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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Deadwood: "Complications (Formerly Difficulties)"/"Something Very Expensive"

Illustration for article titled Deadwood: "Complications (Formerly Difficulties)"/"Something Very Expensive"

Episode 5. “Complications (Formerly Difficulties).”

“Complications,” which involves a number of characters blossoming into their own, is about self-definition, about self-determination. It’s an episode about how we wish the world to see us and how we take steps to present ourselves to that world. Fittingly, it’s a strong episode for the characters in the cast who would have been traditionally powerless in the days when the series was set: the women and black men of Deadwood. Deadwood is not really a series about the minorities of its time striving to be recognized in a manner that wouldn’t be especially historically accurate, nor does it really focus on those characters. But it’s an open-hearted and warm enough series to realize the titanic step it is for Trixie to learn how to keep the books at the hardware store, for Hostetler and Sam Fields (who prefers to go by the Nigger General, but whom I will refer to as Sam when not in direct quotation for obvious reasons) to band together in their own ad hoc family unit.

Sam perhaps puts it best when Hostetler asks him why he doesn’t take off his ratty old Civil War uniform. The uniform is muddy and ragged, torn in places, faded from the sun. But, as Sam puts it, if he takes it off, "Then who's gonna know I'm the Nigger General?" Without that uniform, Sam’s just another black man in a world that is still sorting out the place of a black man. Indeed, it’s fitting that when Sam is grievously hurt by the raging Steve, striking back against a world that won’t let him define himself, his uniform is stripped from his skin. Shirtless, he’s just another black man, easy to hurt. With that uniform on, he’s someone who once had a rank, honor, a calling. (And it’s interesting to note just how the Civil War’s scars haunt this series, where so many of the characters are racing from the government’s long claws precisely because of horrible experiences in the war. There’s Cochran, of course, but we meet Sam and Steve, who was drafted to fight in a war he had no stake in and thus finds his racism justifiable, in this episode, as well.)

Similarly, we see both Alma, who’s largely found a way to define herself beyond her status via money, and Trixie, who’s beginning to learn a trade other than the one we first met her in, straining against the narrow confines of the definitions they’re forced into. Alma is doing so out of fear. She’s pregnant. And even though Trixie tells her that she can help Alma with an abortion, Alma wants to have her own children. But therein lies the problem: Alma’s child is also Bullock’s child, and everyone in the camp will know that. And if Alma’s status as a woman in power is already precarious (in constant danger of being toppled by greedy men or men who think they know better), how much more precarious will it become when she’s great with child, as it were? (One solution will present itself in the next episode, but let’s stick with this one for now.) Trixie, meanwhile, has stepped into a new role beyond just Sol’s lover, now helping out with the hardware store’s books while he’s recovering from the gunshot wounds he sustained in the premiere. But will that status be threatened by the recovery of Al, who didn’t seem terribly thrilled by the coupling earlier?

These issues of minorities coming into conflict with the majority aren’t the focus of this episode, however, as they might be on any other revisionist Western. Here, they’re just microcosms that point to a macrocosm: the question of what, exactly, Deadwood is and what it’s going to be going forward. Hugo Jarry has Merrick post a notice indicating that the status of all claims will be decided soon. The statement starts off sounding roughly like everyone will be given a fair shake, but it descends into legalese, suggesting that the government, as governments can and do, will not necessarily do what’s best for the majority of the people, choosing instead to placate a chosen few. This all hinges on one phrase, “mitigating circumstances,” that works up the residents of Deadwood into a healthy froth. It sounds innocuous enough, but Steve and the other hoopleheads who come close to a riot know that anything could be a mitigating circumstance, right down to the piles of money Hearst could use to make sure things turn out his way. Seth manages to keep them from killing Jarry, but it’s all he can do to also keep them from lashing out at Sam, who has the misfortune to simply be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Deadwood certainly doesn’t endorse this mob violence, this populist anger, but it understands that it bubbles up from feelings of powerlessness, from feeling as though men from far off are pulling your puppet strings. Just as Seth found out in the premiere, sometimes the grief you feel the most acutely is that you feel when you realize your life is not solely your own.

