Episode 10. “Mister Wu.”
It’s tempting to just write about the final three episodes of Deadwood’s first season as one unit. In many ways, they’re the most cohesively plotted episodes as a story unit, presenting three central throughlines that find their payoffs in the season finale (Al’s dealings with the men from Yankton, the town attempting to figure out how best to care for Reverend Smith and Seth and Alma’s growing attraction). These are, in many ways, the three episodes when the Deadwood that would become the show in its second and third seasons was born. The way the series pays off the already developed connections here and hints at more to come is almost perfect.
But it’s impossible to talk about these episodes and how they close off the season without talking a little about the first season of the show as a whole and first seasons in general. First seasons are a time to experiment, to figure out what your show does well and what it doesn’t do well. While the first season of Deadwood may feel like a cohesive unit, it’s also clearly a season when David Milch was playing around with the format of the show and the stories he wanted to tell within that framework. The first season of Deadwood is not so much a work of cohesive plotting as it is a work of cohesive world-building and character development. Milch seems to be daring us to stick around for what’s to come, how he’s going to pay off this whole universe he’s meticulously built in the upcoming seasons. Yeah, the show can be nearly plotless at times, but don’t you just love this world? And these characters?
As if to give us a sense of what he has planned, then, Milch packs these last three episodes with the kinds of payoffs he suggested would be coming from early on in the season. These are about as densely plotted as season one got, abruptly shifting from the somewhat simple mechanics of the plots that pitted Al against Cy in a battle over two supposed orphans or dealt with the death of Wild Bill Hickock or the outbreak of smallpox to the far more labyrinthine scheming of Al trying to pit Magistrate Claggett’s bagman, Silas Adams (one of a handful of major characters introduced for the first time in these episodes), against the magistrate in a move to ensure that he’s neither arrested nor removed from his seat of power. The ins and outs can be confusing on a first viewing, and, indeed, the major complaint against Deadwood from its critics from here on out was that the show was too intricately plotted, too difficult to understand. Looking at the reviews from the show’s third season shows that the only outright negative review came from Newsday’s Verne Gay, who criticized the show for being too hard to understand.
I certainly don’t begrudge anyone for feeling this way (though I strongly disagree). As we head into “Mister Wu,” we’re looking at a show that now employs several dozen major recurring characters, as well as at least a half-dozen arguable lead characters, all pursuing very separate agendas. Some of these characters seem to only be around because they seem to amuse Milch to some degree (like Richardson, for example, though Richardson is awesome). Everyone speaks in a faux-Shakespearean lilt. If there’s a coherent plotline, there’s often very little unnatural exposition to explain it, so we’re often left pondering just what Al is playing at. And the show, as mentioned, is more interested in world-building than in telling the kinds of serialized stories we think we want TV to tell. It’s a puzzling sort of show, and it’s only going to exacerbate every single one of those marks against it in the seasons to come.
If this feels like a large amount of preamble, it rather is. “Mister Wu” is yet another set-up episode for the series, which on this rewatch splits surprisingly easily into four equal-sized chunks of three episodes each in its first season. This can make the show seem to have a stop-and-go momentum in this first season, but that lurching, haphazard nature gives the titular town the feeling of a real place you could step into at a moment’s notice, where some new story is always starting up and another is shutting down. When it’s not driving you nuts, that is.
In short, “Mister Wu” is our first serious glimpse into the alley where the town’s Chinese residents live, when the titular character comes to Al with a concern: Two men have ripped off his opium, and he wants Al to figure out how it happened. Al, who’s more interested in building and maintaining alliances than he may have seemed to be at series start, is happy to oblige, especially when he realizes one of the two is Leon, the man he placed inside the Bella Union earlier in the season, whose espionage skills leave something to be desired. The episode’s glimpse into the alley is interesting enough (and Wu emerges as something akin to the Al of his own little universe), and, as always, the series finds ways to ponder the roles of the disadvantaged within 19th century America without preaching about things. (Hostetler, one of the show’s two major black characters, also turns up, looking for supplies at Seth and Sol’s store, and Seth clearly has about as little desire to have anything to do with him as he possibly could.) But the major point of the storyline is to show that Al’s still as ruthless as ever (drowning Jimmy in the bath at episode’s end), but now he’s turned his ruthlessness in the direction of preserving the peace instead of merely serving his own ends. Of course helping out Wu serves Al’s interests, but he’s opening up slightly more, no longer quite the venal man he was in the premiere.
