We’re continuing our trip back through the first season of David Milch’s epic revisionist Western “Deadwood,” and we’re continuing to do it with two separate but largely identical posts: one for people who watched the whole series and want to be able to discuss it from beginning to end, and one for people who are just starting out and don’t want to be spoiled with discussion that goes past the current episode. This is the latter; click here for the veteran-friendly version.
A review of episode 6, “Plague,” coming up just as soon as I prescribe the malingerer a can of peaches…
“We should do something together – us and several others.” -Al
If “The Trial of Jack McCall” was the series’ thesis statement, then “Plague” is the thesis being put into action. It’s crisis time in Deadwood, and rather than spend time arguing over territory, responsibility and blame, Al and (with a bit more reluctance) Cy recognize that this is an issue bigger than profit and loss, and that they need to bring together all of Deadwood’s most influential citizens to figure out how to fight this thing. This is the foot, and the hand, and the eyes, and all the body’s other parts coming together for one action: to combat a problem so big that Calamity Jane will be working towards the same goal as Al Swearengen (even if she’ll curse his name frequently along the way), so big that whatever tensions and beefs have existed between every character are put aside until the epidemic burns itself out.
Out of such unlikely, tough circumstances are communities born, and are community leaders born, and that’s exactly what Al Swearengen becomes over the course of “Plague.” He’s the one who talks Cy into teaming up, the one who organizes the meeting – and who has an expansive enough view of the camp that he invites people like Reverend Smith and Sol Starr to participate – the one who more or less writes Merrick’s newspaper story for him(*), and who is there to repeatedly keep people from freaking out about Smith’s seizures (Smith included) by injecting some humor into the moment.(**) Deadwood has no government, has no mayor – and Al has fought in these early episodes to keep it that way – but he’s the man running things. Obviously, this whole committee isn’t done purely out of altruism – a smallpox panic is bad for business – but it’s a start.
(*) Again, as a journalistic type, I’m fascinated with how Milch presents his view of the fourth estate through Merrick, who here is willing to let Al more or less dictate the story to him – including several passages that A.W. knows to be exaggerations, if not outright falsehoods – because he believes it’s for the common good of the camp, and at the moment that good is more important to him than the unvarnished truth.
(**) Al winking at Smith after the joke about the peaches is one of the most endearing moments Ian McShane has on this series, and was nicely set up by Al’s earlier comment about his brother being eplieptic. Al may be a cutthroat and a pimp, but he has his soft spots the same as every man. (Except maybe Cy Tolliver. But we’ll see about that.)
And what I especially like about the episode’s depiction of Al is that he’s not suddenly a saint. Yes, he comforts Smith and boosts Merrick’s ego (while also mocking his use of “gratis”), but he’s still trying to swindle Alma out of her gold claim, and threatening to do terrible things to Trixie if she’s as off the reservation as he suspects. Deadwood doesn’t become a civilized town overnight, nor does Al become respectable. It’s just one step on a long journey for both the man and the camp, and that’s as it should be.
But still, so many moments in this hour make me smile, and fill me with hope for humanity. Of the holy trinity of HBO dramas, “The Sopranos” was deeply cynical about human nature, while “The Wire” was mostly despairing about what institutions do to individuals. Those shows were about the end of something great about America. “Deadwood,” on the other hand, has a spirit of optimism to it. It’s a show that believes that people can come together to accomplish things, and that there can be innate good in even a man like Al Swearengen just as much as there is in men like Smith and Doc Cochran. So even though the camp is a dark, filthy, frightening place populated with violent, greedy men, it’s also a place where remarkable things can happen – where the town’s greatest criminal can also be its bedrock, where a group of men with very different agendas can sit around a table and come up with a plan to help out the entire town, and who can all come together on a more specific level to help the man of the cloth when he’s stricken right in front of them.
There are moments on “Deadwood” like the murder of Wild Bill that are as dark and apocalyptic as any you’ll find committed to film. Then there are moments like Johnny serving peaches and pears to the social elite of the camp (if any group including E.B. could be said to be elite) that are really damned inspiring.
Some other thoughts:
• I can’t decide which character makes me happier or seems more admirable: Doc, who works so hard at such a demanding job under such difficult conditions, and who frets so much over his patients; or Smith, who just radiates so much joy and calm, even as he’s facing a very uncertain health situation of his own. Tiebreaker may go to Doc disarming a Calamity Jane tantrum by comparing his comment about her latest bender to, “If you was a farmer, I’d ask you how the farming was going.”
• This is one of the few episodes of the series that doesn’t take place on the day after the previous one, which Smith makes clear when he refers to Wild Bill’s funeral having been several days ago. While that goes against Milch’s usual MO, it’s necessary for both plot mechanics and certain character developments, as it allows for Andy to heal enough for Jane to leave his side, Jane in turn to have dealt with Bill’s death a little, Charlie to make it to Cheyenne and back, and, perhaps most improbably even within the established timeline, for the little girl to be speaking some English (though Jane did sing “Row Row Row Your Boat” to her all night when they stayed in the hills).
• Interesting that this great moment of camp harmony comes while Bullock – who’s far more overt in his hatred of Al than Cy is, and who seems torn between his desire to be left alone and his need to be a community servant – is off tracking down Jack McCall and getting into tussles with Sioux warriors. Though Deadwood was erected on Sioux land, the Native Americans for the most part are discussed but rarely glimpsed on the show, so the brawl on the hill was as notable for that as for the violence and beautiful scenery. And even though Seth may be stubborn to the point of self-destructiveness, I like that he was open-minded about the brave to heed Charlie’s words about the proper thing to do with the body.
• Joanie and Trixie both wind up working against the plans of their respective masters this week: Joanie by (understandably) developing a soft for the charming Ellsworth (“I will, but I’m expensive”) and trying to give him an out from Cy and Eddie’s con; Trixie by continuing to aid Alma in her quest for sobriety, even as she keeps it a secret from E.B. and Al. (And fine work from Molly Parker in showing Alma using every last reserve of energy to appear amorous in front of Mr. Farnum.) Again, Cy was Powers Boothe’s consolation prize for not getting to play Al, and it’s interesting to see the contrasting styles with which each boss threatens his prized whore: neither seems the least bit soft about it, but there’s a way in which Cy’s slow build-up to his “Don’t make me do it different” threat feel far more cruel than Al’s blunt warning to Trixie.
• Speaking of Trixie, Sol seems awfully happy to be in her company for a brief walk along the thoroughfare, does he not?
• Ah, Johnny and the peaches. Always funny – especially since, after all his fretting, they wind up being largely ignored by the men at the table.
• Getting back to Al making Merrick change “gratis” to “free,” it’s especially funny given that Al’s dialogue tends to be the most contorted of anyone on the show’s, and that other people like E.B. and Dan are so often having to translate his words into plain english for the benefit of themselves and the audience.
Coming up next: “Bullock Returns to the Camp,” in which Seth… well, does that thing in the title, Doc and Jane tend to more smallpox victims, and a pair of young siblings arrive in the camp looking for work.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com