Fortunately, as all of this is going on, Al is up and talking to people again. He’s still not at full strength, but he’s beginning to figure out just what’s been happening in camp while he lies in his bed. Cochran informs him that he’s likely suffered a stroke, which leaves his right side a little slow, and when Al finds out, he asks Cochran to kill him if things get worse (again, someone’s life is dictated to them by something beyond their means and they react poorly), though Cochran insists he won’t, just as he insists he won’t leak news of Al’s condition to the camp (even before Al starts threatening to kill him with a left hand he insists will wield a knife very well). At first, Dan and Johnny try to keep the big news – the twin arrivals of Jarry and Wolcott (though Al is not made aware of Wolcott just yet) – from Al, but they can only do so so long. And once Al finds out, he seems to get better dramatically quickly. Like so many on this show, Al needs something to war against, some job to define himself by, to be up and on his feet. Now that he’s ready to head out into a new strategy game, he’s putting his illness behind him.

All of this culminates in one of the episode’s final scenes, when Al calls for Seth to come to his bedside, to consult with him about what to do about the situation. Just a few days ago, these two were plunging from Al’s balcony into the mud below, fists flying. Now, united by a common purpose, Al is relying on Seth to be his man out and among the people, the guy who can get the information he needs, and Seth is saying that if it came down to a war between Cy and Al, he’d bet on Al. I don’t think that the two have patched over their differences rapidly (a criticism of the scene at the time it first aired) so much as they’ve realized that they can better deal with this situation together, rather than separately. If this episode is about the way that people rage against their own self determination being taken away from them, then these closing moments are about the ways people come together to build new institutions that  can return that sense of self to them. Seth’s spent the day clearing up messes left by Jarry’s indelicate handling of his announcement (though it’s arguable that Jarry wants to scare up a panic, since such a thing will drive land prices down, the better for Wolcott and Hearst to scoop more land up), so he knows that things are coming to a breaking point. But he also knows that he doesn’t have the grasp of the big game that Al does. Seth is a blunt instrument, like Al’s other men. The irony is that the one man who probably hates Al the most in Deadwood is made into another of his blunt instruments by an outside force that makes strange bedfellows.

"You cannot fuck the future, sir. The future fucks you,” says Jarry just before the mob overruns the cage he’s locked himself in the Bella Union. Jarry is, of course, right. You can’t stop progress. You can’t stop the onrush of civilization once it gets its hooks into you. Those telegraph poles are going to march right on up Main Street, and there’s nothing anyone in Deadwood can do to stop them. What the people of Deadwood can do is band together, form new alliances that will be tested under the most unrelenting pressure of all. Al and Seth come to an uneasy rapprochement in the wake of the mob’s uprising. Alma and Trixie’s relationship takes a new step when Alma needs help and soon. Jane and Sam sit outside on a bench, sharing a drink and forming a new friendship that will be tested just as quickly when she’s the one who must care for his burnt shoulder. Even Wolcott, Jarry and Cy find new pressures testing their alliance, which comes close to splintering.

Deadwood has always argued that people will come together and form new communities for a variety of reasons, but in this episode, the alliances forged for purely monetary gain seem to suffer the most in the face of that unrelenting mob. The alliances that matter are those formed over two people sharing a drink or bonding over a shared vision of what the future of Deadwood could be. David Milch and his writers argue that communities are the essence of what makes us human, but in “Consequences” (which is, while we’re at it, surely one of the most quotable episodes in the show’s run), they also suggest that there is nothing so powerful in the formation of one of these communities as two people finding a common purpose, a new reason to press forward.

Episode 6. “Something Very Expensive.”

"I could cut off my arm.” – Francis Wolcott

Wolcott has just made a bloody mess of Doris the prostitute, slitting her throat. Blood has spilled everywhere. And now he’s shown his beloved Carrie, subjected her to the true beast that lurks inside of him. And in showing her, he’s expanded his problem. “I don't want you to have seen me,” he tells her, even though he’s the one who invited her in. Then, the knife glinting in the light, the ghost that closes over Carrie’s throat and ends her life, he echoes something Reverend Smith said back in season one, something that was one of the show’s central theses. Smith quoted the Apostle Paul, writing about how the church was one body, how each of its members is, yes, an individual, but part of a larger collective. But while Smith was preaching that, he didn’t really get into a similar New Testament body metaphor, which is not quite as welcoming.