These episodes also highlight just how quickly Deadwood has grown and just how much that forces the residents to start considering their town as a town and not just a mining camp. To a degree, this is a little unbelievable, since the first season is supposed to take place only over the course of three weeks or so (though mining boomtowns often sprung up just that quickly), but it also creates a tension between the way things always were and the way things are going to have to be. No longer can Merrick and his friends have breakfast in peace in the hotel restaurant, so crowded is it. Now, they must go and walk about, forming an informal club called The Ambulators (and as amusing a notion as this is, I believe it’s the only time the series brings it up).
There are other tensions between what is and what will be. Yankton has finally sent its man to talk to Al, and that man is Silas Adams, appearing in advance of the magistrate (and checked into the hotel by Richardson, another recurring player making his first appearance here). As mentioned above, this whole plot can confuse those who’ve never seen the series before, so buried in machinations is it, but the basic idea is that the magistrate has dirt on Al and wants to extort more cash, while Al recognizes in Silas something of a kindred spirit, a man he can turn and draw to his side in a pinch. Obviously, there’s quite a bit more to it than that, but if you’re absolutely stymied as to what’s going on, that’s probably all you really need to know to get what’s going on. The more important thing here is that Al is starting to function as Deadwood’s de facto mayor, even if E.B. is the real mayor, and he’s drawing his circle, which will soon include Silas, in closer to him, making sure he has all of his pieces in order for when the magistrate actually arrives.
The final pieces of this episode’s puzzle come from Reverend Smith, whose brain issues have come to dominate his personality. He’s wandering into the Gem at inopportune hours to listen to the piano, which he says soothes his head. Al, of course, can’t have a minister sitting in his whorehouse (though he puts it more bluntly: "Listen to a piano where you won't make a fucking ass of yourself”), but he deals with Smith surprisingly tenderly. There’s been some criticism that Deadwood softens Al too much over the course of the series, but I don’t buy that. He’s a man capable of horrible, horrible things, but he’s also capable of smaller moments of kindness. That he can contain both sides doesn’t make him an inconsistent character; it makes him human in that inimitable Deadwood fashion.
The final question of what to do with Smith falls to Seth and Sol, as these things often do. He stumbles into their store near episode’s end, asking who they are, making sure he’s among friends. He’s lost and frightened, and even though Seth, as always, seems annoyed by this questioning, he’s willing to make sure Smith knows he’s among friends. But as with so many times in this first season, Smith is obliquely getting at something the series considers vital: The question of who you are is something that will drive much of the second season of the show. Are you just a cog in a larger machine? Or are you some sort of individual, with his own capacities and abilities? Deadwood argues that, yes, life can be dispiriting, dehumanizing, but as long as you know who you are and where you hail from (Seth carries these sorts of things as almost a badge of honor – notice how he always says he’s married whenever anyone points out that Alma may be attracted to him), you’ll probably be OK.
Episode 11. “Jewel’s Boot Is Made for Walking.”
“Jewel’s Boot Is Made for Walking,” aside from having the stupidest title in the series’ run, has the unenviable task of getting all of the final pieces in motion for the season finale. The one last piece not on the board, Alma’s family back home, is placed on the board in the form of her father, Otis Russell, who comes to town (and is played by the dad from Boy Meets World, of all people) looking to find out more about the death of Brom, which already feels so long ago, and just how great his daughter’s gold strike is. The series began, of course, with Seth and Alma both coming to the camp for the first time, and Otis’ arrival forces both of them to consider an important question: Are they the people they were before they came to the camp or are they now somehow a part of the camp itself?
