After a week off, it’s time to resume 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 8, “Suffer the Little Children,” coming up just as soon as I go to the limit’s precipice…
“Cy wants you out there, honey.” -Eddie
Back in David Milch’s “NYPD Blue” days, I wrote a few times about how the show’s depiction of its female characters was an obvious weak spot – that outside of the occasional story about Diane Russell’s struggle with addiction (a subject Milch knows well), the women of the show were almost always written as appendages of the men.
The world of “Deadwood” is even more male-dominated than a 1990s New York detective squad, and so at the start I tempered my expectations for how much Milch would give the women of the camp to do. But a fascinating, very welcome thing happened: Milch turned the low social standing of women at the time to his advantage. He made the women’s struggle to be treated as something other than property (in the case of the whores) or a victim to be rescued (in the case of Alma) into one of the show’s most fascinating ongoing themes.
“Suffer the Little Children” (with a credited script by Elizabeth Sarnoff, and direction by Dan Minahan) is an hour where virtually all of the action is driven by the women. Trixie, feeling cast out of Alma’s world and not wanting to return to Al’s, tries to kill herself – and Al, not knowing what’s become of her, gets increasingly bent out of shape waiting for her to return. Alma changes her mind two or three times about staying, briefly acknowledging that her actions affect others and that she has to take Trixie and Sofia out of the camp, then letting herself be sucked back in, Trixie be damned, by the charisma of one Seth Bullock. And it’s Joanie’s affections as much as Cy’s suspicions that pushes up Flora’s timetable on the heist, and Joanie is the one left to put Flora out of her misery when the caper goes predictably awry.(*)
(*) In general, characters on Milch shows who talk about big plans are inevitably revealed to have a fairly lame plan. (Or, in some cases, no plan.) And I can never decide how much of that is intentional (Milch is fond of the “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans” saying) and how much is just that the chaotic writing process he employs has always been much better at providing great beginnings than endings.
I’ve talked before in these reviews about the parallels between the core staff at the Gem and the Bella Union, and rarely have those parallels been more obvious than in what Trixie and Joanie go through in this hour. Both are strong, smart, outspoken women, but their circumstances, their personal histories and the social laws of the world in which they live has essentially enslaved them to these two men who are fixated on them, but can only have them to an extent.
And it’s hard to figure out which of them has it worse.
Trixie had an opportunity to leave town, to have all the money she could need, and to have Sofia to care for. But she’s not capable of going out on her own – at least not to a place as far and as alien as New York (and the New York circles Alma would introduce her to) – and knows that if she stays in Deadwood, either Al will force her to come back or she’ll feel compelled to go back to him. (As she does, after Alma’s brief moment of selfless lucidity gives way to lust for Hardware Boy #2.) And yet Al demonstrates throughout the hour that he has as much of a weakness for her as she does for him, and Ian McShane has a lot of fun playing Al in a position of weakness and confusion. (“Points made with the snatch grab, okay.” He’s a sensitive fellow!)
Joanie seems to have more power at the Bella Union, but not really. She dances to Cy’s tune, and Cy’s a much colder, more cutthroat master, even as he’s just as fixated on Joanie as Al is on Trixie. (Maybe even more, because Al can have Trixie, sexually and emotionally, whereas even if Cy has had Joanie in his bed, he knows she’s gay and just going through the motions.) After forcing her to witness the savage ends of Miles and Flora – and all but forcing her to kill Flora to spare having to watch further ugliness – Cy offers to set her up with her own place. But he wouldn’t be cutting her strings – only giving out some more slack. And he remains as baffled in his own way about how to get Joanie back on his side as Al is about Trixie’s motivations.
Alma has a level of power now, thanks to the gold strike – and thanks to Al’s realization that he needs to keep things peaceful, and to keep a man like Bullock on his side, as the camp gets closer to rejoining America – and yet ultimately she can’t resist the power of Seth Bullock’s smile, even though she knows the right thing to do is to take Trixie and Sofia away from this place where they’ve all endured such misery. The moment where she tells Trixie about her latest plan, not really comprehending what it means for her new friend (or choosing to ignore it for the sake of her lust), is heartbreaking – and made even more in that beautiful moment where Sofia finally says her name. Trixie helped bring her to the place where she could do that, and they could both blossom together in another place, but in this camp, at this time, Trixie knows she’s going to be pulled away from the little girl and back towards Al.
And as for Flora, we’ll never quite know what drove her other than survival instinct, and perhaps a desire to get over on the kinds of people who forced her into this life. But she was angry, and cocky, and not nearly as slick as she thought she was, and she gets a bullet in the head to match the one Miles got for following her lead.
It’s a man’s world in Deadwood, but there are moments where the women have some pull – just usually not nearly enough.
Some other thoughts:
• If you’re reading the veteran version of these reviews, then you’ve been graced with the pleasure of Jim Beaver’s own recollections of what went on as each episode was being made. I had the great fortune to bump into Jim at a party at Comic-Con over the weekend. After I thanked him for his great contributions, he in turn thanked me for giving him an excuse to watch the episodes again for the first time in a few years. He said for the first several reviews he was just working off of memory, but now he’s watching and has been as floored as the rest of us by how great the work on screen is.
• Know Your Milch-isms: characters trying to communicate to non-English speakers (as Alma tries to here with Sofia) is one of his favorite sources of comedy and will be used pretty brilliantly with one character in particular as the series moves along.
• Another nice bit of comedy in a very dark episode overall: Charlie tips over after his vaccination, then gets into one of his usual shouting matches with Jane, whose bedside manner comes and goes.
• In terms of the various Gem/Bella Union parallels, I find it very interesting that Al never seems to catch on to Miles and Flora in the way that Cy does. Is this just a case of Cy being better able to spot a con artist, Al being more sentimental and therefore fooled by the sob story, or is it just that he was mostly dealing with Miles (whose heart wasn’t as in the con), whereas Cy spent more time with Flora (who was much more driven to make a big score and play these people for suckers) and could more easily smell it?
Coming up next: “No Other Sons or Daughters,” in which Al discusses the idea of an interim town government, Joanie explores business opportunities and Doc frets some more about the Reverend. My hope is to stay with the Thursday morning schedule, even through press tour, but we’ll see what happens.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org