Christ similarly talked of the body as a single organism nonetheless made up of tiny, individual pieces and parts. But in Christ’s analogy, the body was fallible, prone to sin, each of the individual parts a possible gateway to temptation. While it seems unlikely that Christ meant it literally, he recommended to his disciples that if their hand or foot should cause them to stumble, they cut it off and cast it away. Better, he said, to be lame than to fall short of the kingdom of God. Similarly, if an eye should cause them to fall prey to temptation, well, that eye would just have to go. Wolcott, shivering with both terror and desire, suggests that he could cut off his arm, as though that were the hand causing a sin Christ spoke of, as if to do so would allow the sins, the murders to stop. But, of course, he doesn’t and Carrie dies, and Maddie dies, and the body count triples, and Wolcott removes from the world a woman he arguably loves. But his offhand comment gets at something imperative: If Deadwood, like Paul’s church, is one body, and if that body, like the one in Christ’s story, is prone to sin, then there must be a way to deal with that sin. Do you cut off the arm? Do you stop Wolcott before he can kill again? Do you try to profit? Do you kill Steve before he can explode? “Something Very Expensive” (which is how Wolcott answers Cy when asked what he did at the Chez Ami) is about nothing less than the idea of how a society deals with the evil that will inevitably rise within it. Casting out the hand that causes you to sin, indeed.

That’s the reason, I think, that we see the scenes where Hostetler and Sam try to figure out how to deal with Steve, who, in a really strange revenge scenario, has snuck into the livery to have sex with Seth’s horse and ended up merely masturbating on its leg. “You need to die, Steve,” Hostetler says, and if you’ve seen the whole of Deadwood’s second season, seen how Steve deteriorates over its course, how he inadvertently unleashes the final tragedies of the season, then you know that Hostetler’s comment is prescient. But, of course, Steve hasn’t done anything yet, beyond tar Sam’s shoulder, though it’s obvious he would have gone farther had Seth not stopped him. To what degree should we measure intent when we’re able to apprehend evil before it can fully blossom? Steve is not a sociopath like Wolcott. He’s just a man reduced and beaten down by a world that has made him a mere cog in its machinery, a man prone to rage. But Sam, who, of all people, should want to kill Steve, grants him mercy ("Do you believe God would deal mercy toward you that tarred me and fucked a horse?” he asks), letting him off with a fairly lenient punishment and releasing him back into the town. Evil may be among us, but we can still act as civilized human beings, even if it costs us dearly, as it will the town of Deadwood.

Or you can run from evil. Joanie, who’s finally started to seemingly blossom with the opening of her own place, is so terrified by what she knows happened between Wolcott and Doris that she gathers up the whores who remain alive and ships them out of town on the back of a wagon driven by Charlie (who stands with Jane, Sam and Ellsworth as the series’ four paragons of simple decency – fittingly, all four appear at significant moments in this episode). This is not to fault Joanie for the decision she makes, especially since Wolcott’s hand is stayed from removing Joanie from the picture only by the word of Cy, but for some folks, the best way to deal with that harsh an evil may be to escape from it.

As mentioned, Cy continues to cozy up to Wolcott, helping him clean up the crime scene, trying to still curry favor with this man who could bring him immense riches if he plays his cards right, even though he has a stake in the Chez Ami and he purports to have some affection for Joanie. After Cy’s hot temper nearly provoked the mob to murder in the last episode and he stood by, helpless to stop them, he’s still trying to get in good with Wolcott (Jarry has left town, in a hilarious sequence where he utterly avoids the gentlemanly duty of helping new schoolteacher Miss Stokes out of the stage). Earlier, he tried to blackmail Wolcott with the news that he knew of Wolcott’s inclinations but didn’t get very far simply because Wolcott says Hearst also knows of these inclinations. Now, however, he has an opening, as he’s able to help Wolcott quietly sweep his horrific acts under the rug, regardless of what it costs Joanie. Cy, who’s always chased money above all else, capitulates to evil. Does that make him just as evil as Wolcott? Probably not, but Deadwood certainly doesn’t hold him in very high regard.