The increased bustle of the town also leads indirectly to Bullock having to question whether or not he’s just going to be a simple hardware store owner or something more important to the town in the long run (we saw in the last episode just how seriously he was taking his health inspector job). Tom Nuttall, distressed at the prospect of civilization and laws encroaching on him yet again (their existence was why he left Wilkes-Barre, apparently), is thinking about setting out for new horizons, farther out into the wilderness, but the prospect of his friend, Con Stapleton, as sheriff, someone he knows he can trust whom he also knows Al can lean on, sets him slightly more at ease. The question of a government is a less frightening one if you know you have a solid representative in a position of some authority. Seth, predictably, doesn’t like this idea much (“That job shouldn’t go to a shitheel,” he puts it). For all his intensity and propensity for violence, Seth’s one of the few willing to accept the incremental creep of civilization into Deadwood.
But that’s all stuff that will pay off in the next episode, really. The important thing here is that Seth and Alma, who are obviously attracted to each other, are both forced to deal with her dad, whose purposes for his visit are less altruistic than might be guessed at first. While he initially seems to be one heck of a guy, clowning around with Sophia and charming many of the town’s residents, including Ellsworth, his motives for coming to Deadwood are not wholly pure. He suggests as much early on when he says there’s some question as to whether or not Alma was involved in her husband’s death, and in a later scene, when he’s out for a walk with Seth, he almost seems to be suggesting Seth take her as his own (though Seth, again, throws up the shield of his wife and daughter). I wouldn’t say this conversation stoops to the level of Otis pimping his daughter close, but the fact that it even comes close says plenty about who the guy is as a person. This episode sets the tensions between Alma’s old way of life and her new way of life simmering, waiting for them to boil over in the finale.
So far as Sol goes, his long brewing flirtation with Trixie finally peaks, as she comes to the store to have sex with him (in a beautifully intimate sequence, shot in a series of loving close-ups, Trixie shying away from how much Sol is obviously in thrall to her – “Kiss my neck or tits if you have to kiss something,” she says). This, of course, presents a problem, as we’ve already seen a sweet and tender moment between her and Al at episode’s beginning. After the way Al treated her in the early episodes, you could be forgiven for thinking that she’d never want anything to do with him again, but he’s learning. He loves her in his own way, and he’s able to be far gentler with her now. But that’s not enough in the face of what she could have with Sol, a man who carries none of the connotations for her that Al does. This comes to a head in a heartbreaking scene where Al demands that Sol pay for his time with Trixie, even though Al knows it wasn’t Sol’s idea. It’s a gorgeous little moment of filmmaking, Trixie watching from the background, mostly out of focus but ever-present, Sol hesitating, not wanting to pay but fearing what Al will do to her if he doesn’t, finally throwing the money down on the table in disgust and walking away. (And this is to say nothing of Seth’s role in all of this, his hot head again getting those around him in trouble, when he tells Al that Trixie and Sol are hooking up because he’s angry about Con being made sheriff. Already, Milch is showing us the way that tiny acts can turn into seismic events just from a few well-placed ripples bumping into each other.)
The reverend’s plight dominates the episode as well. When it begins, he’s viewing Andy Cramed from a tent, then praying the Prayer of St. Francis with him, only to realize that he doesn’t remember all of it. From there, he stumbles about the camp, relying on the pity of those who find him (including, again notably, Al, who now seems linked to him in some weird way). There’s a sequence midway through the episode where Smith preaches to two cows about circumcision and Al watches from his balcony, trying to look away but unable to. He’s called away to talk to Seth (the conversation where Seth reveals Trixie and Sol are having a fling), and when he goes back out, the reverend is stomping about the street, arms flailing, mouth blindly reciting Scripture. Al, now, is unable to look at the reverend, forcing himself to turn and regard Smith, and then the episode cuts between the two men’s faces, drawing them closer and closer together, part of the same body, the same organism, linked.
Two other people who are linked, improbably, are Jewel and Doc Cochran. The doctor, able to rest a bit after dealing with the smallpox outbreak, is approached by Jewel to build her a special boot that might help her walk (hence the stupid, stupid title). He’s hesitant, related both to his concerns for her health and his still torturous memories of the Civil War, but he’s willing to do what he can. Jewel’s another of the camp’s more disadvantaged residents, and the way this episode portrays her struggle to Cochran’s office is one of its finer moments, finally pulling back into a wide shot that shows her struggling to right herself in a mud puddle she’s fallen in, the world passing by her.
