Welcome back to Lost and Found, where we resurrect and reappraise the cancelled television shows of yesteryear. As of this week we’ve finished Deadwood’s first season. My sincere apologies for the haphazard posting schedule. It shouldn’t happen again. If you missed the last 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.
Jewel’s Boot is made for Walking & Sold under Sin (Deadwood S1, eps. 11 & 12)
Seth: “I’ll be the fucking Sheriff.”
Al: “Starting when?”
Seth: “Starting now.”
Mythic. That’s the word for these two episodes. The best word, I think. Here are some others: moving, profound, philosophical, spiritual, woodchuck (okay, maybe not woodchuck). The first season of Deadwood closes with two powerful hours of television and easily justifies the critical adoration that the show continues to receive.
The first hour, Jewel’s Boot Is Made For Walking, is a smorgasbord of rich, wonderful dialogue penned at the hand of Ricky Jay, aka Eddie Sawyer of the Bella Union, aka David Mamet’s go-to-magician, aka Respected Authority on con games and con men, aka someone I’d love to have a drink with. It achieves its power through its flow of gorgeous, gorgeously-delivered words. The second hour, Sold Under Sin, achieves its power through the collision of that dialogue, hard-earned emotional resonance and a surfeit of stirring imagery.
Deadwood’s first season ends the way that it began: as a story of Law and Order, a story that explores the idea that those two concepts are separate and distinct, independent-yet-interdependent. Al, the embodiment of Deadwood Order, ends the season having positioned the camp for annexation, having cleared away some of the obstacles standing in the way of his continued control over the camp, and having further “civilized” things along the way, almost by accident. Such is the true nature of Order, or so creator David Milch suggests – the result of self-interested men creating rules that they can benefit from. Seth, the embodiment of Deadwood Law, has spent the entirety of the season refusing the call of his own violent blood, but capitulates and pins the tin star of Sheriff to himself in front of Al, aka Order. That Bullock accepts his role just as the camp itself moves closer to being beholden to U.S. law is not, I don’t think, a coincidence.
Deadwood is a place where there are no binary, black & white characters or motivations; a place where the murder of a minister can be mercy. And so Bullock’s first actions as Sheriff consist of ignoring the evidence of murder in Al’s office and finally indulging his desire for the widow Garret, despite his status as a married man. Seth is a good man, but he’s still a man, and he’s as ruled by his passions as Alma’s father suggests. Back in the column for the first episode I suggested that the reason for Seth’s fierce anger toward Al came partially from the fact that Al and Seth are very similar men, and that’s never been quite as clear as it is here (for confirmation of this, look no further than Seth’s impulsive visit to the Gem, where he none-too-subtly suggests that Alma’s father should be killed, and that Al should be the one to do it. Dan’s response, perfectly summing up this particular situation: “”You ought to pin that [badge] on your chest. You’re hypocrite enough to wear it.”). What’s surprising, to me, is that Al genuinely seems to want Seth to be Sheriff. Part of this, as we’ve seen, has to do with Al wanting to maintain control, and he sees Seth as a perfect front-man for the camp – illustrating to the big vipers in Washington (and Yankton) that Deadwood isn’t solely the home of criminals and cutthroats. Yet there’s something sincere to Al’s words in Jewel’s Boot as he muses over the idea of Bullock as Sheriff:
Al: “Now, if you were fuckin’ sheriff and you said ‘Do this, do that,’ I’d consider it – ‘cause you’re not a fuckin’ whore.”
Seth: “I have personal responsibilities.”
Al: “I’d go downstairs for that fuckin’ swearing in. And I’d follow your career, ‘cause you’re one of those pains-in-the-balls who think the law can be honest.”
Seth: “I don’t want it.”
Al: “Well, I do lots of things I don’t want to do.”
Al’s playing an angle here, but he’s also revealing something about himself, and about the majority of any community: we’re much more likely to follow the lead of the Law if we feel that the representatives of that Law aren’t “whores.” That doesn’t stop men of the Law from being hypocrites, however. In fact, Milch and Co. suggest that we’re all hypocrites of one kind or another.
Many of the major themes that the show has been playing with come back around and into play again here, including the plight of the women of Deadwood who, even as they move toward more freedom, more self-determination, are hemmed in on all sides by men who see fit still to make them captives in one form or another:
Alma: “If we had a kitchen, Sophia, after supper we’d have retired to it, to chores and gossip on the most minute domestic matters, while the men walked and smoked and argued more important matters. And, incidentally, decided our fates.”
The resignation in Alma’s voice as she speaks with Sophia is palpable, and in just those few words we get a moving picture of the gilded cage that surrounds her. Alma is the owner of a bonanza gold claim – a woman of power and wealth – and yet folks like her father treat her as though she is a child, or an object, not an individual worthy of respect (Alma’s father is a despicable creature – a man who has wholly accepted his nature as a leech. I’m sure I’m not the only one who took far too much pleasure in watching Bullock beat the ever-lovin’ snot out of the guy).
