the show’s scripts. (The show’s mixture of thuds and successes, and the near wildness in Gilligan’s willingness to try anything on, mostly reminds me of the Paul Thomas Anderson who made Boogie Nights and Magnolia.)

Breaking Bad may be the more ambitious show, but on first blush, at least, I felt a lot more at home after just two episodes of Justified. Timothy Olyphant stars as Raylan Givens, a droll, no-bullshit U.S. marshal who, after a messy little shooting in Miami, is transferred back to the Kentucky coal country where he grew up. Givens is an Elmore Leonard creation, and the show conveys intact most of Leonard’s many fine qualities: constantly fudged moral boundaries,  ingenious plotting, off-color dialogue with an extremely high smart-ass quotient, and a passel of funny, flavorful characters who often provide the heart of the story. (One boundary is less happily fudged: Justified’s talented cast looks capable of many things, but passing as children of the people we saw in Harlan County U.S.A. is not one of them.) The last line of Justified’s pilot episode hints that things will soon take a more serious turn, but until they do, watching Seth Bullock pop neo-Nazis in the chops with their own scatterguns makes for some wonderful entertainment.

As Al Sees It

February 28, 2010

Trixie (on Sol Star): He stares in my eyes when he fucks me. Longin’ like.

Swearengen (sipping his coffee): Jesus Christ.

On “A Two-Headed Beast”

July 23, 2006


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.

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