Episode 7. “Bullock Returns to the Camp.”
“Bullock Returns to the Camp” is somewhat instructive about something that makes Deadwood feel like Deadwood: It’s the only episode in the series’ run to take place not over the course of a single day. Bullock and Charlie Utter catch up to McCall in a bunkhouse just outside a fort. Having apprehended him, they determine to take him to Yankton, which is several days’ ride away. Once that’s accomplished, they’ll return to Deadwood and see about the business of the camp. This determined, they ride off, and the episode cuts to some time later, back at camp, where Alma’s preparing for the funeral of her husband, two new arrivals are causing a stir at the Gem and the Bella Union and Bullock and Charlie are returning to see if they can’t resume their lives where they left off.
It’s this curious, bifurcated structure that makes “Bullock Returns” feel just a little off from a normal Deadwood episode. That sense of off-ness isn’t enough to ruin the episode, which boasts many terrific moments, but everything after that cut that encompasses all of that time we don’t see feels curiously rushed, as though the show is trying to cram a full day into 40 minutes instead of the customary 50. A normal episode of Deadwood moves with the rhythms of the day it occupies, often beginning before sunrise and closing long after sunset, with plenty of side plots running through the course of the day. “Bullock Returns” has a structure that seems to cut out much of what we’re accustomed to seeing in our days in Deadwood, and that makes it feel less like an episode of the show than it probably should. I can understand the desire to do this cut – it carries us past the smallpox outbreak for the most part and doesn’t remove the show of one of its main characters – but it leaves the episode feeling ever-so-slightly malformed.
But that’s ultimately a minor quibble because “Bullock Returns” is otherwise an exemplary episode of television, tightening the tension between the camp’s normal denizens and its ad hoc gods, striding about above them like those who would hold their destinies in their hands. It also introduces the latest in a long string of events that will bring Deadwood creeping ever-so-much closer to being a civilized kind of town with the arrival of Flora and her brother, Miles, a sweet duo of teenagers just looking for their father and some honest work. Flora is played by the terrific Kristen Bell, here in her first major part in a TV drama. She would go on to star in the prickly Veronica Mars as the title character in the next season, but her Flora is a good introduction to all of the shades Bell can play.
When I mentioned offhand on my Twitter feed that I was always surprised to see Kristen Bell turn up in the first season of Deadwood, no matter how much I knew intellectually that she was coming, professor and occasional TV blogger Jason Mittell said he thought her arc was one of the bigger missteps of the season, that it feels rushed and somewhat incomplete. While I can see that point of view (and I’ll deal just a bit more with this in the next episode), I like the way the series sets this up as yet another prelude to one of its favorite themes – there is no innocence when you’re living without law. You can have innocents around (as the Norwegian girl clearly is), but actual innocence is a rare commodity. Hence, Flora and Miles seem like they’re being set up as just the latest pure kids to be ground up by the Deadwood mill.
Or, perhaps more accurately, they’re being used to draw the ever-growing distinctions between Al Swearengen and Cy Tolliver. When the series began, Al seemed like the brute who would stop at nothing to consolidate his power, the main impediment to the arrival of law and order in Deadwood. While he still has a bit of that air to him, the series is giving us more of a chance to understand who this man is. He’s a criminal mastermind, yes, and a guy who wants to be as far away from the authorities as possible because of it, but he’s also not an amoral sociopath. He’s not above doing the wrong thing if it results in something he wants, but he’s also constantly aware of those around him, his fellow citizens. Cy, however, swept into the series seeming like the world’s classiest guy, just the man to bring a touch of culture to the muddy little camp he landed in, but as the weeks have worn on, he’s been revealed more and more to be a man barely sitting on heaps of untrammeled rage. Even the two men’s closest associates are mirror images of each other. Trixie is a woman who seems to be somewhere in the underbelly, just learning of her strength, while Joanie Stubbs seems to be a dignified madame with some degree of control over her life but is very gradually being revealed to be suffering from a deep, terrifying depression. Similarly, Dan Dority is a rough-and-ready man, revealed more and more to be childlike, while Eddie Sawyer is a likable card sharp, revealed more and more to have an older and weary soul than even his exterior would suggest.
