(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.)
Prospecting gold in the hills of the Old West required a few specific traits; without a good work ethic and a lot of patience, there was no chance of hitting jackpot in the shallow waters of unsettled lands. A bit of luck was also necessary, but what truly separated the upper echelon of prospectors was their ability to survey, tracing the path from flake to deposit, analyzing the land to figure out where the treasure was hidden. This particular skill required diligent observation and cautious maneuvering; to reconnoiter (a term with a vaguely militaristic back ground) was to play chess with nature, feeling out its patterns and mastering the layout of the land, to pick at its weak spots and uncover its hidden riches.
“Reconnnoitering the Rim”, Deadwood‘s richly textured third episode, is titled after Al’s ominous conversation with Brom and Dan, encouraging Brom to go search for the source of the gold nuggets he found before buying Driscoll’s claim – however, it’s a term that applies to every major character in the hour, all trying to figure out their places in the rapidly expanding settlement. “Reconnoitering the Rim” carefully observes each and every player of the town, as they react to conflicts large and small, from the radical change brought about by the arrival of the Bella Union crew, right down to figuring out who cut the cheese in Al’s office (which, for the record: my money is on Farnum, because why wouldn’t it be him stinking up the place?).
Deadwood‘s underrated mastery of dramatic pacing is on full display in “Reconnoitering in Rim”, throwing characters and viewers alike into fascinating disarray.
After watching Al pull every possible string around the settlement for two episodes, “Reconnoitering” offers Al his first true challenge during his second stay in Deadwood – and with Cy Tolliver and Joanie Stubbs. All of a sudden, Al’s trying to blindly defend himself from multiple angles; not only are their the unknown of the camp’s new arrivals, but he’s still trying to figure out The Hardware Boys, and deal with Brom’s whispers of bringing the Pinkerton Agency (who are still around, and currently working on weaponizing climate change) into town for a little restitution determination. All of these different pockets of conflict put an intense focus on Al’s ability to react, to assess a situation and figure out how to extract the most value for himself out of it; and with all three, we see Al’s distrusting approach to the world bring him wildly varied results.
The most interesting of the three are obviously the Bella Union, who walk in (with the help of Farnum, no less) and immediately establish their intentions to cut in on the drug, gambling, and prostitution profits Al’s enjoyed to himself thus far. The Bella Union folks are capitalism in its truest form knocking at Deadwood’s door, the ever prescient push of civilization forcing Deadwood towards the realities of the 20th century. At first glance, the Bella Union appears to be a more efficient, cultured version of the Gem, the natural byproduct of the wealthy building on the backs of “innovators” like Al. Where Al is running all aspects of the Gem on his own, Cy, Joanie, and craps manager Eddie Sawyer are all splitting management duties, “specialty acts” that offer a more corporate, calculated version of Al’s business offerings; you’re not going to see Cy behind the bar pouring drinks or negotiating the price of a sex worker, and that evolution of business is frightening to Al.
It’s also the first look through the veneer of Al as master manipulator; he’s as flawed and compromised as anyone else in the camp, stumbling around trying to draw conclusions from the unknown. It doesn’t take him long to figure out Farnum’s role in everything, but being a known entity, he’s the last of Al’s concerns; but it’s the only satisfying answer Al can find. He tries out a few conspiracy theories – primarily, that the arrival of Wild Bill and the Hardware Boys are related to this new business interest in his town – but none of those bite, and Al has to face the fact that he may just have been usurped by something newer, cleaner, and more efficient than he is.
Even his attempts at subterfuge fail; he employs Cy’s heroin dealer to keep him in the know of the Bella Union’s dealings in town, but it’s a move Cy sees coming a mile away, turning Al’s newest advantage against him, a fascinating first sign of just how unbelievably crafty and adaptive Cy Tolliver is. Cy’s literal introduction to Deadwood is a rather quiet one; him and his company get into town and go about their business, not inflecting their presence on the town in anything but an inviting way. But Cy’s actions and maneuvers in “Reconnoitering the Rim” are extremely telling of his true nature, the veneer of an upstanding businessman with a certain sense of class a mere cover for the dangerously confident, cunning business man lying underneath. His ability to instantly assess, and undercut, Al is the thematic foundation of “Reconnoitering”, a perfect contrast to someone like Brom, whose inability to understand the layout of Deadwood, in any aspect, leads to his untimely demise at the hands of Dan.
