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Deadwood: "Here Was a Man"/"The Trial of Jack McCall"/"Plague"

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Episode 4. “Here Was a Man.”

For much of its running time, the “man” of the episode title seems to refer to poor, dead Brom Garrett, whose death sends ripples throughout the community and begins to bring its people together. Or it might seem to refer to poor, sick Andy Cramed, who stumbles into town sick with something terrible and brings with him the prospect of great tragedy. Of course, if you know the history of the Old West or the story of Deadwood from having visited the real town, you’ll know that the titular man is Wild Bill Hickock, who will be laid low near episode’s end by the gun of Jack McCall. Hickock’s actions throughout the episode act as a symbolic passing of the torch from the era of law formed at the end of a swiftly drawn gun to the incipient civilization being born in the Black Hills, but they also act to bring people into each other’s circles. “Here Was a Man” is Deadwood’s first truly great episode, and it’s also where the story, after a three-episode prologue, truly and earnestly begins.

“Here Was a Man” seems, to me, to be predicated on a series of meetings between people who are heading in opposite directions within the confines of history and the show’s master plot. Think, for example, of the meeting between Calamity Jane and Alma Garrett. The former is known to history as the female sidekick of gunslingers and comes into town with Hickock, but the show has steadily revealed the childlike nature underneath her exterior. Similarly, the show is beginning to reveal that Alma is a woman with a soft exterior and a surprisingly hard interior, as she puts together fairly rapidly in this episode that E.B. Farnum’s designs on her claim are not as innocent as he would make them out to be. Two women, passing in a hallway, about to be knit together by tragedy and concern for a child, but also heading in opposite directions.

These sorts of meetings play throughout “Here Was a Man.” Hickock visits with Bullock as he constructs his hardware store in the wee hours of the morning. He also visits with Al, trying to figure out exactly what sort of man he might be. Both scenes function as a form of Hickock passing on something he cares about to a regular character – he passes on his sense of justice to Bullock, but he passes on its nasty flipside of opportunism to Al (and notice how in this scene, the show suggests that there’s a price both law and lawlessness can be purchased for). It’s not as though Al wasn’t opportunistic already or Bullock didn’t already have a skewed sense of justice, but seeing them with Hickock puts those qualities in a new light. There are other meetings of this sort – Al meeting with E.B. to try to step ever more into the shadows while thrusting E.B. out as a political puppet; Ellsworth meeting with Dan as the two dicker over lawlessness and honor – but the primary one, perhaps, is the meeting between Hickock and the show itself.

Hickock’s death takes us out of the realm of history we might know of. It also firmly removes Deadwood from the rigidly entrenched genre plot points of the “Western.” Hickock’s death removes the one traditionally Western element from the show’s paradigm (Bullock’s got a sense of frontier justice in him, but he’s also one scary son of a bitch much of the time, in comparison to Hickock’s oddly elegant and funereal approach to his role in society). It’s not for nothing that his death is immediately followed by a bounty hunter riding into town, brandishing the disembodied head of, you guessed it, an Indian chief. Hickock is our gateway into Deadwood, the town and the show, but through this episode, he knits together the community (in his efforts to help out Alma) and eases the audience’s transition from the history they know of the Old West into the fiction the show is creating by investing us all over again in these characters. As much as it is anything else, “Here Was a Man” is almost another pilot for the series.

Hickock’s assassin, while he doesn’t get as much screentime as Hickock, is followed through the episode as well. McCall, similarly to Hickock, goes from encounter to encounter, but he does so as a drunken fool, stumbling through life with little motivation or purpose. At episode’s beginning, he loses big to Hickock in poker (which may seem to presage a return of Hickock’s luck to those unfamiliar with history), and when Hickock passes him a dollar chip to go get some breakfast, he heads off into the pre-dawn, shaking with anger, colliding with the people of Deadwood, bent on tragedy. When he shoves away from a card game in the episode’s middle, one of his fellow players remarks, “He, too, is God’s handiwork,” and that’s one of the keys to unlocking this show. The people of Deadwood run the gamut from opportunistic saloon owners to basically sociopathic former marshals to society women trying to forge new paths to complete scoundrels, but the show continually marvels at the rich panoply of ways to be human. Hickock, moving through his final day, is a fascinating man to follow, but, the show argues, so is McCall, making his encounters with other citizens of the town before fate brings him and Hickock back together. Deadwood’s greatest triumph is that it makes it seem as though a show about a raving drunk might be just as fascinating a program as a show about one of the greatest gunmen who ever lived. (An earlier quote by Cochran says it just as well: “There’s a wide range of normal.”)