Or you can stand up to evil. Whether you do this through a simple act of mercy, as Sam does, or just by trying to lead a just and good life, no matter how hard it may be to your temper-driven self, as Seth does, Deadwood praises the act of trying to live a good life, of trying to contribute even slightly to the society you are a part of. Seth starts the episode reminded of the life he simply cannot have when Sol tells him that he met with Alma about possibly opening up a bank with Alma’s backing for initial capitalization. He snips at Sol, calls Trixie a whore, but Sol (who’s actually another paragon of virtue within the Deadwood universe, come to think of it) deflects this easily enough, not interested in provoking a fight with his friend. Sol later carries the knowledge to Seth (after an apology from his friend) that he thinks Alma may be with child, and though the news shakes Seth, he still goes about his nightly routine, heading home to talk with his family about their day (perhaps significantly, this is the only time Martha and William appear in both episodes). This may not be where he wants to be, but it’s where he has to be. He’s trying to do the right thing, to love his brother’s wife, to raise his brother’s son, and in the Deadwood cosmos (as in ours) that counts for something.

There are other good men and women scattered throughout this episode. There’s Cochran, who continues to nurse Al’s surprisingly quick healing process with the appreciation for medicine and love of his job that drive his character. There’s Ellsworth, who listens to Trixie’s proposal that he marry Alma, so her child can be seen in the community as his, a convenient lie agreed upon that will allow the more destructive truth to disappear beneath the rug, strange hopes dawning on his face, only to ask, so sadly, "But would she fuckin' have me?" ("I'll work on that next,” Trixie admits.) Hell, there’s even Trixie, who’s coming into her own at Sol’s side, working on the hardware store’s books, figuring out ways to help Alma, emerging from the shell of a battered woman she was early in the series. The scene where Trixie and Al gossip about Sol and her relationship is both hilarious and almost impossibly warm. Not eight episodes ago, Al was forbidding anything happen between the two and now, here he is, listening to details and chuckling along with her about them (Trixie: “He stares in my eyes when he fucks me, longing-like.” Al: “Jesus Christ!”). Or you can take Merrick, showing Miss Stokes around the dusty town she’s chosen to call home and trying to make it seem somewhat delightful, only to be repaid with the vandalism of his office by Cy’s goons (though it will result in what may be the series' finest Swearengen line in the next episode).

Or you can rise above all of this. Al is certainly on much better behavior than he was in season one, and his illness and convalescence has caused him to open up ever-so-slightly more to the world around him. His meetings with Seth, for example, border on the friendly. And the long line of people who wish to greet him (Trixie dashing to the front of it) suggests not only that he’s central to the operations of Deadwood but that he was also generating genuine concern for other reasons entirely (though Miss Isringhausen wants something else entirely – and more about this in stray observations). When Al returns to his balcony for the first time since the premiere after sending Dan out to Cheyenne to bring back-up muscle back to town and gazes out over the town, he’s a diminished figure, yes, battered by infirmity and life in general, but he’s also a man who’s returning to the place he needs to be to ensure that things proceed apace. The final look that he shares with Joanie, who’s sacrificed so much in the name of the progress Deadwood marches toward, is a heartbreaking one, as if he can sense her pain, feed off it in some way. The halfway point of Deadwood’s second season is this image, which restores us to a sense of normalcy, dares us to cast our lot with the imperfect man whose evil machinations drove so much of season one. There are worse evils in the world than Al Swearengen, the first half of season two seems to argue, and the second half will be all about seeing if Al and company will be enough to hold back the tide of blood.

Stray observations:

