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 latter; click here for the veteran-friendly version.
A review of episode 9, “No Other Sons or Daughters,” coming up just as soon as I ask you what you think of my frock coat…
“There’s nothing to be afraid of. Everything changes. Don’t be afraid.” -Al
“No Other Sons or Daughters” is an episode of big transitions – and of characters, from the mighty Swearengen to the marginalized Jane, struggling to embrace those transitions.
The bureaucrats from the territorial capitol of Yankton (in the form of Magistrate Claggett, who previously participated in Jack McCall’s trial back in episode 5) make their annexation demands known to Al, who in turn has to step even deeper into the role of town leader when he forms an ad hoc government. Charlie opens up his freight business and chafes at the idea of becoming the kind of person who lives in a town and is part of a stable community. Jane in turn decides her levels of self-loathing are sufficient that she needs to get out of Deadwood as soon as possible. Joanie goes in search of a new place to live and work, while Cy struggles to deal with the newfound consciences of both Joanie and Eddie.
And, oh yeah, Bullock surprises both Alma and us by announcing that he has a wife and son whom he’s planning to bring to Deadwood, ASAP.
Let’s start there, because it’s the moment the episode builds to. Last week, Alma and Seth’s flirtation had already taken on an ugly tone when we saw that Alma was willing to discard Trixie if it meant a shot at Mr. Bullock, and now things get even squirmier with the revelation about his family. He paints it as a marriage of obligation, much like the one Alma had with Brom, but the man still has a wife, and one child, and that’s information that might have been useful for Alma to have(*) before she made the decision to stay in the camp. It’s among the stranger cases of Unresolved Sexual Tension on a show I can think of, in that Timothy Olyphant and Molly Parker have abundant chemistry together (to borrow an old line, Olyphant would likely have chemistry with a coat rack), and we’re definitely meant to understand their attraction to each other as opposed to their spouses (one dead, one absent), yet at the same time it’s not the kind of thing that’s easy to cheer on. Maybe if Seth tells Alma this news a day or two earlier, then she, Sofia and Trixie are on the first coach back to civilization, while Seth and Ellsworth are left to manage the claim. Or maybe Alma’s so caught up in the ring of fire that she stays no matter what. But there’s a second level of tension not often found in this kind of set-up.
(*) Or did she know? He reaction to the wife mention was much more matter-of-fact than when Seth mentioned his son, but it could entirely be that Alma was able to keep up a good front at the first piece of shocking news, but couldn’t hold it by the time he got to the second.
But the frustration that dominates the episode – as he’s come to dominate the series by this point of the first season – comes from Al, who’s on the verge of getting what he wants and trying not to seem terrified of it. He has to brace himself for the day while talking to Trixie, and the quiet fury of the way he tells Claggett “How much is that gonna cost me?” is such a great moment for Ian McShane and the character. When have we ever seen Al be quite that vulnerable before? Deadwood will get annexed (it’s not a historical spoiler to say that it isn’t still to this day an outlaw territory), but the same kind of civilized slicksters Al escaped to go to Deadwood now have him in their grip, and they’re gonna squeeze out as much as they can.
And yet for all of Al’s fear of the civilized con men of Yankton, and of how things in the camp will change as the result of annexation, respectability suits him like a glove. Since Trixie returned and he settled his feud with Seth and Alma, he’s been downright gregarious, charming and even thoughtful. He makes an outstanding power behind the throne – even if the throne is being occupied, hilariously, by E.B. Farnum, because everyone in the room was too stunned by his self-appointment as mayor to object.(**)
(**) That scene as a whole was a marvelous piece of the show’s larger portrait of how civilizations are formed, as E.B. realizes quickly that he and the other businessmen can swindle the hoopleheads into paying a good chunk of the bribe money, even though it’s the men in the Gem who will profit the most from annexation. Very few historical governments – be they democracies, monarchies or in between, have risen without some suggestion that the poor will wind up shouldering more of the burden than the rich. As E.B. puts it, succinctly and accurately, “Taking people’s money is what makes organizations real, be they formal, informal or temporary.”
And compare how well Al moves into his new role, even reluctantly, to how much Cy is fumbling around and raging at the newly-developed consciences of Joanie and Eddie. Where Al is ruthlessly efficient, Cy is just plain mean. Al understands that there are other ways to think about the world and move through it, where Cy only knows his way, and acts hurt, confused – and, in the way he accuses Eddie of being a pedophile, viciously – when his lackeys suddenly act more human. Andy’s conversion baffled him, and he’s blind to how his torture of Flora and Miles has turned Eddie and Joanie upside down. If he wasn’t such a powerful bastard, I’d almost feel sorry for him.