While Hickock is the episode’s primary character (giving it a focus that the first three occasionally lacked), he’s not the only person doing things here. Al, of course, continues to scheme to get back the gold-rich claim that lies in the hands of Alma. He sends E.B., who was a presence in the first three episodes but really begins to become the rich character he will evolve into in this episode, to negotiate with Alma, offering to buy the claim off her hands for $12,000, which is $8,000 less than Al asked him to offer her (Al, of course, fronting the money for the sale). As schemes go, E.B.’s isn’t exactly bad. If it pays off, he’ll get to keep a pretty handsome sum. But he lacks the confident swagger that Al has, and that will keep him forever the toady to the master manipulator.

In other corners of Deadwood, Bullock and Sol put up the hardware store that will be their center of operations. On a show that’s about the construction of society, it’s no accident that in the episode where that society begins to form, a literal building is constructed. It’s also no accident that by building it, Bullock gives himself his own perch from which to watch the action in the muck down below. Al’s got one. So does Cy. At episode’s end, so does Alma. Deadwood uses these high-up perches to suggest that these characters are, in a very theatrical sense, gods, watching over those at play beneath them. At times, they’ll lower themselves to play in the mud, but much of the time, these are the primordial forces – greed, wrath, money, order – that will attempt to build Deadwood in their own images.

But the episode really does belong to Hickock (the direction even acknowledges this in a masterful shot where Hickock leaves his hotel, the camera panning to follow him as E.B. rushes to stay in frame, then panning past Merrick, who looks out the window to see Hickock again, now entering the Gem). As Charlie Utter departs for Cheyenne with words of castigation for his longtime friend, Hickock asks, “Can you let me go to Hell the way I want to?” and the rest of the episode is about watching him do just that. Even if you had no idea of the history of Deadwood or how the Hickock story ended, just the way the episode was structured would have given you the sense that Hickock was in for some great tragedy. He writes a letter to his wife (a circus owner). He bids farewell to a longtime friend. He and Jane form something of an ersatz family unit with the unspeaking girl in Jane’s care (though the way this scene ends too obviously – with both saying “So long” – is one of the episode’s few missteps). Soon, he’ll be dead at the hands of a drunkard, and the people of Deadwood and we, the audience, will have to find a new way to organize their lives. Those masterful final moments, when the townspeople are held back from lynching McCall by some underlying sense of order, when the camp’s gods gaze down upon the mortal who dared lay one of them low, when Bullock and Jane try to deal with the hole Hickock’s body leaves in their lives, suggest that finding that new organization will take some time.

Grade: A

Episode 5. “The Trial of Jack McCall.”

“The Trial of Jack McCall” introduces a point almost as important to the run of the show as “He, too, is God’s handiwork.” The Reverend Smith, often the show’s mouthpiece for David Milch’s most philosophical ideas (perhaps ironically since he’s clearly a bit crazy and suffers from seizures), suggests to Bullock and Sol that he might preach at Hickock’s funeral on the text of 1 Corinthians 12, the famous portion of the New Testament where the Apostle Paul speaks at length on how the church is not a collection of people but one organism and all of the people within it fulfill different roles within the organism. Deadwood is not an especially religious work, but Smith’s evocation of those words both to Bullock and Sol and at the funeral (in another magnificently directed sequence where as Smith talks about how when one part of the body suffers, all parts suffer, the camera moves from character to character, moved by the death of Hickock in some strange fashion and here to pay their respects) is a key to understanding the whole series. Deadwood is less about individual humans (though it is filled with fascinating individuals) and more about the way that humans can work together to form one organism, one body. When Smith asks Bullock, “Will you help me with the body?” it means, literally, will Bullock help Smith handle Hickock’s body. But it also carries that deeper, more figurative meaning. Bullock’s not the world’s most open and caring guy, but here he is, drawn deeper and deeper into the body of Deadwood, now taking it upon himself to dispatch justice, to help Alma (in their first meeting, which manages to feel momentous), to help with Hickock’s funeral.

