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 former; click here for the newbie-safe version.
A review of episode 7, “Bullock Returns to the Camp,” coming up just as soon as I congratulate you on your advanced thinking…
“You are changed.” -Seth
“You seem to be, too.” -Alma
Seth Bullock and Alma Garret arrived in the camp for very different reasons, but they shared a desire to shut the rest of the world out (Bullock through his rage, Alma with the laudanum) and have been forced by circumstance, and by deaths of people close to them, to come out of their shells and engage with the world – and, as it turns out, with each other. And they seem a well-matched pair: not from quite the same social strata, but with an innate sense of their own superiority over these filthy thugs and swindlers and whores who surround them. Swearengen mocks Seth’s holier-than-thou attitude, while Trixie bridles at Alma implying that she doesn’t have the right to speak frankly to her.(*)
(*) Admittedly, Al primes her to have tha reaction with their earlier discussion, where without him battering away at her self-esteem, Trixie might have felt comfortable enough in Alma’s world to get away from Al and just take care of the little girl.
In a more traditional Western, Seth would be the clear-cut hero, Alma his tragic, pure-hearted love interest, Sol the genial comic relief and Swearengen and the rest the black-hearted cutthroats standing in the way of all that’s decent and just and romantic. But “Deadwood” is much more complicated than that. Seth is in the right in protecting Alma’s interests against Swearengen, and yet he somehow comes across as the hostile, unreasonable one in their confrontation – the man who can’t ever play nice with others, where last week we saw just how well Al can do that in service of a larger cause. And Alma has suffered many indignities and is very vulnerable to Al and his people, but she’s also prickly and lost in her own head and made to look like a spoiled, selfish child in that final conversation with Trixie.
And if last week was about seeing the camp temporarily come together to deal with the smallpox outbreak, “Bullock Returns to the Camp”(**) shows that individual agendas still rule camp life for the most part. Seth comes back and tries swinging his weight around in service of Alma, while Al in turn continues trying to swindle her out of the gold claim. Cy gets back to cons both long and short, and can’t comprehend the changed attitude of the newly-recovered Andy. And in a new development, the seemingly-innocent siblings Flora and Miles Anderson turn out to be con artists themselves, looking to rip off one or both of the Swearengen and Tolliver operations. And allegedly sweet, vulnerable Flora(***) is very talented indeed at bending people to her will, whipping Dan Dority into a homicidal rage to protect her non-existent virtue, fooling Cy with her innocent act, and even knowing when to turn on the charm with Joanie once she realizes that her new boss might swing her way.
(**) Where Milch’s sometime-partner Steven Bochco has always had a flair for episode titles, particularly ones driven by puns or other wordplay, I’ve always gotten the sense that Milch has little interest in them. In my first interview with him, I began referring to some recent “NYPD Blue” episodes by title; his eyes glazed over, he looked to another of the show’s writers who had briefly joined us, and said, “Kid, you’re the only one at this table who has any idea what you’re talking about right now.” No other “Deadwood” episode will have so plain a title as this (it’s always struck me as a placeholder that Milch, episode writer Jody Worth, etc., could never think of a good replacement for), but most of the season 2 and 3 titles are taken directly from lines of dialogue within those episodes, and by the time Milch got to “John from Cincinnati,” he’d moved on to simply calling each episode “His Visit,” and differentiating them by the day.
(***) This was the last significant role Kristen Bell would play before the debut of “Veronica Mars,” and you can see all the talent that would be on display in that show in this part. Between Flora, a guest appearance the year before as one of Armadillo’s victims on “The Shield,” and then the darker moments of “Veronica Mars,” Bell absolutely paid her dramatic dues before graduating into a movie business that only seemed to want to put her into lame romantic comedies. I’m hoping her new Showtime series is a better vehicle for her.
Yet the part of this episode that always gets me the most is the sweet, sad story of Charlie Utter’s first trip back to Deadwood after Wild Bill’s murder. Charlie is usually a chatterbox, but Dayton Callie says so little over the course of this episode, and yet manages to convey every last bit of pain and grief that Charlie is feeling about the friend whose death he knew was coming, even if he still can’t accept or understand it. In particular, the scene with Charlie and Jane at Bill’s grave is fantastic, and another reminder (along with our visit to the pest tent) that a sober Jane is a mostly wonderful Jane. (Albeit still a Jane where you have to walk on eggshells from time to time.) The tentative, almost childlike way Charlie asks Jane “Can I tell him some more tomorrow?” just breaks my heart, every single time.
Some other thoughts:
• Interesting to see the contrast between how Sol treats Trixie (like just another person, and someone he doesn’t think twice about having in the store, flirting with, offering to teach bookkeeping to, etc.) to the way Al manipulates (sometimes emotionally, sometimes physically) and abuses (ditto) her.
• Speaking of Trixie at the hardware store, it’s funny to see E.B. act so high and mighty about her (and, in previous episodes, about Jane), when even with his thriving small business he comes across as one step above hobo. Alma’s superiority can be unsympathetic, but at least you know where it comes from with her.
• Oh, sweet, kind, stubborn, overworked and very ill Reverend Smith. Listen to the Doc next time, okay? Please. Sigh…
• Bye-bye, Jack McCall. It’s safe to say at this point that you can look to your history books (or their online equivalent) for the rest of his story. But “Deadwood” isn’t quite done with Garret Dillahunt yet, and if I happen to do season 2 at some point down the road, I look forward to discussing that.
Coming up next (in two weeks): “Suffer the Little Children,” in which Flora and Miles get up to some mischief, while Al prepares for Trixie’s return.
I need to put these reviews on hold for a week, as I’m taking some days off to brace myself for the Comic-Con/press tour doubleheader. But the good news is that I should be able to get back on schedule once I’m in California, as we now have a three-person HitFix TV team, meaning I no longer have to cover every single panel like in the old days.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org