Welcome to 12 Days of Deadwood, in which Matt Zoller Seitz, author of the upcoming A Lie Agreed Upon: The Deadwood Chronicles, revisits the first season of the landmark HBO drama one episode at a time. Up today: “Jewel’s Boot Is Made for Walking,” written by Ricky Jay and directed by Steve Shill, which originally aired on June 6, 2004.
As you read this, disabled people are still, despite some progress, mostly invisible on television, and that’s why it’s such a shock to watch “Jewel’s Boot Is Made for Walking” and see a show that had multiple characters with infirmities put two of them (Jewel and Reverend Smith) at the center of the story, then spend part of an hour simply showing us what it’s like to be them.
A curtain-raising sequence follows Jewel (Geri Jewell) as she walks down Deadwood’s main thoroughfare en route to Doc Cochran’s office/residence in Chinatown, bearing a Civil War book with illustrations of leg braces that she hopes can aid her condition. We’ve already seen how hard it is for her to exist inside the Gem saloon, where she’s belittled by Al but at least has friends, food, shelter, and a chamber pot. When she goes outside, she has to navigate a stream of mud and shit and avoid being run over by human and animal traffic, challenges that are daunting enough for able-bodied adult women in dresses and skirts. When Jewel’s not ostracized, she’s rendered invisible. A man lunges at her, mocking her facial expressions. She slips and falls and no one helps her up. A young Chinese immigrant woman stares down at her from a balcony, registering her distress but deciding not to help: an ironic indicator of how far down the social ladder somebody like Jewel is.
The Reverend, meanwhile, has deteriorated further, and he’s being ostracized and ignored in direct proportion to how visible his afflictions have become. “Sometimes I am well, and sometimes I am not well,” he tells Andy, who has returned to the pestilence tent (“The setting of his recovery,” per the Rev) just in time to see it being dismantled. But increasingly, the town seems to look at him and see only “not well,” and his condition becomes an excuse to do what a lot of them already wanted to do: ignore him. The Reverend’s starry-eyed delight in divinity always rattled people, but the non-Christian, non-devout, agnostic, atheistic, and disinterested — a category that includes everyone from Seth and Sol to Doc and Jane — rarely registered any discomfort when he spouted off with Scripture quotes. European-modeled Christianity is, after all, the dominant religion in this time and place (a white-supremacist contrast to the rituals of Indigenous “dirt-worshipping heathens”), and complaining about the dominant religion is not a great way to get ahead. Ironically, given the teachings of Christ that the Reverend elucidates, it’s more socially acceptable to turn one’s back on a disabled or sick person, and that’s what most people here do now that the Reverend is losing his memory, going blind, and preaching to the circumcised penises of oxen in the thoroughfare. (Al watches with a tear in one eye, then briefly turns his back on the scene, but it’s not callousness that motivates him; he’s likely thinking of his similarly afflicted brother, whom by his own admission he used to showcase as a freak for pocket money.)
In the larger scheme, we see Deadwood, the soon-to-be-incorporated town, experiencing growing pains. The camp’s leaders rang a whole lot of bells when they set up an ad hoc government, and now some of them are belatedly realizing that you can’t just un-ring them. Newly appointed fire marshal Charlie Utter is discovering the same truth in this episode that Seth learned in “Mr. Wu” when he told E.B. Farnum that he’d worked up a proposal for a taxpayer-funded infirmary and dump: Public servants who take their jobs seriously become pariahs. Charlie orders Tom Nuttall to replace piping that’s in violation of the fire code; Tom’s response is to entertain a proposal from his sleazy pal Con Stapleton to convince Al to appoint him sheriff, so that he can effectively overrule anybody who tries to make a businessman do something in the name of the public good. (“That’s the kinda shit that ran me outta Wilkes-Barre!” Tom grouses.)
“You’re one of those pains in the balls that thinks the law can be honest,” Al says of Seth. But it’s clear that such an absurd spectacle holds appeal to him. A boringly purehearted adversary operating from law and morality alone will always be clear about where he stands, and isn’t going to feint in the direction of virtue and then stick you with a $5,000 bill to make a murder warrant go away and expect you to continue pretending he’s not a shitheel.
Speaking of shitheels: Alma’s father Otis Russell (William Russ), a parasite who settles his debts by latching onto others, oozes into town, looking to snag a piece of his daughter’s gold claim, and we suddenly understand Alma in a way that we didn’t before, even though Deadwood gave us a lot of the puzzle pieces in earlier episodes. As near as we can tell from what we’ve been shown, Alma must’ve married stale-white-bread Brom Garret in part to escape horrible memories that she associated with her hometown of New York, and possibly to elevate her family’s social standing and help rescue her irresponsible father from penury. When her father announces his arrival in camp by calling her by her childhood nickname and then kissing her on the lips in a public space, in view of Sofia and Whitney Ellsworth, we understand the wellspring of her discontent.
“I take a father’s liberty,” he says, nearly smirking.
We’ve previously considered the sisterhood of sexual-trauma survivors on Deadwood, an ever-growing group that includes Trixie, Jane, Joanie, and Alma (and surely most if not all of the bit-player sex workers employed in the camp’s brothels). Joanie and Trixie’s stories are embellished and advanced in this episode, with Trixie using her day’s vacation from the Gem to hook up with Sol, and Eddie letting Joanie know that he’s moving forward with his plan to rob Cy so that she won’t need his seed money to start her own business. “I just pawned 80 in chips for the Joanie Stubbs construction fund,” he tells her. (The script for this episode is credited to Ricky Jay, his only such credit on Deadwood.)