“Trial” is not as effortlessly perfect an episode as “Man” was. It’s more of the sort of hour that is there to move the plot forward, getting us past the messy aftermath of Hickock’s death and pushing Bullock into the role of lawman as quickly as possible. As the episode concerns itself with one of the series’ biggest themes via Smith, it also looks at another major theme via the titular trial, which Al empties out the Gem to stage (the show suggesting, wryly, that trials were just another form of entertainment even then). Al, of course, has other designs on having the trial in his saloon. If it’s being held there, he can more directly affect the outcome. If he can do that, he can keep from having McCall end up being found guilty, which would lead to some necessary punishment (perhaps a hanging), which could lead to government interference, which could lead to the people of Deadwood having everything they’ve worked to gain taken away from them. As Al reveals in a terrific monologue to the judge in charge of the trial, he’s just looking out for the biggest vipers of them all, those that live in Washington and would take what he believes to be rightfully his, simply because the way he got it was illegal. The small vipers in Deadwood or maybe even in Yankton, Al can deal with. But as soon as the feds or the Pinkertons get involved, he’s going to have to find somewhere new to set up shop. “Isn’t there a simpler way of not pissing off the big vipers?” he asks, and you kind of see where he’s coming from. (Some political scientists argue this Old West mindset is what has led to the strong libertarian leanings in the Mountain West nowadays, and it’s easy to see some of this in Al’s feelings on things.)

So Al takes the trial into the Gem (since Cy doesn’t seem all that interested – he’s too busy dealing with the very sick Andy), the better for him to make sure the jurors are in his pocket, the better for him to look down over the proceedings, offering his commentary (again, as a god might). A comment last week asserted that my fundamental thesis – that Deadwood is about the formation of civilization from chaos – was wrong because the show is about the way that strong individuals use the gradual implementation of laws to benefit only themselves. While this is the case (and something Deadwood argues), just because someone like Al is forming laws that will mainly benefit him doesn’t make them stop being laws. Just as the trial of Jack McCall is a sham designed to get him off as quickly as possible to avoid nasty political implications or having the murderer of Wild Bill Hickock hanging around town for too long, it’s still a trial, still something that feels like a legitimate underpinning of society. Eventually if you get enough people in one place, they’ll form a community and eventually feel bound by societal conventions – just as there’s a long line to pay respects to Hickock’s body, there’s an equally long line to sign up to be a juror for his trial. Some things just feel right to us, and if someone like Al uses those feelings to achieve his own ends, it doesn’t make those things feel any less right.

“Trial” also continues to deepen the show’s major female characters. Al’s latest scheme to undermine Alma is to get her hooked on laudanum again, using Trixie as the person to introduce it to her. But Trixie, who’s pretty much just been someone Al can use in the first handful of episodes, has sides he obviously hasn’t counted on (that bruise from the beating he gave her in the first episode is barely there anymore, but we can still see its contours informing every decision she makes). She uses the occasion to help Alma kick the habit, as she desperately wants to. The show has also gradually filled in the roles of Trixie and Joanie in the last two episodes – they’re going to be the ones the men of the town feel free to confess to, to open up to.

One of my favorite things about Deadwood is the way its female characters grow and change in unexpected directions, particularly since so many of them seemed so weak in the first episode (and, paradoxically, the weakest of them, Jane, is the one who seemed the strongest in the first episode). Here, we see Trixie begin to separate herself from Al’s wishes for her, Alma begin to assert her rights as owner of the claim, and Joanie twist the knife just a bit in Cy for his abandonment of Andy to the elements, lest the plague Andy carries overwhelm the town. Even our unspeaking little child begins to emerge from her shell, putting on one of Alma’s dresses and recovering nicely.

Of course, while the women of Deadwood are good listeners, they’re also caretakers. When Jane stumbles upon Andy in the middle of nowhere, the need to care for him animates her with a purpose she’s been missing since Hickock died. Similarly, Trixie, Alma and Jane all feel compelled to care for the child, while Trixie feels the need to help Alma kick her drug habit. And Joanie’s the only one at the Bella Union who seems to feel the least bit of compassion for Andy. Obviously, saying that women make good caretakers for their fellow man isn’t exactly the most original thought (and, indeed, strays toward the stereotypical), but the way the show plays these female characters off the people they’re caring for (Andy’s constant stream of “I apologize” serving as nothing less than Jane’s inner monologue) keeps this from seeming too rote.

But the episode’s main action returns, again and again, to the question of what will happen to Jack McCall, who opens the episode tied up in a butcher’s shop like a strung-up pig and ends it a free man, given a horse by Al for to make his escape, pursued by the relentless Bullock, unable to let anything lie. McCall gets off because his lawyer invents an obviously fabricated story about how Hickock killed his brother, enraging McCall deeply. While it’s obviously a lie, it’s a lie that’s good enough to let the jury believe it just long enough to proclaim McCall, simply, “Innocent.” Deadwood here suggests that while we may, indeed, feel certain societal obligations, we’re never above simply finding the quickest way to relieve ourselves of them.