Eddie is, for now, trapped at Cy’s card tables, but Joanie is at least out looking for a place – even if it’s a place Cy would own – and has the good fortune to cross paths with Charlie as his own business is opening. It’s a great episode for Dayton Callie, and Charlie’s encounter with Joanie – in which he brings her out of the trance she enters after seeing the scraps of Flora’s dress in Mr. Wu’s pig trough – is a lovely, lovely moment for both actors. Even though Charlie’s so ill-at-ease trying to become a stable business owner and not the guy who wanders from town to town with Wild Bill, he has a gift for relaxing others. I especially like the final beat of their encounter, when she realizes he hasn’t been invited to the big meeting and finds a way to tell him without embarrassing him further. She knows he doesn’t know, and he knows she knows, etc., but by doing it that way and maintaining the pretense, it becomes an act of kindness, even though neither of them is the slightest bit fooled about what’s actually going on.
Charlie’s charms aren’t enough to soothe the savage Jane, however – nor can the words of Reverend Smith and Doc Cochran. She’s been able to keep things together in the early stages of the smallpox scare, but the plague is easing up, and the longer she stays in this place, the more her demons and self-loathing eat at her. And no matter what anyone says or does, she knows two painful things to be true: “I will not be a drunk where he’s buried, and I cannot stay fucking sober.”
There are many times when the characters of “Deadwood” are fooling themselves about who and what they are, and why they’re doing what they’re doing, but “No Other Sons or Daughters” is one big hour of clarity (for everyone but Cy, of course). Change is coming, and no one can deny it, even if that change is going to hurt, hard.
What a great episode. Like “The Wire,” it’s easy to think of “Deadwood” as one big tapestry, but some hours stand out more than others. This is one of those.
Some other thoughts:
• While Seth is one of many real-life characters appearing on the show, not all the details of his life are the same as in the historical record. His wife Martha was not his brother’s widow but his own childhood sweetheart, and they had a daughter, not a son, at the time he moved to Deadwood.
• Reverend Smith is just getting worse, and I love the way the script and Ray McKinnon’s performance make it clear how much more pain he feels from losing his connection to God than he does from the seizures or the possibility that he could soon die.
• Still more theatrical staging, here with director Ed Bianchi and the editors making sure we know exactly who’s in the Gem and where they are right before the big meeting begins.
• Interesting storytelling choice to have Sol and Seth discuss Doc’s confession about having been arrested for grave-robbing (for scientific reasons, of course), rather than to show it. Though knowing the last-minute nature of some of Milch’s writing for the show, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to learn that he came up with the idea well after the initial Gem scene had been shot, and it just became logistically easier to slip it into the hardware boys’ scene.
• Zack Ward (Scut Farkus from “A Christmas Story,” Titus’ brother Dave on “Titus,” etc., etc.) turns up as the Grand Central lackey who gives EB Wild Bill’s letter. The convoluted story about how he came to find the letter many days after Bill’s death felt to me like Milch or one of the other writers (George Putnam, presumably, since he got credit on the script) realized that the letter was still floating around out there from Keith Carradine’s last episode and that they might as well figure out a way to do something with it.
• Alma meets Ellsworth (as well as Charlie), and we see that over the course of this season Ellsworth has already become a much softer, more obviously good-hearted character than he seemed when he delivered the “flatter’n hammered shit” monologue back in the first episode. Jim Beaver wrote last week (in the veteran review) about how Milch enjoyed watching how well he got along off-camera with the young actress who played Sofia, and we already get some of that interplay between the characters here.
• Johnny inherits Persimmon Phil’s position in the Swearengen operation (as road agent and manager of all other crimes taking place outside the camp’s borders), but at least for now is still doing grunt work around the Gem, including bringing out the possibly tainted peaches and pears for another meeting.
• Poor Merrick, disappointed yet again by civilization, yet feeling unable to do anything about it because he believes in the value of an independent fourth estate.
• On the other hand, there’s potentially some huge tension arising between Al and Hardware Boy #1, now that Sol and Trixie are making eye contact and flirting, and in a non-hooker/John kind of way. Trixie doesn’t want Sol to see interact with her as a whore and that’s… complicated. Especially given who her pimp is.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org