“Bullock Returns to the Camp” & “Suffer the Little Children” Deadwood, S1 eps 7 & 8
“Will the circle be unbroken
By and by, Lord, by and by?” – Ada R. Habershon
Alma: “Don’t use that language with me, Trixie. Or that tone.”
Trixie: “Don’t you want to say to remember my place? I do, you rich cunt. And I’m goin’ back to it.”
Welcome back to Lost and Found, where we resurrect and reappraise the cancelled television shows of yesteryear. As of this week we’re more than halfway through Deadwood’s first season. If you missed last week’s column you can catch up right here. If you’d like to check out the other shows I’ve covered, you can surrender several days of your life over here. Want to spelunk around in my brain? Follow me on Twitter.
Due to a family issue this column is posting a week late, for which I, like Andy Cramed, apologize most profusely. But I’m sort of glad that I had the extra time to think over these two episodes because I could easily have dismissed them as enjoyable-but-not-monumental, which would have been a mistake. While there are some events here that are massively important to the show’s narrative and to the history of the real Deadwood (the Sioux treaty mentioned here marks the point at which Al and others begin to realize that their days as men outside of U.S. law are numbered), both episodes are much more about deepening our understanding of who these characters are, in relation to each other and in relation to the larger culture. Most interestingly to me, both episodes favor Deadwood‘s female cast more directly than before, illuminating the ways that the women of the camp are hemmed in by society and circumstance – by a culture that seems to revere and despise them in equal measure. Dan Dority works for an establishment that literally treats its women as property, a place where the women are regularly, physically beaten or treated as so much meat. Yet he kills a man for looking at young Flora in the wrong way. That dichotomy makes no sense, but somehow it makes perfect sense nonetheless.
In their way, both Bullock Returns to the Camp and Suffer the Little Children concern themselves with the unbroken circles that human beings can be caught up in, making it quite fitting to end Suffer with a rendition of the Gospel song “Will the Circle be Unbroken.” Women like Joanie Stubbs, Trixie and even malevolent little Flora are all a part of a circle of violence, sadness, and repression that they can’t seem to break free of; that they seem on some level to want to remain in. I might’ve missed some of that resonant stuff, had I not taken a little longer to reflect on it all.
I’ve talked before about the way that Cy, Eddie and Joanie act as mirrors (here we go again with the freakin’ mirrors!) to Al, Dan and Trixie. That reflectiveness gets underlined in these episodes both visually…
…and narratively. It might be coincidence that both Joanie and Trixie try to kill themselves in Suffer, but then again, it might not be. Both are struggling to leave an abusive man that’s one part lover, one part father. Both refuse an offer of wealth meant to buy them freedom. Both have a capacity for compassion that seems to come from somewhere wounded and never fully healed. In Trixie we see the raggedy pioneering Origins of the camp. In Joanie, an evolution towards a more civilized future. How little difference there is between them, once you take away the finer dress and thin veneer of courtesy surrounding Joanie. Both are caged.
Those cages come in all varieties. Alma must bring Bullock down to the hotel restaurant to speak with him so as not to appear “improper.” but those sorts of social necessities seem barely tolerated by the newly-sober Mrs. Garret. Molly Parker is terrific as she half-successfully struggles to toe societal lines, her giddiness over her growing autonomy barely contained by the restrictive figurative corset of femininity that her gender requires her to wear. Her attraction to Bullock is so obvious it’s comical (in the good way). The only way to make it more apparent would be with some vigorous bosom heaving. I trust that no one would object to that. But while we can admire Alma’s spirit, we’re always reminded of the rituals and formalities that these men and women are required to observe. Alma’s cage is gilded, and too small for her, but it’s still there.
