“No Other Sons or Daughters” is a big hour for Charlie Utter; he leases an office building, puts up a sign for Utter Freight, meets Joanie, and ends up getting named fire marshal for Deadwood’s ad-hoc government. With the seeming snap of fingers, Charlie’s completely changed his position in society; and with it, his very appearance. Charlie’s new frock coat isn’t just a self-conscious assertion of his new stature; it’s the thematic foundation of a seminal Deadwood episode, an hour full of characters trying on new identities, led by the camp itself, as it tries to half-establish itself as a self-governing entity, in the face of impending annexation. “No Other Sons or Daughters” is a dry run for the future of Deadwood, a fascinating, subtle meditation on identity for the many constituents quickly trying to find their new place in the world.
“No Other Sons or Daughters” is a dry run for the future of Deadwood, a fascinating, subtle meditation on identity for the many constituents quickly trying to find their new place in the world.
As it often does in its best moments, “No Other Sons or Daughters” is a divinely interconnected series of negotiations; some external, some internal, keeping up the ever-present theories of compromise embedded in the show’s first episode. Charlie, with his adorable fancy suit, is the bedrock of both halves of these ideas; in the episode’s best scene, he goes through a whole litany of emotions while meeting Joanie for the first time. For Charlie, the new job means an elevated stature of sorts, one he’s not entirely confident he can personify; for the camp as a whole, it’s another step towards the dreaded “civilization” Al keeps stressing about, cursing out the magistrate of Yankton who arrives to tease the required bribes and actions it will take from the camp’s owners losing their land and gold claims.
Charlie and Al make for pretty interesting parallels in “No Other Sons or Daughters”; where Al’s survivalist tendencies shine through (“everything changes,” he tells Trixie, during the monologue that gave this column its title) in the face of change, characters like Charlie – and to some degree, Jane and Trixie – shy away from, afraid of their own potential as they get dragged into the future. Al may not like change, but there isn’t a fucking thing he can do to stop it; and if you can’t stop something, the next best step is to control it, which he immediately begins to do by organizing an “informal” government, the kind where city officials are randomly assigned, but no governing laws are written down, lest they become too official and appear “rebellious” in the eyes of the Union.
Deadwood dipping its toes into the waters of organized society makes for an exciting central event, the kind the two previous episodes lacked (to their detriment). And it is the first episode of the series without a death or murder of some sort, to boot: the Reverend is barely hanging on, but it’s a telling sign that “No Other Sons or Daughters” is the first hour of the series where someone doesn’t get shot, stabbed, beaten, or assaulted. The most violent things Dan and Johnny do in this episode are buy a piano and open a jar of peaches, respectively – not only does it present this strange, twisted aura of peace around the camp, but it proves Deadwood doesn’t need to rely on HBO’s signature Tits and Trauma formula to generate excitement.
More fascinating is how the town meeting turns out to be the least dramatic scene of a powerful, tense hour: perhaps the most exciting reveal is finding out Doc got caught robbing graves seven times, offering a wonderful macabre touch to one of Deadwood‘s most enigmatic, eccentric personalities (and that reveal comes off-screen). Deadwood’s dry run as an organized entity raises more questions than answers (like if you have no sheriff, do you have any laws?), but it’s by design: as Deadwood tries to change itself in fits and starts, it uses each individual camp member’s journey to give pathos to that struggle, rather than drag out the town meeting scene into something melodramatic and inert.
As often is the case, the smaller Deadwood is, the better it gets: Joanie’s walk through Celestial Alley to Charlie’s door embodies this idea perfectly, the many events and themes of Deadwood‘s early episodes coalescing into one silent scene. What begins in brazen confidence towards her new life quickly becomes a lot more stressful and anxious once she realizes she’s alone, in a strange world full of men trying to make it on her own; in many ways, her walk through the back alleys of the thoroughfare are reminiscent of Trixie, whose fear of change (combined with her self-loathing) plays out in a much more internal, heartbreaking fashion – while Joanie simply slinks back to the Bella Union feeling slightly overwhelmed and defeated, Trixie’s desperation at trying to escape the dangerous man who employs her leads her to nearly kill herself, which she’s still recovering from in “No Other Sons or Daughters”.
Other characters, like Johnny and Farnum, revel in the new prospects in front of them, when the former gets a promotion from Al, and the latter anoints himself the new mayor of Deadwood, as empty and self-serving a title you could possibly imagine. Both men still exist solely under the thumb of Al and the Gem, but they’re both striving to take their influence as far as they possibly can; look no farther than Johnny’s peach cans and Farnum’s curiosity about taxes for how similar these two characters feel in this hour, a perfect parallel to the town’s new stature, changing its name and title and offering up but a few sweet (and undoubtedly rotten at their core, like the peaches that make Merrick sick) ideas for the town as it heads towards a new, semi-official future in South Dakota’s soon-to-be-annexed Black Hills.
Everything comes at a cost, though: like the bribes Al knows he’s going to have to pay the territorial government, “No Other Sons or Daughters” observes the cost of transformation and evolution. Perhaps this is seen best with the poor Reverend, who thinks he smells of death due to the “organic changes” (Doc’s words, not mine) going on with the tumor in his brain. Sometimes, change isn’t always a good thing – for the Reverend, the tumor comes with the loss of his gift in sharing God’s voice with the world. Not only is his faith in God challenged, but his very faith in himself: the Reverend sees himself as an object failure in the face of God’s latest challenge, the word no longer “moving” through him as he once felt it.
