There’s something heartbreaking about watching Seth and Martha try to figure out how to make a life together, building it on the foundations of honor and not much else. “Certain things I said yesterday, I regret,” Seth tells her the morning after her arrival in town in the midst of his slugout with Al Swearengen over whether his affair with Alma is distracting him from his duties as sheriff. “I’ll be grateful if you’ll not rely on them. Representations I’ve made of letters I’ve written. I didn’t.” Martha, who was quick to play along with his deception, even as it bewildered her, tells him with painful composure: “I hold my deepest gratitude, Mr. Bullock, for what will let us live as we are now.” Later, they have a veiled discussion about whether or not to have sex before they begin their day after Seth fell asleep before they could go to bed the night before. “I would enjoy to converse in the stillness at the end of the day like that,” Martha says. Anna Gunn is just so tremendous in this role, and there’s something remarkably compelling and vulnerable about watching her in this profoundly alien situation, torn between duty and sexual excitement. I think we’ve all thought through arranged marriages, but a situation like this, a marriage of convenience tinged with the forbidden—Seth, after all, has married his brother’s wife—feels just as alien and distant. “Tonight, after dinner, I will have two cups of coffee, and I will not fall asleep,” Seth promises her. Duty, but not entirely an unpleasant one.
While Martha and Seth are profoundly controlled, Trixie and Sol are beyond the boiling point. I really have to say that Paula Malcomson’s embodiment of Trixie is one of the finest sustained television performances I’ve ever seen as an actress, and I hope that appearing in The Hunger games does nothing but wonderful things for her. She is magnificent, and maybe never moreso than in these episodes, where she’s taking steps towards furthering her relationship with Sol and her education, though not without profound ambivalence. “I wonder, would you teach me how to do accounts?” she asks Sol. “I’ll pay you, or you can take it out in cunt.” Her resistance to the idea that Sol could want her for himself, and even if she does, her reluctance to let him, is fascinating and nuanced. There’s a certain amount of clarity about only being wanted for one thing, and a terror of being wanted for something ephemeral that can’t be assigned a clear erotic geography. It does help that she’s making this decision against the backdrop of Al’s impending kidney stone operation, which is impressively gruesome. Ian McShane’s acting out of his agony is so fearsome that I felt actual physical discomfort watching it. And as Trixie explains to Jane while they’re out for a drink, “Far is it goes, he also brought the cripple from that orphanage. Don’t buy that bullshit about the 9-cent trick.” We can understand why Trixie cries in Sol’s arms that “I can’t stay. But it’d be smart to stay and fuckin’ learn to calculate interest.” This is not some simple choice between Al and Sol, between prostitution and non-sex work, between a man who beats her and a man who treasures her. There are merits to both lives.
And there’s the beginning of something between Alma and Whitney Ellsworth, her growing more confident, he advising her. “I’d like to buy Mr. Farnum’s hotel,” she tells him with malicious glee on their way back from the claim, “To renovate and make it my residence…[there are no other options] that would offer the finer pleasures of putting Mr. Farnum in the thoroughfare.” And while Ellsworth gets the impulse, he tells her”I guess most of us are lucky to be too broke to act on those kinds of ideas.” While he checks her more reckless impulses, he isn’t afraid to run off Hearst’s stalking horse, Mr. Wolcott (who feels like a false note to me, too much of a cartoon villain) or to suggest to Alma that she go head to head with E.B. when he’s trying, yet again, to get her to walk away from her claim even if not to sell it to him.
But the partnership that isn’t working particularly well for me is Joanie and Maddie. Some of it is clearly that it’s tied up with Wolcott, who feels to me like a stock Law & Order villain of some noxious variety. But I think it’s also that with Maddie in the picture, Joanie’s move to open her own business just seems to put her in the shadow of yet another powerful partner; I’d almost be more interested in her depressed with Cy than with a spark that seems continuously to be put under a bushel. When Wolcott tells her “A tiny corner of operation for such an amusing mind. I promise as I sojourn here to bring you stories from the world of men,” I feel a certain amount of regret that we’re not seeing Joanie out on the streets, mixing it up with Charlie Utter, and building a life.