So much of these two episodes (and the season as a whole) hinges on the idea that we are all of us – rich and poor, stupid and wise, male and female, white and “Celestial” – worthy of respect, of grace, of love. The wide world (both real and Deadwood-fictional) is a cold, anonymous place where any and all of us are subject to the whims of fate or God or human cruelty. Yet, in that world we can carve for ourselves havens of community, places in which we might feel safe and loved and respected, if only for a while. Al, the profane poet, sums this longing up so very well here:
Al: “I mean, what can anyone of us ever really fuckin’ hope for, huh? Except for a moment here and there with a person who doesn’t want to rob, steal or murder us? At night, it may happen. Sun-up, one person against the fuckin’ wall, the other may hop on the fuckin’ bed trusting each other enough to tell half the fucking truth. Everybody needs that. Becomes precious to ‘em. They don’t want to see it fucked with.”
Deadwood, for all its forbidding pitilessness, can be such a place. The people of Deadwood, for all their quirks and general fucked-up-edness, can and do offer such solace. For Al and Sol, that solace comes in the form of Trixie. For Seth, it comes in the form of Alma Garret, acknowledging Seth’s marriage-of-duty and offering herself anyway. For Andy Cramed, it came at the hands of Reverend Smith and Calamity Jane, who showed him a compassion he’d never extended to others. For Doc, it comes in the unconventional (and beautiful) waltz he shares with Jewel, for whom he’s crafted a boot to make her comings and goings just a wee bit easier. I can do this all day. But more than in any one pairing of individuals, the solace I’m talking about here comes to all these characters through engagement with their community. That engagement – a willing giving-over of the self to the whole – changes all of these people in sometimes small, sometimes strikingly-large ways.
And no one leaves this season more changed than Al.
Al has never been more sympathetic, more shockingly tender, and more human than he is here. That doesn’t change the fact that he’s a monster, much to the show’s credit. We’re not asked to forgive Al his sins, we’re asked to try and understand them. Milch, his writers, and Ian McShane make that job immeasurably easier by including ruminations like the one above – a moment in which we can see Al’s behavior toward Sol and Trixie as coming from a wounded place. Sure, Al’s a businessman, and its bad business to allow his whores to offer their “wares” up for free. But that’s not the sole, real, reason for Al demanding that Sol pay for his time with Trixie. Al demands payment because he sees Sol as having taken something from him that’s genuinely precious, something that everybody needs. And Al doesn’t want to see it fucked with. So, of course, Al does the fuckin’. ‘Cause that’s what Al does best.
As I watched these episodes I was struck by one of my typically-wonky, bizarro ideas: Milch and his writers have made Al a stand-in of sorts for “God,” and that association is made here in some pretty interesting ways. Think about it: When Reverend Smith is preaching crazily in the camp’s street he looks up and prays straight to…Al, who watches over him from above. When Doc Cochran prays to God for Reverend Smith’s death, its Al who answers the prayer – delivering Smith from this life for no obvious reason other than compassion, and the memory of a brother similarly-afflicted (“you can go now, brother” has dual meaning here – referring to Smith, a “brother” in the spiritual and/or humane sense, and also to Al’s brother). Al perfectly fits the description of the kind of God that Deadwood has been contemplating this season. He is, in fact, a sonofabitch; he’s also unexpectedly prone to bouts of compassion and mercy, however warped those emotions might be. Al watches over and protects his “people.” He sometimes demands sacrifice for doing so. He works in mysterious ways. He unites the divided in his own name. Were Seth ever to confront Al directly as to his reasons for all of this it would not surprise me in the slightest to hear Al respond with a question of his own: “Where were you when I laid the camp’s foundation? Declare, if thou hast understanding.”
- The season is over. And what else have we learned? Well, we’ve learned that Alma Garret’s father is the sort of man who begs for an asskicking.
- Trixie and Sol finally get together, and it’s as moving and funny as you’d want it to be. Paula Malcomson is terrific, and John Hawkes is every bit her equal. Hawkes is now receiving much-deserved attention for his turns in films like Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene. His work here is just as excellent, but harder to appreciate since so much of it consists of playing second fiddle to Seth Bullock, whose temperament lends itself to scenes of conflict much more readily than does Star’s. Inherent decency and kindness aren’t generally considered to be dramatically “compelling,” but Hawkes makes those qualities compelling – an accomplishment in itself, one that’s also achieved by Dayton Callie as Charlie Utter throughout the season.
- Merrick’s receipt of a camera in these episodes adds nothing to the major storylines, but it makes for some terrific moments. Merrick’s character is the definition of “inessential.” He seldom contributes anything other than opportunities for amusement, and yet the show would be poorer without his presence.
- It’s interesting that E.B. recognizes Alma’s father as a cheat and a liar before anyone else does. Takes one to know one I suppose.
- The killing of Magistrate Clagget reestablishes Al’s control and brings Titus Welliver’s Silas Adams fully into the Deadwood fold. I’m excited to watch Silas and Dan play off of each other in the next season.
- In Jewel’s Boot Al gives what is, in a season full of great speeches, a truly, breathtakingly bravura monologue at the end of this episode – a monologue that sweeps the viewer up in a torrent of gorgeous verbiage. Lord, how I love this show’s dialogue and the cast’s delivery of that dialogue.
- I’m sure you’ve got favorite bits of dialogue and business from these episodes. Let me know what they are in the comments!
Al: “Announcing your plans is a good way to hear God laugh.”
Seth: “Leave this camp. And draw a map for anyone who wants to believe your fucking lies. Anyone wants to put your daughter or her holdings in jeopardy, you show ‘em how to get here. And you tell ‘em I’ll be waiting.”