Again, though, it’s Al who dominates the episode. When Tom comes to ask that Con be made sheriff, the two have a talk that seems to draw together the camp that Deadwood was and the camp that it is becoming, reminiscing about when Al first opened his tent with “nickel booze and 50 cent pussy.” (“That was get acquainted prices,” says Al.) Unlike Tom, though, Al is a man who’s capable of shifting with the times, capable of turning Silas to work as his agent and not the magistrate’s agent, capable of figuring out how to keep both Seth and Tom placated. And if these late episodes are, in some ways, about finding out who all of these people really are, then the final moments of this episode pack the biggest punch in this regard yet. Al’s monologues while being fellated eventually became something of a legend in the series, and this is the first one, his mouth rambling on about his history (turned over by his mother to an abusive orphanage owner) while he constantly interjects to the prostitute giving him the blow job to keep going, to change her technique, to speed up or slow down. It’s a tremendously delicate piece of writing, giving us just enough glimpse of Al’s tortured past to put him in a new relief but never tipping us over to a point where we’d excuse the terrible things he does. “Don't be sorry. Don't look fucking back because believe me no one gives a fuck,” he says in the middle, even though the entirety of the monologue and, in some ways, the episode is about looking back. The blow job finished, he sits and stares into the distance, then says, “Anyways …” and leaves the word hanging, the start of a sentence, an explanation, that will never come.
Episode 12. “Sold Under Sin.”
Deadwood is about a great many things, but one of the things I think it doesn’t get enough credit for is just how much it is a series about kindness, about the ways that we can be good to each other and treat each other well, the ways that doing these sorts of things make the world a slightly better place. I’m not sure there’s a warmer image in the whole of the series (or maybe even the whole of television) than Al leaving his office, standing on his balcony, overlooking the Gem below, and seeing Doc Cochran and Jewel, newly outfitted with her special boot, dancing. Dan and Trixie, sharing a quiet moment of peace, watch from the side. There’s been plenty of turmoil in the town over the course of the season, but this is the image the show wants to leave us with, an image of a man burdened by a giant grief and a woman burdened by a physical condition dancing together, carefree for just a few moments.
There are kindnesses throughout “Sold Under Sin,” which may sound like an odd thing to say about what is a pretty dark episode at any given time, but looked at under other lenses, that darkness can appear fairly light. First, let’s look at Cochran’s moment of utter despair, a moment when he’s reduced to asking God to kill a man, branching out into the pain it takes for him to kneel, into the agony of those around him who died in the Civil War (“Did you need to hear their death agonies to know your omnipotence?”). He asks for this one thing, for a quick end for the reverend, whose condition is so bad now that Cochran has sequestered him away in the whores’ quarters in the Gem, just waiting for the end to come. This is a stunningly crafted monologue on the page, and Brad Dourif brings every inch of it to light. It’d be one of the highlights of the series even without the moments that immediately follow, but the moments that immediately follow make everything before them that much better.
TV often doesn’t know what to do with God. The questions of His existence and His role in everyday life are not ones that come up incredibly often, for fear of alienating some portion of the audience. As mentioned earlier in this series, Deadwood is a mostly agnostic series, but it makes a bold claim here for its humanism as a new form of belief, a new way to answer prayers. As the doctor supplicates before God, pleading for a strange, dark miracle, across town, Al is delivering that miracle in the form of a mercy killing (he even uses the opportunity to teach Johnny Burns a little something about suffocating a man). The link established between the reverend and Al earlier in the season has paid off here, as the one becomes an unlikely answer to a prayer somehow conveyed through coincidence and the collective unconscious. And yet, as much as anything else, it’s an act of kindness. While, yes, Al wants to be rid of the man who’s taking up space in his whores’ quarters, there’s that recurring tenderness in their relationship. This is a man Al doesn’t want to see suffer further, and he’s willing to go to great lengths to make that happen.
