(Deadwood: The Movie premieres on May 31st, nearly 13 years after the show’s original cancellation. In anticipation for the new film, Randy’s re-watching the entire series, in a new column titled One Vile Rewatch.)
With the return of Seth and Charlie – and the arrival of Flora and Miles – to the Deadwood camp, “Bullock Returns to the Camp” is stuck between two major arcs, capping off the Wild Bill era of Deadwood‘s early episodes, while building out arcs for future episodes to follow .Given this position, it is understandable “Bullock Returns” feels a bit lacking – most of what entails in the series’ shortest episode to date is perfunctory in nature, the space between larger exclamations in Deadwood‘s larger narratives. Thankfully, a lot of atmosphere and a bit of character work go a long way in keeping “Bullock Returns” afloat, with the introduction of the young grifters to town an interesting, if superficial, distraction.
“Bullock Returns to Camp” isn’t a particularly memorable episode of Deadwood – but it is a necessary one, a bridge between the show’s two larger, more distinct arcs of season one.
There is a bit of connective tissue binding the scenes of “Bullock Returns to Camp” to each other; be it small pox, Flora, or Andy Cramed, the traditional powers of Deadwood find themselves in the midst of new, mostly unpredictable conflicts. A virus, a couple of deceptions, and a con man struggling with his own conscience are the backbone of “Bullock Returns,” which give these smaller stories some much needed propulsion with a couple unexpected turns. After a half dozen hours depicting various external dramas of Deadwood, “Bullock Returns” looks inward as it looks forward, challenging the traditional powers of the fledgling camp in a number of intriguing ways.
The story of Flora and Miles, while serving an important role in driving the drama of “Bullock Returns to Camp,” is unfortunately a sore spot in an otherwise entertaining episode. On her own, Flora’s character is fairly interesting; a young woman trying to take on the two most powerful men in camp, while wrapping their respective second-in-commands around her finger (with almost zero effort, no less), offers a new, enigmatic challenge for Al and Cy to face. Having a pre-Veronica Mars Kristen Bell in the role of the young grifter is a big help, too: she gives so much texture to what is mostly a superficial presence, giving breadth to a thin character in but a few powerful scenes.
It’s really the presence of Miles that sells their arrival in Deadwood short; from the get go, Miles never feels like anything but a proxy for Flora’s story, the rare example of a named entity in Deadwood feeling thin and perfunctory. His obvious insignificance limits the dramatic effect of Flora’s plan in the final minutes of the episode; without a single signature trait to his name, Miles almost immediately feels extraneous – and perhaps by design, this makes Flora’s ambitious plan to rob both Al and Cy blind feels immediately like a failed endeavor.
That disconnect from Miles is a telling one; watching Flora figure out exactly what makes Joanie and Dan tick is fascinating, and her presence vastly overshadows her brother’s inherent dullness. Placed together, the tracks of their story are clear from a mile away; given what we’ve seen Al and Cy capable of already, it’s but a matter of time before they’re onto Flora and Miles, which cuts off oxygen to their story almost immediately. In a rare case of an unearned moment, Flora’s reckless ambitions rob their story of having the potential it could in later episodes; “Bullock Returns” puts a countdown timer above their heads in the final minutes, which removes much of the tension that could’ve been built out in their story.
Much of “Bullock Returns” feels underdeveloped in this way; though there’s still no small pox vaccine in town, the impact of the devastating virus is lacking in dramatic weight, dragging on the back of the rest of the episode as an ominous presence, more than a prescient threat. It is pretty clear the story’s purpose has already been served; once we saw the leaders of Deadwood come together and throw money at the problem, it felt like Deadwood lost interest in the potential of how a deadly outbreak could unravel the camp, its ultimate interests only in observing how the presence of small pox affects its characters.
As a delivery for character moments, small pox does serve its purpose in “Bullock Returns”; whether Jane’s gift as a caregiver coming to life, or showing the contrast between Joey and Andy’s reactions to the disease, the small pox outbreak in camp does carry a lot of emotional water in the hour. But given its apocalyptic introduction a few episodes ago, the effect of the plague on the camp feels rather muted, almost completely isolated within the walls of the pest tent.
