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. It is 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.
One Vile Rewatch: Deadwood Season One Episode 7 – “Bullock Returns to the Camp”
(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.
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