‘Deadwood’ Rewind: Season 1, Episode 5: ‘The Trial of Jack McCall’ (Newbies edition)

Senior Television Writer
06.30.11 9 Comments

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 5, “The Trial of Jack McCall,” coming up just as soon as I look it up in my yesterday’s diary…

“May I ask, Mr. Bullock, what you feel now may be your part?” -Reverend Smith

The most important passage in all of “Deadwood” appears in this episode, and it features language that David Milch didn’t write. The scene is the funeral of Wild Bill Hickok, and the passage is the Reverend Smith’s quoting of St. Paul’s epistles to the Corinthians – specifically, the section about how all a body’s parts are of the body, and are necessary to make it function. Seth regards it as gibberish, in part because Smith’s bearing seems increasingly manic (though it’s more the result of whatever causes him to suffer a seizure in his tent after the funeral), but mainly because he doesn’t want to hear what the passage – what “Deadwood” itself – is all about.

This show is about the formation of a community, and a community, like a body, requires its many parts to work together in order to function. When we entered the series, Deadwood was not a community, but a collection of loners pursuing separate agendas (or, in the case of the staff at the Gem, a small collective furthering the agenda of one individual against everyone else). And that’s fine for an outlaw, illegal mining camp, but not for what Al and Cy and everyone else hopes will eventually become an annexed part of the United States. Sooner or later, the foot’s going to have to learn to work with the knee, the eye with the ear, and all the parts together – not all the time, but often enough for the body that is Deadwood to work as a whole.

Seth struggles to acknowledge the truth of that idea, even as he keeps giving himself over to it. He wants to be left alone to just run his hardware business, even though he repeatedly can’t stop himself from playing the law-and-order part he tried to leave behind in Montana. Here, he once again forcibly stops the small-time con man from running one of his games in the middle of the thoroughfare, he continues following Wild Bill’s instructions to be Alma’s proxy and protector, and when the jury acquits Jack McCall based on the judge’s sketchy instructions, Seth takes it upon himself to chase him down and see if more appropriate justice can be done outside the camp.

Other figures this week are more willing to play their respective parts. Al and Cy team up to decide who should host the trial, and Merrick organizes the proceedings. Tom Nuttall pays for Wild Bill’s coffin, and Smith conducts the service. And when Al sends Trixie to be his agent inside Alma Garret’s home, she instead decides she’d rather help a stranger shake off a drug habit and help out the little girl than get the widow hooked on dope to suit Al’s purposes.

Of course, putting yourself out there for your fellow man doesn’t always go swimmingly. Take poor Merrick, for instance. He has such high hopes for everyone, and is forever being disappointed. Wild Bill and Seth refused to talk to him about their various exploits in the camp, and here the jury that Merrick helped assemble quickly acquits the vile murderer of the great Wild Bill. He seems almost shockingly naive for a man of his age(*), so I doubt he suspects Al of having played a role in the verdict, but he feels very let down by all of humanity as he stands on the hill where Bill is being buried.

(*) While Milch and I have gotten along over the years, I get the sense that he doesn’t think much of the media in general, and Merrick strikes me at times as Milch’s comment on how members of the press are far removed from and not capable of fully comprehending the people and events they cover.

And if Seth himself isn’t willing to admit that he’s playing a part, he at least recognizes that whatever he’s doing has consequences, as he suggests that Sol – whose own part thus far seems to be as the man who lets Bullock be Bullock – might need to prepare for a future where Seth has been hanged for whatever he winds up doing to Jack.

Right now, everything that occurs in and around the camp exists in a complicated moral grey area. Al doesn’t want to see Jack hanged in Deadwood because he fears it would make the US government treat them as a sovereign nation to be conquered rather than a territory to be absorbed. Right now, he doesn’t want the camp to become a part of America because he wants the implementation of law and order – as he says to Cy, there are days he wishes he could just kill and rob every last hooplehead he sees – but because it’s the only way to know his fortune and businesses will be secure. But he has to take the good with the bad, the convenient with the inconvenient, and if that means starting to recognize that he has a part to play – for now, as the town’s defacto leader – then he’ll do it.

Some other thoughts:

• Know Your Milch-isms, part 1: Milch is fond of having one character explain the situation in a contorted Milch-ian fashion, then having a second character translate that into plain English, and then having the first character complain that the second is repeating what he just said. Sipowicz and Medavoy did this a lot on “NYPD Blue,” and Al and EB do it a lot here.

• Know Your Milch-isms, part 2: Once again, we get a monologue delivered to no one and nothing, with EB’s wonderfully bitter speech about how he’s always cleaning up Al Swearengen’s messes (literally, in the case of Tim Driscoll’s blood) without ample reward.

• Know Your Milch-isms, part 2a: Keep an eye peeled for other scenes like the ones that Jane and Andy share up in the hills, in which two characters are talking past each other, each consumed with his or her personal problems (or, in Andy’s case, with a potentially deadly fever) and just glad to have someone to unburden themselves to, even if that someone isn’t really paying attention.

• Not sure which deadpan line makes me laugh harder: Cy responding to Al’s suggestion of how he would murder everyone and steal their money with “But that would be wrong,” or Al offering the judge a blow job, then explaining, “I wasn’t offering it personally.” Overall, the scene where Al and Cy briefly make nice to discuss the trial is splendid.

• Alma has been dreaming of Seth? Hoo-boy. I’m also always initially surprised each time I rewatch the series by how much I like Alma, when ordinarily a character as high-handed as she can be to people like Doc Cochran will turn me off. That’s a testament to Molly Parker, obviously, but also to Milch for making Alma so shrewd, and for placing her in such a sympathetic circumstance.

• When the Bella Union gang first appeared a few episodes back, I noted that Cy, Eddie and Joanie line up as a kind of polished mirror version of Al, Dan and Trixie. It’s not exactly a one-to-one match – Eddie doesn’t strike me as the type to handle Cy’s wetwork, for instance – but it was interesting to see the parallel between Trixie and Joanie this week. Al asks what Trixie is looking for out the window, and she says “Whatever I can see,” because it’s a pretty insular, unhappy life for the girls at the Gem – even Al’s favorite whore. And while Joanie dresses better and carries herself like she’s more Cy’s colleague than possession, there’s definite tension when she decides to go to Wild Bill’s funeral without first asking his permission to leave the establishment. For these women, their lives aren’t exactly prison, but they’re not exactly freedom, either.

• Hey, It’s That Guy! Glenn Morshower (aka Agent Aaron from “24,” Landry’s dad on “Friday Night Lights,” etc., etc.) turns up in the small role of Bart, the Bella Union employee who has to reluctantly take Andy out to the woods – and who chooses to let Andy live rather than burn the blanket (and the man on it).

Up next: “Plague,” in which Bullock runs into a complication in his pursuit of McCall, and the town comes together to deal with a health crisis.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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