Jane also finds something like freedom in her duties at the Pest Tent. Do we see her drunk once over the course of these episodes? Sobriety suits her, and does little to dull her marvelous gift for profanity. The scene between Charlie and Jane at Bill’s grave is truly wonderful stuff – touching and unexpectedly funny (“what the fuck you askin’ me for?”), and Charlie continues to reveal by degrees just what a painfully sensitive soul he really is. Dayton Callie is enormously endearing in the role, making the most of Charlie’s gruff tenderness.
But so the point is that Deadwood has fashioned a quartet of genuinely interesting, diverse female characters for us, and these two episodes are where the four coalesce into people who are more than the sum of some well-worn Wild West archetypes (the whore, the city woman, the lush belle of a local saloon). And while we can clearly see the social and cultural norms of the time restricting these women, there’s also the sense that these women are responsible for themselves, for the shape their lives have taken. It’s no accident, I don’t think, that Suffer the Little Children ends with Trixie placing Alma’s gold on Al’s bedside table, perfectly mirroring the way she placed her concealed gun on his table earlier in the story. Both times, she’s surrendering to Al, and choosing this specific cage over the promise and/or threat of freedom.
And around the same time, Joanie Stubbs is turning down Cy Tolliver’s offer to set her up with a place of her own, asking her gimlet-eyed boss to just let her go, before one of them kills the other. But how is Cy actually caging Joanie? Judging from the evidence of these two episodes its Depression and sadness that’ve barred this woman in, and not any man.
The men of Deadwood aren’t forgotten here, not hardly. While Doc and Reverend Smith deal with the ongoing effects of the Plague, as well as the Reverend’s increasingly-common seizures, Bullock is dealing with Alma’s claim and finding himself increasingly flummoxed by this city woman’s whip-quick changes-of-mind and uncomfortably-intimate manner. These two are headed for some serious sweaty snugglebunnies in the near future if the sexual tension between them keeps racheting up this way.
And while Bullock is confirming that Alma’s claim is, to use the technical term, a “Bonanza,” Al is fretting in increasingly human and vulnerable ways over the whereabouts of Trixie. Again we’re drawn in by Al’s vulnerabilities, and its interesting how (for me, anyway) Al’s character continues to feel as though he’s “softening” in small, important ways, even as Cy Tolliver feels ever more like a monster. It’s all in how humbling/humanizing it is to see Al scrubbing away at the bloodstain on the floor of the Gem and more-or-less chastising himself for having been rough on Trixie with the whole “snatch-grab” thing. Al acts like a monster, but he’s capable of self-reflection and change, even when that change is rooted firmly in self-interest. Al moves here to align himself with Seth Bullock, seeing the future of the camp unfolding and rightly sensing that the Sioux treaty will bring the forces and attention of the US government down on a camp that up until recently has been his exclusive little playground. Al understands that to protect himself from some of what is coming he’s going to need “respectable” allies – people who can earn and keep the trust of the “Law.” In that sense, Bullock is the perfect front-man for Al, and Al recognizes this right away. He’s motivated to reconcile himself with Seth for profoundly selfish reasons, but he’s still choosing to ally himself with someone who will not stand by while Al just does whatever he wants. By contrast, Tolliver’s attempts at change and reconciliation feel somehow false, as though he’s slipping on a mask to hide his stone-cold eyes. Again there’s a feeling that “civilization” doesn’t guarantee civility; that Cy’s brand of violence is just as potent in its way as Al’s, but in some sense perhaps less honorable and/or understandable.
Which brings us to Deadwood’s perennial preoccupation: the ways in which this little microcosm of society shows us how increasing “civilization” strains and supports communities, and the ways in which the people in a community need order and law to help define themselves and their role in things.