So it’s interesting, then, that Miles ends up sweeping floors at the Gem with Al, who takes a proprietary interest in teaching the kid about the specialists who pay top dollar to run along a line of topless women and lick their breasts, just as he was teaching Dan about the ins and outs of saloon operation at the end of the last episode, while Flora ends up at the Bella Union, where she’s just another person to fall under the control of Cy. Al permits those within the Gem to have a degree of autonomy, almost fascinated is he by the varieties of human experience, while Cy is a controlling bastard, bent on making sure everything in his establishment is exactly the way it should be and keeping Flora, Joanie and Eddie cowering. Al’s crimes (that we know of to this point) are worse than Cy’s, but the series seems to think Al, because of his openness to the many different ways to be human (and the many different ways he’s able to make money off of that), is a better, more honorable person than Cy. And at this point, I’d almost be inclined to agree.
The episode’s other major thrusts center on Cochran and Jane beating back the epidemic and the continuing angling for Alma’s gold claim. Smallpox has clearly taken its toll on both Cochran and Jane, and the reverend is even worse off than he was when we last saw him. However, a good number of people have survived the disease thanks to their care, and Andy Cramed’s good enough to get to his feet again and walk back through the doors of the Bella Union (in another scene that shows us Cy’s quiet menace). Brad Dourif and Robin Weigert were the only two cast members nominated for Emmys in the show’s first season, and I had forgotten just how much of a team the two make in this season and how much screentime they share. While this smallpox storyline just kind of peters out, having served its purpose as the first major external incident to force the town to become a town, the way it’s integrated Jane more fully into Deadwood society than she might have wanted to be is worth it.
The gold claim angling takes more of a back seat here than it has in the previous episodes, though it’s still prominent enough that E.B. asks Alma if she’s willing to sell for $19,500 (hilariously) at her husband’s funeral. Of course, now that Bullock is back, Alma feels up to finding out what the claim is worth, and the sexual tension between the two is thick but grows organically enough. Alma’s also paired up with Trixie a fair amount, as the episode highlights (particularly at its end) the difference between what Alma can be potentially and what Trixie could be. Alma’s considering returning to New York, and she offers to send Trixie in her stead, an idea Trixie cuts down quickly. It’s not who she could be, even if she tried, she thinks, and she rebuffs Alma with “Don't you wanna say to remember my place? I do, you rich cunt, and I'm goin' back to it.”
“Bullock Returns” is a bit haphazard, thanks to its odd structure, but it’s a lovely episode all around, filled with some vintage Deadwood moments, like Bullock’s long discussion with Sol about how the Indian who tried to kill him helped him glimpse a higher honor and purpose (“He was just trying to live same as me and do honor to his friend and make sense of things”) or that scene where the card players tell Charlie just how Wild Bill came to his end, creating both the first draft of history and the legend that grew out of the man’s death in the same conversation (“Aces over eights, as I just now recall. That is the hand that Wild Bill had”). But the episode’s main function is to delineate just how differently Cy and Al see the world and just how thoroughly that divide will grow between the two men in the seasons to come.
Episode 8. “Suffer the Little Children.”
“Suffer the Little Children” is, in some ways, an episode about how those lies we agree upon can be punctured by a quick bout of truth. It’s a woozy episode, building to a terrific climax that leaves everything off-center, and it contains two events that will cause Deadwood to cease being a rough-and-tumble mining camp and become a part of the United States. One is easy to spot: There’s a treaty with the Sioux that’s going to lead to the annexation of the Black Hills into the Dakota Territory, thereby making Deadwood an official part of the U.S. The other is far subtler: It’s in the look in Jane’s eyes when Cy’s goons drag the fight against Miles and Flora out into the street.
In some ways, the Miles and Flora arc DOES feel like it probably was originally intended to stretch over three or four episodes. The reveal of Flora’s true character (she’s a conniving con artist looking to put one over on Cy, though he’s keenly aware of who she really is) comes so abruptly that it could feel a bit forced, and the way it seems designed specifically to force a wedge between Joanie and Cy could feel a bit inelegant as well. I think it works, though. It’s not quite the first (Cy was probably the first) in a long line of people coming to Deadwood, claiming to be one thing but really existing as quite another thing entirely down at their base level of existence (the most notable example of this won’t come along until season three). Flora seems to be an innocent, but she’s just as corrupt as your average Deadwood citizen already. The episode reveals this almost cunningly (when Flora’s around people whom she can leech off of, she’s subservient, but when she’s just dealing with common whores, she’s all “I’ve got a fucking knife”), but, again, it feels like such an about-face that it could seem to be an ill-motivated twist.