Trixie’s bold move backfires thanks to Seth, who (in a moment of petty, surly retribution over being kicked out of his own store by the lovebirds) tells Al that his concubine has been visiting Sol. The scene of Al demanding five dollars from Sol is not merely a reaffirmation of Al’s power over both of them, and of his essentially misogynistic worldview (partly rooted in childhood abandonment by his own mother, herself a sex worker); it’s also a setup for a scene at the very end that rhymes with scenes involving Alma, her father, and Sofia. Al is a former orphan who was abandoned by his mother, abused by a maternal replacement, and left to live like an animal, an experience that drove him to try to acquire, shelter, protect, abuse, and otherwise control women.
Al’s petulant replacement of Trixie with the much younger Dolly (Ashleigh Kizer), whom he apparently purchased outright from a brothel during the same Chicago trip when he murdered an Irish “tub o’ guts,” is another instance of the grooming behavior practiced by older men on younger women. Al is a brilliantly entertaining creation with many sympathetic qualities and a heartbreaking backstory, but here (as in some episodes of The Sopranos where the mobsters doubled down on their amoral violence so that viewers didn’t start to think of them as cute), we get a necessary periodic reminder that he’s also a grimy pimp whose affection for certain women is inextricably bound up with a desire to keep them, in some sense, locked away.
Alma’s story gets filled out here in such sudden and overwhelming detail that you can imagine a separate series about the events that drove her from New York, though it would be quite dire: something like The Heiress crossed with The Handmaid’s Tale. Much of Alma’s behavior might’ve already struck us as characteristic of 19th-century high-society white women who’d been groomed and exploited by older male relatives: the numbing of consciousness with laudanum; the aghast protectiveness she lavishes on a helpless girl left orphaned in a misogynistic community; the subtle coquettishness she displays toward adult men, specifically Seth (she uses the future possibility of sex to ensure that his strength remains available to her) and Whitney (a sweetheart who was pretty obviously never going to abandon her and Sofia, making her strategic placement of her hand on his seem like overkill).
Alma’s inchoate expression of distress as she watches her father do the coin trick with Sofia sums it all up. He did that trick with little Alma back in the day, and perhaps with other little girls as well. To see it happening again right in front of her, during a visit that’s clearly about leveraging counterfeit paternal warmth in order to leech off Alma’s fortune, is so upsetting that Alma can’t even figure out what to do with her face.
“I hope I’m here to help,” her father tells her, then adds soon after, “It’s always about the money, Button.”
This show has a gift for showcasing manipulative characters telling you what they’re not saying even as they say it. We get a masterful example of that here, with Otis outlining, passively and in weasel words, a strategy of defamation and persecution that will ensue if he doesn’t get what he wants. People back home are saying that you had your husband killed; it would be terrible if they continued to think that, etc.
Otis somehow palms a gold-dusted rock as gracefully as Eddie Sawyer palmed Joanie’s wristwatch. At least Eddie’s plan is meant to fund an abuse victim’s escape from an abuser’s orbit, rather than reinforce a connection that a survivor had managed to erode over time. Otis is here to pick his daughter’s pocket while reawakening dormant evil vibes. There’s nothing redeeming in him. He’s like Cy Tolliver in that way. Last episode, Al anticipated Cy’s strategy of ethnic division (blame the Chinese for the death of one of two white men who robbed a Chinese drug courier) and thought he’d figured out how to head it off (make sure to kill his courier, not the one theoretically working for Cy). But he didn’t count on Cy forging ahead anyway, rejiggering the plan so that it isn’t dependent on reality at all.
Magistrate Claggett, who’s been absent in the flesh for a couple of episodes but present via his bagman Silas Adams, is another character with that skill. He gives the appearance of a bland bureaucrat who only wants to carry out the people’s business. But he was easily swayed by Al during “The Trial of Jack McCall” to help tank the verdict so as to protect future moneymaking opportunities in camp against Yankton interference. Then he charged Al $5,000 to make his Chicago murder warrant go away, as an afterthought to his offer of helping to devise a bribe sheet. Deadwood will do this sometimes — mirror the predicaments of characters that you might not think could be mirrored — but it’s still unexpected to see the show paralleling Alma’s father threatening to embolden her slanderers if she doesn’t pay off his debts and Al fretting over getting ensnared in what started out as a little corruption amongst friends but seems to be morphing into an open-ended blackmail scheme in which Al is the victim.
But even with a murder warrant hanging over his head, Al pretty much does as he pleases, to the point of discussing the murder in detail in front of Trixie. Of course, it would never occur to Al to think about the repressive social forces that give a murderous male criminal more freedom to move and plot and remake himself than a poor woman like Trixie or Joanie or a society widow with connections back East.
The schism between the world of men and the world of women is an idea that connects most if not all of the subplots in this episode. The more generalized gap between the powerful and the powerless is highlighted as well, in almost every scene, but while sometimes the imbalance is due to race, ethnicity, or physical ability, Deadwood keeps reminding us that in a lot of cases, it’s gendered in a way that cuts across every other type of demographic line. Sol, Seth, E.B., Al, Cy, and Otis all have male privilege in common, whatever other characteristics define them against each other. There are no founding mothers in the camp’s ad hoc government. Men make most of the decisions around here, and when a woman finally makes a really big one without seeking male approval first, it often involves running away or killing somebody.
A seemingly throwaway scene hangs a frame around this notion: Alma, a mother figure, and Sofia, a daughter figure, stand by Alma’s hotel-room window watching Otis and Seth down on the street discussing their fate. “If we didn’t hate them too much to be curious about the world,” Alma says, “we’d be curious about what they had to say.”