The lone moment of the story that does escape the tent – Andy’s miraculous recovery – does provide one interesting wrinkle, when he enters the Bella Union to remind Cy of how cruel he was, leaving him in the woods. It fuels the growing tension between Cy and his two disciples, Eddie and Joanie, even more than Flora’s employment or last episode’s con of Ellsworth. It’s clear Cy is just as ruthless and indulgently violent as Al; but Cy does it with a top hat and a well-manicured smile on his face, as deceptive as anything Flora tells Joanie in “Bullock Returns”.
But this moment is awash in a sea of less significant developments; “Bullock Returns to Camp” is full of small, furtive glances to the future, which makes much of the episode feel like an incomplete thought. Alma, in particular, feels like a character in flux in this episode: while Trixie and Seth both go to bat for her, she vascillates between flustered excitement and cunning match maker, two strange roles to see the show’s most measured character develop suddenly, even with her laudnum withdrawals behind her. Brom’s body is barely into the ground, and Alma is already a new woman, content to stay in a strange, dangerous place to see where her connection to Bullock may take her.
Quietly, Bullock may be the single most engaging element of the episode: “Bullock Returns” is a bit of a grounding moment for Deadwood‘s cantankerous moral center. After all, he begins the hour making an illegal arrest of Jack McCall (dumping him in Yankton for them to take care of, inviting all sorts of potential pressure to follow him back to camp), and neglects to tell Alma that he’s a married man (a fact we learn in passing a few episodes earlier); it seems the supposed man of honor has his own complications, complexities a bit more ephemeral than shooting men guilty of murder or being cranky as fuck all the time.
That little note brings a lot of texture to Bullock’s character; as a whole, “Bullock Returns to Camp” lives and dies on these little textural moments, relying on them to fill in the gaps where the truncated story of the hour can’t. To the episode’s credit, they mostly work extremely well: Farnum’s frustration, Dan’s deadly obsession, and Trixie’s resignation are all powerful, revealing moments for central characters, critical presences in an hour lacking the kinetic sense of movement driving the show’s earliest hours. “Bullock Returns to Camp” isn’t a particularly memorable episode of the series – but it is a necessary one, a thematic bridge between the show’s two larger, more distinct arcs of season one.
- invisible sources of conflict carry over to the episode’s most emotional scene, where Jane and Charlie have one-sided conversations at Bill’s grave. The weight of the unseen is heavy in “Bullock Returns,” and Charlie’s emotional reaction coming to terms with his friend’s death is a potent, heartbreaking moment.
- the Sol/Trixie relationship is one Deadwood really wants to tease us with early on; given how little of a presence it serves the series as a larger whole in future seasons, these early hints feel a bit hollow.
- in Charlie’s most adorable move, he brings items for his new friends Seth and Sol to sell at their hardware store.
- Seth gives no fucks: he puts the reconnoitering of Alma’s claim on Al’s shoulders, promising to come for his head if the assayer he suggests tries to pull any funny business.
- Andy returns to the Bella Union to see his belongings discarded, and Cy unconcerned for his well being, beyond what financial gain they might be able to make together. Andy, disgusted by how easily he was disposed, passes on the offer.
- after another seizure, Doc is starting to think the Reverend may have a brain tumor; the Reverend believes it is the divine hand of God guiding him, yet another example of the invisible forces at play in this hour.
- When Bullock arrives at the Gem to talk to Al, Al can’t help but poke him, greeting him by asking if he should be armed for their impending conversation.
- Farnum’s ability to speak around his own point leads to some of the show’s finest writing; it’s always a pleasure to hear him manipulate language to serve his cowardly purposes.
- Trixie is on fire this episode, basically challenging Al to kill her for lying to him, and calling Alma a “rich cunt” after she offers to set her up with a new life in New York. Trixie is determined to take over her own life in Deadwood, whether it kills her or not.
- a note on One Vile Rewatch; due to personal reasons, there have been some delays in the publishing of these columns. With the movie scheduled to air 5/31, this means these reviews will be coming twice a day through the rest of the month. The best way to make sure you don’t miss any of those columns is to bookmark the category, follow TV Never Sleeps on Facebook, or me on Twitter for the latest updates.