  • OK, when I first watched this show attentively shortly after the season two DVD came out, I was pretty well spoiled as to what happened thanks to half-watching the series first-run and Wikipedia entry perusing. So I knew Miss Isringhausen’s true identity before the actual reveal (which will occur in a later episode). Watching it this time, I’m pretty convinced that had I not known that, I would have had absolutely no idea what to make of her scenes. I think I get the general gist of what’s going on (she’s blackmailing Al with lies about what Alma told her), and it’s possible I’m so cognizant of the reveal that that’s all I can think about, but with all of the other machinations going on, I can’t imagine this playing to a Deadwood newbie as anything other than yet one more damn thing to keep track of. Am I wrong?
  • I was going to bump this monologue by Wolcott down to the quotes, but I thought it merited a special singling out here. Just look at the language in this speech, as he goes to the Chez Ami, about to kill for the first time since arriving in Deadwood: “Past hope. Past kindness or consideration. Past justice. Past satisfaction. Past warmth or cold or comfort. Past love. But past surprise? What an endlessly unfolding tedium life would then become!” Great stuff.
  • I forgot how thoroughly the show turned much of the back half of season two over to Hostetler and Sam, who are never the most important characters on the show but go from barely appearing (in the case of Hostetler) or never appearing to becoming these very integral third-tier characters. Milch does this a few times in the course of the series, and it’s never not jarring.
  • I like how the show has laid out so perfectly that when Seth gets pissy about something, he’ll generally take it out on Sol, then go find someone beneath him (Steve in this case) to vent his anger on before returning to sulkily apologize to Sol. Seth’s a better guy than I sometimes give him credit for, but he has a tendency towards petulancy.
  • Cy’s another character I sometimes sell short. He’s really terrific in these episodes, particularly in that moment when he stokes the mob’s anger by essentially saying that governments are going to do what governments do.
  • The scene where Wolcott reads Carrie Wild Bill's last letter to his wife is another beautiful one, drawing on Wild Bill's rather simplistic text (which was the actual text of his final letter to his wife) to create something poignant.
  • Your thoughts on how to deal with the preferred nomenclature the characters seem to have for Samuel Fields is much appreciated. I kind of like calling him Sam, but if you all feel strongly one way or another, we can think about a change.
  • One of the big detractions critics of the show have against its first season is that the plotting is kind of haphazard. The season is more like a collection of short stories centered on the same small Wild West town than something purely novelistic (here's the short story about Wild Bill Hickock and here's the short story about the thieving orphans, etc.). There probably shouldn't be any such complaints about season two, where the foreshadowing of what happens in the season's last three episodes is flying fast and furious.
  • And, finally, quotes!
  • "This statement could be taken to mean … nothing." – A.W. Merrick
  • "I like you." "Thank you, Richardson." "You're purty." "Thank you very much. And probably that's all  either of us needs to say on that subject ever again." – Richardson and Alma Garrett
  • "You talk any special way?" "I remind him not to hit me." – Joanie Stubbs and Carrie
  • "I've been known to cut the odd fart. But they've never stunk." – Samuel Fields
  • "Why do I feel lucky we didn't meet across a poker table?" – Silas Adams
  • "I oughtta punch you in the fuckin' nose." – Steve
  • "But then they start to fucking mitigate." – Steve, again
  • "And we gonna be surprised by that boys. Government being government. Will we next be shocked by  rivers running or trees casting fuckin' shade?" – Cy Tolliver
  • "This spot might be wrong but here's where I'm makin' my stand." – Cy Tolliver
  • "Do they understand how most of what happens is people being drunk and stupid and trying to find something else to blame besides that that makes their lives totally fucked?" – Al Swearengen
  • "Beating short of murder might have done you some good." – Seth Bullock
  • "Are you a man who needs his trousers rubbed?" "I am a man who needs his trousers taken off." – Carrie and Francis Wolcott
  • "In care of a deputy deputized by the deputy sheriff who orders you to shut the fuck up." – Calamity Jane
  • "You, Al, are an object lesson in the healing powers of obstinancy and a hostile disposition." – Doc Cochran
  • "If you keep it up we're going to fight, and you'll have to work by yourself while I convalesce." – Sol Starr
  • "I hear accounts that you're a dangerous lay." – Cy Tolliver
  • "I was busy on the Mississip." – Miss Isringhausen
  • "Oh Miss Stokes, to alter a life's course with a word. How I revere you. Your profession." – A.W. Merrick
  • "San Francisco cocksucker and Swedgin gotta meet." – Al Swearengen
  • "Don't make me think of Leon in a dress, Mr. T." – Con Stapleton
  • "Do you know how to make it not hurt?" – Carrie
  • "I apologize for bringing Trixie into it and calling her what I did." "That wasn't new information to me." – Seth Bullock and Sol Starr
  • "Let's not appear as fuckin' triplets." – Al Swearengen