Brom’s death isn’t necessarily surprising; Alma, along with the rest of the town, quickly realize Brom’s in over his head, both in his gold claim and his attempts to play in Al’s sand box. What is surprising is just how quickly he is guided off the side of a cliff, a stunning reminder of how lawless the lands of Deadwood still remain,a young and dangerously feral society – and how little Al tolerates variables in his life, a cruel reinforcement of his ruthlessness. Not only it is an unexpected ignition of perhaps the show’s most obtuse story in the early goings, but it gives even more dynamic to the brewing conflict between Al and Cy; Al doesn’t immediately kill Farnum and Cy for colluding behind his back, which shows a certain lack of confidence, not able to fall back on his old, reliant tricks of deception and murder to force his will on the town’s occupants. For the first time, Al feels truly threatened by the triumvirate of leadership at the Bella Union; that prospect is an exciting one for Deadwood, a quick shift that muddies the assumed role of Al as the show’s primary antagonist.
There is some other plot movement in “Reconnoitering the Rim”; The Hardware Boys pushing through a relatively simple negotiation to buy their lot is a rather underhanded moment, a sudden distraction for Al with the larger issues of the Bella Union on his plate. Deadwood, while a show with a number of clearly defined arcs across episodes and seasons, doesn’t adhere to the modern formula of the Peak TV era. Rather than building a season around two or three meaningful climaxes, Deadwood zigs and zags from story to story, never adhering to the typical parameters of traditional serialized dramas. Nearly every arc on Deadwood is built around a standard three-act structure, but those stories could last two-thirds of an episode, or two-thirds of the series – often to the show’s benefit, one of the last dramas with the ability to truly surprise audiences.
Deadwood‘s underrated mastery of dramatic pacing is on full display in “Reconnoitering in Rim”, essentially overhauling three-quarters of the show’s main narratives in the span of fifty-five minutes, throwing characters and viewers alike into fascinating disarray. While it’s uncertain what the arrival of the Bella Union means for the town of Deadwood, it pays immediate dividends for the show as a whole, brilliantly building on the atmosphere of the first two episodes to deliver a better paced, slightly more focused third hour. A bit of momentum does Deadwood a lot of good; enticingly dense and patient in its initial offerings, “Reconnoitering” is an electric shock to the many stories percolating in “Deadwood” and “Deep Water”, a welcome jolt of energy setting the tone the rest of the show’s freshman season will follow to memorable results.
- Merrick sneezes through the Mason funeral, a wonderful display of Deadwood‘s slightly morbid sense of humor.
- Wild Bill dresses down Jack after beating him at cards, calling him a cunt in any number of different ways. Jack then gets his ass tossed in the mud after talking shit at The Hardware Boy’s store… not a great day for Deadwood’s most annoying occupant (this side of E.B., of course).
- speaking of Wild Bill, he reluctantly meets some fans (one played by Brooklyn Nine-Nine‘s Joel McKinnon Miller), an interaction that predictably ends well; one leaves particularly disgruntled, cursing Bill and wishing that he “gets what he’s got coming to him” while he’s in Deadwood. This comes after one makes a crack about his acting ability, telling him “you looked like you didn’t know you were dead yet.”
- Al mentions that he’d been pushed out of Deadwood the previous year by the cavalry, a foe Al defeated when the soldiers all started abandoning ship to go prospecting for gold.
- the drug trade in Deadwood is about to get interesting, which will bring Mr. Wu into the fold, one of my favorite tertiary characters of Deadwood.
- Alma sees her husband struggling to work up the nerve to confront Al; even though she’s a laudnum addict, she can see her husband lacks the strength to survive here in Deadwood. Unfortunately, her attempts to convince him to leave do not work out well.
- This episode marks the debut of Ricky Jay and Powers Boothe on the show, both of whom have passed away in recent years.
- Al: “when I see lightning, I wait for thunder. When I see thunder, I assume it’s part of the storm.”
Deadwood: The Movie Is a Haunting, Beautiful Conclusion to HBO’s Iconic Western
What a grand surprise, after such a piece of time, to return to the damp streets of Deadwood; after thirteen years in purgatory, David Milch finally brings his Western masterpiece to a close with Deadwood: The Movie. Both a reunion special of epic proportions, and a poetic rumination on the Sisyphean journey of life, Deadwood: The Movie is more than a proper send off for the heartless cunts and conniving cocksuckers of South Dakota’s original social experiment; it is David Milch’s reflection on the power of time and memory, a series of beautiful observations on the fragility of human mortality filtered through the dusty, still-muddy lens of Deadwood.
As a dream might come alive to draw a breath, Deadwood: The Movie‘s unexpected existence offers the most satisfying conclusion imaginable for one of television’s greatest dramatic experiments.