And so McCall (after Al tells him to “Run for your fuckin’ life”) runs. And so Bullock pursues. And while there’s the air of frontier justice to it, there’s also the sense that this is the start of a long process of becoming civilized. The citizens of Deadwood, like Reverend Smith, don’t know their ultimate purposes, but they’re beginning to understand that they’re all part of the same body. Still, this is going to take some work. They’re happy to wave the flies away from the face of Hickock’s corpse as he lies at rest, but no one seems to notice when Smith collapses to the ground from a seizure. This is an imperfect world being formed, but at least the first steps are being embarked upon.

Grade: A-


Episode 6. “Plague.”

If the trial of Jack McCall was the first thing to bring the camp’s citizens together as a community, the second thing is the arrival of smallpox within Deadwood. McCall was an internal threat, something the community had to decide whether to permit or toss out, but smallpox is a completely external threat, visited on poorly vaccinated and uncleanly miners huddled close together in a way that is almost certain to promote the spread of the disease. If the trial of Jack McCall was probably optional, coming up with a response to the smallpox threat is not. Interestingly, though, it’s the seemingly uncivilized Al Swearengen who mobilizes the response, while the more superficially cultured Cy Tolliver can’t be bothered to deal with the problem he created in the first place by not alerting the proper authorities quickly enough. (And, hey, McCall’s murder of Hickock and the arrival of smallpox sufferer Andy Cramed occurred in the same episode, tying them together even more directly.)

The episode’s major subplot, however, has nothing to do with the trappings of civilization. It’s all about Bullock chasing McCall and finding his horse felled by a Sioux warrior. The episode opens with this plot, leaving the confines of our civilization starter kit in Deadwood and heading into the wild, so to speak. The first several shots are of the unspoiled mountains outside of Deadwood, a place where there’s still a touch of menace to nature. One of the great changes in American culture over the years was the shift from the natural world as a source of menace (the dark woods of the earlier American fiction) to the urban world as the source of that menace. Yeah, there are still stories about men fighting nature out there, but the cliché we most recognize now is the story of the guy who moves to the city and is corrupted by its very darkness. While Deadwood doesn’t play with this paradigm a lot, it does here, when there’s an air of fear about the woods in those opening shots.

As well there should be. While the threat to Bullock comes from another man, it’s someone who actually knows this rough terrain. Out here, among the trees, it’s still kill or be killed, and because only the natural world is a witness, when Bullock gets the upper hand on the warrior, he’s able to unleash his inner sociopath and bash the guy’s head in with a rock. Though this opening scene seems to suggest that we’ll spend lots of time with Bullock, the episode returns to him only sporadically, allowing for Charlie Utter to come across him and discover that Hickock is dead for real this time and for the two to provide a moving pseudo-burial for the warrior but not for a whole lot else.

That’s because back in Deadwood, we’re dealing with a crisis that just keeps spiraling out of control and with a populace that doesn’t really have the safeguards in place to deal with it. Again, the town falls back on lies that seem good enough to be the truth. While the threat of smallpox is serious enough that it gets Al to put the well-being of the camp foremost in his mind (since, obviously, if everyone’s dead, he won’t be making any money), he and the other prominent citizens of the town (including Cy, Sol, Merrick and Smith, among others) don’t want to cause an undue panic either, using Merrick’s Deadwood Pioneer to spread a story that’s mostly true but contains a few falsehoods designed to smooth over any worries the town might have.

Again, these sorts of lies that function well enough to be the truth fill an important role in other parts of the episode. Alma, at the behest of Trixie, has to pretend to be high to get E.B. and Al to stop trying to forcibly dope her up. Joanie feigns an interest in Ellsworth to get him to spend his money, an interest that turns real when he turns out to be a good guy, and then Cy and Eddie have to take over, cheating to get more of Ellsworth’s money (love the insert shot of Eddie palming the real dice to swap in the phonies). The idea of a lie that’s good enough to be the truth runs throughout the series (as a comment below says, the season two premiere is titled “A Lie Agreed Upon”). It’s another one of those things we base our societies around, simply because we need to believe certain things (like the idea that our politicians always have our best interests in mind) to keep from becoming too cynical or losing faith entirely in the system.