On the other hand, I don’t think it’s specifically there to drive a wedge between Joanie and Cy. That wedge is already there, earlier episodes show. What happens in “Suffer the Little Children” merely serves to externalize that rift and also externalize a more deeply buried one between Cy and Eddie. Flora takes Joanie (whose lesbian inclinations come up here for the first time, I believe) in, but Joanie’s someone who wants to be taken, to a degree. She’s trapped in what amounts to an abusive relationship (as is Eddie), and she just wants any form of escape she can find. Cy, of course, is on to Flora, and when she tries to steal Joanie’s stuff (Joanie mostly standing aside to let her), Cy catches on quickly and sends his men after Flora and Miles, pursuing them into the street and savagely beating them in the mud. Flora’s a thief, yes, and extremely cruel to Joanie when taunting her right before ripping her off, but neither she nor Miles deserve the savagery they’re treated to, especially because they still at least appear to be young kids. There’s a great shot as this beating is dealt out of Jane, Andy, Sol and Cochran watching from across the street, their faces growing crested with concern, Jane’s hand instinctively going to her hip where her gun would be. There’s something about this that’s NOT RIGHT, but the only way to really deal with it would be to develop a system to punish Flora and Miles in accordance with their crimes. And that would take civilization.
Cy drags the kids back inside, outside of everyone’s watchful eyes, and he ties them up in Joanie’s room, brings in Joanie and Eddie to watch as he tortures them as a prelude to killing them. Flora’s eye is no longer any good, and her head lolls about (Cy suspects her skull is broken), while Miles has passed out from his injuries. It’s a graphic, bloody scene, and while the choice to shoot it from Flora’s woozy point-of-view makes for a slightly goofy view of things a little too often, none of this can rob the final moments, when Joanie shoots Flora to put her out of her misery and then tries to turn the gun on either herself or Cy (I’d wager on herself, but it’s not immediately clear), of their power. I particularly like the way Eddie and Joanie function within the framing as the angel and devil over Cy’s shoulder until you realize that Cy is far more devil than either could hope to be and the way everything Cy says to Flora could be just as easily directed at Joanie. And the final sequence of Cy and Joanie talking about how he’s willing to front her the cash to open her own place is just heartbreaking, two people who used to have affection for each other finding themselves torn apart by one’s anger and the other’s sadness. This is a bravura storyline, shot through with tension and the queasy sense that there are worse things in the world than laws.
Of course, laws are what everyone’s talking about, what with the impending annexation. When Bullock and Al meet up to discuss their relationship going forward at the episode’s midpoint, Bullock echoes something Hickock said in “Here Was a Man”: “Before you know it, we'll have laws here and every fucking thing.” The encroach of civilization is something no one in Deadwood can stop, and they’re going to have to figure out a way to keep what they have and live under the banner of the nation that has suddenly turned its eyes toward them. It’s not for nothing that this episode contains a continual plot that deals with Jewel and Al’s attempts to scrub the bloodstain from the man Dan killed for leering at Flora at the end of “Bullock Returns” off the floor. These are the sorts of things that will need to be cleaned up and hushed up if Deadwood is going to be a part of any society.
There’s more truth puncturing lies here. After Ellsworth reveals that Alma’s gold claim is “a bonanza,” Swearengen can finally be upfront with Bullock about his attempts to use E.B. to wrest back control of it. (“I wouldn't trust a man who wouldn't try to steal a little.”) Now that the two don’t have that between them, it’s not exactly the end of their animosity, but they’re finally able to see eye-to-eye somewhat. Similarly, the gold nugget that Alma gives Trixie allows her and Al to put the past somewhat behind them, and the Norwegian girl finally reveals her name: Sophia, a smaller moment of truth, no doubt, but one that carries just as much power for when she does it (at the bedside of the ailing Trixie, who attempted suicide earlier in the episode – again we see a link between Trixie and Joanie). And, also, in line with my continuing hypothesis that Sophia is some sort of metaphor for America, we see her give up her true name in the episode where Deadwood looks likely to become a part of the United States proper.
Trixie, however, offers the episode much of its heart. She’s already grown so much from the woman Al knocked around in the premiere, so when she tries to kill herself, Cochran finding her on the floor with a needle, then trying to shoo Merrick, who fears he’s come down with smallpox, so he can return to her side, it feels deeply sad. She’s a woman trapped by her birth and circumstances, by the world she exists within, without a lot of options. Deadwood was criticized pretty roundly for not having a great deal of strong female characters, but I think that criticism misses the point. This is a series about women who don’t have a great deal of opportunity who then find ways to make the most of that opportunity. Trixie comes back from the dead, witnesses the metaphoric rebirth of Sophia, gets a huge nugget of gold, realizes that she and Alma make a good pair.