Set on the weekend of South Dakota’s ascent to statehood in 1889, Deadwood: The Movie is, at heart, a remix of the original, unintended series finale from thirteen years ago: both are centered around the death of a beloved community member at (now Senator) George Hearst’s hired hands, the shocking reminders of mortality and power causing a rippling effect through town. There are moments of beauty, of heartbreak, of hilarity, and joy; despite its truncated length (and subsequently, plot – characters like Dan, Alma, and the Doc unfortunately don’t get a whole lot to do here), Deadwood: The Movie is an evocative and deeply moving piece of art, an emotional work beautifully directed by series stalwart Daniel Minahan, who indelible cinematic touches give great breadth to the powerful, poetic wordplay in Milch’s signature, bittersweet monologues (he also employed the help of Regina Corrado, one of the writers during the original run, and also serves as co-executive producer of the film).
The birth of Deadwood as part of South Dakota marks the death of it as a camp, the inevitability of progress arriving in the form of telephone poles, trains, and corrupt federal officials making their way into the bustling mining camp. With it, the characters of Deadwood: The Movie bear the weight of time’s passage: from Joanie to Johnny, to Jewel and the Gem itself, everyone is a bit grayer around the edges ten years after the violent, abrupt events of ten years ago, the memories of their time as a burgeoning camp fading with the town’s time as an uncultured experiment in personal freedom (in all its communal glory and personal horror).
The return of Alma Ellsworth, Calamity Jane, and George Hearst to mark the occasion kick off the events of Deadwood: The Movie, which play out a season’s worth of story developments in rapid succession. A few of these beats – Trixie’s public admonition of Hearst, Harry’s strange arc through the film, Bullock’s accelerated explosion – are obvious byproducts of the film’s abbreviated running time, but still work in the context of giving the film dramatic propulsion, all centered around the unexpected reunion of Deadwood regulars when everyone arrives, popping the beautiful, quiet bubble of family life Bullock’s built with Martha (and away from Al) over the years.
As much as Deadwood was defined by its ability to meander through episodes, waxing philosophically in its singularly vulgar way, it still contained the ability to shock, sudden crescendos of violence accentuating the quieter reflections weaved into the show’s incredible storytelling – from Charlie’s death to the midday shootout in the thoroughfare, Deadwood: The Movie certainly doesn’t lack in these moments, either.
Deadwood: The Movie’s ability to effortlessly navigate both halves of its dramatic identity, help drive the most central themes of the story: at its heart, Deadwood: The Movie is about the power of memory. Written in the wake of Milch’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis, the movie’s flashbacks and dominating focus on the past are symbolic of Milch’s the moments we carry with us through our lives, imperfect recordings of emotion that define us, even as the faces and events themselves inevitably fade from our minds.
Most sharply reflected in characters like Sol, Trixie, and Joanie, the town of Deadwood passing the torch to the next generation of hookers, saloon owners, and elected officials serves as perhaps the greatest embodiment of these ideas; even as it grows into something new and improved (“catching up with the future,” as it were), Deadwood is inevitably tied to its own past, doomed to repeat the cycle of Hearst’s corruption and contagious, pointless violence in some form or another until the end of time.
All we can hope to do, is be a little better each time, carving out the best path we can, for as long as we can remember to: as faces, memories, and lives inevitably fade (“all bleeding stops eventually,” after all), the beautiful trappings of memory also leaves us, one of the most horrible gifts of life’s final act. Milch’s script, at its very best, is a poignant observation: our memories trap us, challenge us, and anchor us as human beings through life.
We remember the people we love, the people we hate, and the minutes of our lives defined by unexpected proclamations, arrivals, and farewells; and as time inevitably marches forward, we are shaped by the days behind us (look no further than Al’s whiskey drinking; lest we remit our inherent habit of repeating the choices of the past, we are doomed to be defeated by them), until we are slowly freed from them, as our minds and bodies slowly fade.
Equally beautiful and disturbing, our memories are the most precious things we have, treasures of immeasurable personal wealth never to be taken lightly or willingly forgotten, no matter how painful they might be (Al’s constant massaging of his lost finger a beautifully bleak testament to this idea that even the most painful memories serve their purpose). harness the power of memory is to learn to forgive, to remember how to love, and to ensure the peace of modernity’s advance, something we have more moral authority over than someone like Hearst would seem to believe.
As a dream might come alive to draw a breath, Deadwood: The Movie‘s unexpected existence offers the most satisfying conclusion imaginable for one of television’s greatest dramatic experiments. In what may be David Milch’s final major screenwriting credit, Deadwood: The Movie offers an incredibly poignant, measured reflection of life, viewed through the kaleidoscope of its many memorable characters, as perfect a farewell, as inglorious the dispatch may be, one could possibly imagine for HBO’s iconic, unforgettable series.