This is also the episode where we first see Al trying on the persona of respected town citizen. It’s not really a persona that suits him all that well just yet, but he’s making the effort, calling the meeting to respond to the disease, making sure there’s fruit at it and coming up with a solid plan for responding to the disease, one that will protect his business interests but also one that will adequately respond to the threat and keep it from decimating the town. When Smith collapses in a seizure at episode’s end, he’s at first confused and then seems almost concerned for a moment or two, helping Cochran care for the man (by rejecting the offer of a metal spoon to hold the man’s mouth open), before he reverts to his traditional callous indifference (“You could have just said ‘Amen.’”). After establishing Al as the sort of giant among men who uses Deadwood almost as a place to test out his assorted schemes in earlier episodes, here we begin to see him as someone with some degree of concern for those around him beyond his own self-interest. He certainly doesn’t need Smith to stay alive, but he’s concerned for the man’s health all the same.

The episode’s other main thrust deals with the return of Jane to the camp, as she strides into town, provoking stares, shooting them down like she’s her old self. She’s nursed Andy back to health, and she’s looking for the doctor to ask him if he has a smallpox problem. Jane and Cochran will become one of the better pairings in the series, and this episode solidifies it from the small seed that was planted in earlier episodes. The final moments of this storyline, when Cochran, Smith and Jane all work to tend to the sick in the tent erected to house them, are terrifically constructed, reimagining Jane as a woman with a heart so big she can’t avoid these duties, much as she feigns disinterest. Jane is tied to Deadwood now, perhaps because her beloved Bill is buried here (and the scene where she confronts the man who’s staying in Bill’s room and seems oddly proud of it is another gem) and perhaps because she’s got enough concern for those around her that she’s willing to help build this little town into something more.

“Plague” is another episode that’s setting things into motion, and on that level, it doesn’t quite have the thematic coherence that “Here Was a Man” did, but now, we’ve got almost everything set up for the stellar back half of the show’s first season (where I’ll be surprised if I give a grade of less than an A). And the episode’s closing moments are so well-done, starting with Charlie and Bullock riding off from the small funeral they’ve offered for the man Bullock killed and ending with Al and Dan in the Gem, reading a newspaper and talking about the turns their lives might have taken, are so well-done that they presage the good things to come. “Plague” isn’t this show’s finest hour, but after it, we’ve got all of our pieces in play to create the best TV show of all time.

Grade: B+

Stray observations:

  • Housekeeping notes: Sorry for the weird publishing schedule this week. I’m going to aim to have these up by 2 p.m. PDT in the future, but unexpected events kept me from getting these in when I would like to. It won’t happen again.
  • While we’re at it, how’s the length? This piece is just under 5,000 words, and I’m dedicating about 1,500 words to each episode. While I could write more, I’m loathe to, and I’m more interested in whether this one was just too long for all you folks. We’re going to keep plowing through season one at three episodes per week, but I suspect we’ll slow down to two per week for season two, which is an unbelievably rich season of television. I also see there’s a comment suggesting I dip more into straight plot summaries. I’d rather not do that, but if you want to see more of a recap style than a review style, feel free to say so.
  • I’m working on this elaborate theory that the young Norwegian girl (whose name I won’t share just yet so as not to spoil anyone) is some sort of metaphor for America as filtered through the Deadwood experience, but I think it might be kind of crazy, so I’ll only share the hypothesis for now.
  • Another series constant that turns up in this episode – the head of that Indian that Al’s always talking to in later episodes.
  • E.B. also gets his first big monologue in “Trial,” wherein he continues to scrub his floor while bitterly inveighing against his treatment at the hands of Al. It’s the first glimpse we get of E.B. as a man in his own right, and it’s a fascinating one, not least of which because of William Sanderson’s excellent work with the speech.
  • Is it a little weird that Sol seems to understand Christianity better than Seth, or is that just me?
  • And with that, here’s a bunch of quotes I wrote down while watching these episodes: “My visions of locusts return.”
    “You believe that because you are a walking fuckin’ cunt.”
    “We don’t get to choose the world we live in.”
    "Let the world do its own spinning."
    “Listen to the thunder.”
    “And I said, ‘Maybe he’ll die.’”
    “I was born droop-eyed.”
    “Rules of the court: No nonsense.”
    "The jury will now retire to the whores' rooms and begin their deliberations."
    "I believe in God's purpose, not knowing it."
    "That's how come I jumped when you told about Nebraska pussy." (Surely the only time Nebraska has been used as a modifier for “pussy.”)
    "I've been drunk a while, correct. What the fuck is that to you?"
    "His way to heaven is above ground and looking to the west." "Let's do that then."
    "Be brief." "Be fucked."
    "Her gutter mouth and the widow in an opium stupor. A conversation for the ages"
    "Truth is, as a base of operations, you cannot beat a fucking saloon."

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