And then she returns to the Gem. Because that’s still her place. She has yet to find a way to escape out from under it, even though she’s now best friends with a rich woman, even though she got a taste of the life she could have without the Gem. She goes back, and she goes to Al, and she slaps the gold nugget down on his bedside table, and she undresses. Al watches all of this with wary eyes, but then he softens just a bit, and the episode closes with a moment of deeply moving kindness. Here, we see this oft-wicked man, this fellow who hurt Trixie in so many ways, this occasionally sadistic bastard pull back the covers of his bed, smooth them out, prepare a special place for her at his side. Deadwood, as a series, is about trying to bridge the gap between those two sides of that one man, that one woman.
Episode 9. “No Other Sons or Daughters.”
“In life you have to do a lot of things you don't fucking want to do. Many times, that's what the fuck life is... one vile fucking task after another. Don't get aggravated. Then the enemy has you by the short hairs. … Everything changes. Don’t be afraid.” – Al Swearengen
Back when Deadwood was moderately popular and seemed like it would run on HBO for season after season, I kept expecting one of those day-by-day calendars to pop up called something like “The Wit and Wisdom of Al Swearengen.” Obviously, this never happened, and the show never quite ran long enough to get 365 Al quotes that would legitimately qualify as “wit and wisdom,” but in between his cursing, Al says some things that are fairly profound, in their own ways, and the speech listed above is one of his finest hours. It’s early morning in Deadwood. He’s just woken up and then awakened Trixie. He’s fretting about the annexation, but as he tells Trixie not to fear it, you can see that he’s already moving past it, figuring out in his head schemes to make the annexation work for him. In the cool dawning hours, Al’s already five steps ahead of everyone else.
“No Other Sons or Daughters” is the episode where the business of making Deadwood a part of an actual civilization begins in earnest. Al, having learned that what will be needed to convince the government to look the other way and let Deadwood continue to exist as is are bribes and some form of temporary municipal government, takes it upon himself to gather every prominent citizen of the town that he can to discuss the formation of said temporary government, for appearances’ sake only. Everyone around the table is a bit skeptical that this will work but seems fine with trying it out anyway (especially E.B. who volunteers for the job of mayor). This whole scene, with its numerous ins and outs and attempts to essentially create a new society, must have been deeply difficult to write, but it’s carried off with aplomb by the script and the actors, and even manages to get at the heart of Deadwood’s thesis about the relationship between civilization and its riches: “Taking people's money is what makes organizations real, be they formal or informal or temporary.” (I’m also amused that Cochran is most concerned with who’s going to be comptroller and at how everyone attending the meeting seems to get a job, dispersed somewhat willy-nilly.)
There’s another throughline in this episode – that of the kind of shot the show utilizes so well. Deadwood is fond of master shots that feature one player in the background, then another in the foreground, reacting to what that person is doing. The episode uses these particularly well, from Al watching as Sol and Trixie flirt to Charlie reacting to Jane’s latest outbursts in pain to everyone watching E.B. drinking heavily at the Gem after having been named mayor. There’s even a whole series of them as Al moves through the camp, gathering people for his meeting. Deadwood is fond of these kinds of shots because they tie together so many of the people in the camp into a kind of harmonious unity. These are not just individuals, but the building blocks of a community, forced to live and interact with each other and figuring out their places within that organism.
Again, Deadwood is dealing with the idea that if you act like something is the truth, it almost becomes the truth. What else is the hastily thrown together government but a way to fool a lot of people with a new truth? Similarly, Charlie tells Joanie, out scouting for a place to put her brothel, that no matter how unqualified she finds herself, she won’t know if she can run her business until she actually gets in the thick of doing it. The act of doing something, Charlie says, is more important than whether or not you’re ready to do it because once you’re doing it, you’re no longer concerned with the preliminaries. It’s more important to take the leap than to endlessly plan out where you’re going to land in the world of Deadwood. After all, we all end up as fodder for Wu’s pigs in the end anyway.
There’s also a theme of people finally admitting the truth of what’s going on to themselves and those around them. Sol pursues his flirtation with Trixie, and even though she tries to discourage it, she’s at least mildly intrigued. Bullock seems almost ready to puncture that tension between him and Alma but, instead, he tells her about his family, his wife and child coming to join him, now that the camp is going to be a legal part of civilization (and this relationship – Bullock’s brother’s wife and child becoming his own – is yet another lie that functions almost as well as the truth). Jane’s drinking more and more, wanting to stay sober in the town where Bill’s buried but unable to, no matter how much she might be needed. And, of course, Reverend Smith is getting sicker and sicker, and Jane and Cochran try to make him realize this.