Though the Reverend’s shift is not one made by choice, the ideas explored in his conversation with the Doc illuminate characters like Jane and Joanie, who seem almost adrift at sea in Deadwood as they realize their supposed “gifts” may not be as valuable as they think. Jane’s probably the most depressing of all these, returning to her drunken ways and vowing to leave the increasingly-civilized Deadwood behind now that the plague’s left town, and government is on its way to stay. “No Other Sons or Daughters” is forever fixated on the reverberations of change running through the camp – and with Jane and Eddie, it takes an important step back to observe those being left behind by the camp’s new direction.
The most fascinating of them all, though, are the characters trying to cling onto the version of the world they wish for themselves; loudly with Cy and the Reverend, and quietly with other characters like Seth and Eddie. Cy, already hurt by Joanie’s impending departure and his exclusion in the conversations with the magistrate, takes out all his frustrations on the disgruntled Eddie, who insists what they did to Flora and Miles took Cy’s brutal brand of cruelty to an irredeemable low. Cy, not one to be challenged on his own self perceptions, takes offense to this, and proceeds to dress down Eddie in front of everyone at the Bella Union, accusing him of being a pedophile (a particularly hurtful way to insult a gay man like Eddie, leaning into the worst of stereotypes) who is only sad because he didn’t get to fuck Miles, and instead had to watch him die.
Cy can feel his grip on the Bella Union slipping, a precarious position to be in when in a new town full of dangerous, opportunistic rivals; and as we’ve seen in the past, his reactionary tendencies put him in a much more precarious, emotionally unpredictable state of mind than Al, the ultimate chameleon. The contrast between the two couldn’t be clearer in “No Other Sons or Daughters”; and while Al is strangely bringing the people in his orbit together, Cy’s threats and barely contained anger are pushing his business partners away, further isolating him in a strange land, where the terrain is constantly changing, and particularly hard to read (just ask Bullock or Alma, who let their sexual tension subside just long enough to let an expert, Ellsworth, take over the surface level panning on her claim; they can barely read each other, much less understand the functional topography of Alma’s inherited claim).
At first glance, “No Other Sons or Daughters” feels like a rather pointed episode of the series, relying on a stable of wonderful, complex performances to carry a rather perfunctory series of events in the camp. But make no mistake: “No Other Sons or Daughters” is one of the first season’s most layered episodes, a fun house of metaphorical anecdotes, visual alliteration, and – most importantly – a deep thematic symmetry between its many characters. Deadwood, as a town and a show, is rapidly changing as it begins building momentum to its first season finale; in this hour, it leads to some of the show’s most astute, moving ruminations on the struggles of personal evolution, framed around the fascinating transformation Deadwood as a town is beginning to experience.
- An important bit of Bullock’s back story is revealed at the close of the hour: his wife and children were originally his brother’s, whom he took under his care when his brother died in the cavalry. Have you ever seen a man so bound to the duties of others? Be it convicted criminals, frightened widows, or depressed celebrities, Bullock feels the burden of service to so many people in his orbit, it is no wonder he is a cranky cipher for so many of the camp’s frustrations.
- Al suggests to Trixie that she doesn’t try to kill herself again, as affectionate a moment as he can probably muster.
- a local drunk entrusted to deliver Bill Hickok’s last written letter (to his new wife) makes its way back to Deadwood, a plot point I felt like was left a bit under cooked, considering how little anyone besides Farnum seems to care about it.
- “Blood don’t always prove loyalty.”
- another new identity to try on: the government are now calling the Sioux “people,” rather than heathens or dirt worshippers… not exactly a harbinger of great things to come for them – but like the absence of murder in this episode, the new language surrounding the Native Americans is another push towards the camp’s reluctant evolution into something that might wear a fancy coat out on a Sunday morning.
- Al has an outstanding murder warrant in Chicago? What now?
- Eddie: “I could use a clean conscience.” It’s such a bummer this story would get cut off at the knees when Ricky Jay (rest in peace) left the show between seasons one and two (reportedly due to a feud with David Milch, though it was never confirmed).
- Joanie sees Flora’s clothes in the corner of the pig pen, a cruel reminder that Deadwood’s violent tendencies might be sugar coated to appease the government, but still linger just outside the doors of the suddenly semi-civilized Gem.
- Boy, Hickok’s “Can you hear the thunder?” quote takes on a whole new meaning in “No Other Sons or Daughters”.
- What makes an organization real? When they start taking money, a salient point raised by Mayor-elect Farnum.
- Deadwood reaches from 1878 to 2019 when Merrick drunkenly talks about his resistance to joint the burgeoning government; “the fourth estate is of the essence,” he proudly (and rightly) proclaims.
- Bullock didn’t want to be sheriff, so he volunteered to be health commissioner (not knowing they wouldn’t be holding a vote to name a sheriff at all.)
- “If this is His will, then he is a son of a bitch.” I don’t care how many dead people the Doc expunged; he is hands down one of the best characters on this show.