Think, also, of the even stranger kindnesses Seth and Alma show to Otis and then to each other. Certainly Seth beating Otis to a pulp (something he seems to do a lot of) isn’t very kind, nor is his brief descent into the Deadwoodian muck to instruct Dan as to how he can be relieved of a problem bothering all of them. In addition, Alma’s turn on her father (which comes rather abruptly after a scene with some weirdly sensual overtones, suggesting a whole past that Alma has not let on about previously) after he suggests he has some debts he could use money from her claim to pay off has a tone of exasperation with a man who’s unable to climb out of debt on his own. But there’s also a moment when Seth realizes what he’s done, realizes just how far he’s stepped outside of his own bounds, and turns to the visiting Army General Crook (an excellent Peter Coyote) to guard the man he essentially just placed a hit on. Again, the kindness here is buried beneath several layers of rage and self-serving self-righteousness, but it is there. It’s even more present in the unexpectedly sexy love scene between Alma and Seth, a moment wherein the long removal of Alma’s always impeccable garments becomes somehow more sensual than anything the series (fond of nudity as it is) had presented previously.
“Sold Under Sin” also captures the sweep of the series better than any episode before it, laying out the geography of the town in a way that had been suggested before but never as concretely defined as it is right here, with the parade of soldiers marching down the center of the street, Seth racing from place to place, Con trying to deal with a murder, Johnny dragging the reverend around on a sled. Just as the final shots encompass all of the Gem, these shots attempt to encompass all of Deadwood, from its main thoroughfares down its muddy alleys, suggesting, finally, that this is not just a loose collection of people and buildings but a real, living thing. An actual town.
The other major developments here include Al’s dispatch of Magistrate Claggett, who’s brought the warrant from Chicago for Al’s arrest for murder, promising to turn it over to Al when he gets what he wants. Instead, Al turns the tables on him, finally realizing he can trust Silas (whom Dan has two guns trained on throughout the sequence) when the man cuts the magistrate’s throat. As bloody as Dan can be, he’s no match for the efficient brutality of Silas, and the two will be played against each other to fine effect in the episodes to come.
And, of course, no mention of the episode could go by without pointing out the highly symbolic assumption of the mantle of sheriff by Seth Bullock. Naturally, the series has been building to this point since its start (he was a marshal, after all, and the army general all but suggests he should take over the job in an earlier scene), but it still makes for a thrilling sequence, with Bullock stripping Con of the badge he’s worn for a little over a day, letting it fall in the muck, then carrying it about, clenched in his hand, knuckles turning white about it. And yet, he won’t put on the badge until he’s told Al that he’s going to be the sheriff. But to do this, he’s going to have to ignore the giant bloodstain on Al’s floor, the way it’s seeping about. You can be a good man in Deadwood, but you can never be wholly honest or without compromise.
“Sold Under Sin” is a strong end to a first season that could often feel a little meandering. It’s likely the best episode the season cranked out because it finally suggests that this town is becoming something larger than itself, as well as a part of something larger than itself. There are moments of sheer poetry throughout this episode, including many I’ve mentioned above but also things like the subtle linkage between Al’s growing separation from Trixie and Bullock’s ever-present separation from Alma, even though he’s just slept with her (and when Al points out he’s never met Alma, it’s a surprise to think two of the series’ three most important characters haven’t even talked yet) or like the way the army leaving town feels somehow ominous.
And yet there’s that title, “Sold Under Sin.” It doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense, since no one or nothing is actually sold in the episode (unless you count the botched bribe designed to make Deadwood a real town, which has been playing out for several episodes now). The presence of the army, never the focus of the episode but always lurking in the background of nearly every shot, suggests, however, just what that title might mean. When the series started, Deadwood was a lawless place, largely because it was built illegally on Indian ground. Now, however, with the arrival of the armed forces, the town is finally going to have legal standing, to be a part of the United States. While no single person is sold under sin in the episode, the town itself, over the course of the season, has been. So, yeah, you can try to be a good person in Deadwood. You can do the best that you can. But there’s always going to be that muck, seeping up from the bottoms of your shoes, waiting to suck you down. Deadwood is a place of great kindness, sure, but it’s also a place of great, great sin. It’s in the balance between the two that we’ll chart the rest of the series.