The scene where Cochran tries to get Smith to take a break, to settle down and try and recuperate, is one of the more heartbreaking in all of the series. Deadwood is a humanistic work, yes, but it’s deeply skeptical of God’s role in the scheme of things. Humans make good enough minor gods anyway, the show seems to argue. Why bother with a guy whose plans are so vague as to be impenetrable. Or, as Smith puts it, “The not knowing the purpose is my portion of suffering. … I'm not in pain. There are no smells I smell and there are parts of my body I can't feel and … His love.” Cochran, a bit horrified that Smith is taking his grievous injuries in stride as part of God’s plan, rebukes, “If this is His will, Reverend, He is a son of a bitch,” which may as well sum up the show’s attitude toward God outright. Have faith in humanity, Deadwood argues. While individuals might let you down, the overall sweep of the human organism won’t.
The rift between Cy and Eddie keeps growing, even as Joanie heads out to find her own place. (And it’s here that I’ll say I’m sad Ricky Jay, one of my favorite character actors, left the show between seasons one and two. His Eddie provided a necessary conscience figure for Cy in a way that Dan’s childlike bluster caromed perfectly off of Al.) Eddie’s looking out for Joanie at the government formation meeting, in a way that perplexes everyone who’s not Cy, while he’s also pressing Cy on the essential inhumanity of what he did to Flora and Miles (“You fucked me up Cy. The shit you did to those kids. There's no angle to it”). By episode’s end, Cy’s laying into him, mocking him for his homosexuality, asking if he’s ever wanted to give it to a 12-year-old farm boy, but Eddie’s simple humanity shines through: Whatever sexual desires he has are immaterial in the face of monstrousness. The important thing is to speak up against torture, and since he did that, it does not matter what Cy can throw at him. (It’s interesting to note that Deadwood’s first season production ran roughly concurrent with the revelations of prisoner abuse in the Abu Ghraib scandal, to the point where Eddie’s words here feel almost like a rebuke to the Bush administration, sent across years and years of history.)
But the episode’s sum comes in the final credits as the song “The Stars and Stripes Forever” plays. Whatever Deadwood has been before is now about to become something very different. There was the way of things before that meeting to form an ad hoc government, and there’s the way things are going to be ever after. No one in Deadwood has any guarantee that they’re going to get to keep anything they’ve worked so hard for, but if the lie they tell is just convincing enough and the money they scrape together is rich enough, they just might be able to get away with this yet. But there will be compromises. There are always compromises.
- As a South Dakota native, it’s always weird to hear the names of tiny little towns that no one outside of S.D. would have heard of spoken of in this show, particularly Yankton, though Spearfish and Ellsworth (the name of the Air Force Base in state) are always good for a moment of shocked recognition as well.
- It’s still jarring to see Kristen Bell in this. I don’t care what anyone else says.
- The scene where Charlie and Jane both speak to Bill at his tomb is one of the lovelier ones in the series. That this becomes a recurring motif is also nice, a final farewell to the Old West.
- Johnny loses his voice in “Little Children,” and that seems like a particularly hard thing to not be in possession of in a town as word-friendly as Deadwood.
- Nice that Andy’s the one helping hand out the smallpox vaccine.
- And now E.B. comes into possession of Wild Bill’s final letter to his wife. I seem to remember this plotline never making a lot of sense, but here’s the first flowering of it. I may be misremembering.
- There’s just something about the rollicking sound of a piano that makes the scenes in the Gem feel like they should.
- And now, some quotes I wrote down:
- "Maybe I'll operate from the corner, hanging upside down like a fucking bat."
- "You are changed." "You seem to be too."
- "I ain't pissed off. I'm in fucking wonderment."
- "Get his opinion too who should guard that henhouse we're gonna build."
- "How the fuck do I know who it fuckin' looks like? It’s dark."
- "That's what the B in E.B. Farnum stands for." "Bold." "You're goddamn right."
- "I don't remember you being the one who made me a whore, Mrs. Garrett."
- "Who am I? Your little baby? Your little sister? You?"
- "Al, I have hoped for this conversation ever since you give me that Indian head to hide."
- "When I read the scriptures, I do not feel Christ's love as I used to." "Join the fuckin' club of most of us."
- "I'm declaring myself conductor of this meeting as I have the bribe sheet."
- "You want me to abandon the fucking meeting to bring in a new piano?"
- "I will not be a drunk where he's buried, and I cannot stay fucking sober."