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.