For a perfect summation of all this high n’ lofty-type concepts, just take a look at the massive beat-down that Miles and Flora receive at the end of Suffer the Little Children. Whereas the violence at the Gem is typically contained – either figuratively, as when Al maneuvers quietly to dispatch someone with minimum noise and fuss, or literally, as when Dan murders a man inside the Gem – the violence at the Bella Union continually spills out into the streets. First it was the Smallpox, which at least symbolically erupted from the Bella Union thanks to Andy Cramed. Now it’s the vicious beating given to Flora and Miles. Al seems to have the good sense to understand that the threat of lurking violence is as effective a deterrent as any act of violence. Cy disagrees. He believes in showing others his capacity for bloody retribution. And what’s interesting about this, other than the fact that the “civilized” man here is arguably less civilized about dealing with small-time crooks, is the reaction that this kind of “civilized” violence provokes from the watching crowd. Which is to say, no reaction at all. Here, the ‘civilized’ saloon drags violence enthusiastically into the streets. Here, the ‘civilized’ folk in those streets don’t lift a finger to help.
Sol, Jane and Doc could have tried to put a stop to the beating, but they don’t. Why not? Had Jane been drunk she’d have likely stepped in, but she’s been sober, and she seems more shocked than anything else by the brutality she’s seeing. Sol and Doc aren’t men of violence the way that Seth is. They need a force greater than themselves to police this kind of situation – men like Seth Bullock who are unafraid to impose the ideas of Law and Order onto chaos. Had he been present for the scene, Bullock likely would have stepped in, but that’s arguably, and ironically, because he isn’t very “civilized.”
As Deadwood grows, and as the violence of the place threatens to upset the stability that’s needed to keep the Big Vipers of Washington at bay, there’s a growing need for the one thing that most of these people turn their noses up at: Law.
- Bullock: “Before you know it we’ll have laws here and every other fuckin’ thing.” – Seth’s words here directly duplicate Wild Bill’s sentiments from an earlier episode.
- Kristen Bell, Star of Lost & Found candidate Veronica Mars, makes her TV debut here as the scary/cute half of a brother/sister team of thieves. Bell is crazy-good, flipping from trembling naif to frigid sociopath in an eyeblink; At moments you can actually see the light go out of her eyes, replaced with the same cold flint we’ve seen in Al, Cy and even Bullock. I can’t say I think her scheme made for compelling TV, but I can say that I really enjoyed Bell’s performance.
- Seth and Charlie’s capture of Jack McCall is excellent stuff, both for the little speech Bullock gives (“well, we’re Bill Hickok’s friends”) and for the way that it reinforces the idea of adhering to a lawful code in a place without law. Charlie and Seth could’ve easily gunned McCall down; they say as much. Instead they truss him up and haul his cowardly hide to Yankton where he’ll be tried (and, historically, convicted and sentenced to death by hanging)
- I got a big kick out of watching Al take young Miles under his wing, and at Al’s obvious pleasure in instructing Miles about “specialists.” Al’s predatory tendencies never vanish from his exchanges with the boy (I love the way Al plays off his continued attempts to get Flora working at the Gem as lighthearted nonsense, not to be taken seriously, when it’s obvious how very serious he is)
- I was likewise tickled by the growing interest Sol Star is showing in Trixie – specifically the “special get-acquainted-with-those-we’d-like-to-get-acquainted-with sale” he mentions to her. John Hawkes is one of my favorite character actors, and his turn as Star is one of my favorite aspects of this show. I’m going to talk more about him, and about the historical Sol Star, in the near-ish future.
- As played by Brad Dourif, Doc Cochran has a rangy, twitchy energy that for some reason reminds me of Rabbit from Winnie the Pooh. A bizarre comparison, I know.
Dan: “That girl had me fooled.”
Al: “Your dick had you fooled.”
Seth: “You and I know how it is, Mr. Swearengen.”
Al: “How what is?”
Seth: “She gets a square shake, or I come for you.”
Al: “What if I come for you? You ready for that?”
Seth: “I guess I’d better be.”
Al: “Then close your fuckin’ store, ‘cause being ready for me’ll take care of your waking hours – and you better have someone to hand the task off to when you close your fuckin’ eyes.”
Seth: “We understand each other.”