Safe passage to us all.
- this turned out to be a very brief review because I’m traveling this week, and I wasn’t able to watch the film in advance – but I’ll have more thoughts, plot-related and otherwise, on Deadwood: The Movie when One Vile Rewatch reaches its conclusion later this summer.
- when Bullock discovers Charlie’s body, a rumble of thunder is heard in the distance, calling back to one of the show’s defining scenes in season one.
- The only new character is a wannabe-whore Caroline Woolgarden, whose unassuming, quiet arc arguably reflects the whole “breaking the wheel” argument Game of Thrones stumbled in making during its final season.
- I think I laughed the hardest when Johnny yelled out “Shot, I am” after the the shootout in the thoroughfare.
- Garrett Dillahunt completes a trio of Deadwood characters with a cameo in the film, like a drunken ghost admonishing Bullock and Hearst, the men who sealed the fates of his two previous characters in the series.
- A few favorite moments; Bullock’s “I’m home,” Al giving Trixie away at her wedding, Bullock sitting with Samuel (the man inadvertantly responsible for little William Bullock’s death in season three), Farnum sneaking through the hotel walls one last time, and Bullock and Alma’s first and last scenes together.
- “Saloon is a sanctuary”… Al would’ve really loved Cheers.
- just a fun fact: Al had the equivalent of roughly $320,000 (in 2019 dollars) hidden in his mattress. Never one to trust a bank, that one.
- What an amazing final thirty minutes. Just an unbelievably breathtaking distillation of everything Deadwood. I couldn’t imagine a more perfect final scene, a wonderful, touching send off to this incredible film.
(note: this article was updated to reflect Regina Corrado, not Nic Pizzolatto as the original version stated, helped Milch refine his script)
One Vile Rewatch: Deadwood Season One Episode 9 – “No Other Sons or Daughters”
“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.
One Vile Rewatch: Deadwood Season One Episode 8 – “Suffer the Little Children”
The arrival of the smallpox vaccine at the outset of “Suffer the Little Children” brings another important development to the door steps of Deadwood: the Sioux are about to settle with the American government, effectively marking the end of the camp’s era of lawlessness. Predictably, the news causes Deadwood’s constituents to begin contemplating their own future in the camp, a shifting of priorities for both Deadwood‘s eclectic cast of characters, and the show as a whole. The whole affair makes for a fascinatingly busy hour, capped off by the show’s most brutal, terrifying scene to date – after dragging in its first few post-Wild Bill episodes, “Suffer the Little Children” shows signs of Deadwood regaining its footing as it heads into a critical juncture of its first season.
Civilization has set its course for Deadwood – but before one thing turns into that other thing, “Suffer the Little Children” shows just how stuck between the past and the future everything (and everyone) in Deadwood is.
As so many early episodes often are, “Suffer the Little Children” is most interested in exploring the parallels between Al and Cy, their dynamic taking on new levels of intrigue with the rumors of the impending treaty, and subsequent annexation of the camp. Their tactics in particular, take on a heightened importance; though Al is a vulgar man running a vulgar, uncultured saloon, Al seems much more prepared to enter the civilized world. He finds a way to negotiate with Bullock – letting the ever-so-valuable gold claim slip through his fingers – and begins to realize his treatment of Trixie has become barbaric, even by his own standards; though he’s still a violent, cantankerous asshole, Al’s willingness to mold himself ever so slightly to fit into a world of laws and government regulation is impressive, especially in contrast with Cy.
Cy’s approach to business remains a primitive reminder of a world Deadwood’s leaving behind; even Al has the foreknowledge to murder people in his office, lest he be seen beating women in the thoroughfare (nobody needs bad press in Merrick’s newspaper, after all). In “Suffer the Little Children,” Cy represents the worst of what Deadwood currently is: violent, intimidating, abusive, and unmoving, justifying his brutal assaults and subsequent murders of Flora and Miles by his need to maintain appearances, lest everyone just think they can come and rob him at their leisure.
With the impending influence of an organized society, Cy’s ways aren’t going to work: and the more Cy sticks to his guns, the more his traditions and attitude alienate him from his business partners. Though he posits Eddie and Joanie on his shoulders as the two halves of his morality, Cy ruthlessly beating the already critically-injured siblings is brutalism on a level that won’t exist much longer, and proves to be more counter effective than he had hoped – especially when Joanie tries to turn the gun on herself after killing Flora on Cy’s orders.