- Next week, we start season two or, rather, my favorite season of television of all time. In honor of the much denser and more tapestry-like season two (if you thought the plotting was all over the place in season one, you’d best bail out now), we’ll be bumping down to two episodes per week, the better to cover everything I want to cover in detail. We’ll likely be going back up to three per week in season three to get everything closed out by summer’s end and also so I don’t have to write very much about that damn theatre company plotline.
- “Jewel’s Boot Is Made for Walking” was written by series star Ricky Jay. In season three, W. Earl Brown, who plays Dan, would write an episode as well, something that exemplified David Milch’s fondness for letting the people working on his series expand their creative horizons.
- Still working on that “Sophia is America!” theory, but I’m feeling more confident about it at the end of season one. At the very least, she represents something approaching the American dream or American idealism. She’s an immigrant, taken under the wing of most of the town’s most powerful citizens, guarded and protected. She’s a complete innocent who is somehow uncorrupted and undefiled by the dirt she lives in. And everyone who comes across her seems slightly overwhelmed by her, and not just in the way that you’d treat a child. They seem positively gobsmacked by this vision of innocence in their midst, overcome by that very ideal. I suspect there will be more to this puzzle in seasons two and three.
- I didn’t say much of anything about Cy, Eddie and Joanie in these episodes because they’re mostly backgrounded, though something is made of Cy’s tension with the other two throughout. Mostly, their storyline for the season was over after “No Other Sons Or Daughters,” so they’re just here to be the series regulars they are and for Joanie to hang out with Charlie Utter.
- I had completely forgotten that Jane meant it when she said she was leaving the camp and that she didn’t appear in the last three episodes of the season.
- There’s a lovely discussion between Seth and Sol in “Mister Wu” where the two talk about whether Seth’s brother approves of the way he’s stepped into his brother’s life, and it’s as good a reminder as any of the ways that Seth often seems slightly uncomfortable with the rituals of human life, as though he’d almost rather shrug it off and go off on his own.
- Merrick’s one of my favorite characters, but man, this show has a dim view of the press. I like the way he races about town with his new camera, telling everyone exactly how to pose for his photos.
- Other random bit: Given that the actual camp burned down (and that Milch’s original plan for the end of the series was to have the camp burn down), Charlie’s concern that Tom’s stovepipes could lead to a camp-wide conflagration feel like foreshadowing.
- There’s so much to unpack in “Sold Under Sin” and I’m already so over the word limit that I hope you’ll help me do so in comments. I’ll check in throughout. Hopefully, the two episode limit in season two will allow for the full dissection of those denser hours.
- Finally, some quotes.
- "I begrudge that pervert his capacity for happiness." – E.B. Farnum
- "Could you learn a habit of licking a fuckin' stump?" – Al Swearengen
- "Nervousness don't cause that. Lying causes cat piss smell." – Al Swearengen
- "Maybe he sees me borrowing his life so I didn't have to live my own." "People have made good lives out of borrowed ones before. But she is a good woman." – Seth Bullock and Sol Starr
- "Get a fuckin' haircut. YOu look like your mother fucked a monkey." – Al Swearengen
- "I'd lick a bear's ass before I'd pay a fine to E.B. Farnum." – Tom Nuttall
- "She come lookin' for goods and things took a turn." – Sol Starr
- "May I look, Mr. Farnum?" – Richardson
- "If you ass-fucked, you owe me seven." – Al Swearengen
- "Those are the days to my fucking left." – Al Swearengen
- "You show 'em how to get here, and you tell 'em, I'll be waiting." – Seth Bullock
- "You oughtta' pin that on your chest. You're hypocrite enough to wear it." – Dan Dority
- "We all have bloody thoughts." – Gen. Crook
- "I would have let him lay in state, but I needed the room for my whores." – Al Swearengen
- "Announcing your plans is a good way to hear God laugh." – Al Swearengen
- "I'm going to go step over that bloodstain that mysteriously appeared and go oversee my business interests." – Al Swearengen
- "I'm as nimble as a forest creature." – Doc Cochran