In isolation, the Flora/Miles arc feels cut off at the knees, like something the writers introduced and immediately lost interest in; but in conjunction with “Bullock Returns to the Camp,” their abrupt (and depressing) end serves a critical role in developing the larger themes of the season. Even as Deadwood forges forward into its uncertain future, it remains consumed by what lies behind it: Joanie seeing herself in Flora is but one of many examples of Deadwood’s population remaining obsessed with the past, from Trixie’s assumption that she’ll always be just a whore, right down to Farnum’s assumptions that killing everyone and feedin them to Wu’s pigs will solve the problem.
The contrast is most stark between Al and Cy through, drawing on their appearances to complicate the lights they’re cast in; it’s Al who feels more sophisticated in “Suffer the Little Children,” while Cy flails around, trying to work his old tricks on the crew to keep them loyal. It’s an interesting thread, and one “Suffer the Little Children” takes great care not pulling too hard on, letting the contrast between the two simmer before the episode’s explosive climactic moments.
“Suffer the Little Children” isn’t just another hour-long dick measuring contest (though there are plenty of those yet to come in the series); it is also an hour that takes a long, hard look at the women of Deadwood, in an intriguing, but half-hearted attempt to give drive to their characters. On the surface, the events of “Suffer” feel distinctly feminist against the first seven hours of the show: Alma decides to stay in camp and get rich, Al softens up a bit to Trixie, and Joanie gets an opportunity to escape her hell and start her own business. Critically, their decisions are unfortunately by products of a man’s choice, which undercuts the very point of these intertwined narratives; Bullock’s influence on Alma and Cy’s emotionally abusive relationship with Joanie are ultimately the driving forces of those stories, which make their supposedly strong, independent choices feel a bit compromised in the process.
It does make them effective examples of how hard it was for women to exert their influence on the society around them in those times; but it seems to treat Bullock’s initial concern and Al’s revelation (“points taken, no grabbing at the cunt!”) as paragons of progress, when they’re a lot more patronizing and self-serving than that. Though Deadwood is the rare Western with multiple developed female characters, they’re often curtailed by the lack of organic expression built into their personalities; they are often left as reactive devices to the whimsies of the men in Deadwood, which is historically accurate, but limits the effectiveness of moments like Trixie slapping Al across the face, or Alma deciding to stay in camp and rake in the cash from her deceased husband’s gold claim.
Poignancy comes in fits and starts for “Suffer the Little Children,” which loses interest in any number of plots (dangers to Alma and Sofia, Farnum’s frustrations with Al, Flora/Miles) in favor of newer and shinier ideas. That constant reshuffling of priorities and stories is one of Deadwood‘s more fascinating aspects, its short attention span a powerful double-edged sword for the short-lived series to wield. Sometimes, a swift ending is exactly what a story needs, as in the case of Wild Bill; in other examples, like Flora and Miles’ few short days in the camp, it feels like the show pushed forward too quickly, trampling over under cooked ideas and characters in pursuit of something richer. Like its characters, Deadwood was always panning for narrative gold – and though its ‘eye for the color’ wasn’t quite as consistent as Ellsworth’s, episodes like “Suffer the Little Children” show just how effective an unexpected ending can be, as an illuminative device.
Though memorable more for its brutal conclusion than its thematic depth, “Suffer the Little Children” is a much more effective table setting hour than its predecessor, able to avoid the narrative whiplash by focusing on tying up loose ends, and integrating its many stories and characters into a tighter, more focused narrative moving forward. Civilization has set its course for Deadwood – but before one thing turns into that other thing, “Suffer the Little Children” displays just how stuck between the past and the future everything (and everyone) in Deadwood is; it’s not exactly the most resonant hour, but is an effective litmus test for the tornado of change set to hit the camp in the near future.
- Flora’s arc really suffers from two narrative conveniences; Cy immediately sniffing her out as a fake (perhaps with his own practice displaying a false self), which in turn rapidly accelerates their doomed plan to rip them off.
- the Doc slapping Merrick, who bursts into his office when he thinks he has a smallpox outbreak, is a fantastic little moment.
- this episode was directed by Dan Minahan, who is behind the camera for Deadwood: The Movie later this month.
- Al, to Bullock: “I wouldn’t trust a man that didn’t try to steal a little.”
- There’s a great, completely pointless little subplot of Johnny losing his voice for no particular reason.
- “It’s a bonanza, Mr. Farnum.”
- Andy giving side eye to Cy while he signs up people for the small pox vaccination is one of those wonderful, subtle moments of Deadwood characters eyeing each other from across the thoroughfare.
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